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April 29, 2016

Spam, Spam, Spam Spam: Inkitt and the Grand Novel Contest

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware


If you're a writer and have even a smidgeon of online presence, you've probably been emailed or messaged or tweeted by Inkitt, a Berlin-based company that allows writers to post stories and get reader reviews and votes. A prolific spammer, Inkitt also conducts a lot of contests with titles like Vendetta Thriller/Adventure Contest, along with fanfic contests like Star Wars Sci-Fi Writing Contest  (does George Lucas know?). Winning gets you badges on your profile page, and, occasionally, publication.

Tales of Inkitt spam can be seen here or here or here (I've gotten my share, as well). Vote-shilling by contest participants won a temporary ban on Inkitt posts on Reddit a few months ago.

Most recently, Inkitt launched its Grand Novel Contest (for which, no surprise, it is energetically spamming on Twitter):
Win a publishing offer from Inkitt! No submission fees!

Submit your finished novel, 40,000 words or more – no fan fiction, no other limitations on genre! It’s time for you to bring your manuscript into the light and show it off to the world. We are looking for tomorrow's best-sellers!
So why would you want to win a book publishing offer from Inkitt? really kind of wouldn't.

Inkitt was co-founded by programmer Ali Albazaz, who was inspired by the success of E.L. James's 50 Shades of Grey, in particular the idea of crowdsourced editing: "Don’t publish in two years when you’re finished. Publish as you go, get feedback from other writers and improve." Albazaz claims he has developed an "intelligent" algorithm that uniquely distinguishes Inkitt from similar sites like Wattpad:
We’ve developed an artificially intelligent algorithm that analyses the behaviour of readers on our website. We measure their engagement and build statistical models to forecast the positioning of a book in the real world market even before it is published.​ Once we have found a potential blockbuster book, the next step is working with publishers to get these stories to print.
(He also claims that "Moby Dick was refused [by publishers] because it had ‘dick’ in the title," so take that as you will.)

Inkitt details its publishing philosophy here (in a nutshell, goodbye elitist editors and snooty publishers, hello democratization via the "objective" opinion of readers and Inkitt's magic algorithm). If that floats your boat, you may also be impressed by Inkitt's four-stage publishing process:
Step 1: We design your cover and edit your manuscript.

Step 2: We pitch your book to A-list publishers (e.g. Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, MacMillan and HarperCollins), and negotiate the best terms for licensing.

Step 3: If the publishers don’t pick your book, we publish you and run a marketing campaign to sell as many books as possible. If we can’t sell more than 1000 books within 12 months then you can get all your rights back.

Step 4: But if your book sells well, we go back to the A-list publishers, exhibit your success and ask them if they want to print your book.
If you know anything about publishing, you know how well this is likely to work. Melville House sales manager Chad Felix, who has also blogged about Inkitt, has it right:
We’ve seen it again and again: non-expert or reformed expert approaches industry with ideas about how to make money (Inkitt creators Ali Albazaz and Linda Gavin have backgrounds in sales and corporate design, respectively), non-expert builds algorithm, non-expert tries to sell newfangled, guaranteed-to-work thing back to the industry of bad experts.
I could find nothing on Inkitt's website to indicate what the terms of its publishing contract might be, although the Grand Novel Contest guidelines indicate that if Inkitt publishes, "the author will receive 50% of Inkitt's net earnings. Apparently Inkitt has already signed and published the first book in the series Sky Riders by Erin Swan, though there's no sign of the book anywhere except on Inkitt.

I think this guy's got the right reaction.

UPDATE: According to this press release from Inkitt, Tor has signed Erin Swan's novel:
Bright Star, the young adult novel by up-and-coming author Erin Swan, was discovered using predictive data with Inkitt’s artificially intelligent algorithms unearthing the highly-addictive book based on an analysis of reading patterns on the platform. The novel is expected to hit bookshelves in summer 2017.
Publishers Marketplace confirms:

Per the Grand Novel Contest guidelines, Inkitt appears to be claiming an agent's 15% commission. On Inkitt, Swan's work appears to be a series, and Bright Star is actually Book 2, so it's not clear to me whether Tor has bought the series or just the one book.

I remain skeptical of Inkitt's "data driven" approach...but congratulations to the author!


I also have to say that this, recycled by Inkitt on its website and in nearly all its PR materials, is one of the most annoying memes ever--
We have built a platform that is cutting out the middleman in the publishing industry: the acquisitions editor. There is a long list of books whose authors faced rejection at the hands of publishers. That list includes everything from Moby Dick to Harry Potter. Why? Because individual editors and literary agents make decisions that are subjective – often based on their gut instinct – and this means they sometimes get it wrong.
--because it's totally self-refuting: all these books did eventually get published.


UPDATE 3/3/17: In the ten or so months since I wrote this post, Inkitt doesn't seem to have placed any more manuscripts with other publishers, but it is still sending unsolicited email.

It has also ramped up its own publishing efforts. As of mid-February 2017 it had issued twelve books, according to Amazon. Its publishing contract is now posted online, helpfully annotated with plain-language explanations in little speech bubbles. Authors who are considering a publishing offer from Inkitt might, however, want to consider a few things the speech bubbles don't mention.

- The contract requires authors not just to waive their moral rights, but to assign them to Inkitt, and to the extent that they can't be assigned (as, in some countries, they can't be) to agree not to assert them "at any time". (Clause II.1.) Moral rights, which include the right of attribution and the right to the integrity of the work, are only partially recognized in the USA but are important in other countries. I'm not a lawyer, but as I understand it, this wording would prevent authors from asserting their moral rights in countries where moral rights are recognized--which could be an issue with subsidiary rights sales.

- The contract requires authors to "execute any and all documents and papers reasonably requested by Publisher to evidence the transfer of the Work´s rights to Publisher, including, but not limited to, documents and papers relating to the assignment of copyrights." (My bolding. Also Clause II.1.) Yikes. To be clear, Inkitt does not demand a copyright assignment. But if it doesn't, why is this language included? Might it also suggest that Inkitt is willing to negotiate a subsidiary rights deal that does demand copyright assignment? (The contract claims just about every subright in existence.)

- The contract gives Inkitt first refusal on works in the same series, but binds the author to "the same conditions as the ones established herein for the first work." (Clause II.3.) This is great for Inkitt if a series takes off. It's not so great for the author, who under other circumstances could use a previous book's success to negotiate a better deal.

- Per Clause XV, the term of the contract is 15 years (a bit confusing, since Clause II takes rights for the life of copyright--but let's assume the 15-year provision prevails.) That is super-long for a digitally-based small press. Authors do have the right to terminate if Inkitt fails to sell 1,000 books within the first year of publication--but if sales exceed 1,000, the author is on the hook for the full 15. Again, this is great for Inkitt, because it gets to hold rights for a really long time, even if the book in question is selling in tiny quantities (low-selling books can be profitable if the publisher has a large enough catalog); but possibly not terrific for authors, who, once sales decline, are usually better off reverting their rights and exploiting them on their own.

- Royalties for Inkitt-published books are 25% of net (a drop from the 50% initially promised). (Clause X.) Inkitt also promises to "allocate a minimum of six thousand (6,000) dollars marketing budget into the Work for an initial marketing test". (Clause VIII.2.) Authors should be aware that editing and design costs are considered part of this budget, per a post from Inkitt founder Ali Albazaz in this discussion thread.

There are other issues, including an overly broad non-competition clause, but these are the highlights.


UPDATE 3/24/17: I spoke today with Ali Albazaz, Inkitt's owner. We talked about Inkitt's business model, and agreed to continue to disagree on whether technology and Big Data can make the process of discovering new authors more efficient and less subjective, or whether, by publishing novels selected by algorithm, Inkitt is really doing anything to revolutionize the basic process of selecting and publishing books.

I asked whether, given the company's active publishing program, they plan to continue trying to make deals with traditional publishers. Ali indicated that they are now focusing more on publishing (though the website still presents Inkitt as an "agent"). He also told me that he is seeking wider (offline) distribution for Inkitt-published books, including bookstore shelf presence. My impression is that he is genuinely committed to supporting the books and authors he publishes.

We discussed some of the issues I raised in this post. Ali will be consulting with Inkitt's lawyer about the contract clauses I flagged above (I will update this post if anything changes). While I appreciate Ali's willingness to look into my concerns, I'm worried at what seemed to me like an incomplete understanding of his own contract language. I also wonder what response he'll get from his lawyer. For instance, Ali said that he was told by the lawyer that it was standard practice among Big 5 publishers to require authors to waive or agree not to assert their moral rights. It is not.

Ali also expressed concern about my (and others') criticism of Inkitt's prolific program of unsolicited emails and tweets; he said he feels this was "a mistake" and that the company plans to move away from this practice.


Nathaniel Hoffelder said...

What about the deal with TOR?

Victoria Strauss said...

Adding linkage to Nate's comment, above. I've updated my post to reflect the info.

I hadn't seen that announcement. I have to say I'm surprised, expecially given the excerpt from the book on Inkitt's website...but it's wonderful for the author. I remain skeptical, however, and will be interested to see if this sale is followed up by others. (Also a question: what kind of cut is Inkitt getting?)

Juli Monroe said...

Did you see this gorgeous clause in their "Terms" sidebar

"The author receives 85% of net earnings if the license is sold to an A-list publisher (e.g. Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, MacMillan or HarperCollins)"

85% of net? Of course that means 85% of nothing, but the writers they are preying on won't know that and will think they are getting a fantastic deal.

Nathaniel Hoffelder said...

@ Juli

Yech. Those are not good terms.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Have you asked Tor for the details? I haven't heard of them publishing YA before.

Nathaniel Hoffelder said...

@ Sue

Tor has a series of YA titles by Harry Turtledove.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Oh, yeah, the Crosstime Traffic series. But he's a huge name. They'd publish him anyway. I haven't seen a Tor YA imprint. Anyway, I'd like to hear what they have to say about this.

Victoria Strauss said...

Tor Teen does YA. But I agree--I'd like to see independent confirmation of the sale. I'll be keeping an eye out and will update here if I find anything.

Juli--they are claiming to act as the author's agent, so I'm guessing they're taking a 15% commission...though I'd like to know what they mean by "net."

Pat Dilloway said...

Oh hooray I got Tweeted at by that contest. I feel so special.

katz said...

I see no mention of the Tor deal on Tor's website and Google searches only point back to the Inkitt press release.

Nathaniel Hoffelder said...


Good point. I will go double confirm the report.

katz said...

Ali got in touch with me about the Tor deal; apparently it's on Publisher's Marketplace:

(I don't have an account so I can't confirm.)

Anna Schinske said...

This was a very timely article as I was solicited by this group just today. Thank you!

Ali Albazaz said...

Hi Victoria,

Ali from Inkitt here. Reaching out as I recently read your blog post and wanted to provide some insight on our publishing process.

My co-founder Linda and I built Inkitt because we believe every author should have an equal opportunity to be successful. The publishing process should be fair and objective.

At Inkitt, we put the power in readers’ hands to determine what content is most interesting to them. Our algorithms track reader engagement and identify the most compelling content that we seek to get published.

Through our writing contests we offer authors the chance to win publishing deals, either through traditional publishing houses or our platform where we combine it with an in-house marketing campaign and guarantee that if we’re not able to sell at least 1k copies with a year, we’ll give you all the rights back if you’re not happy with our performance. Inkitt takes a 15% commission on every publishing deal we sell to other publishing houses (like an agent) and 50% if we run a marketing campaign and publish it ourselves. Both numbers are based on industry standards.

We don’t pretend that our system is flawless but we do believe it has the potential to positively impact the current selection process in the publishing industry. Our team has spent the last year building strong ties to authors who have come to Inkitt for both feedback on their work, through our reader base, and for the potential to be published.

To address the commentary on spam - as a fast growing startup we have experimented with different online platforms to reach out to authors and readers. When we hear complaints about spamming we take it to heart. We have a dedicated team on the ground who are responsive to all feedback and inquiries from both our authors and readers, which we factor into all our decision making.

We’re excited to see what the next year brings and as you’ve mentioned in your blog post are anticipating the release of our first predicted best seller, Erin Swan’s Bright Star, with Tor Books. Announcement details here:

Hope this helps clarify a few items and always available to continue the conversation at


Erin Swan said...

Hello everyone,

This is Erin Swan, the author of "Bright Star" and what will hopefully be the Sky Riders series. I recently read your blog post and hoped I could offer an insider's look at what goes on when working with Inkitt.

I wrote the first book in the Sky Riders series starting in 2007, and posted it on FictionPress the following year. (We are actually hoping to publish this book as a prequel sometime down the road, but I won't go into that here.) For those familiar with FictionPress, you know it's pretty stagnant. You post your stories on there, people review, and things don't really progress beyond that. A few years later, I wrote "Bright Star" and posted it on FictionPress as well. Like the first book, I got a great reader response, but was never able to move my books beyond that.

Outside of FictionPress, I'd written other things and actually reached out to publishers on my own. If you've done this as a writer, you probably know how difficult and demoralizing it can be. First of all, it's pretty much impossible to get your manuscript on the desk of a big-name publisher without having an agent. And even smaller publishers who accept unsolicited manuscripts will often reject yours without offering you any kind of reasoning or feedback, so you're not sure if it's just "not a good fit" for their catalog, or if what you've written isn't publishable. A no-name writer has a really hard go of it in the standard publishing world.

Fast forward a few years. My writing was on hiatus, as other things in my life had taken priority. Then a FictionPress reader reached out to me and mentioned a new website that was running a writing contest--Inkitt. She suggested I enter and, not seeing any reason not to join the site, I posted "Bright Star". I didn't win that contest, but several weeks later, Ali reached out to me. He told me that their readers seemed to be responding well to my story and inquired about my interest in publication.

Since then, Inkitt has been putting in an insane amount of effort to get my book out there. First, they went to the Frankfurt Publishers Fair and pitched on my behalf. Then they sent manuscripts to interested parties, and negotiated on potential contracts. The book got interest from both Tor and HarperCollins, and, as was stated in the update, we ended up receiving an offer from Tor. Inkitt has been acting as my agent, negotiating the terms on my behalf, and we're close to a final contract. Also as stated elsewhere, Inkitt will collect 15% of my net earnings, just like a standard literary agent, even though they've done so much more on my behalf than most agents would.

I'm a writer, not a numbers person, so I can't attest to exactly how Inkitt's algorithms work. However, I can tell you that response to "Bright Star" has been overwhelmingly positive online, but I never would have gotten the chance to get my story off of my computer hard drive without the Inkitt team. Of course, I am the first selected author from their site, so it remains to be seen whether or not their predictive algorithms will prove accurate. But whatever lies ahead, the fact remains that my book will be on the shelves next summer. Whether it's a "blockbuster" book or not, isn't that what we all really want as writers? The chance to hold a printed copy of our work in our hands? Anything else is just an added blessing.

For anyone who is interested, I will be doing an AMA hosted by Inkitt on May 18. I would be happy to answer any questions you may have about my experience with Inkitt, the publication of "Bright Star," and anything else you may be curious about.

Erin Swan

Emmanuel Ezeji said...

Thank you Mr. Ali Albazaz for clarifying some issues here because I was really skeptical after reading this post and the comments. I submitted my own book title 'The Blacklist Conspiracy' for the Grand Novel contest and so far, I don't think there's anything wrong with the whole procedure except at one time they kept on sending spam emails to me but I don't receive that anymore.
So please blogger, make inquiries before posting stuff or blasting people, it's really not good for business and the author's alike.
Thank you once again.

Anonymous said...

I take issue with the claims that editors rejected best-sellers like Harry Potter. Harry Potter was accepted - it was published by those editors and publishing houses and by the very processes they claim to hate. Often a book may get rejected simply because it does not fit with a publishing house's catalogue, with the specific editor who recieved it's tasks for that quarter, is sent in an off-season...etc. The list goes on. Publishing rejections aren't about doubting books, they are about selling them at the right time to the right market. Had Harry Potter been accepted in it's first go around then maybe we would not know about it today. Timing and audience are important and Inkitt seems very, very out of sync with publishing dynamics.
If they were set up as a new publishing house I may give them more credibility, but the fact is that they have to go to these big houses to get their books published in the first place. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you. Why would any publisher want anything to do with a platform that claims to be against publishing traditions and schematics?
There is too much to be questioned in their methods to support Inkitt as an authentic and viable publishing path, or even as an authentic and viable publishing platform.

Michael LaRocca said...

I'm so disappointed. Inkitt hasn't written to me.

Anonymous said...

I first found out about Inkitt via It piqued my interest. I was about to publish my first story there for one of the contests until I read horror stories about spamming, with the way stories were judged on the site questioned, which put me off.

Months later I got an email saying that they were publishing their first story on amazon. I kept in mind the date and found they were telling the truth. Catalyst moon is now available on Amazon (£2.31 to buy, free for kindle subscribers).

Popple said...

Self-publishing is looking better and better. Yes, you have to pony up for a good artist and editor, but at least you've got control.
Barbara of the Balloons

Ian Watsomn said...

As an unpublished writer who is constantly bombarded with marketing and spam I feel I should just point out that Inkitt have asked for NO MONEY at all, there's no entry fee and no 'registration fee'.
The number of seemingly respectable writing sites and people who will offer 'networking opportunities' and 'workshops' and great 'how to get published' advice out there that comes to nothing and always costs is soul destroying. As far as I can tell Inkitt is doing something. If there's a chance, however slim, to see my novel on a shelf in a book shop without it costing me a penny then that's a damn site better than most other things out there.

Jefferson said...

Um, I know nothing about Inkitt although I have looked at terms for publishing by Tor. I ran away from them fast. Just my little thought, but it looks like one viper signing one up with another viper.

Anonymous said...

Inkitt will never get off the ground. I don't believe they care about our novels and are only after a get rich quick scheme. Using algorithms to predict best sellers, is a one pony trick.

Anonymous said...

Talk about a bitter article and bitter comments. Inkitt are a company trying to build something to help authors as well as themselves. What's wrong with that? We've even heard from a user, Erin Swan, who has had direct experience with Inkitt and seems to have had an excellent experience. This is a classic example of artists/creatives having a moan about something "new" that actually has the potential to really benefit them if it weren't for their scepticism. Grow up, open your eyes and join the 21st century. Until you drop your chip and start accepting new models for how things are done, all you'll do is hit walls.

Victoria Strauss said...

I just checked, and Inkitt has published nine books to date under its own name (current Kindle rankings range from pretty good [low four figures] to ho hum [mid-six figures]--either way, not really bestseller territory, though I suppose time will tell). But as far as I can determine, Erin Swan's book remains the only trade publisher placement. So that part of Inkitt's business model still doesn't seem to be taking off.

Janny said...

As an author published with small presses who has seen 6--yes, literally 6--copies of one of her books sold over the past 5 YEARS, I have to admit, Inkitt at least looks like a place to get your book in front of eyeballs. Despite numerous promotional efforts I've done, blog tours, Facebook launch parties, regular posting on FB book promotion sites, interviews, articles, my own blog and website, Tweeting, et. al., I am seeing NO results. 100 percent of nothing, as someone eloquently put it, is still nothing. Yes, I get fabulous royalty rates. What I don't get are SALES upon which to collect any of those royalties.

Unless we spend hundreds of dollars on advertising in the major writing/readers' magazines, work with Google AdWords (which I actually DID, briefly, after one release), or otherwise find some way to "game" the system so we can get NOTICED, it won't matter how good a deal our publisher gives us: we'll still get lost among all the other thousands and thousands of books out there, and no one reader has enough time to see even a fraction of those books, much less figure out what's worth buying. There are only so many promotional efforts an author can do, and only so many admonitions to "write another book" before it all starts to sound like so much claptrap. Yes, I can get an uptick on sales by writing another book (or 10)...but there's no evidence of substantial upticks except for authors sold to more "conventional" publishers. This is not by way of an excuse; it's simply what a lot of us out here are facing, all the time, every day. Is it any wonder that when something new comes along, we're tempted to take it?

Is Inkitt's model perfect? Heck, no. Is its contract perfect? Heck, no. Do the numbers designate "best seller" on many of these books? Heck, no. But on just one of their published books, I saw 109 reviews listed. I haven't had 109 READERS, period, on any of my trust me. That looks pretty darned good right now. And compared with the "meh" responses I'm getting from agents (when I get them at all), it looks even better.

Victoria Strauss said...


I just updated this post with comments on Inkitt's publishing contract. If you're considering publishing with Inkitt, I'd suggest taking a look.

Emma L. said...

First of all: any kind of publisher that wants to have the whole script instead of a summary and one or two chapters seems fishy to me.
Second: I approached them with a question through support if I can send in a translated version of my already published book in Germany, they said yes (which was nice) but asked no questions regarding the ownership of the script and what the contract with the other published looks like... seemed weird to me so I decided not to send anything in

Nick Rippington said...

I've just found this piece after spotting an INKITT ad on Facebook, giving a big plug to their novel-writing comp. They say they will pump 6,000 into marketing support for their winning author. I'm inclined to give it a miss after reading this

Anonymous said...

As a data scientist, I would be curious to know more about INKITT's algorithms and data sets. There have been several academic papers on the subject of trying to predict best sellers. They all suffered from biases of form of the other. One point I would be worried about with INKITT's approach is the bias of using their own readership. Is their readership really representative of the groups that buy books and make "best sellers" best sellers? Without more information and in depth studies, there is no reason to believe it is, and therefore no reason to believe their algorithm, whatever it is, can work. At best their algorithm will turn their restricted reader base into a virtual agent which, like human agents, picks books some readers like.

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