First Chapters Contest: We Have a Winner

The First Chapters contest, sponsored by and (the lately much-discussed) Simon & Schuster, has declared not just one winner, but two. (I blogged skeptically about the contest last January.)

S&S will be publishing The Way Life Should Be, a murder mystery by grand prize winner Terry Shaw, and also–in what’s press release describes as a “surprise” move “due to the tremendous quality of the submissions”–Fire Bell in the Night, a historical thriller by runner-up Geoffrey Edwards. The publication date for both books is September 2007, with major promo to be provided by Borders.

Just over three months to pub date. In the slow-moving world of publishing, this is lightning speed. “Instant” books are sometimes put out that fast or faster to coincide with current events (remember the spate of books after the O.J. Simpson verdict?)–but for your typical novel, it barely allows time for editing, let alone marketing–and what about reviews, with trade journals and newspapers wanting galleys a minimum of three months before the pub date? So why the rush? I’m thinking it’s because S&S fears that, if it takes the more customary year or year-and-a-half to publish, people will have forgotten all about the contest and its winners, and a valuable publicity angle will be lost. Hence the rush to print.

Sadly, the press release helps to perpetuate a particularly pernicious writers’ myth. “Just before Christmas,” grand prize winner Terry Shaw is quoted as saying, “I was told by an agent that it was ‘just impossible to sell a first novel, unless you’re a celebrity or have the flavor of the month.'” Need I point out that this notion is easily disprovable just by reading the review section of PW on a regular basis? I’m not saying it’s not tough–but debut novels certainly do get published (most without the help of gimmicks like the First Chapters Contest or Project Publish).

I wonder if that agent’s name is in Writer Beware’s database.

According to contest guidelines, the winner(s) must agree to sign S&S’s boilerplate contract. Unfortunately, that means these two writers may be stuck with S&S’s new never out of print contract language. (Although a recent internal memo by the AAR suggests that S&S may be backing down a bit, at least to the point of being willing to negotiate a revenue-base threshold for taking books out of print.)

(Note: Any snark in this post is not directed at Mr. Shaw or Mr. Edwards, whose books sound very interesting. Congratulations to both of them, and best wishes for success.)


  1. Agent hunting? I wish these two writers every type of good fortune. Heaven knows it’s a lot harder to land an agent than a publishing contract, even with a puny advance.

    At least they GOT an advance.

    And S&S never said these books would be print books, did they? All this rush-to-release business sounds very familiar to me–it’s like we do things in the small press/e-book business, to be sure *G*


  2. Since the authors entered the contest before S&S changed their contract could the winners insist on using the old contract?

    I doubt it. A publisher’s “standard” contract is whatever is in force right now. Hopefully the two authors have been following recent industry discussion, and are aware that S&S has indicated to the AAR that it’s willing to negotiate revenue thresholds for taking books out of print.

    Yes, the advances are low, but IMO that’s not a bad thing, given that the authors are unknowns and the books are being insta-published. They’ve a better chance of earning out, and being able to sell their second books–rather than being lumbered with a big advance and tanking if their books rack up only modest sales.

    And now’s the time for both of them to go agent-hunting.

  3. Since the authors entered the contest before S&S changed their contract could the winners insist on using the old contract?

  4. I don’t begrudge them their career choice—it’s just not a choice I’d make myself. I am also irritated by these types of contests that basically take advantage of writers.

    As far as the “major marketing push” by Borders, I’ll believe it when I see it. It’s not going to change the fact that these books are not going to get reviewed anywhere. S&S also paid out low advances in expectation that these books wouldn’t sell well, so there’s not a lot of motivation for S&S to do much in the way of marketing. If they’d paid out a higher advance, I’d be more apt to believe S&S actually plans to market these books. But with such little investment on S&S’s part, I expect these books will be DOA.

  5. With authors more and more carrying the burden of promotion on their own shoulders, and publishers doing little in the way of marketing anyway, then “with major promo to be provided by Borders” seems like the best part of the prize. Low advances just mean they have to earn them out before they start earning royalties, so if the books do well, in the long run they won’t be making less than a book with a higher advance. And the marketing has already started. You now know the authors, the works, and the circumstances. These authors may or may not have gotten an agent who may or may not have been able to sell their books if this contest hadn’t come along. Bird in the hand. Why begrudge them their career choice?

  6. I’m sure if these two authors’ books were good enough to win this contest, they’d have been good enough to land agents and better deals via more traditional means, albeit in a longer, slower timeframe. I know I’d much rather take my time looking for the right deal via my agent and get the best possible advance and contract than take a shortcut route to publication with a deal that might get me into print faster, but nets me less money, will probably result in a book that won’t sell well, and then make it even harder to sell a second book.

  7. I say congrats to the winners. They got what 2500 other aspiring writers didn’t, even if it’s “a pittance” and tied to a boilerplate contract. Their books will be published, promoted, purchased, and read. Anyone trying to find something awful in that deal is suffering a serious case of sour grapes.

  8. A very snarky part of me wants to point out that by winning this contest Ms. Edwards *is* the flavor of the month.

    Still, congratulations to the winners. I hope they both do well enough to sell their second books, which, I’ve heard, can be harder than selling the first.

  9. Looks like the two “winners” are getting stuck with low advances ($5,000 is a pittance from a publisher like Simon & Schuster, even for a first novel) and crummy contracts. And their books will have little marketing or editing support, and likely won’t get reviewed. Yeah, nice “prize”. Poor suckers.

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