In March, Lisa Lucas will complete her first year as executive director of the National Book Foundation (NBF). Lucas took the reins of the nonprofit, which oversees the 67-year-old National Book Awards (NBA), when Harold Augenbraum stepped down.
In his ten years as director, Augenbraum expanded the organization’s scope beyond the awards—which it was initially established to support in 1989—to promote writers and literacy through such programs as the BookUp initiative, an after-school reading program for middle schoolers, and the Innovations in Reading Prize, which rewards innovative reading programs (applications for the 2017 prizes recently opened). Lucas has expanded the mandate even further. She hit the ground running this year with the Book-Rich Environment Initiative, announced January 5—a multi-agency collaboration among partners including the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the U.S. Department of Education [ED], and the Urban Libraries Council (ULC) to foster literacy and educational outcomes for children in public housing. And she has her sights set on further enlarging NBF’s reach; LJ caught up with Lucas to find out more about what she has planned and how libraries fit into the NBF’s vision.
LJ: How do you see libraries fitting into your overall strategy for NBF?
Lisa Lucas: This first year has been a real listening tour. We’d like to reach more people, and we’d like to support readers and the institutions that support readers. So if we are small and in New York, but we are national in scope and mission, who are the most natural partners for us to try and reach more readers and to help support that work? Libraries, right? We are going into strategic planning now, and I think that a very key part of that planning process is going to be how we connect more with libraries.
We kicked off our first partnership with libraries by partnering with [ULC] for our Book-Rich Environments project. We’re partnering with 32 different public housing authorities [PHA] and the libraries located in those communities, using those as centers to gather young people and families and to distribute books. The other organizations are going to make sure that kids are getting library cards, and that they’re aware of the services that are available to them at the libraries. That just feels really well integrated into our mission of wanting to expand the cultural value of reading and literature in America, but it also supports that idea of achieving scale. By working with a network that works with libraries we can actually be in 32 different places. We couldn’t do that on our own with eight people.
In terms of other partnerships, we’re having conversations with different libraries about how to do public programming, how to bring [NBA winning] authors to those spaces, and to meet with those communities that don’t see authors all the time. When I met with the librarians at your [Directors Summit] that was one of the things that came up: How do I get these authors to my space, to my community? What I would like to see for the organization is a more robust national presence for NBA winners and finalists, a more robust amount of book distribution to young people, a more enhanced general culture of reading and awareness of the NBF’s work. It doesn’t happen on any level without a really strong relationship between the foundation and libraries.
How did the Book-Rich Environment Initiative come about?
I went down to DC in the summer  to take part in a day of action called #ReadWhereYouAre, to encourage summer reading—it was an [ED] initiative. We read books to the children in [the Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens] in Washington, DC. On my way down, I said, “Would it be good if I brought some books with me?” And they said that would be amazing. So I asked a couple of different publishers for a few books. We read to the children and then we gave them free books. That was a low-key publicity event, but we got to talking about the project that they were thinking about: “How do we give away a ton of books to housing projects in the United States, and to encourage reading? We’re talking to the Campaign for Grade Level Reading, and HUD is involved, and [ED] is interested.”
I said, “Where are you getting the books?” And they said, “We don’t know. We have books that are already being circulated in these communities through organizations like FirstBook, and lots of different other organizations, but there weren’t new books to distribute.” So I said, “Well, I know some publishers.” And I started making asks.
Penguin Random House committed 200,000 books—an extraordinary commitment. Later on in the process—we’ve had new partners come on with book donations since, so I think we’ll do pretty well over 300,000 [books] by the time we’re done—we had to figure where to put the books. You have to warehouse them. And so ULC came in and said, “We can talk to all of our different members and see if any of them want to participate, if they have a relationship with their local PHA. It started as distribution, and then we thought, why don’t we do some programming? So we’re going to figure out how to do three events at each library, a book giveaway but also an event-based situation, where we’re talking about getting library cards or using your public library, or talking about back to school, and maybe we’ll have some authors come. A lot of this happened very quickly—which is why our announcement was as much a call to action as it was an announcement that we were doing this. We wanted to make the commitment out loud, but we also wanted to say, look, we need help making sure that this happens.
What do you envision as the NBF’s mission?
We’ve had a narrow focus, celebrating the best of American literature. But the second part of our mission is to enhance the cultural value of great writing in America. And for me, that one is a little bit less straightforward—but it’s also super huge. It gives us room to think enormously about the kind of impact we can have in this country on the way that we read. I think it’s about reinterpreting what we consider [to be] making it more inclusive, and then we can also interpret “inclusive” in a thousand different ways. How do I make sure that people from different socioeconomic backgrounds, different cultural backgrounds, different regional backgrounds, people who are LGBTQ, are invited to this party? I can think about that as inclusivity. But also inclusivity is just about de-snobbing the whole thing.
And I’m very, very interested in making sure that that doesn’t mean the work is less strong. I’m interested in debunking the myth that you have to be a certain kind of person to like great writing, that you need some sort of pedigree to do it. And I think that that, just like anything else, requires a lot of campaigning, coercion, enticing, reminding, and making things palatable—making sure that people can find a way in.
If I am to enhance the cultural value of great writing in America, or of reading in America, then I need to make sure that people feel invited and I need to think about the top-line communication of how we’re speaking to them. So for me the media is extremely important, making sure that not only do we talk to the New York Times and Publishers Weekly, not only do we talk to places where we know the readership likes books too, but how do we talk to Complex magazine? How do we talk to The Root? I think it’s silly to assume that those communities don’t read, because they do. But you know, we’re not pitching them. So I think that a lot of it is about rebranding the book.
What about people who already believe in reading, but have issues with the NBA choices—that they’re not covering enough “big” commercial work?
Controversy is fine. One hopes not to make major mistakes, or to enrage anyone. But I think that we’re all going to disagree. If it doesn’t create conversation, if it doesn’t create some passion, what’s the point of even trying if no one actually cares enough to disagree or to agree with feeling? I think those people are our best allies, because they are looking, they are watching, they are caring.
Will you be changing any of the NBA judging guidelines?
No. I think that this has worked for a long time. A few years ago we opened it up so that we could have librarians and booksellers—literary professionals, we’ll call them—serve on our panels. We’ll continue to do that, and I will make sure that those external-to-writer categories are included. Because I think if you can find the right balance of voices—and I say that being in the middle of putting together my very first judging panel for this, so I don’t know the answer here—that neutralizes bias and allows an objective look at what’s great. Harold Augenbraum did an excellent job of putting together really diverse panels. What that allows is that a book…can shine through, and somebody can say, “Actually, no, this is really great, take a look at this. Look at it one more time.”
Do you feel that you were hired to shake things up at the NBF?
Yes and no. I think whenever you hire a change agent…it’s often an indictment of the leadership that came before them. I don’t think that’s exactly what I was. I think my job is to take all the really beautiful groundwork that Harold laid—this is a very stable organization [with] really great board of directors—my job is not to change that. My job is to take that platform that he gave me and to make it even bigger, and to fine-tune whatever needs to be fine-tuned to prepare it for scale.
How did your work as publisher of Guernica inform your role at NBF?
In the end, nonprofits are nonprofits. Because it is about how you fund a program, how you track and measure a project, how you promote a project. There’s a lot of similarity.
Guernica was great because I was the one who did the business stuff. I also dealt with publishing and thought about publicity and all these things, but I had to figure out how hire the bookkeeper, and make sure that the tax forms were filed, all the things that go into the administration of an organization. I can talk all day about [books], but I sit here thinking about the auditors and the insurance and signing the checks and sending the thank-you letters and raising the money. A lot of the work that I’ve done at Guernica prepared me.
Those almost four years I was at Guernica was a great time because we were also opening up, much like the NBF: we’re here, people love us, we do a good thing, let’s do more. Let’s be bigger, let’s professionalize, let’s raise money, let’s try to pay writers. I learned a lot, particularly within this sort of literary sphere. I met everyone during that time—because I had to. And that has served me very well. You have to collaborate to survive, and that is the same for organizations big and small. I think that learning how to do that and be scrappy and be light on my feet organizationally, while also really staying true to a mission, is something that really carries through to this job.
What’s next for NBF?
As the work changes, we can bring more in. BookUp is wonderful—we work in New York, Texas, Los Angeles, and Detroit—but those are just four cities. I think as we get into actual events that are happening in each of the libraries of Book-Rich Environment, we’ll be able to share more. That creates an awareness of what’s happening. I think also as we do more and different public programs, that’ll make a difference. As we do more digital, that’ll make more of a difference.
One of the things that I’d really like to do is to make sure that all of our programs work in concert to tell a whole story, rather than seven different stories. I think that once we get everything in alignment and all the programs are working in lockstep, then it’ll be a lot easier to communicate what we do and why we do it.
Sometimes I say these things and I feel like a crazy person—We’re going to change the world with books! We’re going to get America reading!—but actually, I really do believe that. There are some bold things we’ve been saying. And look, I’m going to try my very best to achieve them. If I get halfway there, I’ll have done some good.