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The National Book Foundation’s Lisa Lucas on Publishing

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Interviewed by Alexa Schlosser, Managing Editor, IBPA Independent

An interview with the new executive director of the National Book Foundation.

Lisa Lucas’ road to executive director of the National Book Foundation may have been “higgledy-piggledy,” but, one year in, she is certain it’s a perfect fit. We caught up with Lucas to talk about her road to the organization, its goals, what makes the National Book Awards unique, and the challenges to inclusivity in publishing.

On transitioning from publisher at Guernica magazine to executive director of the National Book Foundation:

Lisa Lucas, Executive Director, National Book Foundation

[At Guernica], I had the opportunity to meet with so many different editors, writers, and people who work in publishing in an effort to figure out how to get more people to care about and know about the magazine I loved. And while I loved the work I was doing, I also fell completely in love with the idea of working around books more fully. Also, during that time I was thinking about what was next for me. What am I going to do for a living? I’d long wanted to be an executive director, and so I spent a lot of that time thinking about how to transition 10 or so years of arts administration experience into a whole new field and a long-term career that I wanted.

The NBF executive director at that point had stepped down, and I knew there was a job open, but I assumed I was too young for it. I remember them calling me and saying “Do you have any suggestions for who would be a good candidate for this job?” And I shot off a bunch of names of people I thought would be great, and then at the end, I said something like “If I weren’t so young, I would want the job!” I was 35 at the time. A few months later, I went in to talk about the job and it ended up working out, which was amazing because it felt really right. It felt like a perfect fit. I knew before I started that I loved this job. Now that I’m just over a year in, I know that I couldn’t have been more right about that.

On being new to the job:

The NBF is an important institution for writers, publishers, and readers, and so a transition could have been quite fraught. People are worried about what the future of something is, but I will never stop being grateful for the welcome with which I was received here.

I think for any person coming in to run an organization, it’s a great practice to take a year to just really listen. You have to be very patient. You can’t just rip everything up at the roots immediately, or maybe ever, because you haven’t yet had a chance to learn what is valuable, what is unchangeable, and what will take a great amount of time and effort to shift—and it’s not always clear at first glance what the most pressing concerns are. You spend a lot of time talking about all the things you want to do, but you also have to hit the brakes on how fast you move. It felt really important to be humble and respect the fact that the organization has been around for almost 70 years.

On what makes the National Book Awards different:

Every year, we pick four panels of five judges. One of the things that is really different is we stay far outside of that process. We give the judging panels guidelines, but it’s about them coming up with their own criteria and process to wade through all these books. We’re also really different in that we have a huge ceremony. We have more than 800 people in a room, and then you have people watching on the live stream. You have a host. You have people in black tie. It’s really a ceremony. We keep making the comparison to the Oscars. One night in the middle of November every single year, we celebrate 20 finalists and four winners. I think the ceremonial aspect of the awards is important.

On why books that don’t win awards are important:

I love all of the “these are the books that should have gotten awards” conversations that spring up. It feels really worthwhile to lean in to the conversations that awards inspire. That chatter brings visibility to books that aren’t in the awards cycle, and it gives us an even wider number of books to pick from when we need something to read. And so many of the books that aren’t awards titles are so valuable and important. Awards are institutional, and giving a prize creates a sort of inside-outside thing, which is tricky. I think awards are incredibly valuable, but they are also complicated. As a standalone, that’s not always great, but one of the things awards do is create conversation around books. And I think that conversation, that result of the awards happening at all, creates a new dialogue, especially with social media, to bring books that people feel should have gotten awards into the conversation.

On working with national partners to increase the NBF’s reach:

We’re small in size and budget, but lots of other organizations and institutions are mighty. The question is, how do we take what we have and elevate the work that they are doing by sharing resources with collaborators and partners? I think it is important for us to figure out how we can reach large groups of people by teaming with organizations that are reaching around the country. One of the new things we just launched is the Book Rich Environments Initiative. We’re partnering with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the US Department of Education, the Campaign for Grade Level Reading, and the Urban Libraries Council. Thirty-six different public housing authorities around the country are going to be giving out about 270,000 books to children and families in those communities in an effort to combat book deserts.

On achieving greater inclusivity in publishing:

If we want a diverse and inclusive literary landscape, we have to think about how we market books to readers. If you write a book about a specific community but you have no real awareness of how to reach that community, with all the good will in the world, you may never actually get that book in their hands. You have to cultivate readers. In general, we have to think about building up the marketplace to include people who, for many years, have been excluded, and I think that really is more than

just publishing diverse books. Publishing diverse books is key, but it’s not the standalone solution. You need a diverse workforce, you need a great marketing strategy, you need to cast away assumptions about who does or doesn’t read and what a reader looks like. In general, I also think changing the narrative about books is important. We’ve for so long been comfortable with this reputation of the nerdy underdog.

On what’s exciting her culturally this year:

Lately, I’ve been excited about Chance the Rapper. He gave $1 million to the Chicago Public Schools, got the Chicago Bulls to do the same thing, and had an amazing album.

Book-wise, I loved Katie Kitamura’s A Separation (ISBN: 978-0399576102), which was absolutely stunning. And I just finished Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions (ISBN: 978-1566894951), which was beautiful, heartbreaking, and perfectly timed.

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