Do Book Awards Really Matter?

Is it better to get a Pulitzer or the Booker, and does a prize from Barnes & Noble mean more than a Nobel? Sara Nelson looks inside the winners’ circle.

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Even a miserable retail season can’t stop the book awards. Two weeks ago, the 2009 PEN/Faulkner award went to Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, which some say was robbed of the 2008 Man Booker, which was awarded to Aravind Adiga’s equally deserving The White Tiger. Next month, the Edgars will be given to the best mystery books, and next week, the National Book Critics Circle will announce its winners and the new Booker shortlist will be revealed. And later today, Barnes & Noble will give out its Discover awards—three in fiction, three in nonfiction—chosen from among the best emerging writers of the year. Each winner gets $10,000 prize and a full year of additional promotion, while second- and third- place finalists receive $5,000 and $2,500, respectively.

The Pulitzer is awarded by journalists—and so its choices are heralded, loudly, in newspapers all across the country, surely increasing reader interest.

Not bad money, of course—but given the state of many book promoting vehicles, that “full year of additional promotion” may be the most useful part of the prize, because often, there is not a significant sales increase from the awards. Sometimes, though, a little known book will benefit from a bump: In 2004, for example, Lily Tuck's The News from Paraguay had sold only 7,ooo copies in hardcover. But when the trade paper edition appeared soon after the National Book Award, it saw a big jump: sales to date for that version are 67,000. Likewise, The White Tiger, also pre-award obscure, saw an uptick in sales after its Man Booker win. It had sold around 6,000 in hardcover for the first nine months of 2008. It won the Booker just as its paperback was being published, and sales went crazy, numbering more than 60,000 copies in November/December 2008. (All figures are from Nielsen BookScan, which accounts for about 75 percent of sales for most books.)

By far the most influential book award is the Pulitzer, which, like Oprah Winfrey’s book picks, often favors a title that was already well known, and sometimes bestselling: Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, say, or Richard Russo’s Empire Falls (which was already an HBO production when it won).

Further, as a book business know-it-all reminded me, the Pulitzer is awarded by journalists—and so its choices are heralded, loudly, in newspapers all across the country, surely increasing reader interest. As for the Nobel, that’s mostly considered a political, rather than a literary prize, and while there may be a backlist jump for, say, Octavio Paz or Günter Grass, a more obscure writer, like 2004’s winner Elfriede Jelinek (Right. Who?), might see a small bump in sales for a bit, but it’s usually not significant.

So who will get the boost this year from Barnes & Noble’s choices—and will it matter? If I’d been a judge—which I wasn’t—I’d have voted for The Story of Edgar Sawtelle and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, though both have already had serious success. ( Sawtelle also had Oprah’s blessing last year.) I’d also vote for Janice Y.K. Lee’s well-reviewed and reasonably successful debut novel, The Piano Teacher about love in Japanese-occupied Hong Kong; it’s both smart and readable, on that literary/commercial line that readers and their bookstores love to love.

But what do I know? The list of finalists B&N chose include none of these; instead it favors more obscure, indie-press titles (which is not, of course, a bad thing) along with a usual suspect. Today we’ll know whether Zachary Lazar’s Sway (Little, Brown), Gin Phillips’ The Well and the Mine (Hawthorne Books), or Benjamin Taylor’s The Book of Getting Even (Steerforth Press) takes the top prize.

As for nonfiction, I think the hands-down winner will be David Sheff, for his searing memoir about his son’s addiction, Beautiful Boy. The retailer’s other finalists are: Eric Weiner’s The Geography of Bliss (on second thought, a likely contender) and Nia Wyn’s Blue Sky July. But I can’t help it, except for Sheff, I’d put my money on The House at Sugar Beach and Welcome to the Departure Lounge. Oh, right: They’re not on B&N’s list, just on the one in my head.

Update: I wish I'd had money on it.

David Sheff did, indeed, win the top B&N Discover prize for nonfiction for his bestselling Beautiful Boy. Eric Weiner took second place for The Geography of Bliss, and Nia Wyn's Blue Sky July was third.In fiction, the big-house entry, Little, Brown's Sway, by Zachary Lazar took third prize, with The Book of Getting Even from smaller Steerforth was second. The big winner—after a rambling introduction from novelist Suzanne Finnamore—was Gin Phillips' The Well and the Mine, from tiny Hawthorne Books, confirming that the biggest retailer in the country still has its eyes out for the littlest publishers.

Sara Nelson is the former editor in chief of Publishers Weekly and the author of the bestselling So Many Books, So Little Time.