The Pulitzer Scam

Note: I don’t make it a habit to rant, here, but I felt the need to vent about this.

This is something I wasn’t aware of until some friends of mine pointed it out last night. A writer of their acquaintance whom I shall call "Jack" sent out an email to the Atlanta Writers Club with the following title:

Jack Writer Has a New Pulitzer Nominated Book

Jack is published through what I will call a small press, but an argument could be made for calling it a vanity press. I’ve met the owner of this publishing house, and although he seems like a nice, earnest person, there was something about his answers to basic business-of-writing questions that told us he’s not really all that knowledgeable about things like contracts and rights. Which a publisher should be, if he expects to stay in business long.

The email provided a link to the book’s PR site (part of the service provided by his publisher). The page contains a number of blurbs (a.k.a. "puffs") written in that breathless style seemingly reserved for such purposes. "An instant classic!" "A tour-de-force!" "I wasn’t able to put it down!" "Jack’s story grabs you by the throat and won’t let go until the final page!" Etc. You know the type. The purpose of a blurb or puff is to influence you to buy the book. Authors (or their publishers) generally get well-known authors in their genre to provide quotes. According to Marilyn Henderson on AbsoluteWrite,

When an author gives another writer a blurb, it implies an endorsement or recommendation of the novel. Her fans may buy your book on the strength of her liking it enough to let her name be on it. It also implies her fans will like your book, so you must choose the author you ask carefully.

If her stories do not include on-stage murder, violence or profanity, for example, her fans don’t expect any in a book she recommends. They assume a novel she "endorses" will be similar to hers. If it isn’t, her publisher may get angry letters, and she may lose fans and sales.

Just as you must know the audience you write for, you must know the audience of the authors you ask for blurbs.

Recognizing none of these authors’ names, I looked a few of them up and discovered that they, too, are either self-published authors or published by small, niche-market publishers. One of them was billed as a critic for a prominent online newspaper which I will decline to mention. I looked him up, and sure enough, he’s a critic. A film and TV critic. Who publishes his reviews on his own site. And then this newspaper links to them.1 He has several books . . . also published by a small, niche publisher.

My point is that these book blurbs were all written by people in the same basic position as Jack: an author whose small publisher is probably pushing them to scratch a back in the interest of reciprocity. I have no proof of this; I’m supposing.

Now, let me be absolutely, crystal clear: none of that is an issue. I don’t have a problem with self publishing. I don’t have a problem with small publishers. I don’t have a problem with niche markets. I don’t have a problem with people getting their work in front of people by any reasonable means necessary. Except for one thing.

Pulitzer Nominated.

Surely that can’t be right. Can it? The Pulitzer is a major award. It seems unlikely that a book by an unknown writer would be nominated for such a prestigious honor.

So my friends looked into this a bit.

Turns out, anyone can enter the Pulitzer Prize competition. You pay $50 and send off a few copies and it’s "submitted." Officially entered in the contest for the Pulitzer. Notice that "submitted" is not the same as "nominated." That is a very fine distinction.

Read more here (Huffington Post article by Steve Lehto). A salient quote from that article:

The Pulitzer Prize organization has juries which select finalists in various categories and then the Pulitzer Prize Board picks the winners from those finalists. According to their own website, the only people who should say they are "nominated" for a Pulitzer Prize are the finalists who have been selected by the juries for consideration by the Pulitzer Prize Board.

Jack himself may not have had any say in this. The publisher may very well have paid the $50 and be urging him to hype the "Pulitzer Nominated" nonsense. And having met him, I can’t say that I would put it past him. That very earnestness I noted above may blind him to the negative impact something like this could have on both Jack’s and his own reputation.

So the morals of this story are these:

  1. Do not ever do this. It is at best a cheap marketing ploy. It is at worst a bold-faced lie. And if you’re caught at it by your peers, you’re going to have a hard time regaining whatever trust this costs you.
  2. If you hear of an author claiming his book is "Pulitzer Nominated," check the Pulitzer site before you believe it.

  1. My problem is the implied lie. Or lie of omission, if you will. Saying he is a "critic" "for" the ElectroNews Times (or whatever) implies that he is a full-time book / literature critic working directly on the payroll, not that he is a film / TV critic on his blog, which the publication then features. It’s the difference in saying, "Here comes the president" vs. "Here comes the president of the PTA." Both are true, but one is more truthful.

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