Interview with Christopher Klim on the Eric Hoffer Award
Library Juice readers,
I’ve had the opportunity to interview Christopher Klim, an author and editor and an advocate for independent publishing, about an award he has founded for the independent press, the Hoffer Award.
Mr. Klim, would you tell Library Juice readers a bit about yourself, your company, and the Hoffer Award?
This is the short history: Hopewell Publications belongs primarily to E. Martin and other small investors. Martin is an ex-editor in Manhattan. It’s his baby. The press back-lists all of my books. Hopewell has agreed to handle the financial aspects for the Hoffer Award, for which I am grateful. Around 2001, I established a free writers’ information Web site (www.WritersNotes.com), which grew into a biannual magazine and annual book award. In 2005, I started editing Eric Hoffer’s backlist for Hopewell Publications and became a friend of the estate. Last year, I changed the name of the magazine to BEST NEW WRITING, which holds the results of the ERIC HOFFER AWARD for prose and independent books. The estate has given permission to use the Hoffer name. Eric Hoffer, if you don’t know, was one of America’s greatest freethinkers. His first book has been in print for fifty years. All of his nine books remain in the public discourse.
As an author with a number of small presses, I realized that none of the major awards even consider small presses and independent books. This is the purpose of the award: To bring these books and authors to light. Books can be from small, academic, and micro presses, as well as self-published authors. Many self-published books are undisciplined, but many are brilliant. It underscores the problem in Manhattan when you realize that certain books are not even considered for publication and therefore the authors take it to market on their own. An award like the Hoffer–run by volunteers, kept intentionally cheap and accessible to the public–gives these authors due recognition. We have eleven category prizes, including runner-ups and honorable mentions. We give individual press designations awards, and we also give the one overall grand prize. However, any of the awarded books creates a great read.
It is my hope that librarians eventually recognize BEST NEW WRITING and the HOFFER AWARD authors and books it features. I understand that many library districts have book buying plans from the big distributors that are shoved down their throats, but most libraries also have discretionary budgets. They should really, really go outside of their Manhattan-marketed catalogues and see what the indies are doing. BEST NEW WRITING and the HOFFER AWARD put it in one place for them.
That’s excellent. I definitely agree about the importance of librarians collecting from independent publishers, and I think this award could be a helpful collection development tool for us. Can you say a few things about how the awards are juried? Who makes up the juries, and what kind of criteria are applied? What kind of books tend to get the awards?
The eleven categories are designed to handle almost any book: ART, GENERAL FICTION, COMMERCIAL FICTION, CHILDREN, YOUNG ADULT, CULTURE, BUSINESS, REFERENCE, HOME, HEALTH/SELF-HELP, & LEGACY. (They are all explained at www.HofferAward.com.) Sometimes books fit in more than one category. It’s the entrant’s decision whether he/she wants to enter more than one. The LEGACY category is my favorite. It contains books that are over two years old–that’s the only criteria. In an industry that behaves as if books have the shelf life of a banana, the LEGACY category seeks books that stand the test of time.
Judges come from all walks of life, depending on the category. For example the FICTION categories are judged by book reviewers, librarians, school teachers (for the CHILDREN’s books), editors, and sometimes agents. We are based in the NY-Philadelphia metropolitan areas, and I know for a fact that Manhattan agents are perusing our winners list for potential publication with a larger press. The BUSINESS category is judged by financial industry experts. The REFERENCE category is judged by college professors. We position people who are experts in the type of books to be scored. It’s a tremendous labor of love for the judges. When the contest is over, books are donated to libraries and public institutions around the country. These are excellent places to promote your book.
Books are judges on an internal seven-point scoring criteria, which focuses on content and execution. Aspects of production (cover, layout, etc.) come into play in order to split hairs when necessary. I like to believe that a great book always rises to the top. The winner in each category competes for the Eric Hoffer grand prize, which includes a $1,500 check. This is a separate panel, apart from the category judges who read the books all over again and confer with the original scoring judges. Finally, the highest scoring books in the four press designations (i.e. SMALL, MICRO, ACADEMIC, and SELF-PUBLISHED) receive additional distinctions. When the winners are announced, we have one grand prize winner, four press designation winners, eleven category winners, and various runners-up and honorable mentions in each category. There are times when judges convene to determine a category’s prize ordering (i.e. winner, runner-up, etc.).
If you visit www.HofferAward.com and observe the list of previous winners, you will see that we are all over the map. Again, I like to believe that the best book, no matter what the subject, rises to the top. Last year a coffee table memoir on Marlene Dietrich won the grand prize. I would have never predicted that, but the judges determined that it was a great book. If you look at last year’s category winners, you can see which books were competing for the grand prize. This year, it could be a work of fiction, a reference book, or a children’s book. Who knows?
I started this contest because I felt, as a small press author, that no one was helping us. The irony is, of course, because I oversee the contest, I can never enter one of my books. In fact, no one connected, including Hopewell Publication’s own authors or staff, can enter the contest.
Beyond promoting great unknown books and authors, my hope is that librarians and educational institutions consider the annual BEST NEW WRITING for the collection. It’s only $15.95, and it contains great new unpublished stories as well as the book coverage. The premiere 2007 edition contains 17 great stories selected from thousands of entrants.
I will note for librarians who don’t explore the website of the Hoffer Award that the “reference” cataegory is not what we would normally think of as reference. I think the “reference” and “culture” categories are somewhat odd, from the standpoint of an academic librarian, but perhaps they make more sense from the point of view of the book trade.
Mr. Klim, I am wondering how you are doing so far in terms of publicizing the award and getting it recognized within the publishing industry. Where are things at with the award, and what are your goals and strategies as far as publicizing it and gaining recognition for it? Many of us in librarianship who are interested in the independent press think about these things.
I hear you. REFERENCE is and it isn’t typical. We have to expand it to include not only hard core reference books, but biographies and other technical matter. So anything from serious academic discussion to how-to goes there. And it’s not very populated either. Still, we want all books in one of the eleven categories.
CULTURE admittedly is another anomaly, but it has grown in leaps and bounds. Next year, we will likely pull personal memoir into its own group. This will cut the category in half. Culture is a fantastic category that describes the human experience. In the past, I have judged in that category.
We press release all the trades and get kindly coverage by people such as yourself. (WE VERY MUCH APPRECIATE IT!) Since we switched form the “Writers Notes” award to the “Eric Hoffer” award in 2005, our entries have doubled. Clearly Hoffer carries more honor and savvy. What we’ve done is assemble an e-mail reminder list of publishers, and we notify them all at the end of the year, but we have learned through survey is that many, many authors and publishers have learned about us for the first time through either Writers Market or the Internet.
On the back end, the award coverage is not only in BEST NEW WRITING, but pressed to all the media outlets. We also get articles and stories from individual authors and presses who are happy to announce their accomplishment. It’s a grassroots effort. We also mail libraries once annually about the winners and winning titles.
The award, started as a hobby, has taken on a life of its own. Personally, I feel that it has reached the breakout phase, and within the next five years, it may become something that many people will know and recognize, which isn’t at all bad for the first decade of its existence.
I wonder if there is ever confusion about the nature of the award caused by the fact that it’s named after Eric Hoffer, who didn’t exactly write in all eleven categories. You must have thought about this when you changed the name. Does it take extra work to communicate the fact that the award is not just for books of freethinking philosophy? Also, you mentioned that you have the permission of his estate; I wonder if they have said anything interesting about the award. Do they see a connection between the award and Hoffer’s work?
Actually, we were THE WRITERS’ NOTES BOOK award, associated with the Web site and magazine of the same name. Participation was moderate. It’s when we switched to the HOFFER name that things accelerated. Hoffer was a self-taught, self-motivated, freethinker, and that’s how we market it. He was blind until age fifteen and completely self-educated, yet had the knack to interpret many of the great texts of mankind and distill a philosophy in plain, concise language. His books are still sold and translated all over the world. Wherever there is a particularly awakening society, Hoffer’s books are of great interest (i.e. China, India, etc.). Just yesterday, I was negotiating the Turkish rights on behalf of the estate. Hoffer embodies the American spirit to transform from nothing and achieve greatness. This appeals to anyone writing their own book or running their own small press, since much of what they do is a product of their willingness to ask questions and learn… and to work very hard on their own behalf. In my mind, Hoffer is a dead-on fit for the independent publisher.
The Hoffer estate is still managed by Hoffer’s longtime associate Lili Fabilli Osborne. I’ve befriended her over the years. She has told me a number of times how pleased she is to have Eric memorialized in this way. Each year one book gets the Eric Hoffer Book Award and one new story gets the Eric Hoffer Prose Award.
One thing that librarians in my circle have been interested in over the years is the rise of alternative book publishing, mainly in the 1980s and since, as an outgrowth of the underground press during the counterculture movement of the 60s/70s. In alternative publishing, as something somewhat distinct from independent publishing in general, the dominant idea is that mainstream publishers don’t have room for political thought that lies beyond certain popular boundaries. The problem is specifically that the nature of the publishing industry distorts national and global politics by keeping radical ideas out of the public sphere. The directory, Alternative Publishers of Books in North America, now in its 6th edition, focuses on this type of publisher. Maybe it’s my own biases, but there seems to be relatively few political books, especially radical books, on the winners lists so far. Would you say that there isn’t as much out there as I would assume, relative to the total? Is it a matter of which presses find out about the award because of circles of communication? Or does it have to do with a lack of political people on the juries? It seems that there’s so much out there you could have a Politics category in addition to the Culture category, depending on what the outreach was like.
How true! I teach journalism in college, and one of the things I notice is the lack of public discourse. The kids will often sit there and wait for my opinion so that they can have one of their own. This is particularly shameful in academia right now, where the thought police tell you to act PC-perfect or get out. On book tours, I’ve met intelligent people around the country with developed book concepts that range from political to corporate issues but were deemed “too controversial” by the big pubs and were therefore squashed. These weren’t conspiracy theory books either. They were books on topics about the military, pharmaceutical, and financial sectors. Topics that need public awareness, but I guess if we have Brittany Spears to watch instead, everything will be alright.
We don’t get the radical books as much as we’d like. And when we do, they are often so poorly written that we cannot get behind them. Personally, I give controversial books a push, but when the authors go on unsupported rants and source most of their information from Internet resources, you cannot (as a journalist) take them seriously. The real shame is that if they had done the legwork, they might have delivered a ground-breaking work. Sometimes, I write the authors notes and point them at sources. Again, I teach journalism. It is embarrassing what has happen to this profession. Ironically, Hoffer writes just about this. Historically, he’s one of the philosophers who wrote in-depth about people who seek evidence of their beliefs. We all do to some extent, but you cannot walk around so channeled into your ideas that every time you pick up a stone it’s proof again that aliens have landed there. You need a chain of effective facts. I often tell my journalism students this: the facts are often bad enough: no need to take liberties.
Sorry about the long answer. The short answer is that we don’t get enough of those books. The balance of good radical titles has not reached us yet. I have planned since the beginning to create a special award under the Hoffer umbrella for such a title. So you’ve jumped by gun. Last week, we were toying with the idea of awarding the best one we encountered with this award just to launch the concept–get it out in the public purview. This award would be applied to a book no matter what category it entered. So the answer is that we need better outreach for those titles.
It occurs to me that there are authors and publishers out there who have strong enough disagreements with Eric Hoffer that they would have an aversion to learning about the award or wouldn’t want to be associated with his name, and might not submit their books for that reason. I don’t know what you think about that.
The Eric Hoffer Award is meant to embody the independent spirit of the soul and not any of Hoffer’s views on society and mass movements. Hoffer was a self-starter like any independent publisher. In his lifetime, Hoffer encouraged intellectual discourse. As far as the award that bears his name goes, the judging criteria is simple. Does the book present a clear thesis and follow through? Is it well executed and presented? If you look at the list of winners, you’ll see no adherence to an particular belief, politics, or mantra. As the chair, I weed out the judges that have an agenda. If that is not enough to entice an entrant, then we can do nothing to persuade them.
Thanks for being so generous with your time, Mr. Klim. That was very interesting. I wish you the best luck promoting the award, which I think has a lot of potential usefulness to us librarians as a collection development tool.
If readers would like to find out more about Christopher Klim, there is biographical information at his website: http://www.christopherklim.com/.