The world of book prizes is an interesting one. Once being nominated for a prize, winning one, or being listed as a finalist was something valued primarily for the honor involved. Some publishers are very attentive about such things; others are not (I found out about two distinctions awarded my Grant biography by accident). Most historians, regardless of what they may say, crave this sort of recognition, and most accept it with some degree of modesty and humility (some do not).
For historians, the world of book prizes has been transformed by the influx of money into several prizes, notably the Lincoln Prize, awarded by Gettysburg College and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. I’ve served on the jury for that prize and I am listed as being on the Advisory Council, although I’m not sure what that means. My jury service led to an interesting situation: I was on the jury the year The Reconstruction Presidents came out. Everyone knew that at the time I was asked to serve on the committee: I’m certain of that. The then director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College addressed the situation in an awkward way, soliciting and distributing ten copies of the title before declaring it ineligible (and promising that it would be considered the following year, a promise I doubt was kept). So I have in my possession a prize-stamped copy of my own book. The prize comes with a handsome financial award of $50,000, which has more often than not been divided among a few winners, as well as a nice bust of Mr. Lincoln (which is not divisible). Sometimes the prize is awarded to books, sometimes to projects, sometimes as a sort of “lifetime achievement” award. Whatever most people think of the prize, they try to keep their thoughts to themselves, in part because they don’t want to be seen as envious or jealous (although many times they are) and because they don’t want to harm their chances of winning it in the future. Some of the winners have been easy to figure out, while in other cases there have been questions raised … in whispers, of course.
I happen to think that what makes this prize and other prizes controversial is the amount of money involved. Oh, people involved at one time or another may have other complaints, criticisms, and observations about the process and the results, but it’s the money that makes this prize and several other recent prizes so controversial at times … because the reward is so great. I’ve seen people campaign for the award, and I’ve seen people associated with the award say things I’d rather not have heard.
Sometimes publishers and authors are not very honest about the prize process. Ever see the blurb “Nominated for the Pulitzer Prize”? You might want to look into what that means.
The Museum of the Confederacy also offers several prestigious prizes (how Sherman’s Civil War never won recognition I’ll never know). Generally, publishers submit books, or prize committees assume that any book published that fits the description of the prize is in play (although committees and juries like to get the books). This year, however, someone has already made public his desire NOT to be considered for the MOC’s prize. Kevin Levin’s already commented on this at Civil War Memory
This is funny. It’s also an excellent way to get attention. I think more of us ought to think of prizes for which we do not want to be considered, and announce that fact to the world. In fact, some of us should invent prizes, so others of us can announce that we refuse to be considered for these prizes.