Thursday, October 04, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- The New Fad in Publishing

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Contestants have until November 5 to submit an unpublished, English-language manuscript (up to 5,000 manuscripts will be accepted).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.

22 comments:

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more with your reservations, which I wish you would have elaborated on more in your post, because they're good ones. As I mentioned in my blog this morning on this very same topic, this is nothing but a lead generation tool for CreateSpace under guise of a contest. I think I used the word "sleazy" to describe it, but unsavory works, too.

PODdymouth
http://poddymouth.wordpress.com

Anonymous said...

Jesus on a moped--I've been with Penguin for nearly 18 years and they've NEVER offered me a 25K contract.

Now I know what they're doing with my mid-lister money.

:walks snarling into the nearest freaking bar to kill some brain cells, stat:

Anonymous said...

I participated in the First Chapters contest, but for all the hoopla, there were only 150-400 votes per chapter entered and no one got any more votes than that the voting was meaningless.

People could vote for themselves multiple times simply by creating a new Gather identity. They could and did invite all their friends, family, co-workers and, in one case the entire crew of the ship they were stationed on. By the end my email was thick with "Vote for me and I'll vote for you messages." What a farce!

All the finalists in the First Chapters Contest but one had entered their manuscripts during the last 2 weeks of the contest though it had gone on for months. I think that was because the people in the last few weeks figured out the voting scheme and worked it more effectively. It certainly wasn't the quality of the prose.

The works picked were mediocre and the "winning" books sank without a trace. No wonder Simon & Schuster bailed.

With the Amazon contest the voting will work out pretty much the same way if there are 1,000 "semi-finalists." Whoever can bring in the most friends and contacts will get the most votes.

Beyond that, it is impossible to know how good a book is by reading 5,000 words. Lots of books start out well for a few chapters and then fall apart in the middle. A book isn't a song. It's a complex, prolonged experience which requires full attention from the reader and several hours to unfold.

Amazon's contest is well designed to sell their overpriced POD services to people who don't understand the business. American Idol, it isn't.

Anonymous said...

They define the 'judging criteria' at the top of the rules, a mish-mash about originality of plot and quality of prose.

They also state that customer voting will require both a rating AND a review, and that the publisher will pick based on the 'quality of the reviews'. As far as I can tell, that's an attempt to stop the voting from being gamed or gang-rushed.

Amazon's reach is a lot bigger than gather.com's. I'm very curious to see what kind of voter turnout they'll get.

As for marketing their PoD service (obviously), I think they're marketing it at /readers/ more than writers in this instance. I think this is a no-holds-barred attempt to convince readers that there WILL be stuff they want to read in a PoD marketplace, by trying to get them involved in deciding what will be there (since, as you said, finalists receive strong incentive to self-publish, and as finalists, if their voting system works, they should have a built-in audience).

It'll be interesting to see how much publicity Amazon flings at it.

randomsome1 said...

I don't see Borders taking over the Gather thing as any kind of good idea for authors--partially in regards to how the two other Borders proprietary titles (both published in June of this year) are already listed in the Borders title look-up as out of print, and partially in regards to how the two winning titles from this adventure got a single mention on the Borders Shortlist (a limited email forward) and no further publicity. Hell, I -work- at a Borders and I haven't heard a word about them.

DeadlyAccurate said...

I was most curious what Penguin's non-negotiable contract looked like. I bet it won't be pretty for the author.

BuffySquirrel said...

meh

Samuel Tinianow said...

Doesn't surprise me, honestly.

I have this crazy theory that the real point of these contests is not to acquire books with built-in publicity but to make the publishers themselves more high-profile, possibly in hopes of shifting customer loyalty onto the publishers (rather than the booksellers) as they prepare to kill the returns system.

Based on the behavior I've seen from the various houses in about the past year or so, put me down for a hundred cookies on HarperCollins being the next on the bandwagon.

Anonymous said...

I guest-review for a reviewers' web site that's growing in hits & reputation. The owner was recently asked to look at TWO HUNDRED excerpts. I advised her to limit her participation but I don't know what she will do. I will not be participating in this one.

Bernita said...

Samuel, I somewhat agree.
I do think it's a contest for readers rather than writers - which in general makes it a very good thing.

Victoria Strauss said...

That's interesting about the excerpts, Anonymous.

Even if Amazon gets a fraction of its maximum entry allowance, all those entries are going to be a HUGE workload. I also wonder who PW is going to find to do the semi-finalists' full manuscript reviews. Can you imagine the army of people required to write up to 1,000 full manuscript reviews in the very short time allowed by the contest?

And once the up to 100 finalists are selected, who at Penguin is going to be reading their manuscripts--something that must be accomplished between January 15 and March 2, a time period of just under two months? The people at Penguin already have jobs. If they're editors, they're already snowed under with manuscripts.

And then there's the issue of vote fraud. What steps will Amazon be taking to avoid the abuses that Gather contest entrants have cited? I also suspect that the enormous size of the contest will result in voter dilution, which means that vote fraud could have a much bigger impact.

No matter how you slice it, these contests are basically publicity stunts. But the bottom line is performance. If the participating publishers don't get profitable books out of the deal, the fad won't survive.

It especially irritates me because those "interesting new voices" the publishers claim to be seeking are already there--in the slush pile.

bjh said...

From Victoria: "It especially irritates me because those "interesting new voices" the publishers claim to be seeking are already there--in the slush pile."

Second this, but I guess reading the slush doesn't lend itself to hoopla - and non-negotiable contracts.

--E said...

Clearly, Victoria, the folks at Random House have decided that while they don't have time to read their slush, those Evelyn Wood graduates at the top of Amazon's reviewer list must have it.

Too bad the PTBs of RH don't realize that the top Amazon reviewers aren't very good at it.

Anonymous said...

Last time I checked, Penguin didn't accept unagented submissions. Therefore, I don't imagine their slush pile is all that big. The real question is: does an author stand to lose something from participating in this contest? What are the possible pitfalls that writers should be aware of in a contest such as this? Amazon, Penguin and Createspace are destined for publicity through this "gimmick," but it seems the finalists might get their share as well. What am I missing?

Anonymous said...

DeadlyAccurate asked about the contract. Here's the nutshell:
The publishing contract will provide for payment to the author of a non-refundable advance of $25,000 against anticipated royalties for world rights in all languages with hardcover royalties of 10% on the first 5000 units sold; 12 ½% on the next 5000 units and 15% thereafter. Trade paperback royalties are 7 ½% and mass market royalties are for 8% for the first 150,000 units sold and 10% thereafter. First US publication format (i.e., hardcover, trade paperback or mass market) will be determined in publisher's sole discretion based on, among other factors, the type of book and market conditions.

Mark said...

Well I'm a reject from the Gather contest, but this is a classic slippery slope. Either you win or get POD'ed! Like there's a change in that equation. Both Gather winners were published tevhnically, but they are only availablr in slected Borders stores. $5000 is unlikely to be exceeded in this limted vendor paradigm. The Amazon contest is a joke, but more money for one anyway. The insidiousness of POD's is neverending. POD+ few to no sales. This never changes.

Anonymous said...

My problem with this contest (or any of these kinds of contests) is that it gives the appearance that there are no good writers out there submitting books! That there is a shortage of decent novels.

I don't like any contest that rewards someone who might have more friends or connections than someone else to win. (once they get past the initial judging)

getitwritten_guy said...

At last, the reality TV model comes to publishing!!

samuel tinianow's post makes a good point, too.

victoria's comment about the new voices already being there in the slush pile are spot on.

Perhaps some publishers are attempting to streamline the process in the same way that manufacturing has over the last couple of decades in order to cut costs: by reducing their product to the status of a commodity.

The trend goes by various names like 'demand driven' or 'customer driven', but frequently leads to a general lowering of quality and a boring sameness (at least in manufactured products).

If that kind of trend takes hold, everyone could lose.

Anonymous said...

"I don't like any contest that rewards someone who might have more friends or connections than someone else to win. (once they get past the initial judging)"

Just responding to the above comment: Isn't the current system set up to reward those people who already have friends or connections in publishing? What happens to the stay-at-home mom who writes every night after the kids go to bed who can't afford to attend writers' conferences or get an MFA? She's effectively left with "cold calling" (querying) agents she finds in books. If she's able to market her work well in her query letters and target the right agents and have a lot of luck and timing, then she might get published.

As someone else has pointed out, it won't be enough for people to get their family and friends to rate them in the Amazon contest. Amazon is also requiring reviews, which is one way to rate the raters.

Of course, Amazon and Penguin are using the contest to their advantage. Publishing is a business, after all. It would be nice if a talented writer also profits. I remain cautiously optimistic and will watch the results with interest.

Thomcat said...

Hi there. I would like to say something really POSITIVE about the Amazon Breakthrough Novel award. I think it's a wonderful opportunity for the writer of an unpublished manuscript to get some critical attention. So what if Amazon is pushing its POD services? What's wrong with that? Amazon is a business and there is a market for POD publishing. There's nothing 'sleazy' about that, as one blogger called it. All the sponsors of this award are highly reputable companies. To me, it looks like a win-win situation for them and for the finalists. Don't knock it.

Anonymous said...

The Avon FanLit contest last year was a big promotional opportunity for its authors, a handful of whom participated in the contest in something like a judging capacity. They gave out "roses" (sort of like gold stars) for their picks among each week's ten finalists.

A year later, the two top winners have book contracts, one with Cerridwen and the other with Ballantine. A few participants have signed small press contracts. In my opinion, it was only a matter of time before these writers were published anyway, regardless of their participation in FanLit. To my knowledge, nobody has gotten a contract with Avon. In fact, all of the participants I know who queried Avon in the months after FanLit ended got rejections.

In the end, I believe Avon's goal was to promo its existing authors and not so much to look for new talent. They put a lot more effort into making sure their authors got plenty of air time than they did into ensuring the contest ran smoothly. As long as people kept coming to the site, Avon got what they wanted.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the $25,000 doesn't actually come from Penguin... Perhaps it is actually paid out by the sponsors, or perhaps the 25k is paid out by CreateSpace.com in return for the ten thousand potential clients for POD publishing that they can subsequently spam. Anyway, writing is not for money, at least not these days.