As reported by Publishers Lunch earlier today, Zibby Owens—the CEO of Zibby Media and creator/host of the Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books podcast—has withdrawn her sponsorship of tomorrow’s National Book Awards ceremony, citing the nominees’ decision “to collectively band together to use their speeches to promote a pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli agenda.”
As detailed in a Substack post this morning, Owens had written to NBF executive director Ruth Dickey earlier this week after hearing a report that nominees might be planning collective action in support of Palestine at Wednesdays’ ceremony in New York:
I am deeply troubled to learn that all the nominees of the National Book Awards this year have decided to collectively band together to use their speeches to promote a pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli agenda. As a sponsor, I am not comfortable bringing my authors and my team into a politically charged environment like this one, one that will make many of us feel quite uncomfortable—including myself as a Jewish woman. It’s one thing to gather to celebrate literary accomplishments and reward books well-written. It’s quite another to be subsidizing an event that’s being used as a platform to fuel hate and divisiveness. Unless we can get complete and total assurance that the National Book Foundation will be actively and publicly denouncing anti-semitism and the inappropriate conduct and collusion of its nominees to foster a highly-charged, destructive environment, we’ll be rescinding our sponsorship and, of course, not attending. We know these times are fraught and difficult to navigate. But we simply can’t be a part of anything that promotes discrimination, in this case of Israel and the Jewish people. I hope your organization decides to take a public, strong stance against this one-sided, discriminatory behavior.
In the same Substack post, Owens goes on to report on her subsequent conversation with National Book Foundation Director Ruth Dickey:
When I spoke to Ruth, I was hoping for her to come back with what the National Book Foundation would be doing to prevent the weaponization of the National Book Awards stage. Ruth told me that she knew these were fraught times but that they did not believe in censoring speeches.
Having found Dickey’s response to the issue raised unsatisfactory, Owens sent Dickey the following:
I am deeply saddened to hear that all hate speech will be allowed and that there is no recourse planned for any inflammatory remarks should they occur, nor any preventative measures being taken. I believe deeply in free speech, but not hate speech. The National Book Foundation can run the awards in any way you choose, of course, but I can’t be a sponsor of this any longer. My team will not attend. We would like to rescind our donation knowing that it is funding an organization that will not attempt to prevent racist, religious or any other form of discrimination on its main stage. That is not a welcoming environment and isn’t aligned with my own values of kindness and community. I am devoting my entire career to uplifting authors and creating connections among authors and readers. There’s nothing I want more than to celebrate the accomplishments of talented authors like this year’s. But I can’t do so in an environment that values ‘not censoring’ authors more than preventing what seems likely given the collusion of many authors already—a prejudiced, activist environment that intends to use the platform of the book awards to perpetuate activism against a group based on race or religion.
Owens closed her Substack post with this:
I hope that the brilliant authors who win the awards tomorrow night use their speeches for good. I hope this concern was for naught and that there are no anti-semitic comments. Unfortunately, in these highly charged days with hostages held and attacks happening, a line as simple as “Free Palestine,” or “from the river to the sea,” means more than just support of one side; it has come to mean the antagonization of an entire religion, not just a place.
I want the authors to be thrilled. I am thrilled for them. A good book to me is absolutely everything. And these authors should be commended and celebrated for their wonderful accomplishments in the literary world. Truly. I say that knowing we are often on opposite sides of a political fence. But if we can’t come together when celebrating books and literature, when can we? Books and literature should unite us as human beings. They transport, educate, and connect. Books are a common language, a gift, an enabling of multiple perspectives.
My hope is that the NBF takes action to ensure their awards feel like a safe space to celebrate books. After all, isn’t that why we all attend?!
Now, individuals are entitled to their personal opinions (even if those opinions, in my opinion, irresponsibly conflate Palestinian advocacy with antisemitism), and are free to sponsor or not sponsor any cultural event they choose, but Zibby Owens is a significant power player in this industry, and her public statements therefore carry more weight and influence than those of your average literary citizen.
If Zibby Owens—”NYC’s most important book-fluencer,” whose extremely popular podcast and book club are regular ports of call for marketing and publicity teams at the Big 5 publishers—declares that “Free Palestine … has come to mean the antagonization of an entire religion” and that condemnation of Israel’s assault on Gaza is tantamount to “fuel[ing] hate,” well, that’s a real problem for our industry. Already hesitant publishers, reading these words, will be be even less likely to publicly support authors who bravely speak out against Israel’s assault on Gaza. Other authors will then be less likely to use their modest platforms to publicly condemn the atrocities taking place.
All this is to say, kudos to Ruth Dickey for standing her ground on this important issue, and to the National Book Foundation for continuing to platform writers of conscience at their annual flagship event.