The Pulitzer Prize: What’s the Real Story?


Once again I’ve seen the phrase “nominated for the Pulitzer Prize” on a book of questionable merit.

And recently I heard a reader say that the book was nominated for the “pew-litzer prize.”

Wrong and Wrong.

Let’s take care of the easy one first by referring to the handy list of frequently asked questions:

How is “Pulitzer” pronounced?

The correct pronunciation is “PULL it,  sir.”

That ought to be easy to remember.

Second, almost any author can enter a published book in the Pulitzer competition. But to be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize is something else entirely.

Again I refer to the list of questions sent to The Pulitzer organization.

What does it mean to be a Pulitzer Prize Winner or a Pulitzer Prize Nominated Finalist?

A Pulitzer Prize Winner may be an individual, a group of individuals, or a news organization’s staff.

Nominated Finalists are selected by the Nominating Juries for each category as finalists in the competition. The Pulitzer Prize Board generally selects the Pulitzer Prize Winners from the three nominated finalists in each category. The names of nominated finalists have been announced only since 1980. Work that has been submitted for Prize consideration but not chosen as either a nominated finalist or a winner is termed an entry or submission. No information on entrants is provided.

Since 1980, when we began to announce nominated finalists, we have used the term “nominee” for entrants who became finalists. We discourage someone saying he or she was “nominated” for a Pulitzer simply because an entry was sent to us.

The Pulitzer organization “discourages” this kind of fake promotion, but of course has no way to prevent it.

To submit a published book for consideration for a Pulitzer, the author need only fill out the form and pay $50. Juries select the finalists in each categories, and another set of jurors determines the winners in each category. You might say you entered your book in the competition, but you can’t legitimately say you have been “nominated” for a Pulitzer Prize. Only those winners selected by Pulitzer judges can make that claim.

The Pulitzer prizes were first awarded in 1917. Joseph Pulitzer, a Hungarian-born American, was a newspaper publisher who crusaded passionately against dishonest government.  His New York World and St. Louis Post-Dispatch papers sometimes used sensationalism to gain circulation, but he was the first to call for the training of journalists in schools of journalism at the University level. Finally, he endowed prizes for excellence in journalism, literature, music and drama, and established a governing board with the flexibility to make changes as needed. Today, prizes have been diversified in many ways and, for example, may be given for online journalism, and even self-published books as long as they are in hardcover or paperback form. And journalism awards have not always gone to major papers, but often to small papers for superb investigative work.

Some years, no prize is awarded if the judges do not find entries to be of suitable quality. According to The Plan of Award, “If in any year all the competitors in any category shall fail to gain a majority vote of the Pulitzer Prize Board, the prize or prizes may be withheld.”

Another annoyed writer, Steve Lehto, has expounded at length on this same topic, and his fury is well worth reading. Search for “The Pulitzer Scam,” Huffington Post, or follow this link.

As Lehto explains, the Pulitzer site has a lovely search function by which you can find the names of winners and legitimate jury-selected nominees going back many years. So next time you see a writer claiming to have been “nominated for a Pulitzer,” look at the list; chances are you won’t find the writer who has made the statement.

Want to enter your published book? If you are a U.S. citizen, visit the How to Enter page. All entries must be made using the online entry system. Entries may also be made for authors who are deceased. Hard copies of books, plays, and recordings must also be sent to the Pulitzer office. Journalism entries are uploaded to the site.

Go ahead. Just don’t say you’ve been “nominated for a Pulitzer prize.”

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

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Read all about the history of the Pulitzer Prize, nominees and winners, the Pulitzer’s Centennial Celebration, and many related events here:

© 2016, Linda M. Hasselstrom