As many of you probably already know, the Sobol Award is in the news again. According to a press release at the Sobol website, the organization has entered into an agreement with Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, to publish all three award finalists. Per an article by AP writer Hillel Italie, Touchstone will pay hefty advances--$100,000 for world rights, or $50,000 for US rights only. (This is in addition to the prize money Sobol will give out: $100,000 for the winner, $25,000 and $10,000 for the second and third place finalists respectively.)
Announced last summer, the Sobol Award has become the focus of an amazing storm of criticism, in part because of its very high ($85) entry fee. As I've noted before, I do have a problem with certain aspects of the contest--the size of the entry fee (though I believe the contest administrators when they say it will cover administrative costs--including an honorarium for readers--and do NOT believe that, as some have suggested, the contest is using the fees as a profitmaking scheme), the fact that the ten finalists must agree to literary representation by Sobol (whose literary agency doesn't even exist at this point), and most of all, the idea that a big, expensive contest to "discover" unagented writers is an answer for anything that's wrong in publishing. I also think that for the most part, contests are a waste of writers' time; the only real way to test your marketability is to submit your work for publication. However, I've never thought that Sobol is anything but a serious endeavor--and certainly not a scam, as some people have labeled it.
Given all the negative atttention that's been directed at Sobol, I'm not surprised that (as Sobol's executive vice president of contest management, Sue Pollock, admitted to Hillel Italie) they've received fewer submissions than they expected, forcing them to extend the contest deadline to March 31, 2007. I'm sure that Sobol is hoping that the agreement with Touchstone will not only increase submissions (which it may well do--for aspiring writers, the lure of a publishing contract is far more powerful than the possibility of a big cash award), but persuade more people to take the contest seriously (so far, it doesn't appear appear to have changed many minds).
Of course, there are still questions. Will the contract terms be standard? Will the contracts be negotiable? How about the conflicts of interest inherent in a situation where Sobol the literary agency will be representing authors in contracts offered by a publisher that already has an agreement with Sobol the awards organization? What if one or more of the winning manuscripts is outside of Touchstone's usual areas of interest--will they know how to effectively package and promote such a book? This is not an insignificant question. Being badly published can scuttle a book's chances of success. That's why agents are so careful when they choose where to send a manuscript.
I also have to wonder about Touchstone's intentions. According to Mark Gompertz, senior vice president and publisher of Touchstone Fireside, "We were very impressed with Sobol's plans to harness the broad reach of the internet and through a very well-thought out editorial process find three great works of fiction. We can't wait to read them." That's great, and though it seems risky for the publisher to commit to books it has not seen and will have no part in choosing, one can see that it's a calculated gamble. Perhaps Touchstone is hoping to reap publicity benefits from the firestorm surrounding the award, as Macmillan's controversial New Writing Program has done in the UK. But the advances? $100,000--or $50,000 if the writer gives Touchstone US rights only--is way above the typical advance for a first-time novelist, and Touchstone is promising these amounts for not one, but three entirely unknown quantities. Does this make good business sense? Given my criticism of Macmillan's no-advance policy, it might seem inconsistent of me to question advance amounts--but though I believe that writers should always receive advances, I believe that advances should be reasonable. Perhaps the book(s) will do well, and earn out. But Touchstone may also be setting these authors up for failure.
Whatever happens with this contest, whatever benefit it does or doesn't bring its winners, at the end of the day it's just another award. It's not going to fix what's wrong with publishing, because what's wrong with publishing is not that new writers need an alternative way to be discovered. Sobol isn't really an alternative anyway--it's just a different kind of slushpile, where most will be discarded and only a few will pass through the needle's eye.
Edited on 12/10 to add: M.J. Rose did what I should have done, and scoured the fine print of Sobol's Official Rules, Clause 5 of which has been amended to include the promised publishing contracts. The winner will indeed receive the big bucks, but the advances for the runners-up are somewhat more realistic: $20,000 for US rights, $40,000 for world rights ("at Simon & Schuster's sole discretion," which suggests it won't be up to the author to choose). Most interesting, however, are these two sentences:
Simon & Schuster shall in its sole discretion determine under which of its imprints it will publish the Manuscripts referred to herein. In the event less than 2000 entries meeting the minimum standard criteria of the Contest are timely received by Sponsor, Simon & Schuster reserves the right to not award any publication prize.
So S&S is aware of the importance of placing books with appropriate imprints--and it is also hedging its bets, in case the pool of entrants isn't large enough to make the contest really competitive.
Thanks to Teddy Gross, who drew my attention to this.