Thursday, September 14, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- The Sobol Award

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.

Let's investigate.

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 The contest is open to unpublished, agentless writers with a manuscript in English that is more than 50,000 and less than 300,000 (!)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.

23 comments:

Bill Peschel said...

I guess $4 million+ is adequate compensation for reading a mountain of slush.

michaelc said...

Remember, Victoria, 399novel.com also hired reputable publishing people, and that was a clueless scam created by an Internet-bubble entrepreneur and failed novelist to promote his books. This deal has a similar odor, yet another get-rich-quick scheme posing as new publishing paradigm.

michaelc said...

Out of curiousity, I checked out Gur Shomron. It very much looks as though Goldenwood Lane Publishing LLC was created specifically to publish his one "sci-fi" book, NetFold. The Amazon reviews of Netfold all have the stamp of the author on them, all of them 5 star, all of them by reviewers who have only reviewed this book. In short, this is not someone I would trust within a mile of anything having to do with publishing.

salty said...

thanks michaelc for that info...

go with your gut on this one, spend the $85 on postage towards submissions instead

Phaidra Johnson said...

If they had said they were capping the number of entries at 500 or a 1000, I might not be suspicious myself, but that "cap" just seems like a greedy attempt to get as much money as possible. Heck, why stop at 50,000? If they'd set the cap at 100,000, they could bring in another $4.25 million. It's not like they have any incentive to read the entries.

Anonymous said...

People can be perfectly well intentioned and still mess you up royally. Even giving the organizers and high-level participants the benefit of the doubt and assuming they're not out to pull a fast one, the problems with this event--starting with the fact that the agency that will be representing the winning book hasn't sold a thing--make my head ache.

Aconite

Anonymous said...

I'm not clear on the screening process. Do they expect their panel of judges--who likely have busy lives--to slog through 50K entries?

I got to judge a short story contest and was horrified at the dismal quality of the ten finalists--and dang near fainted when told those were the "best" of a few hundred others that had been sent.

Which begs the next question--are these judges gormless volunters like me or getting paid to lose their eyesight (and perhaps their lunch)?

If it's for a cut of that 4.25mil then I want IN!

Diana Peterfreund said...

Out of curiosity, in what world is 85 bucks an unusual fee for a manuscript contest? In RWA, practically every local chapter has a contest for $30 and as many pages, and the Golden Heart, their premier national contest, costs $50 for the whole manuscript, or $150 if you aren't an RWA member.

Of the things that give me pause about this contest, the entry fee does not rate. It seems pretty average to me.

michaelc said...

Diana, do you know how the money RWA charges for these contests is spent? Are the manuscripts read by volunteers or paid staff? How were these fees arrived at?

Diana Peterfreund said...

Every RWA contest I have ever entered has been judged by volunteer writers in RWA, both published and unpublished (depending on the contest). I know the chapters look at contests as their big fundraiser for the year. I don't know if the Golden Heart awards are a fundraiser. I get the idea that the bulk of the entry fees (they cap entries at 1000) go to the mailing of the manuscripts to the various judges, the in -office administration (RWA has a small, full-time admin staff) and the awards ceremony.

But none of that matters. The point I'm trying to make is that $85 does not seem like an out of line fee to me. A lot of other things about the contest seem extremely sketchy, but not the fee.

Novelust said...

With RWA, there's a history, an accounting of funds, and the thrill of bragging rights among peers (or being able to commiserate later, as the case may be). With Sobol, there's no history, no money-back guarantee, nada. You're handing a stranger your money - and a lot of it, too. That's what makes the fee so horrible.

I'm not a fan of fees, but I don't believe they're universally evil. If it's a solid contest, I might consider it. But when the fee is that high and the contest unproven?

I'd rather buy $85 dollars worth of raffle tickets from the Girl Scouts than purchase them from the John Joe Smith First Annual Fund Drive for Charity and Whatnot.

michaelc said...

Thanks for the info about RWA. It operates very differently from the writers' org I'm familiar with (SFWA), in many ways more effciently, and it's difficult if not impossible for me to visualize SFWA running competitions like that.

The bottom line for me is that Sobol should be accountable for how the fee is spent. Whether it's reasonable or not should be judged on that basis; but it seems high to me, too, especially if they're going to invoke the efficiencies of scale based on receiving thousands or tens of thousands of entries.

delilah said...

My comment to Gur: "Grrrrrrr!"

Jill Elaine Hughes said...

With the RWA contests, there is a solid track record of the contest winners getting publication as a result. Also, the manuscripts are generally judged by well-known romance authors. There is also a submission cap that guarantees everything gets read. Plus, RWA is a nonprofit authors' organization whose purpose is to advocate on behalf of romance writers, rather than a for-profit moneymaking scheme run by somebody with no publishing experience save for sour grapes.

If Sobol wanted any respectability, he would at least lower the fee to about $30 (comparable to other reputable contests), cap the number of entries, and arrange for an established agent (i.e., other than himself) to rep the winner.

I agree with the W.W. Norton editor's assessment of this contest---it's a lottery.

Scott Auden said...

I've never posted here, and on the whole what you've written makes a good deal of sense to me. Neverthless, I have to respond to the rather glib way you've suggested that authors who encounter difficulties finding representation or publication more than likely have their manuscripts to blame. I'm thick-skinned about my writing. When someone reads and rejects it, I thank them for their time and move on. But it is unavoidably true that the vast majority or agents respond to a query with some variation upon "Dear Author, sorry, but we don't accept manuscripts from nobodies." Either they aren't accepting clients, or they only accept clients who've been referred to them, or they only accept clints who've already been published... Heller would be proud. I'm quite certain the quality of my manuscript isn't to blame for the simple reason that getting someone to consider it in the first place is the most major hurdle. I suspect the same is true of most outsiders trying to break in.

Anonymous said...

But it is unavoidably true that the vast majority or agents respond to a query with some variation upon "Dear Author, sorry, but we don't accept manuscripts from nobodies."

It's true the biggest agencies may not be very open to taking on new clients when they already have full client lists (although even they need new blood, because Big Name Authors don't live--and write--forever). It's a big, inaccurate leap from that to the conclusion that "the vast majority of agents" aren't interested in new authors.

You said, "I'm quite certain the quality of my manuscript isn't to blame for the simple reason that getting someone to consider it in the first place is the most major hurdle." I'd say the most obvious conclusion from that is that there are problems with your query, not that agents aren't looking for new authors. Luckily, your query is something you can fix.

Aconite

Scriptorius Rex said...

Victoria, thanks for doing the investigation on this. I saw the original AP article and was immediately suspicious. It seems like a scam that's all out in the open. You know they're going to rake in millions and you'll just be part of the pack. MichaelC alluded to it; it's another kind of pyramid scheme.

Anonymous said...

It was easiest to log in anonymous. This is Scott "Popeyesays" on several writer's forums.

I have been shopping two different books around to agents--just one now, since I did sell the first to a small press without an agent.

I have never had a reply that said "we don't represent nobodies" or even close. Some have been form rejections certainly, none have objected to my unpublished state. Out of thirty agent submissions, I got ten personal rejections and fifteen or so form replies.

I even let several of those agents know I had sold the book after all and they without exception congratulated me personally--I doubt they have a form response for that.

I alwys thank them for their time, even if they reject and relations are cordial.

I've gotten good at query letters, but the submissions haven't lit any fires so far.

Regards,
Scott (Popeyesays@sbcglobal.net)

Erica Steele stories (erotica) at eXtasy Books
and Sword of the Dajjal coming out in February from Capri Publishing.

Anonymous said...

That's just great, Michaelc:
now you are a critic of a book I believe you haven't read...

Well, you are right: I haven't read this book "Netfold" either (Si-Fi is not my janre) but I published a book I wrote, and it's been graded 5 Stares by whoever read it so far, so I feel your remark is below my belt too - not nice!

Dog it dog, michaelc?

Anonymous said...

dog eat dog, of course. Sorry.

J Bach said...

Goldenheart and RWA had to start somewhere at some time right? THey were allowed to get up and going. Why do you want to deny this contest a chance to get its start? Yet another blog that seems to be populated by people afraid of change. I don't know if this contest is honest or not. But it is certainly something different. This could be an honest effort by someone frustrated by the establishment and who happens to have money and the will to try and figure out another way to get things done.
Most of you write and sound like dinosaurs just before the first meteorite hit their comfy protected and exclusive island. I think this contest is disruptive technology. Plain and simple. Someone is trying to democratize an established and insular business model and those within it do not like it. That's fair enough. If I was in it I would not like it either. You all are in the establishment and either do not remember or will not consider the countless numbers of people out there who like to write, who have the money, and are willing to try something different. The issue of writer frustration is well known. Manuscript quality does seem to be at the root of rejection most often. However, breaking in and getting on the radar screen does seem to be a huge legitimate obstacle. I recall a WSJ article that discussed self publishing and the authors reasons to try it, and there are companies like Lulu out there as well that offer a work around. Many manuscripts are not worth the paper they are written on. But in the rest of the world it is the marketplace that decides what succeeds and fails. In the publishing world the decision maker most often is anything but the marketplace. I hope this contest succeeds. I hope that a new way of discovery proves to be true. Let the winning manuscripts work their way (honestly I hope) into the marketplace and let the reading public decide who they will buy.

ALC said...

****Someone is trying to democratize an established and insular business model and those within it do not like it.****
????????
Published writers do not control the publishing industry & have no personal vendetta against new writers trying to "break in" to the business.

*****Many manuscripts are not worth the paper they are written on. But in the rest of the world it is the marketplace that decides what succeeds and fails. In the publishing world the decision maker most often is anything but the marketplace.****
???????????????
Actually, the decision makers of the publishing industry (though not completely infalible) do represent the marketplace quite well. They stay on top of their game. They are knowledgeable about trends in reading, popularity of genres, etc. They have to be. Publishing is a business. It's not some ambiguous, untouchable entity.

BTW, Lulu IS part of the "marketplace" & the market IS deciding. Do YOU shop for all of your reading material on Lulu? Do you shop for ANY of your reading material on Lulu? (I mean other than work by people you know personally)

I check out Lulu periodically to see what's being "published" in my favorite genres. So far, I haven't seen anything that I'd be willing to pay my hard earned money to own. That's not to say that there aren't some wonderful masterpieces on Lulu, I'm sure there are. They're just so incredibly rare that I don't have time to go through the Lulu "slush-pile" to find them. As a reader, I'll leave the "slush-piles" to the professionals who do me the great and wonderful service of finding those "diamonds in the ruff".

Anonymous said...

So with a pool of 50000 there are only 10 winners which leaves a 1/5000 chance in winning any money.
But the money is nothing compared to a contract. How many agents give worse than 1/5000 odds on accepting a book? Are there any who read 50000 manuscripts in a year or even 5000?

Now if you are one of the 49990 unlucky people without a contract at the end of this contest, you will have to either find a real agent or another contest. Seems like a better idea to learn to sell your manuscript.

Sobol, despite his claims about the difficulties of the book industry already knows how to sell his book. He set up a shop on Amazon and incorporated his own publishing company. Most of us need agents though.
--coo