Friday, December 10, 2010

More Contest Alerts: Brit Writers' Awards, Amazon Studios

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Brit Writers' Awards

I've been getting questions recently about the Brit Writers' Awards. It's a writing competition for unpublished and self-published writers, with a rich trophy for the grand prize winner: £10,000. Writers can submit work in several categories (to enter, you must be a member of BWA; membership costs £10.95); a panel of judges selects two winners for each category, plus the grand prize winner (the Judging Criteria page references "various stages of the judging process" but doesn't say what those stages are).

BWA's judges have real credentials. But how rigorous was the judging process in last year's competition? According to Jane Smith of the excellent How Publishing Really Works blog,
Writers were being notified left, right and centre that they had made it through to the various shortlists; very few writers who entered ended up being told that their work hadn’t made it that far.
Shades of Poetry.com. And that wasn't all:
[C]ommunications with BWA seemed less than satisfactory. Several writers had submitted more than one piece of work but were never informed which piece had reached the shortlists; people were offered free tickets to the prizegiving, but just days before the event they had heard nothing more; and when they did get to the event it was chaotic and didn’t seem to deliver all that had been promised.
The grand prize winner received not just the promised money, but--apparently unbeknownst to her--rush publication of her YA fantasy novel by a publisher that had never before published fiction. Jane comments:
[S]uch a rushed schedule is likely to have serious implications for the quality of the final product...the publisher, Infinite Ideas, appears to be more of a packager than a publisher; and although the people who work for Infinite Ideas do have a reasonable amount of publishing know-how between them this is the first young adult book they’ve published; although it’s possible that they have previously published young adult books through their self-publishing service, Infinite Authors.
As Jane notes, the BWA is a moneymaker--entry feees alone came to nearly £230,000 in the first round in 2010, and that's not counting the support BWA got from sponsors. And that's not all. The BWA is now promoting its own consultation, critique, and publishing service, Your Book Your Way (which includes a referral service to "BWA approved" agents and publishers that "allow[s] us to act on your behalf and negotiate the best deal for you."). Prices aren't mentioned, but the services are certainly not free. And BWA has also recently sent out solicitations inviting applications to its Publishing Programme, which will select 15 unpublished authors, work with them "on an intensive one-to-one basis" (there's no info on who these intensive mentors will be, or what their qualifications are), and at the end of a year guarantee publication with "a top publisher" (again, no info on the publisher--and anyone who tells you they can guarantee publication either wants to sell you something or is fibbing). The cost? Just £1,795.

I don't suspect that this competition or its adjunct programs are a scam. But as tempting as BWA's prize money is, there are enough questions here to prompt caution. 

(The lengthy comment thread on Jane's post makes for fascinating reading--among other things, the grand prize winner confirms that BWA entry guidelines did indicate that the winner would be published--although she had no idea her book would be printed for the awards ceremony.)

Amazon Studios

The Web was abuzz in November with news that Amazon is getting into the movie business. Its new venture, Amazon Studios, is looking for films and scripts that it may produce as feature films, either through a "first look" deal with Warner Bros. or, if Warner passes, with another company. To incentivize submissions, it's giving away millions of dollars in prizes, via monthly contests and annual awards.

Writers have rushed to enter--already, according to the Amazon Studios website, more than 1,000 scripts have been uploaded. But is it really a good idea to hand your intellectual property over to Amazon Studios? The film world is not my area of expertise, so I don't really feel competent to analyze Amazon Studios' Contest Terms and Procedures. Fortunately, others more knowledgeable than I have already done so. If you're thinking of entering, there are some issues you ought to be aware of.

Amazon Studios employs a crowdsourcing model, with uploaded scripts and films open to feedback from readers, who are also free to re-write and amend them. Scriptwriter John August asks, Do you really want random people rewriting your script?

Writer and director Craig Mazin weighs in on the same issue, as well as the 18-month exclusive option you agree to by submitting to Amazon Studios:
When you submit material to Amazon–say, a script–they have an exclusive option on the script for 18 months. During that 18 months, they can do whatever they want with your script. They can change it, smash it together with other scripts… and of course, make a movie from it, or commission a book, or any other derivative work.

You know what else they get to do? They get to sell your material. They can sell your script to customers. If you submit a movie, they can sell that too. Oh, but that’s not just for 18 months.

That’s FOREVER. They have a permanent right to sell that stuff. After 18 months it’s not an exclusive right, but good luck competing with Amazon, friend-o.
Mazin also discusses Amazon's exploitive financial terms:
In Amazon-ville, you option your script for NOTHING, and the option buy-out is $200K. And when you get that 200K, my brothers and sisters, Amazon owns that script lock-stock-and-barrel for ever, just the way a studio would.

Okay, okay, but what if they make the movie?

NO GUARANTEES. Not a dime. In fact, the only way you get a penny more is if the film grosses $60M in the U.S. (not North America, btw, which is standard for domestic B[ox] O[ffice] calculations). If it hits $60M, you get a bonus of $400K.

Let me put this as plainly as I can: if your screenplay was good enough to be distributed by Warner Brothers and subsequently sell enough tickets to hit $60M at the box office, YOU DID NOT NEED AMAZON, and YOU SHOULD HAVE MADE MORE THAN $600K.
Scriptwriter Michael Ferris sounds similar warnings. "In effect, if your script was good enough that a studio would buy it, and you hadn’t submitted your script to Amazon, you probably would have made more money on the sale, you would have full rights to your material, AND no one else would have the ability to put their name on it."

In other words, as usual and as always...caveat scriptor.

20 comments:

the Preacher said...

That's incredible how they basically prey off the raw desires of writers just get published or made into a movie that they'll convince you to sell your soul! This site is invaluable!

Frances Grimble said...

Amazon has run a contest like this for novel writers for several years. See:

http://www.amazon.com/Breakthrough-Novel-Award-Books/b?ie=UTF8&node=332264011

Frances Grimble said...

I need to say this.

When people sign contracts with book publishers, they normally have the contract examined and negotiated by a lawyer or an agent. At least, I hope this is still the industry standard. A book-publishing contract is a vital agreement with sizable, long-term legal and financial consequences.

When you sign an e-book contract for the Kindle or the Google store, this is a publishing contract (even if you are the publisher). If you sign an agreement when entering any writing contest that transfers rights or publication options away from you, this is a publishing contract--whether or not the transfer of rights depends on your winning a prize.

If there is a non-negotiable online form where you spend five minutes clicking away with your mouse, filling in your contact data, and pressing "Submit," this is just as much a publishing contract as if it were typed out on legal-size paper. If the entity with whom you are entering the agreement is not a traditional publisher, but a search engine, an online bookstore, or some other "new" publishing entity, this is still a publishing contract.

In other words, have an agent or lawyer review it, just as if this were a traditional book contract.

And/or, I think some writers' or self-publishers' organization, SFWA, or SPAN or IBPA or the National Writers' Union or someone, should pay a lawyer to review all the most common online contracts and post the reviews publicly (at least for the use of members of that organization). And furthermore, update those reviews as the online businesses change their contracts (many reserve the right to change them constantly).

Victoria Strauss said...

Frances, I agree with you 100% on the importance of getting qualified advice before signing any contract. It's too bad that so many writers ignore that, or think they can figure out complicated legalese on their own.

The Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award doesn't include the onerous terms that Amazon Studios is imposing. There's really no comparison.

Frances Grimble said...

Victoria,

I agree that the contractual terms of the Amazon novel-writing contest are not nearly as bad. I was just pointing out that the scriptwriting contest is not Amazon's first foray into publishing contests.

Frances Grimble said...

Victoria,

My post seems to have disappeared but one thing I was trying to say is: I don't think it's wrong for writers to try to figure out legalese as far as they can, though ultimately they may need help. What really disturbs me is when they don't even try. Many people somehow feel that it's not actually a contract if it's online only, or if it is with an e-bookstore or some such entity instead of a traditional book publisher.

I am constantly seeing people complacently asserting that they just spent five minutes filling out a Kindle form (or something similar), it was just so easy, and now they can just sit back and wait for tons of money to roll in. None of that difficult marketing or legal analysis they'd have to do (or have someone else do) if a publisher laid a paper form in front of them. Somehow, if the entity is not a traditional publisher they think it's not publishing.

My technique for analyzing contracts is to think of every single way the language in that contract could be interpreted unfavorably in the event of a problem, and every way it could be used to intentionally screw me. And if it can't be negotiated I don't sign the contract. At least it keeps me aware.

I find the new online publishing entities more predatory than traditional publishers (however imperfect some of the latter may be). Online entities have seen so many people contributing work free that they assume they can set up an exploitative structure where they make all the money off writers' (and sometimes editors'), free work and get everyone to buy in by making it look like social networking.

Nicola Morgan said...

You know what (re the BWA thing)? If a publisher suddenly presented me with my book, published without my having any say in any editorial process/blurbs etc, I'd be horrified! I would always want there to be some editing and me to be involved in it.

Victoria Strauss said...

Frances, sometimes when someone posts twice in a short period of time, Blogger routes the second post to spam. I just unlocked your comment, so it has reappeared.

Frances Grimble said...

Thanks, Victoria.

Jennifer Larson said...

It's a great thing to do and another thing fresh writers can add to their portfolios to give their career a positive boost and feel secure in what they're writing. There is enough negativity out there and too many critics so it's nice to find the BWA that rewards writers for their unique artistry with words.

christine tripp said...

More then the contest, which I personally thing are wastes of time in most cases, I have a real problem with the BW's Books Your Way program. The fee's are horrendous and the promises astounding. A premium book trailer for over $4000 US and a statement of, " we gaurantee you are published with one of the largest publishers, or your money back" would have me rushing towards the exit!

Anonymous said...

Another BIG PROBLEM @ Amazon Studios --> Their popularity ranking system is totally bogus. Anyone can learn how to game their system and advance their work making it a top ranked script in its genre. Scripts like Villain, Electric Sunset, Eyes of Darkness and Undesirables are perfect examples of poorly written screenplays who's authors have gamed the Amazon Studios system to make their scripts appear as most popular.

Amazon Studios has been very aware of their troubled ranking system but choose to ignore it. When customers complained, Amazon Studios sent out email replies basically encouraging participants to game the system.

Fair-minded armature screenwriters are pissed! Because of public outcry, to date (01/09/11) Amazon Studios has their ranking system on lock-down as they scurry to fix it.

Anonymous said...

Is anyone else having problems this year with Brit Writers' comp? I've paid for three stories and can't upload them because it's telling me I already have! I've emailed Brit Writers' several times and telephoned (the calls are re-directed to a voice mail). I live in Australia and wonder if it's just a glitch or more sinister!

Joanna West said...

In response to Anonymous' comment I would just like to confirm that you have now been able to upload your work?

Our enquiries number is only forwarded to voicemail if there is nobody available to answer the phone and all emails sent to enquiries@britwriters.co.uk should be answered within 24 hours.

If you are having any problems, please do email me on the above address, FAO Joanna West, Operations Manager.

Kind regards

Joanna West said...

I would like to know why you have us listed as a ‘scam’ given that the people responsible for ‘How Publishing Really Works’ and their associates seem to be the ones advising you.

Please see the following links for further, more accurate, information:
http://www.britwriters.co.uk/uploads/files/Imran_Akram_Exclusive_Interview_-_Feb_2011.pdf

Victoria Strauss said...

I would like to know why you have us listed as a ‘scam’

Joanna, perhaps you didn't note the following sentence in my post: "I don't suspect that this competition or its adjunct programs are a scam." I continue to feel, however, that there are enough questions (the interview link you provided notwithstanding) to prompt caution.

Joanna West said...

Apologies Victoria.

I hope you will allow me to also link to our latest press release:
http://www.britwriters.co.uk/uploads/files/Brit_Writers_Press_Release_-_19_Feb_2011.pdf

Debi said...

I'm a little confused. That press release appears to be dated Feb 2011. Is it really the latest?

Both links are diverted to the BWA home page. There's a link there to the CEO interview, which is dated Sept 9 2011, but it includes the following: 'The UK deadline is less than a week away on 25 February, the international submissions deadline is 25 March...'

I just wish that it wasn't the case that everything we hear seems to raise more questions that it answers.

Victoria Strauss said...

Debi, it's interesting to look at those links (which no longer lead where they did when I wrote this post a year ago) and compare the amount of information the BWA provided then with the much-reduced amount of info on its website now.

It looks pretty clear to me that the Imran interview was conducted in February 2011--after Writing Magazine pulled out but before the 2011 February deadline. I wonder if the Sept. 9 date is just a glitch.

I find this bit of the interview ironic, in view of what's happened with Claire King and Harry Bingham:

Q. What would you like to say to the people who are making negative comments about you and the Brit Writers Awards?

A. I say if anyone has any doubts please come and talk to us and be part of this campaign.

Cheaquetta said...

I would like to thank everyone for commenting on where not to publish or seek help in getting my work refined and published, but could someone give feed back on places where I can get my work edited and maybe published? I would also like to know if there is a place online maybe where writers can come together and share or collaborate on ideas? I have tons of ideas but my writing skills are limited.