Simon & Schuster, which was to have partnered with the Sobol Award to publish winners’ books, obviously likes the idea of a writing competition. Today, it was announced that S&S has partered with social networking site Gather.com to create the First Chapters Writing Competition. The grand prize winner’s novel will receive a $5,000 prize from Gather.com, publication by S&S’s Touchstone imprint with a $5,000 advance (the announcement doesn’t mention the advance, but it’s described in the official contest rules), and promotion and distribution through Borders. Four runners-up will receive $500 apiece from Gather.com. Deadline for entries is March 15, 2007, with the winner announced at the end of May and the book published “no later than” February 2008.
Sound good? Sure, even though publication is contingent on the winner accepting S&S’s standard contract (no negotiation, in other words) and signing it within 5 days of receipt (this is odd, but I imagine it’s intended to reduce the likelihood of disputes and waffling). I’m also curious about what exactly is meant by “promotion and distribution through Borders” (surely the book won’t be distributed only through Borders), but I’m guessing it involves some sort of special newsletter or display promotion in Borders stores.
Still, there are some things about this contest that make me shake my head.
First, from the official contest rules: “In the event that less than 200 Submissions meeting the minimum standard criteria of the Competition are timely received by Gather, Simon & Schuster reserves the right to not award the publishing prize.” This is a far cry from the 2,000 minimum that was imposed on Sobol. I’m sure the contest will have no trouble getting entries, but suppose only 201 people send in their manuscripts. How competitive is that?
Second, most entrants will advance through the rounds of the contest on the basis of votes/ratings from Gather.com members, with a small number of additional entrants selected by an entity described only as “the Gather editorial team.” The prestigious judging panel–two high-level S&S staffers, the CEO of Borders, and the CEO of Gather.com–will enter the picture only at the very end, to pick the grand prize winner. In other words, we’re talking a competition whose intermediate stages will be judged by non-professionals. This is a nicely democratic idea, but it may not result in selection of high-quality, commercially viable writing. The risk here, of course, isn’t to contestants, but to S&S, which may discover at Grand Prize selection time that the selection ain’t so great.
(The rationale behind the member voting is suggested by a New York Times article on the contest, which quotes Mark Gompertz, executive vice president and publisher of Touchstone Fireside: “[The manuscript] will have a seal of approval by the time it gets to the fourth round…There’s something intriguing about a community of readers out there preselecting it by voting for it. You know that many more eyes have read the thing than if it had been seen by a single agent.” In other words, the winning novel will come with a built-in fan base. Hmmm, isn’t that similar to the rationale employed by some manuscript display sites that purport to use member ratings as an incentive to get agents and editors to look at the “best” entries? There are a hundred things you can say about this–a few hundred voters does not an audience make, voting for chapters doesn’t necessarily translate into buying books, there’ll be at least 6-8 months between the end of the contest and publication for the voters to forget about the whole thing…In other words, good luck with that.)
Third, when they say it’s the First Chapters Writing Contest, they aren’t kidding. Though full manuscripts are submitted, and I am assuming that the Grand Prize judging round involves reading fulls (the wording of the rules doesn’t make it entirely clear), the first three rounds of the competition will be based solely on the entered manuscripts’ first three chapters. Do I need to say that a good beginning doesn’t guarantee a good ending? That the first three chapters may be polished to a fare-thee-well but the last chapters may be a mess? That even though the contest guidelines specifically state that manuscripts must be complete to be eligible, people are probably going to enter incomplete manuscripts anyway? Even if there are plenty of entrants, even if Gather.com members and the Gather editorial team select semi-finalists with exemplary professionalism, unpublishable manuscripts may still make it to the final round.
The contest rules do allow for some wiggle room: “If the Panel determines that there are no Submissions of publishable quality from the Round 4 finalists, Simon & Schuster reserves the right to review all Submissions from Round 3 (i.e. the 10 semifinalists) to determine the Grand Prize winner.” Even so, S&S may find itself making the best of a not-so-great situation, with a Grand Prize Winner it wouldn’t have taken on if the ms. had come to it in the usual way.
I don’t mean to turn anyone away from this contest. I think its methodology is flawed, but most of the risk is for the publisher. There aren’t any fees, there don’t seem to be any hidden pitfalls, and if you don’t mind signing S&S’s non-negotiable boilerplate, it’s a good opportunity for the winner, with a reasonable advance and most likely a nice publicity boost from Borders and Gather.com. It’s just that I get weary of seeing stuff like this touted as a new way in to a tough industry (this is hardly the first contest with publication as a prize), or presented with the implication that it’s somehow adressing the problems in publishing (trust me–for writers, the problems in publishing do not primarily reside at the gateway).
Edited to add: Gathers has posted a FAQ that answers common questions about the contest (including one of mine).