Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- More on the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award

A couple of weeks ago, in a blog post about the brand-new Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, I commented on the mindboggling size of the potential applicant pool (Amazon will accept up to 5,000 entries, from which up to 1,000 semi-finalists will be chosen) and wondered how Amazon and Publishers Weekly would find people to do the capsule reviews that are promised to all semi-finalists.

Here's at least part of the answer. Last week, the National Book Critics Circle (of which I'm a member) sent this email to its members:

Publishers Weekly is looking for experienced book reviewers and book industry professionals to help it judge the contestants of Amazon.com's recently inaugurated Breakthrough Novel Award.

Each judge will receive $400 for reading 10 manuscripts before December 14th and for turning in a 150-word review of each work. (These reviews will be paid on delivery, then edited and published anonymously on Amazon.com's website, just like regular PW reviews.)

If you are interested in joining this judging panel, please send an email detailing your book review experience plus two clips to [name and email address redacted].


So Amazon is attempting to honor its promise to provide a "professional" review to all semi-finalists. Kudos for that. However, it's not a very appealing gig. The pay works out to just $40 per manuscript/review--better than PW's regular rate of $30 per 220-word review, but not a lot for such a big bunch of reading, especially considering that it must be completed in a very short period of time (although the registration limit for the award was reached on October 22, the guidelines state that the semi-finalist judging won't begin until after the submission period ends on November 5) and across a major holiday. There's also the probability that, even with the initial filtering, the job will be more like reading slush than regular reviewing.

Out of curiosity, I was tempted to respond (I planned to donate the money to charity if I reported on the experience here), but good sense intervened in the form of my husband, who reminded me that I have a book to write.

36 comments:

BuffySquirrel said...

Hmm, having to read the whole of ten books, at least nine of which will probably be...not very good...for $400, and then not even getting exposure out of it? No wonder you didn't bite! lol

(wouldn't it have been a better idea to have secured the reviewers ahead of time, and tailored the entry numbers to how many readers they had available?)

Anonymous said...

It depends on whether they disqualify submissions on technicalities and then don't replace them.

I know that they're soliciting Amazon reviewers in the top 5000 reviewers to read the excerpts.

Roxan said...

My reason for entering the contest was based on "oh heck, why not." Seeing as the manuscript has been gathering dust, it might as well be doing something if only giving you the opportunity to call it slush.

Aurora said...

I can see why you didn't "snatch up" the opportunity. I agree with buffysquirrel, they should have lined up their panel first, and tailored it to the panel.

Im also glad that I didnt jump on the bandwagon and submit my work for this contest. I would rather wait for a more organized contest that will allow the judging to have the time to read my work, rather than hastily skimming it because they are over loaded!

I have been kicking myself for not pushing harder to meet that deadline. I am glad I waited!

Thanks again for the extra insight!

Anonymous said...

Why is everybody so negative?? For an as-yet unpublished writer this sounds like a reasonable opportunity. If a ms makes the final cut, chances are it's not complete crap. There are probably a lot of decent reads sitting out there unpublished. It doesn't take very long to read a ms, or ten of them. For someone who likes to read books, the reviewing offer seems a reasonable one, too. It sounds like a legitimate contest even if it does not constitute getting published in the usual way. So, why all the negativity?

Samuel Tinianow said...

It doesn't take very long to read a ms, or ten of them.

And review them? Oh, I beg to differ. Even assuming that you could get through an entire book-length manuscript and write the review in a single work day, $40 per reflects a pay rate of $5/hour. And this gig doesn't offer any of the usual fringe benefits, like free copies of books or byline exposure.

When faced with those specs, 10 MS's take a very long time indeed. Keep in mind, some people do this for a living, or at least a significant portion thereof.

I'm sure Victoria can enumerate the reasons for negativity better than I can.

Anonymous said...

It doesn't seem poorly organized to me, given that it's centered around an American Idol style of voting. The panels are just offering professional opinions on the full manuscipts, and they're only looking for ten or so reviewers (unless it's Publishers Weekly's style to collate multiple reviews into a single text).

Whether or not it will succeed at finding a manuscript a lot of people will pay for is something else entirely.

BuffySquirrel said...

If they only have 10 reviewers to read a total of 1000 semi-finalists' mss, and produce a capsule review for each ms, that's 100 reads and reviews per reviewer. Even if they manage to read and review one per day (as I believe is expected of the Booker panel), that's a heck of a lot of work. Especially on top of the other commitments these people presumably have.

Who's up for a skim of the first 50 pages and a quick peek at the end?

Sam said...

They wouldn't take entries from residents of France. A couple of my friends were disappointed.

Anonymous said...

It doesn't say they will only have 10 reviewers. It says each reviewer will read 10 manuscripts.

And how long could it take to write 150 words on something one has just read and been thinking about anyway?

Janny said...

I can actually see both sides of this issue; that being said, I think the negativity seems to stem from the notion that as paid work, this reviewing isn't worth an author's time or effort.

But to be fair, no one, most especially Amazon, is claiming that this is an assignment for which they're paying "market rate" for reviewers' time. Heck, Amazon doesn't even have customers paying "market rate" to buy a book in the first place--they're the home of severe-slash discounts, after all. So why is anyone dismayed or even surprised that they're not paying reviewers on anywhere approaching a professional scale?

As to why someone would do this when it doesn't "pay," there are lots of reasons professionals read and judge/review work for very little, or no, money. As a regular contest judge, I can attest to that. Of course, we don't get paid to judge contests, but most of us don't even think about that as a ripoff. We just consider it "giving back" to an industry.

Those of us like Victoria, who already give a great deal, probably shouldn't even consider doing this sort of thing, just because they're already "tapped out" and do need to set priorities. But it's up to the individual author/reviewer as to whether he or she considers it worth the time, and rewarding in and of itself, to do this for what seems to be considered slave wages. Because some pros will take this on and enjoy it doesn't make them less "professional," nor does it mean anyone's being taken advantage of. They weigh the costs and benefits and act accordingly.

If you really want to talk about slave wages, look at the average advance nowadays for a novel...and think about the hourly rate THAT represents. (!) Or...maybe not. :-)

Just a thought,
Janny

BuffySquirrel said...

Anonymous 3:10 pm said, The panels are just offering professional opinions on the full manuscipts, and they're only looking for ten or so reviewers, and it was that comment to which I was responding.

I've heard this "how long can it take" argument before, and I suggest that you can't know until you try it. Choose ten novels with which you're unfamiliar, read each one in a day, then sum up its story and its good and bad points in 150 words, and then you'll know how long it can take. Do you have a stopwatch?

Anonymous said...

Reviewers have until December 14th to read and review their ten mss. This would only work out to one per day if one put it off until December 4th.

Anonymous said...

I am also an NBCC member, and I was horrified at this email. Book reviewing--real reviewing--is a very difficult job. It requires an intense reading, which is quite different from personal reading. The time and effort demanded by a good review is enormous.

In addition, it would be a pretty sure bet that these manuscripts are going to follow any publishing house's average of slush work to publishable work In other words, only a few of those manuscripts would even be worth reading. And most of those could be determined very early on. What this would require of its judges is to continue reading when you already knew it wasn't going to have a chance. (And I am including the fact that there was an initial weeding.)

I felt deeply insulted when that email came. To offer $40 for days of work (and the "opportunity" to wade through slush) was offensive. I do not blame the NBCC, but I believe someone didn't think this through before sending that email out.

Teddy said...

The Contest+Publisher deal though, certainly has taken up roots in other countries and spread from the USA to Israel. In Israel a large and legitimate contest is being run along these lines with television thrown in as well. Backed by reputable names and a distinguished panel of judges.

(I posted about it in Cobwebs Of The Mind in the post The Marriage Between American Idol And A Star Is Born)

The point is these contests seem to be gaining in legitmacy and certainly the publishers and backers think there is money to be made as well as great PR. It may be that they are here to stay and mark yet another growing stream within publishing, though I am not sure if they will really reveal the "talent" that would otherwise not get a chance.

Anonymous said...

They're thinking that one out of every five entries will be good enough to make the cut to the semi-finals?

My--they ARE optimistic!

Been there, done that as a slush pile reader and a judge and have the retinal scars to prove it.

BuffySquirrel said...

Exactly how does quibbling about the amount of time available answer the points being made about the amount of work required?

freddie said...

I haven't read anything about this yet. What kind of qualifications must the reviewers have? If they're not required to have any, or simply be one of the "top" reviewers at Amazon - what's the point? I can give a book to my friends to "review." I realize it's a chance to get published, but it seems if Amazon is going to do it right, they should set up a review panel that has some serious credentials - not just take any schmuck who applies.

Victoria Strauss said...

freddie, there are several stages to the contest. In the first stage, Amazon reviewers winnow the initial 5,000 entries to select up to 1,000 semi-finalists. In the second stage, the semi-finalists are all given a Publishers Weekly review (at 150 words, these reviews are shorter than PW's usual 220-word maximum). The implied promise of a PW review is that it will be written by someone with some professional reviewing qualifications--as opposed to, for instance, Harriet Klausner. That second stage is what reviewers are being recruited for now.

Upstream, someone commented on "all the negativity." One of my roles in this blog is to play devil's advocate, so yes, the focus is apt to be on the negative side. Also, my own personal opinion is that contests are a waste of time for most writers. And I've discussed in my several other posts about American Idol-style literary contests why I think the methodology is flawed (among other things, it's very difficult to eliminate cheating). Nevertheless, as I've also said, where the contests are associated with large companies, such as Amazon or Gather, and real publishers, such as Simon & Schuster and Penguin, they are decent contests that offer entrants the possibility of a genuine publishing opportunity.

However, writers shouldn't make the mistake of assuming that the contests are being conducted for their benefit. So far, the contests have been a combination of marketing tool/publicity stunt (Gather gets exposure and an increase in its membership, Amazon gets publicity and hopefully customers for its POD self-publishing services) and a solution to a problem that doesn't exist (Simon & Schuster made a big deal of claiming to be looking for "exciting new" voices, but if you want to look for these among the ranks of unagented authors, you don't need a contest--just get rid of your agented-only policy).

Also of concern is the insta-publishing aspect of the contests. All the Gather contests, for instance, have short lead times between announcing the winner and publishing their book--3 to 6 months. This may deprive those authors of many of the benefits of the normal long pre-publication marketing cycle, such as frontlist catalog inclusion (catalogs go out to booksellers many months in advance of publication), author blurbs, and professional reviews--not to mention careful editing. The winners of the initial Gather First Chapters contest, for instance, were published within three or four months of winning, and while one of those books has a PW review, the other doesn't appear to have any industry reviews at all. There are a number of news articles about both authors focusing on the contest, rather than their books, and the book covers prominently feature the contest--but can an initial publicity bump make up for more standard marketing methods?

I know I sound like a broken record on this--but I don't think breaking into print is any tougher now than it ever was. What's difficult is staying published. The true test of the value these American Idol-style contests provide for authors (as opposed to their value for the contest sponsors) is whether or not the winners are able to publish their second and third books.

Samuel Tinianow said...

All the Gather contests, for instance, have short lead times between announcing the winner and publishing their book--3 to 6 months. This may deprive those authors of many of the benefits of the normal long pre-publication marketing cycle, such as frontlist catalog inclusion (catalogs go out to booksellers many months in advance of publication), author blurbs, and professional reviews--not to mention careful editing. The winners of the initial Gather First Chapters contest, for instance, were published within three or four months of winning, and while one of those books has a PW review, the other doesn't appear to have any industry reviews at all.

You know, it does occur to me that I've never actually seen a copy of any of the Gather books. Anywhere. Ever.

freddie said...

Thanks, Victoria.

Anonymous said...

RE: "The winners of the initial Gather First Chapters contest, for instance, were published within three or four months of winning, and while one of those books has a PW review, the other doesn't appear to have any industry reviews at all."

It seems like this:

"In the second stage, the semi-finalists are all given a Publishers Weekly review."

...would take care of at least that issue.

Anonymous said...

To the person who said that writing professional reviews requires enormous time and effort-- are you referring specifically to Publishers Weekly style reviews, or longer more detailed essays? I have doubts that the micro-reviews that appear in PW and other places actually require a lot of effort beyond reading the manuscript (which could be substantial in this case) but if you assure me they do, I'll believe you.

Will it be considered unprofessional to complain about amateur writing in these microreviews?

Victoria Strauss said...

As far as I can tell, the PW reviews for the Amazon semi-finalists will appear only on Amazon, not in PW itself. It's really a moot point, though, since only one of the semi-finalists will be published. Reviews in venues like PW are part of publishers' pre-publication marketing (to get a PW review, books need to be sent in a minimum of three months ahead of the publication date)--and their main value is to booksellers and librarians, who use them to help them make buying decisions.

I've written both capsule and essay-style reviews. Capsule reviews are certainly easier and quicker than longer reviews. But if you actually consider what to say and how to say it best (as opposed to simply spewing words and/or regurgitating the publisher's publicity materials), even a capsule review takes time and thought. It's one of those things that seems "easy" to those who've never done it, but in fact isn't really easy at all.

BuffySquirrel said...

Who was it that apologised for writing a long letter because they didn't have time to write a short one? I always find writing to a length more difficult than freeflow. YMMV.

Anonymous said...

I can't believe, after reading through all these comments, that not one person pointed out that for the first round, when the field is narrowed from 5000 to 1000, the reviewers are only required to read an EXCERPT, the first 5,000 words...NOT the entire manuscript.

Victoria Strauss said...

Yes, but the email I discussed in my post was soliciting professional reviewers for the second round of the contest, in which semi-finalists get PW reviews. For that, the full manuscripts are supposed to be read.

I don't really understand the timing (since the excerpt-winnowing process seems to be ongoing), but who am I to fathom the mind of Amazon.

Anonymous said...

Re: the ABNA contest.

About a week ago, Amazon top reviewers and editors completed their "slush pile" reviews and ratings of the original 5,000 submissions, and also identified the excerpts (up to 1,000) that will advance to the Semi-Finals. Publisher's Weekly is reviewing those 1,000 manuscripts now. When the Semi-Final period begins on Jan. 15, ABNA will post the 1,000 excerpts along with each novel's PW review.

Entrants were also told that they could make subsequent use of the PW review during the query process if they choose.

Victoria Strauss said...

A couple of interesting posts from a blogger who served as a judge for the ABNA first round. Among other things, they discuss some of the common mistakes made by contest entrants, and suggest improvements for next year's award, if there is one.

Victoria Strauss said...

And another interesting blog post relating to judging.

Anonymous said...

Without hiring an editor, it is difficult to find someone who will render a professional opinion on one's writing. I think many of the contestant's are hoping for some feedback they can use to improve their writing.

Anonymous said...

Actually what many ABNA contestants probably would like is that novelists had selected the semi-finalists instead of Amazon. Given much of what's posted on the site as of this morning, it's a good thing that PW and Penguin will be involved...

Anonymous said...

While considering the apparent literary merit of the semi-finalists' excerpts and the execution of this contest, something to keep in mind: Amazon altered the content of every submission that included a prologue by editing out all prologues before excerpts were sent to Amazon Reviewers, and this when both the contest rules and ABNA Adminstration said that prologues could be included. Needless to say, this corrupts the contest...and the affected writers' novels.

Jimbo said...

Victoria & others:

ABNA rules state the reviews of Amazon editors, Amazon judges (Top Reviewers who culled round 1 of the contest), customers and PW will be use to winnow the semifinalists down to a top 100 & then top 10, at which point American Idol -style popular voting will decide the ultimate winner.

However, it's not at all clear how those review types will be weighted. Customer ratings can be manipulated to some degree by entrants, the PW reviews aren't really from PW at all but writers for hire who may or may not give quality reviews, and Amazon Top Reviewers only got to judge an excerpt. Thoughts?

Victoria Strauss said...

Jimbo,

I think you've expressed in a nutshell the problems with a "popular choice" award like ABNA.

If I were one of the judges--which obviously I'm not, but I am a writer and professional reviewer--I'd be inclined to give minimal weight to the public comments (because of the issues of cheating and manipulation), and to pay attention to the Amazon Top Reviewer reviews only if they were well-written and appeared to be thoughtful (which can't be said for many of them, at least in my random sampling). I think I'd probably rely mainly on the PW reviews--which are not only whole-book reviews, but in my admittedly small sampling appeared to be reasonably detailed and professionally written--and on a reading of the manuscript's first few pages--which, based on the spot-checking of excerpts that I've done over the past few weeks, would probably eliminate large numbers of entrants.

Anonymous said...

Having watched the Amazong Breakthrough Novel contest closely from its start (and, in the interest of full disclosure, having been a semi-finalist), I can say that the PW reviews did seem to carry the most weight in making the cut to 100 and the final 10. However, a large number of semi-finalists noted in the contest forum discussion that their PW review contained inaccuracies that ranged from getting the name or gender of the protagonist incorrect to ignoring/misstating major plot points. These inaccuracies, couplesd with the knowledge that reveiwers only received $40 per review, makes me wonder how carefully the manuscripts were read. The PW review was billed as one of the prizes for the semi-finalists, and could seemingly be the most valuable prize were it at all accurate.

All in all, Amazon and Penguin took on a monumental task. Several of the top 10 finalists are exceptionally strong, as were many of those passed over in the final rounds. I hope editors, publishers, and agents take the time to look through some of the semi-finalists that didn't make it; they may just find a gem.