The Sobol Award Again

As many of you probably already know, the Sobol Award is in the news again. According to a press release at the Sobol website, the organization has entered into an agreement with Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, to publish all three award finalists. Per an article by AP writer Hillel Italie, Touchstone will pay hefty advances–$100,000 for world rights, or $50,000 for US rights only. (This is in addition to the prize money Sobol will give out: $100,000 for the winner, $25,000 and $10,000 for the second and third place finalists respectively.)

Announced last summer, the Sobol Award has become the focus of an amazing storm of criticism, in part because of its very high ($85) entry fee. As I’ve noted before, I do have a problem with certain aspects of the contest–the size of the entry fee (though I believe the contest administrators when they say it will cover administrative costs–including an honorarium for readers–and do NOT believe that, as some have suggested, the contest is using the fees as a profitmaking scheme), the fact that the ten finalists must agree to literary representation by Sobol (whose literary agency doesn’t even exist at this point), and most of all, the idea that a big, expensive contest to “discover” unagented writers is an answer for anything that’s wrong in publishing. I also think that for the most part, contests are a waste of writers’ time; the only real way to test your marketability is to submit your work for publication. However, I’ve never thought that Sobol is anything but a serious endeavor–and certainly not a scam, as some people have labeled it.

Given all the negative atttention that’s been directed at Sobol, I’m not surprised that (as Sobol’s executive vice president of contest management, Sue Pollock, admitted to Hillel Italie) they’ve received fewer submissions than they expected, forcing them to extend the contest deadline to March 31, 2007. I’m sure that Sobol is hoping that the agreement with Touchstone will not only increase submissions (which it may well do–for aspiring writers, the lure of a publishing contract is far more powerful than the possibility of a big cash award), but persuade more people to take the contest seriously (so far, it doesn’t appear appear to have changed many minds).

Of course, there are still questions. Will the contract terms be standard? Will the contracts be negotiable? How about the conflicts of interest inherent in a situation where Sobol the literary agency will be representing authors in contracts offered by a publisher that already has an agreement with Sobol the awards organization? What if one or more of the winning manuscripts is outside of Touchstone’s usual areas of interest–will they know how to effectively package and promote such a book? This is not an insignificant question. Being badly published can scuttle a book’s chances of success. That’s why agents are so careful when they choose where to send a manuscript.

I also have to wonder about Touchstone’s intentions. According to Mark Gompertz, senior vice president and publisher of Touchstone Fireside, “We were very impressed with Sobol’s plans to harness the broad reach of the internet and through a very well-thought out editorial process find three great works of fiction. We can’t wait to read them.” That’s great, and though it seems risky for the publisher to commit to books it has not seen and will have no part in choosing, one can see that it’s a calculated gamble. Perhaps Touchstone is hoping to reap publicity benefits from the firestorm surrounding the award, as Macmillan’s controversial New Writing Program has done in the UK. But the advances? $100,000–or $50,000 if the writer gives Touchstone US rights only–is way above the typical advance for a first-time novelist, and Touchstone is promising these amounts for not one, but three entirely unknown quantities. Does this make good business sense? Given my criticism of Macmillan’s no-advance policy, it might seem inconsistent of me to question advance amounts–but though I believe that writers should always receive advances, I believe that advances should be reasonable. Perhaps the book(s) will do well, and earn out. But Touchstone may also be setting these authors up for failure.

Whatever happens with this contest, whatever benefit it does or doesn’t bring its winners, at the end of the day it’s just another award. It’s not going to fix what’s wrong with publishing, because what’s wrong with publishing is not that new writers need an alternative way to be discovered. Sobol isn’t really an alternative anyway–it’s just a different kind of slushpile, where most will be discarded and only a few will pass through the needle’s eye.

Edited on 12/10 to add: M.J. Rose did what I should have done, and scoured the fine print of Sobol’s Official Rules, Clause 5 of which has been amended to include the promised publishing contracts. The winner will indeed receive the big bucks, but the advances for the runners-up are somewhat more realistic: $20,000 for US rights, $40,000 for world rights (“at Simon & Schuster’s sole discretion,” which suggests it won’t be up to the author to choose). Most interesting, however, are these two sentences:

Simon & Schuster shall in its sole discretion determine under which of its imprints it will publish the Manuscripts referred to herein. In the event less than 2000 entries meeting the minimum standard criteria of the Contest are timely received by Sponsor, Simon & Schuster reserves the right to not award any publication prize.

So S&S is aware of the importance of placing books with appropriate imprints–and it is also hedging its bets, in case the pool of entrants isn’t large enough to make the contest really competitive.

Thanks to Teddy Gross, who drew my attention to this.


  1. I noted you weighing in on the “Our Novel” blog, Victoria. Those terms and conditions are…well…hmmm…no, words elude me.

  2. Victoria:

    It is the writers who should thank you for your devotion and dedication and most importantly, the level-headed, sane reviews you do of such things. It is easy to get carried away and just dismiss things. It is much more difficult to present the facts as they are and produce a coherent statement. For this I personally thank you.


  3. Teddy, thanks for mentioning your blog post. As a result, I’ve edited my original entry, with credit to you.

  4. Let’s see.

    Old model: agent doesn’t require a fee and has knowledge of and connections in publishing.

    New model: agent does require a fee and has no knowledge of or any connections in publishing.

    I’m sorry, how is the “new model” better again?

  5. Tari, it’s not new or different. That’s the point we’ve been trying to get across.

    I like new things. I like different things. The problems I have with the Sobol have nothing to do with it being new or different. The problems have everything to do with the model being crap.


  6. I don’t know that this is “bad”. Not everything new or different is crap. So, rather than condemn it wholesale, I’m going to take a wait-and-see approach to the Sobol Award. Time will tell.

    Tari Akpodiete

  7. Why would the Sobol contest rob agents of clients or money? Sobol are going to get three books published in one year. That’s not even a drop in the ocean of the number of books offered to legit agents every day. It would take thousands of Sobol imitators even to put a dent in the number of queries legit agents receive, and that’s presuming writers started querying only the most expensive way. Why would they? It’s a lot cheaper to send e-queries to legit agents with established track records, and your chances are no worse. Further, those agents would seek to place your book with the right publisher, not the publisher they’re locked in with contractually.

  8. anonymous: Have you wondered whether those ranting against this contest (primarily agents and a few publishers based on what I’ve read so far)are protesting because they fear the emergence of a new way of doing business that might rob them of potential clients/money?

    No, I haven’t. Because:

    1.) Well established authors have been vocal against this dumb idea, too, and
    2.) It’s not new.

    The Sobol contract requires you have to sign with the Sobol agency–a completely inexperienced “agency” that has not sold a single book–if you win. Furthermore, they’ve already got a deal with a specific publisher to publish your book if you win. This is a conflict of interest. The agent is supposed to represent the author’s best interest, not be in bed with the company they’re supposed to be negotiating with on the author’s behalf.

    There’s nothing new about Sobol’s way of doing business. The reason it’s not how the publishing world typically works is because it’s a crappy way of doing business, not because it hasn’t been tried.


  9. If I had to pick one publisher among the majors and midmajors most likely to engage in this kind of “partnership,” it would have been a unit of Viacom/CBS-Paramount/S&S. This sounds exactly like some of the nonsense I’m seeing in other dealings with S&S.

  10. Also, Anon–Sobol’s contest is not a new way of doing business. It’s a contest, a.k.a. an alternate slush pile. There are lots of those around. The only difference is that most don’t offer such a rich cash prize, or attract so much public notice (of course, that was not intended).

    What bugs me is that these supposed fixes to the bad old ways of doing things usually have as their aim the exact the same thing as the standard methods they’re decrying: getting into the biz, preferably in a big way. It’s like those stories about the wonders of self-publishing, which all seem to have the same punchline: “…and she sold so many copies that she got picked up by one of the big publishing houses.” If it’s the same brass ring, how much of a fix are we really talking here?

  11. Anon. 10:33

    But, see, you’re not avoiding agents with Sobol.

    If you are one of the finalists, you have to sign on with Sobol.

    So, Sobol is guaranteed a percentage of the prize money from Simon and Schuster as your rep.

    So, they make money off the contest AND they make money off the winners.

    That’s why it’s slimy.

  12. Have you wondered whether those ranting against this contest (primarily agents and a few publishers based on what I’ve read so far)are protesting because they fear the emergence of a new way of doing business that might rob them of potential clients/money?

    Anytime an agent claims to have a writer’s best interest at heart, I’d like to draw a bubble above their heads that states, “Your best interest is second only to my best interest, i.e., making money.”

  13. Personally, I doubt that readers will be impressed by an unknown author whose only claim to fame is so far winning the previously unknown and untested Sobol Award. The winners better be good or there won’t be a second Sobol Award.

  14. As an as-yet-unpublished writer the attitude of Touchstone is making me froth at the mouth. They trust this ‘contest’ (which accepts, and proposes to judge fairly, _any work of fiction, whatever the genre_) to pick out three books worthy of large advances, but they don’t trust their own editors to pick such books from the combined offerings of slushpile/submitting agents?

    Is anyone still wondering what drives people to self-publish? Buying, sight unseen, three books (that could potentially be of any genre at all – We at Sobol want to receive and read novels of every kind under the sun, from literary mosaics to breathless Gothics, from wild Westerns to introspective fictional journeys.

    I don’t want to be represented by an agency that thinks it can do all genres justice. And I don’t particularly want to be published by a publisher that will throw $$$ at a mss, sight unseen, just because it comes from a particular source, instead of judging each manuscripts on its own merits.

    But I sure as hell would like those $100K.

  15. I concur, Victoria. The whole thing just further feeds the commodification of publishing (as the editor-in-chief of W.W. Norton has pointed out in several AP articles). I think this contest just makes it that much worse for those of us without “media platforms” who are trying to go about this business honestly and ethically, without cheesy “gimmicks.”

  16. Jill, I think that what you say supports Michaelc’s point–that the Touchstone deal is a symptom of what’s wrong with publishing, and thus a very ironic endpoint for a contest whose stated aim is to fix some of those problems.

  17. This actually makes perfect sense to me. I can say from personal experience having my agented manuscripts rejected by executive editors at major houses not due to lack of craft, but due to “lack of a marketing platform.” My agent and I are increasingly frustrated that sales-and-marketing departments have increasing power over editors on what does and does not get published, and the lack of a “platform” for the author (even in fiction) usually kills his or her chances even if her writing is very good. Case in point: several of my agented manuscripts have been deemed “well-crafted” and “original”, “lovely” ad nauseum by acquisitions editors, but blocked by the sales-and-marketing departments in acquisitions meetings because I don’t have a “platform”. Given how media-driven publishing is these days, when a ghost-written book by Amber Frey (or O.J. Simpson) is given lots of play when many well-crafted “unknown” writers are rejected, it seems it makes perfect sense that Touchstone is entering into a deal like this. After all, even sight-unseen, the Touchstone sales-and-marketing folks can see that the Sobol winners already have a media “platform” for their works thanks to the AP. As a well-published playwright and journalist who still can’t seem to crack the NYC houses even with an agent thanks to my lack of media “platform”, Touchstone’s actions here seem again driven by the new mass-media driven publishing world that gives us lovely projects from such media darlings as a ghost-written book by Atlanta’s “runaway bride” and the guy who bartered a red paperclip for a house.


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  18. The very fact that S&S is advancing so much money is a symptom of what’s wrong with the publishing industry, not a solution. The idea that these books will be worth it, sight unseen, is based on the idea that the publicity that the Sobol Award generates will also generate sales. In fact, it’s another example of publishers who don’t know what to publish, and are willing to shell out large advances based on Internet chatter.

  19. If I were a cynical crab-ass* I might suspect that the advance money is coming from Sobol, making this partnership even less of a risk for Touchstone. I doubt that’s the case, but I still have a hard time believing that the people behind Sobol and now Touchstone think this is a good idea. The conflict of interest alone should make one pause.

    *Oh wait, I am!

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