Mission & History


The mission of the National Book Foundation is to celebrate the best literature published in the United States, expand its audience, and ensure that books have a prominent place in our culture.


In our book, everyone is a reader.

At the National Book Foundation, we believe books are for everyone, no matter where you come from or how you identify. To succeed in our mission, we must play our part in building a more inclusive and equitable world, starting with our own organization.

We value diversity in every facet of our work, from our staff and Board of Directors to the readers of all ages we meet at programs and book distributions across the country in rural, suburban, and urban communities. We strive to welcome a wide range of voices into our organization and in the broader literary arts ecosystem to inform our organizational practices and decisions. This means we:

  • Expand who the decision makers are by working alongside a national network of authors, booksellers, educators, librarians, literary arts professionals, the list goes on—as judges, selectors, and program partners
  • Prioritize, through our education and public programs, reaching readers who have historically experienced barriers to access to books and writers
  • Celebrate authors and books that reflect the rich diversity of the US—through awards & honors, on stages, and through free book distributions across the country
  • Recruit, engage, and retain a staff and Board of Directors who bring a wealth of different backgrounds and experiences
  • Support and recognize the vitality of nonprofit literary arts organizations, of all shapes and sizes, in creating a more vibrant national literary arts ecosystem

Our journey to promote equity and expand access is ongoing; and we are committed to listening to and learning from our fellow readers, partners, and collaborators as we build a more inclusive Team Book.



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.

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. The American Book Publishers 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 fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. As the Boston Herald reported the following day, “literary history was indeed in the making.”

The National Book Awards quickly established a reputation for recognizing literary excellence. Within a decade the National Book Awards would acknowledge the work of writers such as Hannah Arendt, W.H. Auden, Saul Bellow, Truman Capote, Rachel Carson, Ralph Ellison, William Faulkner, Marianne Moore, Vladimir Nabokov, Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Anne Porter, Adrienne Rich, J. D. Salinger, Eudora Welty, and William Carlos Williams—authors who have helped shape the foundation of American literature.

National Book Foundation’s Executive Directors

Ruth Dickey
2021 – Present

Lisa Lucas
2016 – 2020

Harold Augenbraum
2004 – 2016

Neil Baldwin
1989 – 2003

From the mid-1960s through the 1970s, the National Book Awards expanded, adding new award categories for Science, Philosophy & Religion, History & Biography, Arts & Letters, Translation, Contemporary Thought, Autobiography, First Novel, Original Paperback, and Children’s Books.

By 1980, a total of 28 prizes in 16 categories were given annually through the renamed American Book Awards The category expansion eventually seemed to diffuse the impact of the Awards, and so in the late 1980s the National Book Awards name was reinstated, and the categories were limited to Fiction and Nonfiction, with the Poetry category being re-established in 1991. An Award for Young People’s Literature was created in 1996 and a fifth category, for Translated Literature, was created in 2018.

Also in the late 1980s, the National Book Foundation, a not-for-profit organization was created to oversee the National Book Awards and to pursue an expanded mission to increase the readership and appreciation of great writing in America.

Today, the National Book Foundation actively pursues a national vision, with educational and public programming across the country, and the National Book Awards as its core. In 2017, the New York Times counted the National Book Awards, together with the Man Booker Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature, as “the world’s most prestigious literary prizes.”

Interested in learning more about the National Book Awards? Read the National Book Awards guidelines or explore the full archives!