There's a new fad in publishing: People's Choice-style contests for book manuscripts. No fewer than three of these contests have sprung up over the past ten months. (Actually, if you count the bogus ones, there are more than three, but I'm going to confine myself to the ones that are conducted in conjunction with real publishers.)
- First Chapters Competition, sponsored by Gather.com (I blogged about the initial contest, for commercial mainstream fiction, and the currently-in-progress second contest, for romance novels).
A new round, for mystery/crime novels, has just been announced, co-sponsored by Court TV. Interestingly, Simon & Schuster, which co-sponsored the first two rounds, appears to have bailed--this time, the grand prize publishing contract will be offered by Borders. As before, an advance of $5,000 will be paid and the contract will be non-negotiable, but other terms are less favorable than in the previous contests. Borders will publish the winner's novel in mass market format, and it will be available for sale exclusively--i.e., only--in Borders US stores, and not necessarily all of them.
- Project Publish, co-sponsored by MediaPredict, an online game that uses a prediction market setup to rate media content, and Simon & Schuster. (I blogged about this one, too.) Project Publish is now in its final stages, and it's telling (at least for those of us who are skeptical that prediction markets are a good way for publishers to find books) that in the Books section of MediaPredict, Project Publish listings are just about the only action.
- The brand-new Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, announced last week, co-sponsored by Amazon.com, Hewlett-Packard, and the Penguin Group.
Contestants have until November 5 to submit an unpublished, English-language manuscript (up to 5,000 manuscripts will be accepted). Submissions will be read by Amazon editors and top Amazon customer reviewers, who will pick up to 1,000 semi-finalists (the contest rules make reference to "judging criteria," but I wasn't able to find these listed anywhere). On January 15, 2008, 5,000-word excerpts from the semi-finalists' manuscripts will be posted at Amazon for customers to review and rate (according to the contest FAQ, you can vote for your own entry), with each semi-finalist receiving a review of his or her manuscript from PW and a special page on the Amazon website. A panel of experts from Penguin will then pick up to 100 mss. to read "based on customer feedback and Publishers Weekly reviews," and select ten finalists, whose excerpts will be posted for reviewing and rating on March 3rd. The winner, selected by customer vote, will be announced on April 7th.
(I have to laugh at this description of Amazon reviewers from Penguin's announcement of the Breakthrough Award: "Building on Amazon's strong tradition of customer reviews, all submissions will first be read by Amazon.com Top Reviewers—individuals recognized for the high quality and frequency of their comments on the site." Harriet Klausner, anyone?)
Here's a description of the prizes, from Amazon's website (a more detailed description is here):
The winner of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award will receive a full publishing contract from Penguin Group, including promotional support for their novel on Amazon.com, and a media suite from Hewlett-Packard. The nine remaining finalists will receive a free Total Design Freedom self-publishing package from BookSurge and a media suite from Hewlett-Packard. Semi-finalists will receive a review of their manuscript by Publishers Weekly. Upon conclusion of the contest all entrants will be eligible to make their books available for sale to Amazon.com customers via the CreateSpace self-publishing service at no charge. In addition, all entrants will receive discounted self-publishing services from BookSurge for custom cover design, formatting, and editing.
So now we know what's in this for Amazon (and also why it's willing to accept such a huge number of manuscripts): publicity for its revamped CreateSpace service, a Lulu lookalike (contest entrants must register through CreateSpace), and potential customers for BookSurge. I find this a little unsavory, especially since the nine non-winning finalists--whose books, chosen by the Penguin advisers, seem likely to be commercially viable--will receive incentive to self-publish via a free package from BookSurge. But you all know what a stickler I am, and I doubt many people will share my reservations.
As for Penguin, it will get a novel with (theoretically) ready-made promotional potential. The Breakthrough Award is a much richer contest than either First Chapters or Project Publish: Penguin plans to pay a $25,000 advance, as long as the winner is willing to sign its publishing contract as is, without negotiation. Penguin also reserves the exclusive right to make publication offers (which are negotiable) to finalists and semi-finalists until their manuscripts are eliminated from the competition. As quoted in Publishers Lunch, Penguin's Director of Online Sales and Marketing, Tim McCall, has "every hope that we're going to see many interesting voices." (Er...check your slush pile.)
As I've said before, I have general problems with the methodology of people's choice-style awards applied to books, where voting is conducted based only on excerpts. More specifically in this case, I have misgivings about the sheer size of the contest. Damn, that's a lot of manuscripts! On the whole, though, this seems like a decent contest, with no nasty surprises in the official rules.
So who'll be the next on the people's choice bandwagon? HarperCollins? Random House? Also, where Amazon goes, Barnes & Noble can't be far behind. Stay tuned.