Sunday, December 10, 2006

Weighing In On The Sobol Award

I have been following at first with just a peek here and there but now with more than an inquisitive interest on the vociferous debate going on about the Sobol Award announced for "agentless fiction writers". So before saying anything let us get all the information and facts down as best as we can. (Note: I personally, would be disqualified from entering this contest for many reasons. So this is not being "shaded" by my own glasses.)

A Bit Of Recent History:

The Sobol Award was originally announced by what seems to be a New Literary Agency who has kind of turned the "traditional" world of publishing on its head. They announced that they would be accepting up to 50,000 fiction novel manuscripts - each having to pay $85 as a submission fee for the unknown and untested award. In turn they announced a prize structure: $100,000 for the winner, $25,000 and $10,000 for the second and third place finalists respectively.

And so the first time I read this release the word SCAM immediately sprung up in red letters lit up like a neon sign. A "new" literary agency, taking money, and then promising hefty prizes. All to familiar. All too ho-hum.

Of course at the time I immediately went to Writer Beware and sure enough the great scam-buster team of Strauss & Crispin had a post about the very contest. Victoria Strauss -- The Sobol Award.

Now whereas Ms. Strauss did stop short of calling this a scam, she was very hesitant in regard to the benefit that would be reaped. And I quote from Victoria Strauss -- The Sobol Award.
So is the Sobol Award a scam? Nothing is impossible, and though I think the size of the entry fee can be adequately explained, I still find it troubling--not least because, since the contest is being run by an organization that apparently will eventually transform itself into a literary agency, it is, in effect, a reading fee (according to the contest rules, literary representation isn't limited to the 10 winners--offers can be extended to semi-finalists). Also, I'd never advise a writer to pay $85 even for a contest of proven, unimpeachable reputation. In my opinion, contests are usually a waste of time, anyway; most writers would do better simply submitting their work for publication.
In my mind I let the matter rest.

If Victoria Strauss says something is really questionable about the Award then it is damn well good enough for me.

Now before I go on, let me make this INCREDIBLY CLEAR. I am not going to endorse the award and its possibilities nor am I going to say it is a scam. I am just going to try and play devil's advocate for the moment showing it from my brain and view (which I readily admit may be totally off and wrong.) And I certainly do not think Crispin & Strauss are wrong in their evaluations. They are right...and yet still there is an inner voice saying that maybe, just maybe, we are beginning to see a change take place. It may not be good for writers in the long run and it may be very commercialized. It may change the way Literary Agents have to work, years from now. It may be a scam. It may be hype and full of bullshit. That is the problem. There is no clear cut answer here but still, if we look at all the information and facts we may come to an informed decision.

This Past Week:

The Sobol Award kicked up into the writers world recently again. First off, if you are not familiar with this award, then please read the web site, The Sobol Award.

What seems to have happened is a combination of two things. First the Sobol Award made a step, (small or huge is up to the way you see it), towards legitimacy by the following announcement. (Read the full press release here.)
The Touchstone Division of Simon & Schuster and Sobol Literary Enterprises, Inc. today announced their agreement to publish all three finalists in the newly created Sobol Award for Fiction, an innovative endeavor to discover talented, unpublished fiction writers and help them achieve the recognition they deserve. The original deadline has been extended to midnight, March 31st, 2007. The awards will be announced in the fall of 2007...

Mark Gompertz, Senior Vice President and Publisher, Touchstone Fireside commented, "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."
This was coupled with a secondary statement by Sue Pollock stating:
The contest deadline was originally Dec. 31, but Sobol’s executive vice president of contest management, Sue Pollock, acknowledged that response has been slower than expected and that the date had been pushed back to March 31, 2007.

She declined to give an exact number of manuscripts received, but said it was more than 1,000 and that the contest had not been hurt by any criticism.

“It’s been very hard to get the word out,” she told said. “We’re all still learning on the job in terms of publicity. The Internet has been more difficult to penetrate than we had hoped.”
Now before we get into all the noise and objections about this award let us go over what we know about it - (and then we will add some important details!)
  1. Sobol is a new, untested, unknown literary agency with no clients. Sobol has no sales and no clients.
  2. The Award demands an $85 sign up fee.
  3. Anyone entering will theoretically be up against the maximum of 50,000 manuscripts for three prizes.
  4. From the Sobol Web Site: "The winner will receive a prize of $100,000, the first runner up will receive a prize of $25,000 and the second runner up will receive a prize of $10,000. In addition, Simon & Schuster, Inc. has agreed to publish the three winning novels, and to pay substantial advances against royalties (see Official Rules of the Contest) for such novels. Each of the other seven finalists will receive a prize of $1,000."
  5. There is also the promise of publication by Simon & Schuster to publish the winners of the Sobol Literary Enterprises contest under the Touchstone/Fireside banner.
  6. Additionally, again from the Sobol Site there are advances against publication: "The first place winner will receive $100,000 from Sobol as well as an advance against royalties from Simon & Schuster. The second and third places receive $25,000 and $10,000 respectively from Sobol and advances from the publisher."
  7. The Panel of Judges are certainly a very respectable bunch with a great deal of experience in legitimate publishing.
This is adding up to a lot of moolah! And a lot of money being made public in promises by the Sobol Literary Agency coupled with no less than Simon & Schuster. You cannot ignore that name - Simon & Schuster - because no matter how you want to cut the cake it does add something to the legitimacy of the award. Beware though - I did not say it makes this contest legitimate. I said only it adds to the legitimacy of the award.

Let us complicate the good side a bit further. My problem with actually calling this a scam or just another "come-on" began when I took a look at the judges and their credentials. It continued when I sent an email to someone I know in one of those companies and was returned with but the highest of praises for one of those individuals.

You see the judges here are not some fly-by-night people attempting to be editors or garner a name. They are names backed up with real credentials in the publishing field. Take a look at this page on the Sobol Award Site. PANEL OF JUDGES.

Now let us add a bit of fuel to this slowly burning fire. It will come as no surprise that this Award was smacked left, right and center. It will come as no surprise that two factors:
  1. You have to pay a fee to enter
  2. Sobol Literary has NO track record
sent the legitimate voices in publishing into a frenzy. I am going to give you some links, but I will say this much. In the desire for intellectual fairness, any personal attacks on Gur Shomron, who is behind this whole idea are way out of place unless someone can point to something sinister. And that is the problem. No one can really point to anything sinister. So let us show the other side.

First, and to my mind most important, is the post by V. Strauss - The Sobol Award Again. In her normal, calm and well thought-out manner, Ms. Strauss places all the information before the reader. However, I think the most critical passage in her post is as follows:
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.
Next. Those who read Cobwebs Of The Mind, know my affinity for Miss Snark. And I have both agreed and disagreed with her in the past. In a post entitled: Let's Review WHY Sobol is a Crock of Shit, Miss Snark also makes it clear in her own very unique voice just what she thinks about this award. Again I quote from what I believe to be her critical points (the bold is mine):
There are NO other contests-not Romance Writers, not the Hillerman, not the Kirkus, NONE, that require you to sign with an agency before winning.

And not just ANY agent; they want you to sign with an agent who has no sales**, isn't an AAR member, and has no understanding of how an agency actually works and what it does. In other words you have an "agent" who doesn't value the role agents play in publishing.

You'd be better off if they required you to NOT have an agent. No agent is less damaging than an incompetent one.
Everything Miss Snark says above is correct. True. Should be listened to and followed. The only thing I have a bit of a problem with is the statement I placed in bold. It makes this whole section sound a bit like "bad apples". (MHO, it should have been left out.) In the case of this award, I think any and all specific attacks on an agency, besides simply stating as Miss Snark does at the end of her post, "Sobol has no sales, no clients, nada zippo zilcho." are not in place. Simply because we have no proof either way if this agency is truly a "crock of shit" or if it is attempting to break in to the publishing world with an entirely new business model. However, Miss Snark once again is correct in almost all that she says. And pay close attention to that last comment, which I will repeat for emphasis: "You'd be better off if they required you to NOT have an agent. No agent is less damaging than an incompetent one."

Publishers Weekly also posted the following, letting the readers decide as usual.

Preditors and Editors also weighed in clearly against the award (and that is also a mighty voice).

In the blog, Pub Rants, run by Kristin a Literary Agent, in a post entitled: Scammers At The Gate, she makes it clear just by the title what she feels about the Award. Read it!

And of course at Absolute Write, here are a varying number of opinions by writers and professionals: Sobol Award/Sobol Literary

I can go on and on with links, but the picture is pretty clear. The powerful and legitimate voices in publishing, all seem to weigh in against the award. (Though some may take affront at Miss Snark's anonymity - but that is neither here nor there cause whoever she/he is, Miss Snark knows the world of publishing and literary agents. Anyone who argues with that needs their head examined.) Some call it a scam straight out, some don't. Some are widely skeptical.

If you notice I am saving the best for last. Cause though the web site of Mediabistro weighed in favor of calling it a scam, it went one step further. And here is a kicker for you! Now here is a case where you must follow the links, because now they are really critical. In a post entitled, The If/Then Clauses in Sobol/S&S Deal, Mediabistro makes it clear just what is going on here by leading us the blog, Buzz, Balls & Hype, and the post: The Sobol Fine Print. The owner of the blog, happened to go through the "tiny details" of the contract posted at the Sobol site. And I quote:
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.

With all the press the contest has had so far it's gotten less than 1000 entries. I wonder if there's any chance all the additional negative press will bring in another 1000. That would mean that the contest might never really happen.

And as for Touchstone publishing the book?

The fine print on the same page also says:

Simon & Schuster shall in its sole discretion determine under which of its imprints it will publish the Manuscripts referred to herein.
This is all taken from the Sobol Site: OFFICIAL RULES - The Sobol Award.

Now my eyebrows are going up. That little ditty is not posted anywhere in big print on Sobol's "Contest" or "Awards" pages. It is hidden in a web page of endless words. So certainly now there is more information. Explosive information. In other words if Sobol fails to reach a "get-even" point, forget the whole damn thing.

Now let us see what we have in addition to our list above. I am going to take the best case scenario and the worst:

Best Case Scenario:
  1. You give $85 and win the contest - First Prize. (Assuming there are enough entries!)
  2. You are presented with what seems to be a non-negotiable contract from an untested and untried Literary Agency, which has broken all the rules of the AAR.
  3. You are stuck being represented by possibly a dolt, however, keep in mind the Panel of Judges are not slouches by any means.
  4. You are also penned into a contract with Simon & Schuster (Not bad I admit)
  5. You get $100,000 and advances.
  6. Your book is published.
  7. Your book meets with medium success. (Not trashed not a best seller).
  8. No one on the planet has a clue what the Sobol Prize is, but it is plastered on your book cover, and thus next year the process for the Sobol Literary Agency will be that much easier.
  9. You beat out all the others, your book is published by a reputable publisher, and you dump $100,000 in your bank account - replacing the $85 you took out.
  10. You beat the odds.
Worst Case Scenario:
  1. You pay $85 and you don't win. Nothing.
  2. Or you pay $85 and you win!
  3. The contest does not receive enough entries, and you kiss your entry bye-bye.
  4. Or even if it does, and you won, the quality of entries is just so bad that it is just a joke, and Simon & Schuster realize this.
  5. Simon & Schuster impose the clause, "Simon & Schuster shall in its sole discretion determine under which of its imprints it will publish the Manuscripts referred to herein." In other words they bury your manuscript without any attempt to market it. They write it off at a loss before the ink dries. You my dear writer, are then walking around with a black mark on your forehead. You took the chance and now you have the mark of Cain.
  6. Go try and get another agent (if your contract with Sobol Literary allows you to even do this) when you mention this award. I dare you!
Do you dear writer understand totally what points 3 & 4 really mean in the Worst Case Scenario. Do you really understand them and the consequences?

Because I got news for you. That is the scenario you are going to have to face. All you did was pay $85 to avoid the "stage of a query letter" and being rejected on basis of a query or a partial reading! That is what $85 bucks buys you. Nothing more. Nothing Less.

If you do then I humbly suggest you think long and hard before leaping to electronic submission of your manuscript. Because if you win - you loose. And if you think you are going to loose - then why spend money. Be happy with your normative query rejections.

Ahh, but you ask - "Teddy! What happens if I win the $100,000 and they publish my book?" Yes that is possible. I admit it. A possiblity (perhaps 1 in 50,000 but a possibility), if this is truly NOT a scam. And you know what? You win. You got the money. You published. Now go sell your second book. No matter how much money $100,000 is, it wont last a lifetime. And no matter how beautiful the Gala Dinner is, it is just one night.

So I look at both sides. I see the possibilities and the great yearning. And I admit. I just don't really know. Perhaps I am too cautious in my old age. Perhaps I am not cautious enough.

Will this change the way the literary world does business over time? Will it be a "revolution"? Will it just go down as just another scam? Will you just kick yourself a few months from now when you get the "Thank you but you lost" letter? Or will you win the Lottery?

In the end it is really up to you. In the end it really depends on how informed you are and the knowledge you have about the contest. In the end it depends on just how much of a chance you are willing to take with your own novels and their creation.

So I will stop short of awarding the Sobol Award the Official Cobwebs Of The Mind - Miss Snark Fire Extinguisher Award for Scams & Trollers. Just a bit short. Almost, but no Extinguisher - YET. (And I really wanted to put that picture up again - as we did in the past: Gee Mom...Guess What? I Am Going To Be Famous!)

Me? If I could enter this contest, I would opt to save the $85 and buy my son a Hanukkah present with it. I will get much more satisfaction and much more happiness and an incredible amount more in return. Spending it on an untested award with untested people with a literary agency that has no track record (and is not owned by someone madly in love with me), in a world where the "fine print" makes all the difference - hell I might as well walk outside my house and throw the $85 singles into the wind. After all - "The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind. It is blowing in the wind."

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Marissa Doyle said...

An excellent analysis, sir. Thank you for posting the link on Miss Snark.

The only other thing I would point out is that I believe there's a one-year representation requirement with Sobol, which means your hands (and your career) are tied up for that time. Do they have a copy of their representation contract on their site? I'd look, but I'm too lazy and really need to go start wrapping presents while it's warm enough for the kids to be outside playing.

I suppose this whole Sobol affair boils down to one point: what do you want more, one book contract or a writing career?

Ted W. Gross said...

It is all in the "Official Rules" on the Sobol site. The link for that is in the post itself.

Remember: The one book contract vs. a writing career rule ONLY APPLIES if you win, you are published and Simon & Schuster don't bury the book. It is a crap shoot. Just like sending in a query letter. Only here my $85 seems to buy me the right not to send in a query and just submit.