One-Minute Book Reviews

October 30, 2011

The 2011 National Book Awards Debacle Was an Accident Waiting to Happen — 7 Ways to Restore the Credibility of the Prizes

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The National Book Foundation operates more like a private club for the publishing industry than a nonprofit organization supported partly by taxpayers 

By Janice Harayda

Literary awards cause controversy as regularly as calls by umpires in championship baseball games do. But the debates rarely hurt a prize-giver as much as a recent furor has damaged the reputation of the National Book Foundation, which styles itself in a pseudo-British manner as the “presenter” of the National Book Awards.

The debacle began when the foundation listed Lauren Myracle’s Shine as a finalist for the 2011 award for young people’s literature instead of the book the judges had chosen, Franny Billingsley’s Chime. When the error became known, the organization said it would keep both books on the shortlist. Then came what National Book Foundation executive director Harold Augenbraum called “pushback” from an unspecified quarter. Instead of accepting full responsibility for the embarrassment, Augenbraum made Myracle complicit by pressuring her to withdraw. In return for her reluctant exit, the organization agreed to donate $5,000 to the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which honors a young gay man whose murder helped to inspire her novel.

These blunders may have no precedent, but they should have surprised no close observer of the National Book Foundation. Michael Orthofer, managing editor of the Complete Review, has noted that the organization has “repeatedly shown itself inept at carving out its identity and marshaling the resources at its disposal” for making its annual awards for fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young people’s literature. Those resources include a federal tax exemption as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and more than $75,000 in government grants, according to its IRS Form 990 for the year May 1, 2009–April 30, 2010, the most recent available for free from the charity-rating service GuideStar.

The National Book Foundation operates more like a private club for the publishing industry than an organization supported partly by taxpayers, handing out its awards at a black-tie dinner that will take place at Cipriani Wall Street on Nov. 16. It has shown too little of the “transparency and accountability” that a major report by the Panel on the Nonprofit Sector called the “core strengths” of nonprofits. It has also failed to adopt some of the best practices of other prize-giving organizations. And although it has said that this year’s problems won’t recur, its 2011 nonfiction jury no longer includes the award-winning author Rebecca Solnit, whom it  named a judge in April. Did she leave voluntarily or was she, too, forced out as Myracle was?

It may be hard for the foundation to regain the trust it has lost through its missteps, especially if it refuses to explain why it has four judges for one category and five for all the others.  But the organization could restore some of the goodwill by taking these seven steps:

1. Commit to financial transparency
Nothing shows the values of a nonprofit more clearly than how it spends its donors’ money. And much of the National Book Foundation’s praise for books rings hollow when it hasn’t given its prize winners a raise in more than two decades while paying its executive director some $200,000 a year, well above the $144,948 median salary for a foundation director in the New York area. The organization has also done too little to make available to everyone the financial documents it must by law make public. Its lapses include failing to post on its website “links directly to or information on how to find” its Form 990 and other statements about its budget, as the Panel on the Nonprofit Sector urges.

The foundation must increase a winner’s purse that just isn’t competitive by international standards, as Michael Orthofer has written. But it must also correct the lopsided financial priorities that caused it to deny authors a raise for so long while throwing a plush annual dinner hosted by stars such as this year’s John Lithgow, whose fee if not waived or reduced is “$100,000 and above.”

2. Create a discussion forum on its website
The National Book Foundation shows startling indifference to honest feedback compared with sponsors of other major prizes. The clearest example is that it does not routinely allow people to comment on its awards on its website. Compare that approach with the blog on the National Book Critics Circle site, which permits anyone to comment on any post without prior moderation by administrators. Or compare it with the Man Booker Prize site, which asks on its home page, “What Do You Think of the 2011 Man Booker Prize Winner?” and links to an on-site forum for comments.

One of the National Book Foundation’s efforts to involve the public consisted of a contest to select “The Best of the National Book Awards” for fiction, an orgy of self-promotion that sought votes from the public via its website and “up to 10 million emails” sent by Barnes & Noble and others. But saying “Tell us what you love best about our work” isn’t the same as having a website that is always open to praise or criticism as those of the Man Booker Prize and NBCC are. If the National Book Foundation values its support from taxpayers, it should acknowledge that many of them would prefer not to comment on its Facebook page or via Twitter, and it should enable comments from or create a forum for them on its main site.

3. Spell out its criteria for selecting awards and judges
Taxpayers deserve to know what makes a book a National Book Award winner. But the National Book Foundation says little about this beyond making eligibility rules and offering the unenlightening comment that “juries develop their own criteria for awarding the National Book Award,” a laissez-faire policy that diminishes the credibility of the prizes and fosters untrustworthy results.

Setting clear guidelines matters all the more now that graphic novels may enter. The 2011 nonfiction finalists include Radioactive, a graphic biography of Marie and Pierre Curie that has illustrations far superior to its writing. Will the judges give the words and pictures equal weight or count one more heavily? Caldecott and Newbery medal rules spell out  how judges must treat the art and text of illustrated books. By not doing the same or or creating a separate category for graphic books, the National Book Foundation has set up a contest  — and another potential fiasco — in which a book may defeat a better-written one because of its pictures, turning the prize into an unacknowledged art competition.

Criteria for  prize juries might appear to be more clearly defined. Judges are nominated by past winners, finalists, and judges and “chosen for their literary sensibilities and expertise in a particular genre.” But recent juries suggest that National Book Foundation defines “expertise” far more narrowly those words imply. It can’t be a coincidence that all four 2011 nonfiction judges are full professors in humanities disciplines either at Ivy League schools or the University of California (one each from French and English and two from history departments). Why does the jury include none of the many award-winning authors in the fields of science, journalism, or narrative nonfiction who might have done the job brilliantly? What is the point of having two American history professors on a panel when the nominated books cover so many additional topics? Are two history scholars better qualified than an outstanding medical writer to judge the accuracy of the table of the half-lives of radioactive nuclei and other scientific facts in Radioactive? It hardly appears that way. It appears, rather, than the National Book Foundation values certain kinds of “expertise,” such as doctoral degrees, above others. If so, it would be fairer to say so directly.

4. Disclose how it handles conflicts of interest
Few things undermine trust in an organization more than conflicts of interest or the appearance of them. The National Book Foundation has long abounded with these and failed to explain satisfactorily how it handles them. Its Form 990 for 2009–2010 says that employees must disclose “all outside employment and/or volunteer work that may conflict or overlap with the goals of the National Book Foundation.” At face value that statement precludes no activities but says only that people must disclose some. And the foundation seems to view such activities generously.

Some apparent conflicts involve the cozy relationship between Augenbraum, the executive director of the foundation, and its largest donor, Barnes & Noble, represented on the board by its chief merchandising officer. It’s common – and often beneficial — for boards to include major donors. But Augenbraum also writes for the bookseller’s the Barnes & Noble Review. This relationship raises questions such as: Is Augenbraum working for free, or is he earning extra income from a company with a seat on its board? Ethics codes of large foundations should “prohibit the use of one’s position at the foundation for personal financial gain or other benefit,” the Council on Foundations says in its proposed governance principles. That test that might rule out the acceptance of payment. But if Augenbraum is writing for the Barnes & Noble Review for no pay, it raises another question: Does his free work affect a board member’s view of his leadership when writing reviews and managing a nonprofit require different skills?

Judges are similarly required to “divulge all personal and professional relationships that conflict or overlap with the goals of the National Book Foundation.” But Kathi Appelt served on a 2009 jury that shortlisted the illustrator of her The Underneath. After asking about this potential conflict, Motoko Rich quoted Appelt as saying cryptically that “I or any other judge might well have recused ourselves from voting on any particular book.” Rich also said that the National Book Foundation “forbids anyone that has a blood family, current business or romantic relationship” from judging its awards. Judges clearly may have other types of conflicts, such as being friends with nominees. So any prize-giver must do more than require employees and judges to disclose potential biases: It must handle the conflicts in a way that inspires trust.

Staff members of the National Book Foundation at times have responded to complaints about biased judging by saying in effect: We can’t eliminate all conflicts because publishing is too incestuous. Nobody is asking the program to end all conflicts, which may be impossible when judges often don’t know what conflicts they have until they see the nominated books. What the foundation must do is show that it has a fair way of dealing with conflicts when they emerge instead of using the “confidentiality” of the process as an excuse to avoid giving out basic facts about policies that other organizations disclose as a matter of course. At the very least, it should post or link to its written policy on what types of activities constitute conflicts and how it manages them.

5. Develop whistleblower and other policies recommended for nonprofits

This year’s blunders “won’t happen again,” Augenbraum has said. But the foundation’s Form 990 shows that it hasn’t adopted two basic tools for avoiding trouble that the Panel on the Nonprofit Sector recommends for all nonprofits: a whistleblower policy that protects employees from retaliation and a document-retention policy that defines how long it must save records.

These tools are all the more important given that another potential controversy  looms: The foundation lists only four judges for the 2011 nonfiction prize on its website when it named five in April and says on its tax forms that winners are “selected by four panels of five judges each.”  What happened to the missing judge, the National Book Critics Circle award winner Rebecca Solnit? If the foundation hopes to persuade anyone that has put its house in order, it needs to have safeguards in place for people who may have answers to such questions.

6. Use an independent legal counsel
Nonprofit organizations often get free legal advice through groups such as Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts or firms that do pro bono work. The National Book Foundation’s website says that it instead uses as its lawyer the general counsel for Random House and gives a seat on its board to the chairman and CEO of that publishing firm. Random House is a perennial contender for prizes with three books on the 2011 shortlist, including a young-people’s-literature finalist from its Knopf imprint. What would happen if a potential legal dispute involved a category in which the firm had a shortlisted book?

That’s exactly what did happen this year when the foundation initially made the controversial decision to accommodate the mistakenly nominated Shine by having six young people’s literature finalists instead of the usual five. This move would have given the Knopf imprint at Random House a 1-in-6 instead of a 1-in-5 shot at winning if the judges seriously considered the extra book. Augenbraum said the judges “unanimously” wanted the six books on the list. So it’s fair to ask whether the “pushback” came instead from a lawyer or board member. National Book Awards judges normally work independently of the board, which does not influence their decisions. And the “pushback” that doomed Shine may have come from someone with no ties to Random House. But the appearance of a conflict exists because of the business relationship between a Random House lawyer, Random House board member, and Random House/Knopf  book that stood to benefit from having fewer competitors. It shouldn’t be hard to find highly qualified  New York lawyers willing to represent the foundation on a pro bono basis and banish doubts about its impartiality.

7. Use its money for the intended purposes

A pillar of nonprofit ethics says that tax-exempt organizations must use donated funds for their intended purposes. This principle applies especially to earmarked gifts, but well-run groups make it a high priority to respect donors’ wishes with all of them. And while nonprofits may under some circumstances give to other organizations, the National Book Foundation pushed its luck with donors by giving $5,000 to the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which runs “educational, outreach and advocacy programs” for purposes other than those of the National Book Awards. That donation has won wide praise. But a furor might have erupted if the foundation had mistakenly nominated a book about a conservative Supreme Court justice and, to placate the author, donated to reactionary group.

Besides sponsoring the National Book Awards, the National Book Foundation engages in other activities described in the “Education” section of its site, some of them worthwhile. But donors, grantmakers, and taxpayers have a right to expect more from its centerpiece prizes.

Augenbraum told the Denver Post that the National Book Foundation has come up with a way to avoid putting the wrong book on its shortlist next year: Judges who call in lists of finalists will spell for the office liaison the nominated book titles and authors’ names, and a different staff member will call back to confirm them. That plan amounts to replacing a doorknob on a house with a corroding roof. If the foundation staff believes that its simplistic plan can repair the vast loss of credibility it has suffered, it needs to ask: How do you spell, “We’ve learned nothing”?

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle. One-Minute Book Reviews was named one of New Jersey’s best blogs in the 2011 issue of New Jersey Monthly.

4 Comments »

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  2. [...] may also want to read my recent post on the tarnished reputation of the National Book Awards and 7 ways their sponsor can regain trust. Reviews of other 2011 National Book Awards finalists may [...]

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  4. [...] can read more about conflicts of interest at the National Book Awards in the fourth section of this post.  A complete list of National Book Awards judges and finalists appears on the website for the [...]

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