Today, the Pulitzer Prizes are the culmination of a year-long process that begins early in the year with the appointment of 102 distinguished judges who serve on 20 separate Juries (such as the Novel Jury, or what is today called the “Fiction” Jury) and each judge is asked to make three nominations. These three recommendations are ranked by each of the Jurors and sent to the Pulitzer Advisory Board for final approval.
In the early days, publishers and writers were welcome to nominate any American novel simply by sending in a letter and a copy of the book to the Pulitzer Board. The three-person jury would whittle down the top three candidates and send them to Columbia University, where the Pulitzer Advisory Board would either approve or decline (or in some cases they would entirely ignore the Jury’s recommendations).
Around 1934, Juries were asked to submit three titles to the Pulitzer Advisory Board, yet they still offered a preference for the award winner. Juries were generally composed of academics with at least some professional interest in fiction, but the jurors were rarely experts in contemporary fiction. From 1917 to 1974, only 5 of the 155 jurors who served over that time had any experience as a professional novelist.
As of 2012, the process for selection involves a submission of three “finalists” by the three person fiction jury to the Pulitzer Board, whose eighteen members are largely “journalists and academics” according to Michael Cunningham, the famous novelist of The Hours, who shared some secrets of the Pulitzer Prizes to The New Yorker in 2012 (a year that was made infamous when no awardees were announced). The three person fiction jury changes each year to provide for a fresh perspective.
The three novels on the list of finalists are not ranked, and the jury makes no recommendation to the Board regarding which title is preferred (if any). The Board is free to select any of the three finalists, or to ask the jury for a fourth finalist, or to select any of the other eligible titles (though the Board has not taken this last step—when none of the finalists are chosen by the Board for the award, as occurred in 2012, the Board chose not to issue a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction despite the Jury’s recommendations).
The formal announcement of the prizes, made each April, states that the awards are made by the President of Columbia University on the recommendation of the Pulitzer Prize board.
Two great resources on the Pulitzer Prizes are: John Hohenberg’s The Pulitzer Prizes, a history of all prizes published in 1974; and Heinz and Erika Fischer’s Chronicle of the Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction, published in 2007.