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Kirkus unveils three $50,000 book prizes

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Tonight at a party on the eve of the BookExpo America convention in New York, Kirkus announced its creation of three new literary awards worth $50,000 each. The annual Kirkus Prizes, which will be among the largest cash awards in the literary world, will honor works of fiction, nonfiction and young readers’ literature.

Only books that have received a starred review in Kirkus will be eligible for consideration. And since the magazine now reviews independently published books — or self-published books — these, too, will be eligible, so long as they have received the Kirkus star. (About 10 percent of the 7,000 traditionally published books that Kirkus reviews each year receive a star; about 2 percent of the 3,000 self-published books reviewed each year receive a star.)

Each of the three prize categories — fiction, nonfiction and YA — will have a jury composed of a writer, a bookseller or librarian, and a critic who works for Kirkus. Although these panels will be appointed by Kirkus, the jurors alone will select the finalists and the three winners. Each juror will receive $1,000 for his or her service.

Founded in 1933, Kirkus struggled to stay in business in the 1990s as bookstores, newspaper book sections and other subscribers faded away. The bimonthly magazine was saved from oblivion by real estate magnate Herbert Simon in 2010. Since then, circulation has reportedly increased more than 250 percent, and the Kirkus Web site now claims more than 1.5 million page views a month.

Claiborne Smith, the editor in chief of Kirkus Reviews, said, “Kirkus has been around for 81 years, but the energy here is just like a start-up. It’s scrappy, and there’s a lot to do, and we have big mission. This prize is a very public symbol of that kind of commitment.”

The new Kirkus awards are a direct reflection of Simon’s enthusiasm for books. “He’s a great reader,” Smith said, “the kind of guy who goes gaga for galleys from FSG and Knopf.”

Given the ever-rising number of literary awards, large cash prizes are necessary to generate any public attention. The Pulitzer and National Book Award winners receive “only” $10,000, but those prizes have accrued prestige over many decades. The size of the new Kirkus prizes is “notable,” Smith acknowledges, even as he points to a larger purpose: “When you think about that amount of money going to a writer who could really use it, that is what this award is about.”

Smith also places these awards in the tradition of Virginia Kirkus, who founded the magazine. “At a time when was no publication got in between the publishers’ sales reps and the bookstores, she used her expertise to say, ‘Not only is this why you should or not pay attention to this book’s literary quality, but this is how it might stack up in the marketplace.’ So Kirkus has always had an eye for quality that’s thoughtful about literary ideas, but we also have an eye on what people love to read. The fact that this award starts with starred books means that it’s starting with a certain high level of excellence.”

“The most interesting thing about this award is yet to come,” Smith adds. “That’s how the judges deliberate and what they choose for the winning titles.”

The first announcement of finalists — six in each category — is scheduled for Sept. 30. The first three winners will be announced in October in Austin, Texas, where Kirkus is based.