The National Book Critics Circle Awards

Each year, the National Book Critics Circle presents awards for the finest books published in English in six categories: Fiction, Nonfiction, Biography, Autobiography, Poetry, and Criticism.

In addition, we award the John Leonard Prize for the best first book in any genre, voted on by NBCC membership; the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, which recognizes outstanding work by a member of the NBCC; and the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award and Toni Morrison Achievement Award, which are given respectively to individuals and literary institutions for transformative contributions to book culture. Beginning in 2023, we’ll award the Gregg Barrios Book in Translation Prize, for the best book of any genre translated into English and published in the United States.

How We Pick Our Awards

It can be feisty. It’s likely to be fascinating. It’s a lot of work. It’s all about committees. Not a sexy word—committees—but the NBCC board works through the major work load of judging the books of a given year by breaking down into informed, committed teams that focus on one category each. Those committees take their judging to the finalist stage, after which the board reunites into one massive voting group to choose the winners.

The first meeting of the new board every year is dedicated to setting up the judging process. At that meeting, usually held in March, the board breaks down into committees—one for each award the NBCC gives (six for the book awards, as well as one for the Sandrof, and another for the Balakian). Each board member is obliged to participate on two committees, but many find the time to participate on more.

Each committee is responsible for determining the finalists for the award. There are only three in-person meetings after the March meeting (one in September, one in January, and one in March just prior to the awards), so working well remotely is critical. This is mostly done via the email listserves that are set up for each committee. When a committee member determines a book worthy of consideration he or she puts it on a shared master list (broken down by category, collectively edited on Writeboard, and managed by the chair of each committee). That private list includes the name of the book, author, and the names of committee members who support its presence on the list.*

So, what’s the role of publishers in all this? They can and do submit books for consideration (at no cost but the 24 copies required). However, the NBCC differs from most awards in that the judges can and do put up books for consideration that have not been submitted by the publisher. Thus, the variety of interests and expertise of the 24 board members is not hampered by a submission requirement, allowing for a greater variety of titles to be considered.

In the busiest of times, the listserves burn up with discussion. They also sit silent for other stretches as folks read and attend to other work. Critical book talk is accomplished at the Fall meeting (usually held in September). There each committee takes turns to discuss the books on the list, kicking duds off and adding stars that may have seemed forgotten.

Back in our respective haunts we work toward a long list of ten titles in each category that we determine by late December.** This long list (which can exceed ten items if a category is really hot) is meant to help focus the late reading. Most of the critical reading is done before this time, since something not on this list is unlikely to be considered by enough board members to make the shortlist. This list is kept private, as books can slip onto it or off of it at any time if the committee agrees.

With our long lists in hand, we work toward the January meeting. Around this time, the membership has a say in the naming of the finalists. They can vote on books you want the board to name, and if 20% of the voting membership names a title it is automatically added to the shortlist. Many books over the years have been added by the membership.

At the January meeting, each committee determines the remaining finalists to make a total of five books in each category. If the membership has selected one title in the nonfiction category, for example, the nonfiction committee choses the remaining four. Sounds straightforward, yes, but this is where the feisty part comes in, with heated discussions and several rounds of voting***, as well as instances of eloquence that can be quite moving. The winners of the Sandrof and the Balakian, which are put through a slightly different process, are also determined at this meeting by the entire board.

The board leaves the January meeting with the 30 finalists in hand, and a lot to do. Folks who have worked only on the committees for fiction and criticism, for instance, need to read all the books on the shortlists for biography, nonfiction, autobiography, and poetry. They have about six weeks to do it. During that time discussion continues on the general board list in preparation for the March awards meeting, held just hours before the awards are given. At that meeting, the winners are chosen. All board members can vote on each category at this stage, and most do. Majority wins. It can take many rounds of discussion and voting to reach a majority, but somehow the board always does it just in time to attend the awards ceremony—which starts at 6 pm in 2007.

*A note about discussion rules: any board member can comment on a book, whether or not they are on a committee, but only committee members can place a book on the list and vote for the book when it comes to decision-time on the finalists.

**A note on categories: if a book seems like it could live in more than one category, and you’d be surprised at how many can, it’s placed on the list of each committee so it can get a fair shake from each group of judges.

***A note on conflict of interest: throughout the year, board members are expected to reveal any and all conflicts of interest regarding a book, its author, or its publisher. Someone with a conflict of interest is allowed to speak about a book, but they cannot vote in the category for which they have a conflict, and they often recuse themselves from the discussion of the book.