All News

Press Releases

Authors Guild Foundation Celebrates Writers and Champions of Free Expression at 32nd Annual Gala

Honorees Jesmyn Ward, Heather Cox Richardson, Suzette Baker, and W. Paul Coates were recognized for their contributions to literature and advocacy in the face of book banning and AI challenges.

Honorees and Guild leadership pose on the red carpet

From left to right: Deborah Wilson, LeVar Burton, Heather Cox Richardson, Walter Mosely, Ken Burns, Mary Rasenberger, Jesmyn Ward, George M. Johnson, W. Paul Coates, Suzette Baker, Marie Arana

New York City (June 5, 2024) – The Authors Guild Foundation’s 32nd Annual Gala, held at Pier Sixty on Thursday, May 30, brought together a dazzling array of writers, publishing professionals, and devoted readers to honor those who have made significant contributions to the community. Hosted by the acclaimed writer, producer, filmmaker, and effervescent speaker Adriana Trigiani, the evening was a heartfelt and festive tribute to the critical work authors do in an era marked by book banning and the rise of artificial intelligence. 

The gala honored four exceptional individuals for their outstanding contributions to the literary world. W. Paul Coates received the Publisher Award for Distinguished Service to the Literary Community, presented by Walter Mosley, for Black Classic Press, one of the oldest independently owned Black publishers in operation in the United States. Suzette Baker was awarded the Champion of Writers Award, presented by George M. Johnson, for her tireless efforts in fighting against book bans in Texas. Heather Cox Richardson, author of numerous acclaimed history books and the popular newsletter “Letters from an American,” received the Baldacci Award for Literary Activism, presented by Ken Burns. Jesmyn Ward, the first woman and first person of color to win the National Book Award for Fiction twice, was honored with the Preston Award for Distinguished Service to the Literary Community, presented by LeVar Burton.  

The evening was filled with powerful speeches and warm exchanges that underscored the importance of the honorees’ work and the mission of the Authors Guild Foundation. Mosley praised Coates, saying, “Coates became a printer and publisher because he would not let our truths be bought out from under us. Paul Coates, a man who believes in you even if you don’t believe in yourself.” In his acceptance speech, Coates acknowledged the importance of his support system, stating, “I have accomplished nothing in my life without the great network of people who have supported me and continue to support me. They are always looking for ways to help.” 

Johnson, author of the second most banned book in the country, All Boys Aren’t Blue, introduced Baker by speaking about her fearlessness, “People like Suzette Baker are superheroes. She defiantly went against those trying to suppress the freedom to read, fighting against the book bans in Texas, ultimately having her job taken away from her.”  

Baker, in her acceptance speech, emphasized the transformative power of literature, stating, “Authors are the voices of society. You can pull stories of who we are out of everyday life . You can entertain us, educate us, fortify us, and take us on journeys that we never imagined. And the library is where your stories are available to everyone, equally and freely.” 

32nd Annual Authors Guild Foundation Gala
Photos by Beowulf Sheehan

Burns, presenting the Baldacci Award for Literary Activism to Richardson, praised her ability to make sense of the world and provide reassurance through her writing, even when the news is devastating. “It’s because of her clear-eyed prose, the connections she makes with an abundance of skill and just the right word … but it’s also because she has faith in her fellow Americans,” he said. Richardson, in her acceptance speech, emphasized the vital role of the Authors Guild in protecting writers’ ability to explore human nature freely. She connected the guild’s advocacy to the importance of literacy in a democracy, quoting David Baldacci: “If you can’t read at a sufficient level, you can’t be an effective member of a democracy.”  

One of the evening’s most poignant moments came during Ward’s acceptance speech, as she paid tribute to her grandmother Dorothy, the first storyteller in her life, “To witness someone in all their complexity and to detail that complexity is an act of love. It means a commitment to sitting and grounding oneself in the smallest heartbreaking wondrous moments and carrying the memory of them forward.” 

Burton’s introduction to Ward’s speech captured the room’s collective admiration and respect for Ward as a writer and storyteller. He said, “She turns the emotions of suffering and sorrow, joy and triumph, into gorgeous and true prose. Through her work, she gives us the opportunity to see ourselves in her. ” 

Ward also spoke to this sentiment in her speech, saying, “I write toward what hurts. I write toward the truth. And I tell it again. Many want to avert their gaze, fold their own ears, and erase truth from memory. They seek refuge in fantasy and realities that don’t exist, where enslaved people learn valuable life skills from enslavement, where they are not living on stolen land, where transgender and queer people don’t exist, and where racial and ethnic violence is a myth.” Her words underscored the vital role of storytelling in preserving family history and facing the complex truths of American society, a value the Guild also espouses in its commitment to fighting book bans.   

“Through their work and advocacy, each of tonight’s honorees has demonstrated the vital importance of the written word and the crucial need to protect it,” said Mary Rasenberger, CEO of the Authors Guild. 

Deborah Wilson, the executive director of the Authors Guild Foundation said, “We are proud to honor the courage and dedication of these writers and advocates. We remain committed to supporting authors and ensuring that a diverse range of voices and stories continues to thrive.” 

Proceeds from the event will support the Authors Guild Foundation’s efforts to protect free speech, ensure fair contracts, and empower authors in the face of ongoing challenges posed by book banning and the increasing use of artificial intelligence in the publishing industry. 

About the Authors Guild and Authors Guild Foundation   

With nearly 15,000 members, the Authors Guild is the nation’s oldest and largest professional organization for published writers. It advocates on behalf of working writers to protect free speech, freedom of expression, and authors’ copyrights; fights for fair contracts and authors ability to earn a livable wage; and provides a welcoming community for writers and translators of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and journalism. Through its educational and charitable arm, the Authors Guild Foundation, it also offers free programming to teach working writers about the business of writing, as well as organizing public events that highlight the importance of a rich, diverse American literary culture and the authors who contribute to it.