Did the National Book Awards’ Bet on the Bigtime Pay Off Last Night?

British betting firm Ladbrokes gets involved with the National Book Awards.  Good news for readers of the world?

There’s nothing accidental about the uptick in global interest, or this year’s inaugural “longlist” of semifinalists, or the host being a talking head from Morning Joe. Nor is it mere serendipity that all five of this year’s nominees, from Thomas Pynchon to Jhumpa Lahiri, have been on best-seller lists, a surprisingly novel development. The National Book Awards has spent the past decade fighting for attention, mainly at the behest of a business that seems to be getting less and less of it — flattened sales, shrunken review space, bookstore displays giving way to Amazon algorithms. “The world is filled with more and more media choices and more and more noise,” says David Steinberger, the CEO of Perseus Books and chair of the NBA board. “One of the main questions is, how many people are paying attention to the awards, and how many people are buying the books?” He’s optimistic, “but I feel like we’ve got a long way to go.”


One of the most surprising things about last night’s event is how unsurprising it was if you’d been following the machinations. The 700 attendees were an increase over previous years, with tables edging farther out into the bar area — leading to the kind of mad cocktail-hour scrum every organizer secretly prays for — and better food all around, even for the lowly sandwich-scarfing press. (The tenderest beef this longtime attendee had ever had there.)

Whatever impact the Booker’s American invasion has on its own clout, it effectively introduces a competitor to the National Book Awards with a knack for stealing headlines — and bets. Wagering through Ladbrokes on the NBA fiction finalists totaled only around £3,000. For the 2013 Booker, it was £25,000.

The real wager, of course, is the one laid down by the industry. “I’ll tell you this: I always want my books chosen over everybody else’s,” quips Simon & Schuster CEO and NBA board member Carolyn Reidy. “But you can’t structure the awards for that to happen.” You can, though, adjust their priorities, and with this year’s all-star list, the effort seems to have succeeded. “The purpose of the National Book Foundation is to increase the appreciation of great books,” Reidy says. “It can only stay healthy if people give it money, and people are only going to give it money if there’s a chance that they might make money.”

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