The Pulitzer in Fiction Is Back, and Less Important Than Ever

Photograph by James Braund

Long-suffering book shops and publishers got some momentum today when the Pulitzer committee reinstated its fiction prize.

The award—to Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son—compensates for 2012, a controversial year in which the committee couldn’t seem to find a winner in a pile of 341 books, including the late David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, and Train Dreams by Denis Johnson.

Imagine an Oscars ceremony with a roster of fine films but no Best Picture.

Not surprisingly, book shops, publishers, and the mighty missed out on a tide of dollars that typically rushes in to buy the winning tomes. When Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad snagged the prize in 2011, Random House ordered an extra 100,000 copies with the Pulitzer seal on the cover. At full price, that’s almost $1.6 million in revenue.

Michele Filgate, events coordinator at the Community Bookstore in Brooklyn, told The New York Times that the Pulitzer commands more sales than any other accolade.

The thing is, sales were on a tear already. Last year, when the Pulitzer folks laid their fiction goose egg, trade publishers posted $7.1 billion in revenue, a 6.2 percent increase over their 2011 haul. Sales of adult fiction accounted for $4.9 billion of that, a 5.6 percent surge from the year earlier.

Knopf Doubleday is likely thrilled with today’s prize announcement, having published the winner as well as finalist Nathan Englander’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. Hachette Book Group can also be pleased with its finalist, Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child.

But the industry’s success last year underscores an important dynamic: Consumers are finding what they like on their own. In the industry it’s called “book discovery,” the increasingly fine-tuned power of digital recommendation engines, social media sites such as Goodreads, a sort of Pinterest for books, and other online targeting.

It’s also the reason why a critically trashed tome can take the industry by storm. Call it the Fifty Shades of Grey effect.

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