Why Zibby Media Pulled Out of the National Book Awards
Six years ago, I sat on my couch in my jammies, a tin of popcorn on my lap, and watched the livestream of the National Book Awards. It was like watching the Academy Awards. So exciting! Thrilling! Look at the authors! Look at Emma Straub! I even posted about it. To me, authors are such rock stars that seeing them win awards is far more thrilling than watching, say, the Academy Awards.
Fast forward to last year when, as a new publisher-to-be, my team and I attended the awards celebration. Full circle moment. Several of the nominees last year had been guests on my podcast. I knew many in the audience. What a difference a few years can make. I couldn’t believe it. The room where it happens!
This year, we renewed our sponsorship of the event. A group of my teammates and two of our authors were scheduled to attend tomorrow night’s festivities. I couldn’t wait.
On Saturday afternoon, while browsing books and stocking up for the holidays at Athena Books, an indie bookstore in Greenwich, CT, I received a call from someone in the know who said all the nominees of the awards had gotten together as a block and decided to use their platform when winning speeches to promote a pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel agenda. Knowing I was a sponsor, my source wanted me to be aware.
As soon as I got home, I emailed my contacts at the National Book Foundation saying:
"I am deeply troubled to learn that all the nominees of the National Book Awards this year have decided to collectively band together to use their speeches to promote a pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli agenda. As a sponsor, I am not comfortable bringing my authors and my team into a politically charged environment like this one, one that will make many of us feel quite uncomfortable — including myself as a Jewish woman. It’s one thing to gather to celebrate literary accomplishments and reward books well-written. It’s quite another to be subsidizing an event that’s being used as a platform to fuel hate and divisiveness. Unless we can get complete and total assurance that the National Book Foundation will be actively and publicly denouncing anti-semitism and the inappropriate conduct and collusion of its nominees to foster a highly-charged, destructive environment, we’ll be rescinding our sponsorship and, of course, not attending. We know these times are fraught and difficult to navigate. But we simply can’t be a part of anything that promotes discrimination, in this case of Israel and the Jewish people. I hope your organization decides to take a public, strong stance against this one-sided, discriminatory behavior. We will plan on not attending and rescinding our support unless we are satisfied with your response on this incredibly important issue."
I didn’t hear back until Sunday afternoon at which point NBF Director Ruth Dickey suggested a call late Monday. In her email, she said she had "new information about what was being planned." I asked for a call that night or earlier in the day Monday given the urgency of the issue. We ended up speaking at 10:00 am on Monday.
When I spoke to Ruth, I was hoping for her to come back with what the National Book Foundation would be doing to prevent the weaponization of the National Book Awards stage. Ruth told me that she knew these were fraught times but that they did not believe in censoring speeches. I agreed — I don’t believe in censorship. I’ve been a longtime supporter of PEN — I know there are many opinions in this world and people must be free to express them. This is an incredibly complicated issue and no one wants innocent people to be killed. It’s all horrifying.
But I wanted the NBF to prevent a bullying atmosphere where speeches could be used to intimidate based on religious views. I asked Ruth what the plan would be, for example, should the first three winners get on stage and say anti-semitic things. She said, “That’s a good question,” and that the board was still meeting but that in their 100+ year history, they had never censored any speeches for any reason.
Clearly, the NBF admittedly knew about the authors's plan and had decided to do nothing about it, including communicating it to guests and sponsors or getting involved with the authors or publicists. As of today, Tuesday morning, the day before the event, there has still been zero public communication on their side.
After our talk, I wrote back to Ruth saying:
"I am deeply saddened to hear that all hate speech will be allowed and that there is no recourse planned for any inflammatory remarks should they occur, nor any preventative measures being taken. I believe deeply in free speech, but not hate speech. The National Book Foundation can run the awards in any way you choose, of course, but I can’t be a sponsor of this any longer. My team will not attend. We would like to rescind our donation knowing that it is funding an organization that will not attempt to prevent racist, religious or any other form of discrimination on its main stage. That is not a welcoming environment and isn’t aligned with my own values of kindness and community. I am devoting my entire career to uplifting authors and creating connections among authors and readers. There’s nothing I want more than to celebrate the accomplishments of talented authors like this year’s. But I can’t do so in an environment that values 'not censoring' authors more than preventing what seems likely given the collusion of many authors already — a prejudiced, activist environment that intends to use the platform of the book awards to perpetuate activism against a group based on race or religion. Likewise, given that there has been no attempt to contact publicists in advance of the event, no attempt to fill in sponsors and supporters of what has been going on, and no public statement upholding what the book awards are and should be about, Zibby Media is pulling out entirely.”
Sometimes not saying anything is as bad as saying something negative. Inaction is an action. I reached out directly to a few other sponsors to let them know what was going on. No one had heard from the National Book Foundation.
I understand that the NBF is planning outreach to sponsors today. I don’t know if I’ll be included in that. I know several other sponsors have had conversations with the NBF including another who said their ongoing support would be unlikely should they be allowing things like this to go on. Others have decided not to attend.
My team and I pulled out because when I asked for an assurance from the NBF that they would be on top of this, that they would take swift action to address this if it became an issue. They did not provide any such assurances. I hope their position changes.
I hope that the brilliant authors who win the awards tomorrow night use their speeches for good. I hope this concern was for naught and that there are no anti-semitic comments. Unfortunately, in these highly charged days with hostages held and attacks happening, a line as simple as “Free Palestine,” or “from the river to the sea,” means more than just support of one side; it has come to mean the antagonization of an entire religion, not just a place.
I want the authors to be thrilled. I am thrilled for them. A good book to me is absolutely everything. And these authors should be commended and celebrated for their wonderful accomplishments in the literary world. Truly. I say that knowing we are often on opposite sides of a political fence. But if we can’t come together when celebrating books and literature, when can we? Books and literature should unite us as human beings. They transport, educate, and connect. Books are a common language, a gift, an enabling of multiple perspectives.
My hope is that the NBF takes action to ensure their awards feel like a safe space to celebrate books. After all, isn’t that why we all attend?!