Monday, July 23, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Again, First Chapters Competition: This Time With Love

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 Entries must be "original, previously unpublished (excluding self-published and vanity press), completed book-length manuscripts in the Romance genre from authors who have not previously published a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.

25 comments:

Anonymous said...

The beauty contest aspect of this competition was bothersome. Plus you had a real sense that there was vote loading going on, or people deliberately giving low marks in order to bring competitors down.

BuffySquirrel said...

Romance is defined as "A story, focusing on the relationship between a man and a woman...."

Well, that should gladden the hearts of bigots everywhere.

Anonymous said...

"A man and a woman..." is bigoted?
Let's not go through that again, shall we?

Victoria Strauss said...

The beauty contest aspect of this competition was bothersome. Plus you had a real sense that there was vote loading going on, or people deliberately giving low marks in order to bring competitors down.

Yeah, that's what I mean by flawed methodology. I'm sure that Gather.com is making an effort to keep an eye on this kind of stuff, but I can't imagine that it's possible to eliminate it. You can prevent people from signing up under fake names, but there's not much you can do if someone recruits all their friends to make glowing comments, or if someone's enemies gang up to make negative comments.

I would love to know how many of the finalists in the last contest were popular picks, and how many were Gather editorial committee picks.

WWWWolf said...

Hah, I'm not complaining about man/woman-relationship-exclusivity thing...

...Except for one pretty big thing.

A romance writing contest that specifically excludes the bibliophiles is not exactly writer-friendly, no?

Anonymous said...

"A story, focusing on the relationship between a man and a woman"

No wonder I have no interest in reading romance novels. What a close-minded contest.

bjh said...

It's the standard definition of "romance fiction". I can't imagine either a heterosexual or homosexual reader picking up a novel, expecting it to be of his/her interests, and not being disappointed to find out otherwise. I would be bored.

Due to this, publishers feel the need to differentiate. Instead of going on about bigotry and close-mindededness, how about some suggestions on how to suit the readers?

Jill Elaine Hughes said...

I still think the better choice of contests for aspiring romance writers is the Golden Heart contest administered by the Romance Writers of America. Numerous Golden Heart winners have gone on to get repped by good literary agents, and in turn, published by mainstream romance publishers---likely with better contract terms than S&S's boilerplate contract, which is currently riddled with rights grabs.

Speaking of rights grabs, many other publishers are following S&S' lead and inserting egregious rights grabs into their boilerplate contracts. That's why it's always best to have a reputable agent negotiate book contracts on your behalf, to help ensure that you and your royalties are not impacted by publisher-centric rights grabs. (Since S&S changed its boilerplate recently, some publishers are now going so far in their boilerplate as say they will register the author's copyright in the name of the _publisher_, instead of the author. Yikes!)

BuffySquirrel said...

No, "a man and a woman" isn't bigoted. Excluding other relationship possibilities from being "romantic", is. Targeting the right market shouldn't require a publisher to restrict what it'll consider--covers can be pretty effective in that respect.

Victoria Strauss said...

According to the press release, the definition is S&S's, not Gather.com's. I think a publisher has the right to define a genre as it wishes.

BuffySquirrel said...

I don't think a mere sqrl is going to interfere with S&S's rights any day soon :).

freddie said...

Jill, which publishers are registering copyright in the name of the publisher instead of the writer? Just wondering . . .

Dave Kuzminski said...

Jill, whisper their names to me in an email. If you have any copies of their contracts with that registration in the name of the publisher, share those with me, too. Or tell anyone who has one like that to share with P&E. Thanks.

Victoria Strauss said...

Since S&S changed its boilerplate recently, some publishers are now going so far in their boilerplate as say they will register the author's copyright in the name of the _publisher_, instead of the author.

I've seen this kind of language in the contracts of a number of small publishers (along with other bad contract terms)--often it's there because the publisher doesn't understand the difference between rights and copyright. You also find it sometimes with academic publishers.

But I haven't yet heard of copyright grabs by larger, commercial houses. I'd be very interested in knowing about any publishers that have added this kind of language to their contracts.

Jill Elaine Hughes said...

Victoria, I can say from experience that certain major publishers are doing this currently. (I prefer not to say who). But suffice to say that I have seen it in boilerplate with my own eyes, and am therefore very thankful I have a good agent. (BTW, the publishers who are doing this are citing S&S's recent actions as justification for their own).

This is the whole reason why I think the Gather.com contest is such a bad idea, since it requires the winners use the S&S boilerplate contract, with no opportunity to negotiate terms.

Anonymous said...

Hi Victoria,
First, to answer your question, four of the five "finalists" in the original First Chapters contest were chosen by popular vote, one was selected by the "gather editorial staff." While gather did not release the official vote totals/rankings, they did a number of "fraud sweeps" during the final stages of the contest that weeded out many fraudulent votes. In the final posted standings, the eventual winner of the contest was ranked 5th, suggesting that he had been the final editorial selection. Incidentally, that selection proved to be the winning entry.

Interestingly enough, five weeks after being announced the winner, his manuscript had not only been given editing suggestions by S&S, edited by the author, approved by S&S, galley-produced, galley-proofed, and sent out to reviewers, but also already reviewed by an online service. This rather unusual timing leaves many to believe that S&S had selected this entry well in advance of the end of the voting period (if not prior to the contest).

Jill Elaine Hughes said...

Oh, and that would be another reason not to recommend the contest----in addition to trapping you in bad, rights-grabbing boilerplate contracts, it seems to be rigged from the start.

Niiiiice.

(But I'm not surprised. I knew that S&S wouldn't be doing this at all unless there was some kind of cheap marketing angle in it for them. It seems there is---esp. if the "winner" is pre-selected.)

Victoria Strauss said...

Interestingly enough, five weeks after being announced the winner, his manuscript had not only been given editing suggestions by S&S, edited by the author, approved by S&S, galley-produced, galley-proofed, and sent out to reviewers, but also already reviewed by an online service. This rather unusual timing leaves many to believe that S&S had selected this entry well in advance of the end of the voting period (if not prior to the contest).

If true, that is VERY interesting--not only because it makes a sham of the contest, but because it explicitly contradicts S&S's apparent rationale for conducting the contest. Here's how that was expressed by S&S VP Mark Gompertz: "There’s something intriguing about a community of readers out there preselecting [the winning ms.] by voting for it. You know that many more eyes have read the thing than if it had been seen by a single agent."

The whole point of the contest, supposedly, was the American Idol aspect of it. If in fact the S&S judging panel simply winnowed through the entries to find the one they liked best, there's no difference between this and a slush pile--not to mention, it's a tacit admission of the limitations of a
"people's choice" style contest.

However, there were two winners in the last contest. Was the second winner's ms. turned around in the same way?

Samuel Tinianow said...

Jill, is there any way you can send me some more information about those kinds of rights grabs by major publishers? It would be of great interest to a case study I've been working on. Even if you can't give names, an idea of how many/how large publishers we're talking about would be greatly appreciated.

Deb said...

was I wonder if this shows less a duplicitous ethic by S&S, than their ability to get a book out there quickly if they truly want to? Does anyone know how fast a major house can throughput a book? I know small presses can do this very rapidly...can large ones?

What if it's less a matter of "pre-determined" winners than a predetermination that they were gonna fast track the winner, whatever book it turned out to be?

And by "vanity/subsidy press" do they intend to go with RWA's definition? 'Cause if they do, I qualify for the contest (snicker)...

Anonymous said...

Sam, I know of at least two major publishers (both with large backlists and multi-million-copy bestsellers to their credit) who are attempting to register copyrights in their own names. One because they inserted a clause like this in the boiulerplate contract they sent my agent (who promptly went to war w/ them to remove it) and one other publisher my agent mentioned had tried it in another deal he negotiated.

In both cases, I prefer not to say who it is. But suffice to say, it is happening, and authors/agents need to be very vigilant.

Victoria Strauss said...

I understand why someone wouldn't want to publicly name commercial publishers that are making copyright grabs--but please, contact me privately to let me know who they are. My email is beware@sfwa.org

I'll say again also that while copyright grabs are rampant among amateur publishers, this is the first I've heard of sizeable commercial publishers doing that kind of thing for trade books. If indeed it's true, it's a major problem, and needs to be looked into.

Victoria Strauss said...

I'll say again also that while copyright grabs are rampant among amateur publishers, this is the first I've heard of sizeable commercial publishers doing that kind of thing for trade books.

Other than work-for-hire, that is.

Anthony S. Policastro said...

Hi Victoria,
I entered the First Chapters contest and I was not convinced that the voting method was fair. I had just discovered gather.com when the contest was already launched so I did not have a lot of gather "people" to ask to read my first chapter. I saw that "older" members had hundreds of people they could ask to read their work. So if you apply the law of averages, the members with lots of people had a better chance of a good rating.

I also saw a complaint from one entrant where he had a solid 10 rating for his first chapter, but then one reader gave him a very low rating that dropped his rating to an eight.

I agree that for what the contest is, it is quite good as contests go, but I think there may have been a lot of good books that did not make the ratings because of the two problems above.

If anything, the contest(s) will give your book a good reality check as to how good or bad it is. I rewrote the entire first chapter of my book and added a prologue as a result of the few great people who took the time to read my first chapter. And my book is better now because of it.

I did read something about S&S contracts that state that they can hold onto the publishing rights forever for books that are published online. No one is too happy about this.

Anonymous said...

Victoria,
I was the original Anon "Insider" re First Chapters. The second place novel was NOT turned around by online reviewers that quickly, but it too is scheduled for release in late September.

By the by, the "Second Place" chapter rated well above the eventual "Winner" in at least the final two voting rounds (the first round was so chaotic that no one knows how they were ranked). Second Place was generally viewed as the superior of the two books, however voters only saw the first three chapters of each. It will be very interesting to see how well the two books compare to each other with the true voters, the buyers.