Years ago, I was at a dinner with publishing professionals, where I heard the story of a powerful editor, and chair of a national book award, who nominated her own author for this prestigious award. I’d already heard this story from another reliable industry source, but overall I wasn’t surprised. Years earlier, I’d worked in the space program and, during the Challenger disaster, was shocked to learn that internal corruption had contributed to the deaths of the astronauts. If you ever read Dickens, you realize that suspect dealings have been part of the human equation since the dawn of business.
As the story went, the nominated book was summarily ignored by the award committee. So what was this editor trying to accomplish? The mere nomination, especially word of it throughout the industry, multiplied sales of the book many times over. The nomination alone had created legitimacy for the book. Powerful.
My first book had just been published and was doing well—for a small press book. That meant regional acceptance in parts of the world, whenever the local media shined its favor or a I visited in person. Otherwise there seemed no legitimate outlets for book promotion and definitely no benefactors in the inner circles of national book awards. Small, academic, and self-published books were virtually barred from the public discourse. The Eric Hoffer Book Award did not yet exist.
A quick survey revealed that, outside of the Pushcart Prize, the landscape was dotted with cottage indie book awards that carried exorbitant entry fees and questionable results. It appeared that each tried to pick “the best” books that came their way, but they did little to get the word out after the winners were selected. In fact, few writers had ever heard of most of these awards.
As the editor of a literary magazine, as well as a healthy writer’s blog, I had access to talented writers and authors. On a whim, the Eric Hoffer Book Award, named after the great American philosopher and freethinker, was created. I had a small publicity machine going for my first novel and planned to “promote the hell out of” the winners. I sought impartial judges—editors, agents, and industry-specific experts. The entrance fee needed to be affordable, yet cover expenses. Finally, I planned to do the unthinkable—exclude the major presses. Without malice, I believed that the independent author needed to be sheltered within the award. Mostly I wanted the kind of award to which I’d send my own book for consideration. Ironically as its creator, I could not.
At the time, a wonderful tool was blooming. The Internet was the wild west of publicity and mostly free of corporate control. Once word of the Hoffer Award hit the blogs, chat rooms, and e-mail streams, three hundred books arrived from small, academic, and independent publishers, as well as something they called a “micro” press, which involved a working press (multiple authors, not self-published) that produced less than twenty-four books per year. About half the entries were, and continue to be, from self-published authors. These latter entries ran the gamut from finely produced books to sloppy offerings with horrific copyediting. One book was handmade with calligraphed pages and covers painted on the back of soapbox cardboard. (By the way, this book won an award.) Many of these books rivaled, in quality and content, anything Manhattan was currently offering. A secret world of books existed that wasn’t getting its due, and, in this void, the Hoffer Award took on a life of its own.
Since the start, Hoffer entrants have been evaluated in one of its all-encompassing categories. It even has a fiction and nonfiction legacy category for books older than two years old. From within each category, books are promoted for the grand prize: The Eric Hoffer Award for Books. Through the years, it has added the Montaigne Medal for the most thought-provoking book, the da Vinci Eye for the best cover art, and the First Horizon Award for first-time authors. The industry has changed, and the Hoffer has expanded to e-books, which is the frontier for indie authors. Each of these distinctions carries its own weight within the industry.
A key of the Hoffer is that it experiments with ways to promote the winning titles. In addition to its media campaign, its relationship with the US Review of Books, which posts the annual judging results, has been a terrific benefit for the winners, runners-up, honorable mentions, and award finalists. Each year, the award honorees return e-mails and letters about how their association with the Hoffer has raised the visibility of their titles.
A decade later, the Eric Hoffer Book Award accepts over one thousand books annually and has grown in leaps and bounds each year. It remains one of the least expensive and most well-known independent book awards in the world. Its small registration fee covers the $2,000 grand prize, the increasingly expensive rates for shipping books around the country, and a small honorarium for each judge who spends hours reading and evaluating the entries. They love a good read and get excited when they discover a book that they feel the industry has overlooked.
Thanks to that infamous editor in Manhattan, a fully independent book award has grown. In the years to come, let’s hope the Hoffer keeps elevating titles that deserve recognition.