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Literary elite? Not with Elmo

Quill book awards shun stuffiness, let the public choose winners and have unconventional prize presenters.

October 22, 2005|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Actress Kim Cattrall, celebrity chef Rocco DiSpirito and Elmo may not be whom you'd expect to find handing out awards at a national book prize ceremony. But then again, the Quill Awards are designed to be anything but your average literary contest. "Today" show weatherman Al Roker conducted red carpet interviews with guests as they arrived for the Oct. 11 black-tie ceremony at the Chelsea Piers. Swelling orchestral music accompanied the recitation of nominees, and the beaming winners thanked their agents.

In short, the Quills resembled a Hollywood awards show -- which is exactly what organizers were aiming for.

Reed Business Information, which puts out Publishers Weekly, launched the contest this year as the first "People's Choice" of book awards, seeking to bridge the elite realm of literary prizes and the commercial realities of publishing. Instead of enlisting writers or book critics to judge the year's best works, the public was asked to vote for favorites online, choosing from a list that varied from romance novelist Nora Roberts to Pulitzer Prize winner Philip Roth. Not surprisingly, mass appeal won out; the prize for the best book of the year went to J.K. Rowling for her latest installment in the "Harry Potter" series.

The goal, as the Quills website put it, was 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."

But the Quills were created to do more than acknowledge consumer taste. Backers of the awards, which include many of publishing's heavyweights, wanted the prizes to generate buzz and, ideally, sales. After all, what good is "Hollywood style glitz" without an audience? The final piece of the puzzle was to get the show on television.

So Gerry Byrne, a former Variety publisher who was drafted by Reed to organize the Quills, persuaded NBC Universal to air the program, albeit in a limited fashion. Tonight at 7, viewers will have the chance to see an hourlong truncated version of the ceremony hosted by NBC anchor Brian Williams with appearances by comedians Jon Stewart, whose book "America (The Book): A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction" won two Quills, for best audiobook and best humor book, and Robert Klein, who recently published a memoir, "The Amorous Busboy of Decatur Avenue." But the show will not be available everywhere. It will air on the 14 local NBC-owned stations, including Los Angeles' KNBC, and reach about 30% of the country and cover all major markets except Boston. Another 14 NBC affiliates in smaller markets, such as Topeka, Kan., and Duluth, Minn., have committed to airing the show at some point this fall.

In its first year, the Quills didn't come close to the Oscars in the glamour department. There were no A-list celebrities in attendance; viewers will have to settle for actors like Cattrall and Matthew Modine, who both have their own books to promote. But supporters believe that the ceremony made some progress in jazzing up publishing's staid reputation.

"We can't ignore the fact that books compete with all different kinds of entertainment media," said Larry Kirshbaum, chairman of Time Warner Book Group and a member of the Quills executive council, which also included executives from HarperCollins, Random House and Simon & Schuster. "I think we all see a trend that book sales have flattened out over the last few years, and we're trying to get some of that Hollywood glitz to reinforce the idea that reading is fun, as well as fundamental."

But it remains to be seen whether viewers will tune in -- and, more broadly, what kind of influence the Quills will have on sales and the image of the book publishing industry.

Even NBC, which lent its talent and airtime for the program, doesn't seem convinced that the awards will be a major draw. Jay Ireland, president of NBC Universal Television Stations, said he decided to televise the show largely because the Quills set up a companion foundation to support literacy efforts.

"We're not trying to make the show compete with the Emmys and the Oscars," said Ireland, who acknowledged that a Saturday evening isn't the best time slot to get a large audience. "The main reason we like it is for the literacy program. What we try to do at the stations is to be as connected to our community as possible."

Many in the book world are also skeptical that the Quills will generate public enthusiasm for the books it is honoring, despite its populist tone. Most of the winners -- like Sue Monk Kidd's "The Mermaid Chair," "Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything" by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, and David McCullough's "1776" -- have already made the bestseller lists.

"I think it's really going to be difficult to get people riled up about what is essentially a popularity contest," said Benjamin Schwarz, Atlantic Monthly's literary editor. "Those books are already getting a lot of attention."

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