Contest Alert: First One Publishing’s Writing Contest

I’m behind the eight ball with this post, because home renovation insanity has kept me more or less offline for the past few days. Many other bloggers have beaten me to the punch with commentary on this contest, so there’s already quite a bit of information out there. Apologies if what follows is repetitive of stuff you’ve already seen.

First One Publishing, a new digital publishing venture, has announced a contest to promote its launch. Entries must be novels of up to 65,000 words, and prizes include publication.

There are a number of reasons to be wary of this contest. First, the prizes. Publication is an attractive prize–but First One is new, and not all new publishers make it. First One does have more behind it than many startups–it’s an offshoot of Karen Hunter Publishing, which looks like a fairly well-established independent, and the CEO, Karen Hunter, has a wide and varied background in writing, publishing, and marketing. But it’s a very good idea to adopt a wait-and-see approach with any new publisher until it has been in business, and issuing books, for at least a year–and that includes entering its contests. Plus, First One’s mission statement doesn’t inspire confidence. It is hardly “the first major publisher to put the ebook first” (in fact, it’s hardly a major publisher), or “the first publisher to truly put the focus on the author” (a statement that’s depressingly reminiscent of clueless publishing ventures started by bitter writers who think they can do better than the evil publishers that rejected them)–and how many times have we seen that “welcome to the future of publishing” line from a digital startup? Digital isn’t the future–it’s what’s happening now.

Second, the entry fee. At $149, it can best be described as ridiculous. Even the various “indie” book contests, which will set you back a fair chunk of change, don’t charge that much.

Third and most egregious, this clause from the contest guidelines:

All submissions become sole property of Sponsor and will not be acknowledged or returned. By submitting an entry, all entrants grant Sponsor the absolute and unconditional right and authority to copy, edit, publish, promote, broadcast, or otherwise use, in whole or in part, their entries, in perpetuity, in any manner without further permission, notice or compensation. Entries that contain copyrighted material must include a release from the copyright holder.

I’m not as concerned as other commentators about the first sentence of these guidelines. It’s a fairly common contest provision, and it just means that the contest sponsor takes physical possession of entries, and doesn’t have to return them to the authors. It doesn’t really belong in a contest where submissions are digital, rather than on paper–but it’s not intended to refer to intellectual property.

I’m not overly concerned about the last sentence of the guidelines, either. The language is vaguer than it should be, but I’m pretty sure that by “copyrighted material,” what’s meant is not the contest entry itself, but any material included in the contest entry that’s written by others. In other words, the intent of this sentence is similar to that of the clauses in publishing contracts that require authors to obtain releases for any copyrighted material they may include in their manuscripts.

But the middle sentence…that’s a big problem. Simply by entering this contest, entrants are granting First One Publishing the right to use their entry in any manner whatsoever–including publishing it–for the life of copyright and without compensation or notice. It’s not quite a surrender of copyright, but it’s pretty close.

In other words: if you enter this contest, kiss your work goodbye. Yet another reason to always read the fine print–and to read it all the way through. The offending clause is included at the very end of the guidelines, under the heading “Legal Information,” which many people might be tempted to skip.

A discussion thread about the contest at Absolute Write triggered indignant responses–though no apparent changes in policy–from the publisher, Karen Hunter. If you don’t want to wade through the whole thread, Smart Bitches, Trashy Books provides a handy summary.


  1. I head a small publishing company (traditional), and we've had a contest in the past with the winning entry being published. However, we would never take all rights away from the writers. This clause appears, to me, as almost a way to steal from writers who enter.

  2. Personally I'm very suspicious of ALL these writing contests (including screenwriting), as well as companies that will pitch your work at some gathering of producers dying to get their hands on a manuscript. I've never seen or heard of one that doesn't charge an entrance fee. Agents too. Any agent that gently slips in a word someplace about doing a critique of your book or script is waving a big red "sucker alert" flag in your face.

  3. Update: First One's website now just announces the contest (opening Feb. 11) and there's no longer a link to contest guidelines. Let's hope the guidelines have been withdrawn for revision, and that when they return, the offending language (and the entry fee) will have been modified.

  4. Why waste money on entering this contest?

    $149 X 2,000 suckers = $298,000.00

    Keep your rights and self-publish. It only costs $250-$300 (if you know what you're doing, and you keep all your rights.

  5. Hello Ms. Hunter,

    Thank you for stopping by. Please explain why you feel that criticism of your contest rules is "premature." Unless that is actually a draft set of rules and that abomination of an intellectual property clause is buried in the Stygian abyss instead of buried in the fine print by the time the contest actually runs, I would say an appropriate time to criticize the terms of your contest is before anyone has agreed to follow them.

    You're having a discussion with authors now. I'd like to challenge you to defend this clause. Requiring authors to fork over both money and publication rights with no compensation is not something I would advise anyone who wants to make a profit from their words to do. Just because you haven't yet taken an entry, published it, and sold it for money without compensating the author (and, in fairness, possibly might never do) is not an excuse for putting a clause in the contract granting you the right to do such a thing.

  6. Hi, Karen, thanks for visiting and commenting, and sorry to be slow in responding–I've been mostly offline for the past day or two.

    I'd certainly be glad to have an open discussion with you, and for you to correct any misinformation you feel I've provided. Despite my doubts about your mission statement, I don't question that you have the best intentions for First One Publishing.

    However, I don't agree that criticism of your contest is premature. Even if the contest doesn't officially open until February, it's being publicized right now–and the entry fee and the guidelines are online at First One Publishing's website for everyone to see. The best time to make writers aware of potential pitfalls is before they fall into a hole, not after the fact.

  7. "Any criticism before we actually hold the contest is both premature and a bit unfair."

    You published the rules. To claim that it is both premature and unfair to comment on them is ludicrous.

    That you were evidently comfortable with them until coming under fire is all that I need to know. I wouldn't trust anyone or any entity associated with this now, no matter what kind of rewrite/whitewash is to come. There was no honest professionalism to start with, and no reason to expect it now.

  8. @The Professor, if you rewrote the paragraph that has everyone in a snit, I think you would find the furor dieing down. It would also show that you are listening to people's concerns and not just defending your position.

    And checking the First One website, I see that the contest rules have come down. I assume that you're revising them.

  9. Victoria,

    I'm very aware of Open Road Media and the others out there. That's not what I'm doing. I welcome an open forum discussion with you where instead of putting out misinformation (like First One is an off shoot of Karen Hunter Publishing, which it is NOT), that we really service the people here with facts. I'm not saying we have it all figured out. But what I am saying emphatically is that we are earnestly attempting to solve some of the problems and are coming from a good place.
    If your intent is to help people who want to be authors, you owe it them to have that discussion with me where I can answer your questions instead of wasting time cleaning up misstatements.
    Are you open to that?

  10. I am Karen Hunter and I am willing to answer any and all questions concerning my company and the contest. First, it isn't launching until Feb. 11, 2011. I actually appreciate the apprehension but please know that my ONLY goal is to provide an opportunity for the thousands of writers out there who want to be published and who may have even gone the self-publishing route but have not had the support to have their works seen. Any criticism before we actually hold the contest is both premature and a bit unfair.

  11. Holy Cow! Writers should never sign away all the rights to their work when they are also paying the person they are surrendering the rights to. If I'm reading this thing correctly, First One could pocket your $149 and then publish all the contest entries on Kindle for free, collect 100% of the revenue from that, and pay the authors nothing. Quite a way to build an instant backlist…

    I think that authors should treat this contest as the equivalent of literary Ebola.

  12. That's just atrocious! I almost had a fit when I read the excerpt of legalese. I sincerely hope no one enters this contest.

    I can't imagine paying almost $200.00 for someone else to misuse my work so abhorrently!

  13. She teaches writing … and still manages to make so many mistakes with her spelling in the responses you've listed?
    $149 to 'get in her game', and only then can you say if you're unhappy with it?
    Hunter by name …

  14. I was beginning to wonder why Writer Beware hadn't made a post about this contest yet.

    Moving to point: my god, First One's responses are silly.

    "Whatever is telling you that something is amiss, is lying to you. And we accept your apology because you are wrong as it relates to the contest."

    I laughed when I first read this. Legal concerns brought up by the wording of the contest itself? Obviously, it's a lie told by the horrible, horrible naysayers!

  15. That MSNBC piece is a perfect example of the problem of context I wrote about two weeks ago. Ebook sales up 129%!! Paperback book sales down 19%!!! What's not mentioned: ebook sales numbers are a fraction of paperback sales numbers.

    I wonder if Ms. Hunter is as unaware as she seems of established and successful epublishers like Samhain, or new digital ventures like Open Road Media.

  16. I have no problem signing over all the rights to my work, but unless I get plenty of monetary compensation, it's not going to happen.

    So I won't be entering this, the money is going the wrong way. If you want the sole rights, you pay for them.

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