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Book awards push for a wider audience

The Man Booker prize shortlist is announced in London, England. 

It's award season in the literature world. Last week, the Nobel prize for literature was awarded to Alice Munro. This week, the Man Booker prize is awarded and the National Book Award releases its list of finalists.

Receiving a notable award like the Man Booker prize can change an author's life. It can also change the fortune of a publisher, too.

Three years ago, the outlook for Bellevue Literary Press was bleak. Bellevue, a small New York publishing house, looked like it was about to go under. But, publisher Erika Goldman received some surprising news.

“I’ll never forget,” Goldman says, “I was in my office and we got a call from the AP.”

A reporter on the line called to inform her that Paul Harding's novel, "Tinkers," won the Pulitzer prize for fiction. The book was published by Bellevue.

“I almost fell off my chair in shock,” she says. “It took several months actually, to get over the shock."

"Tinkers" now has sold about 500,000 copies. “The success of that book,” says Goldman, “because it won that prize, has kept us afloat ever since.”

And even larger publishing companies say the literary industry needs awards like the Pulitzer since they help sell books.

So, literary prizes are broadening their appeal. Up until this year, the Man Booker prize was open only to authors from England and British commonwealth countries. But now, as long as the book is sold in British bookstores, it's eligible for the award.

According to Ian Crouch, who writes about publishing for the New Yorker online, that will help sell books to American audiences, too. “By including Americans in this prestigious award,” Crouch says, “they will get more American attention in the marketplace.”

Crouch says literary awards may be following the movie industry's lead. “In the last few years,” Crouch says, “the Oscars increased the amount of films that they have up in contention for [the Best Picture award] from five to 10." The more films that get nominated for an Oscar, the more films that get a sales boost. And the National Book Award is doing something similar, it's putting twice as many novels on its nominee list.

“In each case,” Crouch says, “it was an idea to sort of engage a wider segment of the population, more fans and more followers.”

And, hopefully, more sales for American publishers.

About the author

Audrey Quinn is a reporter in New York City.

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