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Populist book awards lack people

Little interest in reader-chosen Quills
/ Source: The Associated Press

What if a people’s choice award was held and the people didn’t choose?

The Quills Awards, organized by NBC-TV and Reed Business Information, which issues Variety and Publishers Weekly, were started this year with a unique mission: to “pair a populist sensibility with Hollywood-style glitz to become the first literary prizes to reflect the tastes of the group that matters most in publishing — readers.”

Authors such as J.K. Rowling, Jon Stewart and Stephen King are among the nominees in 19 categories, ranging from history and general fiction to sports, cooking and business. In a monthlong voting period that ended Sept. 19, fans picked their favorites by visiting the Quills Web site, www.quillsvote.com, and filling out an e-ballot.

Quills finalists were announced in early August and the awards have been promoted at bookstores and on NBC stations. Winners will be revealed at an Oct. 11 black-tie ceremony hosted by NBC news anchor Brian Williams, and featuring Jon Stewart, Martha Stewart and Kim Cattrall. At least a dozen NBC stations will air the awards Oct. 22.

“We want to use television in a way that will provide a different understanding of the value of books and authors and hopefully ignite general interest in reading more,” said Gerry Byrne, a former publisher of Variety and founder and chairman of the Quills.

But if reader votes were book sales, the Quills would hardly rank as a blockbuster. According to comScore Networks Inc., which tracks the Internet, the Quills site has attracted so little Web traffic, fewer than the threshold of 25,000 “unique” visits per week, that it can’t even offer an exact number; the Web site for the National Book Foundation, which sponsors the old guard National Book Awards, has attracted comparable traffic in recent weeks, comScore said.

Byrne acknowledged that the new awards were not on “everyone’s fingertips,” but said he was extremely pleased by the response.

“We weren’t expecting a grand slam home run the first time around,” Byrne says. “We wanted a solid, line-drive single and that’s what we got.”

Admirable, if not popular
Publishers had mixed feelings about the Quills. There was deep admiration for the efforts made to organize the awards and cautious hope for increasing sales. At the same time, many sensed little public awareness or enthusiasm.

On a recent weekend afternoon, The Associated Press interviewed about two dozen customers at a Barnes & Noble in New York City. All were browsing at a special table set up for Quills-nominated books. But only a handful had heard of the prize, and even they didn’t know it was voted on by the public.

“I think I would have been really interested, because I like the idea of being excited about a book and sharing that excitement with others,” said Michelle Glover, a hairdresser, about voting for the awards.

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But Peter Stemp, a high school Spanish teacher, said he was more interested in the National Book Awards and other established literary prizes. “I know it an elitist idea, but I’d rather have a book that’s been chosen by experts,” he said.

Quills finalists were selected by a panel of booksellers and librarians and were required to meet one of several possible criteria, such as an appearance on the best seller list of Barnes & Noble or a starred review in Publishers Weekly. There are no cash prizes.

Byrne declined to say how many visitors to the Quills site actually voted. Only one vote is allowed for each e-mail address, but he acknowledged that anyone — including a nominated author — could vote repeatedly by logging on at different addresses.

While Byrne and industry officials hope interest will grow over the years, the history of other such prizes, including the American Music Awards, is not encouraging. “Because of cable, all the awards shows have dropped in the ratings, but the popularly chosen ones have dropped even further,” said Tom O’Neil, who runs the Web site Goldderby.com, a repository for information about entertainment awards shows.

“The people’s choice awards just don’t have the same legitimacy. In the end, people believe the experts, because they’re the ones who know best.”