Mission & History of the National Book Awards
1950 National Book Award Winners William Carlos Williams (left),
Nelson Algren (second from right), and Ralph L. Rusk (far right), with
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt at the first National Book Awards Ceremony.
The mission of the National Book Foundation and the National Book Awards is to celebrate the best of American literature, to expand its audience, and to enhance the cultural value of great writing in America.
On March 16, 1950, publishers, editors, writers, and critics gathered at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City to celebrate the first annual National Book Awards, an award given to writers by writers. The American Book Publisher’s Council, The Book Manufacturers’ Institute, and The American Booksellers’ Association jointly sponsored the Awards, bringing together the American literary community for the first time to honor the year’s best work in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. As the Boston Herald reported the following day, “literary history was indeed in the making.”
The National Book Awards (NBA) quickly established a reputation for recognizing literary excellence, awarding William Carlos Williams the first poetry prize for Paterson: Book III and Selected Poems. Within a mere decade the NBA would acknowledge the work of writers such as William Faulkner, Saul Bellow, Wallace Stevens, Rachel Carson, Ralph Ellison, W.H. Auden, Marianne Moore, and Bernard Malamud – authors who have helped shape the foundation of American literature.
From the mid-sixties through the seventies, the NBA expanded, adding new award categories for Science, Philosophy and Religion, History and Biography, Arts and Letters, Translation, Contemporary Thought, Autobiography, First Novel, Original Paperback, and Children’s Books.
In 1980, various publishers who sponsored the event sought to broaden the audience for American literature further by honoring an even wider range of American writers. As a result, the 30-year-old National Book Awards were discontinued and The American Book Awards (TABA) established. TABA gave a total of 28 prizes in 16 separate categories, recognizing a hardcover and paperback Winner in most categories. Winners and Finalists were chosen by a committee of publishers, booksellers and distributors, librarians, and authors and critics.
With its expanded scope, it soon became obvious that so many categories diffused the Awards’ impact; support for the institution deteriorated badly. In 1981, under the leadership of Richard E. Snyder, Chairman of Simon & Schuster, which was then the largest trade publisher in America, a group of dedicated publishing executives came together to re-invigorate the Awards. They returned the name to The National Book Awards and gathered major support from the American publishing industry, which continues to this day.
In 1986, the publishing community established The National Book Foundation, a not-for-profit organization to oversee the Awards, diversify their base of philanthropic support and expand their mission. The Foundation board then hired Neil Baldwin—an author, and Manager of The Annual Fund at The New York Public Library—to become the Founding Executive Director of The National Book Foundation and help determine its agenda for the future.
From 1981 to 1990, independent panels of writers chose the National Book Award Winners in the categories of only Fiction and Nonfiction. The National Book Foundation reinstituted the Poetry Award in 1991 and launched the Award for Young People’s Literature in 1996. In 2013, the judging panels were opened to non-writers with significant literary expertise in each category.
More than sixty years since its creation, the National Book Awards continues to recognize the best of American literature raise the cultural appreciation of great writing promote the enduring value of reading, and advance the careers of established and emerging writers.