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Did the National Book Awards’ Bet on the Bigtime Pay Off Last Night?

Fiction winner James McBride at the 2013 National Book Awards

Mika Brzezinski, the emcee of last night’s National Book Awards, wasn’t completely off when she quipped, unoriginally, that the ceremony is “the Oscars without money.” But in fact there really was money on the line when fiction winner James McBride climbed the podium in his porkpie hat to give the evening’s final acceptance speech. It wasn’t just the $10,000 prize, the inevitable sales bump, or the investments the publishing industry has made toward “broadening the impact” of an award that hasn’t always lived up to its big name. For the first time in the prize’s 64-year history, the British betting firm Ladbrokes had laid odds on the fiction finalists. (George Saunders had been the favorite.)

There’s nothing accidental about the uptick in global interest, or this year’s inaugural “longlist” of semifinalists, or the host being a talking head from Morning Joe. Nor is it mere serendipity that all five of this year’s nominees, from Thomas Pynchon to Jhumpa Lahiri, have been on best-seller lists, a surprisingly novel development. The National Book Awards has spent the past decade fighting for attention, mainly at the behest of a business that seems to be getting less and less of it — flattened sales, shrunken review space, bookstore displays giving way to Amazon algorithms. “The world is filled with more and more media choices and more and more noise,” says David Steinberger, the CEO of Perseus Books and chair of the NBA board. “One of the main questions is, how many people are paying attention to the awards, and how many people are buying the books?” He’s optimistic, “but I feel like we’ve got a long way to go.”

It wasn’t ever thus. NBA ceremonies once took place at the Waldorf Astoria, hosted John Lindsay and Eleanor Roosevelt, and anointed the likes of Flannery O’Connor and Philip Roth. Then there was a decade in the wilderness. In the doldrums of the late seventies, the National Book Awards became the American Book Awards, expanded the number of categories to as many as 28 per year, and lost the confidence of publishers and readers alike. It was, in the words of Gotham publisher William Shinker, “a disaster.”

The NBA reorganized in 1987, but never quite recovered its cachet. In more recent years, that’s sometimes been blamed on the narrow tastes of its judges, who were exclusively authors. In 2004, a panel led by Rick Moody selected five virtually unknown fiction finalists, four of whom hadn’t broken 1,000 copies in sales and didn’t sell much more afterward. The thrill of discovery is fleeting if the “discovered” author sinks back into oblivion. That year’s handwringers included the NBAs’ own executive director, just-hired Harold Augenbraum, who told the Times, “It is not a perfect process.”

“We’re obsessed with getting more people to read these books,” Augenbraum told me recently. Steinberger, Augenbraum's board chairman, eventually recruited Grove Atlantic publisher Morgan Entrekin and the powerful agent Lynn Nesbit. Together, these industry stalwarts orchestrated an insiders’ putsch. They glammed up the ceremony with after-parties, a move from Midtown to Cipriani Wall Street, and guests like Anna Wintour. Behind the scenes, meanwhile, they mulled changes in the judging process.

“Books have been chosen for all sorts of political reasons that haven’t been focused on the intrinsic readability and central significance of the books themselves,” says FSG publisher Jonathan Galassi. As late as 2011, when two of the nominees came from tiny presses, Salon critic Laura Miller was arguing that “already-successful titles are automatically sidelined in favor of books that the judges feel deserve an extra boost of attention.” One of that year’s judges, Victor LaValle, wrote a rejoinder calling her column “just bonkers.”

The following year, Augenbraum added a P.S. to jury instructions in red ink: “It is important to do your utmost to disregard a writer’s previous reputation or lack thereof … Fame or obscurity, small press or large, should have no bearing on your deliberations.” The note was ostensibly neutral, but excessive fame certainly hadn’t been a problem. Soon after, the board sent a survey to roughly 200 people in publishing and met informally with others, asking what should be done to make the awards more relevant. “The biggest issue,” says one agent who met with members, “was how shitty the judges were.”

In a larger sense, the board was attempting to address the NBA's perennial Catch-22: If you want your winners to have an impact, you want to pick winners that … have an impact. Entrekin is the most vocal advocate for steering judges toward picks that are “a little more mainstream.” Earlier this year, he was perhaps too vocal, telling the AP that the rule changes — especially the addition of two booksellers, two critics, and a librarian to the juries — would broaden the panels’ tastes beyond, say, “a collection of stories by a university press.”

Entrekin now regrets the statement, telling me it was “very unfair.” But the smaller presses read it as a sop to the conglomerates. “I understand this as their having to respond to the expectations of their sponsors, who are commercial publishers,” says Erika Goldman, publisher of tiny Bellevue Literary Press. Bellevue published not only a 2011 NBA finalist, Andrew Krivak’s The Sojourn, but also Paul Harding’s Tinkers, which came out of nowhere to win a 2010 Pulitzer. She believe the conglomerates, having forsaken such writers as a result of bottom-line thinking, are fighting a rearguard action: “They’re not gonna go gentle into that good night, and they have the power to rein in the organizations that make these decisions because they own them.”

Most of the National Book Foundation’s “new” ideas originated not from conglomerates but from a prize they openly envy. The U.K.’s Booker Prize is the gold standard of national fiction awards: generator of gossip and wagers, kingmaker of Salman Rushdie and Hilary Mantel, worth $80,000 and robust sales from the malls of Cape Town to the book clubs of the upper Midwest. This year’s NBA innovations — the “longlist,” which is a Booker term, and more diverse judges — are cribbed from the Booker. In fact, Booker ideas helped save the National Book Awards in the mid-eighties. After visiting London, organizers reconstituted the awards in 1987 with five-book shortlists and a reduced number of categories. (Now there are four — fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and children’s book — to the Booker’s one, fiction.) Writer James English called it “Bookerization.”

There was one Bookeresque change the NBA board considered and rejected this year. The Booker peppers its juries with glitzy nonliterary types: government MPs, famous lawyers, Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens — one of the reasons it tends to pick authors with bigger names. A few NBA board members suggested going the same way. Steinberger says only that “there were areas of disagreement,” but “at the end of the day the board has really come together.” Letting in a few critics and librarians is a bridge just far enough.

One of the most surprising things about last night’s event is how unsurprising it was if you’d been following the machinations. The 700 attendees were an increase over previous years, with tables edging farther out into the bar area — leading to the kind of mad cocktail-hour scrum every organizer secretly prays for — and better food all around, even for the lowly sandwich-scarfing press. (The tenderest beef this longtime attendee had ever had there.)

The two lifetime-achievement awards, announced in advance, went to the usual octogenarian suspects, with predictable results. When Toni Morrison presented the Literarian Award to Maya Angelou, the former was showily gracious (calling Angelou not only a “balm” against “so much toxicity” but a great cook) and the latter waxed tearfully lyrical. In a wheelchair and big, dark glasses, the poet launched, movingly, into song — easily the evening’s best moment: “When it looks like the sun don’t shine anymore, God put a rainbow in the clouds.”

E.L. Doctorow, who won the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American letters, gave a speech that displayed the double-edged sword of his supple but earnest language, as well as his long championing of free speech. His lecture was on something called the "World Wide Web." After artfully noting the way it’s changed the language, he added that "for every advantage the Internet devises for us, there is a disadvantage," which is probably true of everything. Like some of his work, it was light on humor. It also felt both out of time and out of date.

It was left to the poetry winner, Mary Szybist, to give the best acceptance speech. “Sometimes when I find myself in a dark place,” she confessed, “I lose my taste for poetry … There’s plenty that poetry can’t do, of course, but the miracle is how much it can do.” George Packer, winning for nonfiction with The Unwinding, about America’s declining institutions, praised the two midcentury institutions that supported him — The New Yorker and august publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux — as well as the mid-century institution hosting him last night.

McBride’s The Good Lord Bird was billed by the Times today as last night’s “Surprise Winner,” but since the awards have been gunning for bigger (and bigger-selling) nominees, it shouldn’t be too surprising (and certainly not disappointing) that his first book, The Color of Water, spent two years on the New York Times bestseller list.

The only real off-note — perhaps the one bridge too far, was Brzezinski, whose jokes misread the room completely. In addition to the aforementioned Oscars joke, there was the groan-inducing quip about Obama shopping around a book called “How to Work with Congress,” which would have to be nominated in — wait for it — the fiction category. You wouldn’t have expected her to call up the wrong judge at one point — “I have the wrong card!”—but it wasn’t shocking when she left ten minutes before the end of the ceremony. If she returns next year, now that would be a surprise.

The biggest awards surprise this year wasn’t on this side of the Atlantic. The Booker, still the gold standard in controversy as well as impact, stole the NBA’s thunder yet again in 2013 by making its own, much more divisive rules change. Next year, for the first time since its founding in 1969, it will be open to all English-language authors published in the U.K., including Americans. Just like the NBA, the Booker Foundation surveyed the industry, but its decision doesn’t seem to have been made at their behest. Many of the survey participants were against it. Critics of the change worry that it will dilute the prize’s impact and hurt native authors. Some of them suspect the Booker is really acting on behalf of the Man Group, the international investment firm that bankrolls the prize. (Board director Jonathan Taylor insists that Man is “not involved in tactical or strategic decisions.”)

Whatever impact the Booker’s American invasion has on its own clout, it effectively introduces a competitor to the National Book Awards with a knack for stealing headlines — and bets. Wagering through Ladbrokes on the NBA fiction finalists totaled only around £3,000. For the 2013 Booker, it was £25,000.

The real wager, of course, is the one laid down by the industry. “I’ll tell you this: I always want my books chosen over everybody else’s,” quips Simon & Schuster CEO and NBA board member Carolyn Reidy. “But you can’t structure the awards for that to happen.” You can, though, adjust their priorities, and with this year’s all-star list, the effort seems to have succeeded. “The purpose of the National Book Foundation is to increase the appreciation of great books,” Reidy says. “It can only stay healthy if people give it money, and people are only going to give it money if there’s a chance that they might make money.”

This post has been updated since its original publication.

Photos: Lucas Michael/New York Magazine; Lucas Michael/New York Magazine