The Pulitzer Prizes were announced last week, and the big news on all the book blogs and book news sites is that there was no prize for fiction awarded. This is seen as probably the worst thing to hit publishing since the establishment of the ebook as a viable format. There has been a lot written about how terrible it is that no winner was chosen, that no book can be celebrated (and its sales increased) by the recognition that a Pulitzer gives.
One problem is the lack of transparency. The selection and voting process is closed, so there’s no way of knowing whether the lack of a winner means that the panel didn’t think any of the finalists were worthy of the prize, or whether it means they all were. The only word from the Committee was that they don’t discuss their voting – and with only winners’ information in the press releases, the implication is that no book was worthy.
Publishers and booksellers are missing out on a real marketing tool if they just stick to that. It’s something that the prizes in the UK have managed to do for years now – promote the finalists as much as they promote the winners. The Pulitzer – and every book prize – should not be about celebrating only one book, about promoting and marketing only one book, but about promoting and marketing excellence in literature overall. The lack of a winner is troubling, but instead of bewailing the fact that one book wasn’t a winner, celebrate the fact that three books were finalists. Three very different books, I would like to point out, which makes it even better. It’s been a year, as many years are, where book awards have been criticised for not having enough variety or ignoring quality books because they’re too popular, of losing touch with regular readers and increasing the divide between popularity and quality.
If I were in charge of a bookstore right now, I would have a table up near the front, covered with Pulitzer stuff. I’d have the three finalists for Fiction, the winner and finalists for biography, history, poetry, non-fiction, and a selection of past winners if there’s enough room – but there might not be. Have some of the compilation books: Best News Reporting, Best Crime Reporting, etc. Show off ALL the books, not just the winners. Let people know that there’s more than one good book in a category every year. Show people that there’s a book – a high-quality book – out there for everyone, no matter what style, form, or genre they’re interested in.
This is an opportunity for book marketing, not a tragedy; I really wish people would stop treating it like one.