Over the past few months there's been quite a bit of discussion about the brand-new Sobol Award, most recently publicized in this AP article. Some people are thrilled at the enormous payout (prizes ranging from $100,000 for the winner to $1,000 for several runners-up, plus literary representation for the top 10 manuscripts). Others feel that the contest is a very bad idea, if not an outright scam.
At first glance, the Sobol project seems to be yet another attempt by a frustrated writer to make an end-run around the system. According to his bio, Sobol's President and CEO, Gur Shomron, wrote a science fiction novel, which he shopped around without success. (The novel, NETfold, is available for sale, but I'm guessing it's self-published, or the next thing to it.) From this experience, he seems to have drawn a conclusion common among writers who--rightly or wrongly--are unwilling to admit that the problem might be the quality of their manuscripts: "...his experiences in the world of publishing brought home to him the enormous difficulties young writers have getting their work published. Even some of most successful writers, he learned, were discovered almost by chance."
His response? An award "designed to be a unique nation-wide talent screener to discover and introduce new writers to the publishing industry." (Sobol's motto: "We Discover New Writers.") The contest is open to unpublished, agentless writers with a manuscript in English that is more than 50,000 and less than 300,000 (!) words. The entry fee is $85. The contest will be capped at 50,000 entries, and entries will be judged in several rounds. Winners and runners-up will receive the abovementioned prizes, and in addition, will be required to commit to a one-year contract with the apparently as-yet nonexistent Sobol Literary Agency (the representation agreement, which looks pretty standard to me, is here).
Here are the official contest rules.
The $85 entry fee--extremely steep for a book manuscript contest--has led many people to conclude that the contest is a moneymaking scheme. Certainly, $85 multiplied by 50,000 entries adds up to a very tidy sum: $4.25 million, to be exact. Even supposing that the contest gets a quarter of that number of entrants, the total is still over a million dollars. Not bad, just for hanging out a shingle on the Web.
However, Mr. Shomron, who founded a computer company, doesn't really look to be hard up for cash. And while $85 seems way out of line for a book manuscript contest, such entry fees are common for screenplay contests--and according to the bio page of the Sobol website, the Executive Vice President of Contest Management, Sue Pollack, does have a film/TV background. Often in such contests, a sizeable portion of the entry fee goes to compensate the reader who does the initial screening and provides a reader's report. Additionally, Brigitte Weeks, the Editorial Director, and Laurie Rippin, the Marketing Director, both have substantial publishing industry experience. Ditto for the panel of judges. It's hard to imagine a dishonest operation going to the trouble of assembling such a group of industry insiders.
So is the Sobol Award a scam? Nothing is impossible, and though I think the size of the entry fee can be adequately explained, I still find it troubling--not least because, since the contest is being run by an organization that apparently will eventually transform itself into a literary agency, it is, in effect, a reading fee (according to the contest rules, literary representation isn't limited to the 10 winners--offers can be extended to semi-finalists). Also, I'd never advise a writer to pay $85 even for a contest of proven, unimpeachable reputation. In my opinion, contests are usually a waste of time, anyway; most writers would do better simply submitting their work for publication.
However, at this point I'm guessing that Sobol is a sincerely-intended vanity project initiated by a frustrated writer with a dream and the time and resources to implement it (entry fees or no, one presumes that Sobol's staff are being paid a salary). I suspect that some of the reasoning behind it is misguided, and I very much dislike the fact that the final round contestants are required to sign a contract with a literary agency that currently does not exist. This is tantamount to signing with a literary agent whose background you haven't checked or aren't able to research, and, in my view, is the main argument for avoiding the contest. Still, given the pedigrees of the people involved, and the publicity that Sobol is currently generating for itself, I don't think it can simply be dismissed. It seems possible that a win might actually mean something--though of course, what that "something" is can't be known at this point, and may not get the winners any closer to publication.