By Colin Woodward
I am old enough to remember Roberto Benigni winning two Oscars in 1998 for his terrific film, Life is Beautiful. One of the awards was for Best Actor, the other for Best Picture (foreign). Benigni’s reaction was, without putting it mildly, beyond ecstatic. He made your average Price is Right contestant look glum. Don’t ever let celebrities tell you they were never happy to win an award. The Oscars alone bring men to tears.
The history trade isn’t nearly as glamorous. The award ceremonies for scholars aren’t televised (maybe on C-Span, I dunno). But winning an award is about the only chance you have ever ever seeing some “real” money from an academic book. And by “real,” I mean 1/1000 of a percent of what Stephen King or James Patterson makes on a book advance alone.
I have submitted my book for several major awards: the Francis Parkman Prize, the Lincoln Prize, the Tom Watson Prize, the Jefferson Davis Award, and the Wiley-Sword Prize. My chances are slim at winning, I know, but this is the only shot I will have at capturing one for Marching Masters.
How it works: you send copies of your book to a prize committee, usually consisting of three or four people. They read it (maybe) and then let everyone know in a couple months about who won. Submitting your book for a prize can get expensive. My publisher, University of Virginia Press, submitted for three prizes for me (the Lincoln, Watson, and Jefferson Davis awards). The others I had to do on my own dime.
If you are smart, you will save the free copies your publisher gave you when your book came out and submit the free copies you got to the prize committee. If you are not smart, like me, you will have had no free copies left come prize-time. And so I had to buy copies and then ship them to the evaluating committees. Submitting a book for one prize can run you as much as $100 once you have included shipping and handling.
But the Lincoln Prize and the Watson prize offer $50,000 to the winner. The Lincoln Prize was created by Gettysburg College, because books on Lincoln are not eligible for the Pulitzer Prize (yeah, seriously). The Lincoln Prize, however, is open to anyone who writes about the Civil War. This is one of the advantages of writing for the saturated Civil War market–the prizes can be pretty good.
The Jefferson Davis, Wiley-Sword, and Francis Parkman Prizes are more modest, dollar-wise. But the awards are prestigious. Charles Royster, who was my advisor at LSU, won the Parkman Prize (not to mention the Bancroft Prize). Another one of my professors at LSU, Bill Cooper, has won the Jefferson Davis award twice.
The Parkman Prize is more about writing ability than history, though the history of the winning book has to be good, too. One of the committee members for this year, Geoffrey Ward, wrote the book that that got me into Civil War history in the first place. That book was the companion to the Ken Burns 1990 documentary on the Civil War.
Historians don’t write for money. But like everyone else in this rat race of a country, it doesn’t hurt when you get some cash for something you worked hard on. And in many cases, the books that win the “minor” prizes are better than those that win the Pulitzer.
And so, fingers crossed.
Colin Woodward is an archivist and historian. He published his first book, Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War through UVA Press. He is working on a book on Johnny Cash.