Last January, Simon & Schuster and Gather.com sponsored the First Chapters Competition, with not one but two winners announced in May.
Evidently things went well enough that the parties involved are eager to do it again.
Introducing the First Chapters Romance Writing Competition, kicking off August 1, 2007. Entries must be "original, previously unpublished (excluding self-published and vanity press), completed book-length manuscripts in the Romance genre from authors who have not previously published a full-length book." According to the competition FAQ, manuscripts cannot exceed 100,000 words. Romance is defined as "A story, focusing on the relationship between a man and a woman, which captures the joy of falling in love." Erotica is specifically excluded.
Contest procedure has been streamlined a bit this time around. There will be only two preliminary rounds (the previous contest had three), and all submissions will be posted online before comments and ratings are allowed (the previous contest allowed comments and ratings from the start, which reportedly produced some problems, with late entries falling victim to contest overload). Possibly due to widely-rumored issues of vote-cheating, Gather will "work with an independent party to certify the results of the community voting."
Another interesting difference: S&S is planning more lead time for publication. The winners of the first contest were announced at the end of May, with publication scheduled for the following September--barely time for design and editing, never mind pre-publication publicity. The Romance contest winner will be announced on October 30, and publication (in mass market format) will be "no later than July 31, 2008." That's still pretty fast, as the publishing industry grinds, but more realistic than the scant three months allowed by the first contest.
Otherwise, the official rules appear pretty much the same. Entrants must grant S&S exclusive first publication rights until they're eliminated, and the Grand Prize winner will receive an advance of $5,000 as long as s/he signs S&S's standard publishing agreement within five days of receipt. (Note to entrants: There've been some recent concerns about S&S's standard contract.) Once again, semi-finalists and finalists will be chosen both by reader voting and a nameless Gather.com Editorial Committee. The Grand Prize Winner will be selected by a different committee, consisting of editors from Pocket Books, the romance buyer for Borders, and Gather.com's CEO, Tom Gerace.
All in all, the First Chapters Competition appears to be on its way to becoming an institution. The appeal for Gather.com is obvious--it's great publicity, and since you have to join in order to enter or vote, Gather's membership roster must receive a major bump with each contest. S&S is clearly happy also--according to Louise Burke, Executive Vice President and Publisher of Pocket Books, "There is always a need for smart, informed, sexy romance writing...Judging by the success of the initial First Chapters competition, we believe Gather.com will provide us with an ideal platform to discover new talent." (Quoted in the competition's official press release.) I can't help thinking, however, that "success" for S&S doesn't really hinge on how well the contest runs, but on how robustly the contest winners' books sell. It always comes down to numbers.
If you're a regular reader of this blog, you'll know my general opinion of writing contests. I remain concerned about S&S's contract terms and the implied non-negotiability of the contract that is offered to winners, and I still feel that the contest's methodology is flawed. Still, as contests go, this one is pretty solid.