Multiple Enthusiasms

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What You Need to Consider about the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award

Pretty much every year for the past several, I’ve tended to get a note from a friend or loved one, right around Christmas, wishing me a happy one and asking if I’d seen all this information about the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. They’ve known how intent I’ve been to be a writer, you see, and they figure it sounds like a promising contest for a novelist who hasn’t yet gotten a huge break.

And they’re right. It does.

The Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award tends to attract a big-name judge from one of the major corporate publishers–usually an editor or author (or both); a big-name judge from a prestigious literary agency; and a lot of aspiring writers. No, no: a lot. Of various degrees of ability, too: some are young, just starting out at the writing thing, just penning their first drafts of their first novels; others have been writing for years, and have completed multiple drafts of multiple novels that perhaps haven’t gotten them offers of representation (which are, as every rejection letter that ever was reminds, completely subjective, and based solely on the tastes of the agents reading them. Agents, for their part, are also generally quick to remind that they base their decisions neither on quality of writing nor perceived saleability but rather on whether they “fell in love with” the manuscript).

The Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (hereafter the ABNA) seems like a great idea, almost like an American Idol for books. Entrants submit their manuscripts, excerpts, pitches, synopses, and even a photo (if desired), and progress through multiple rounds of judging, some of which are merit based and others of which are popularity based.

This year, I thought about submitting Meets Girl. It’s gotten solid reviews across several venues, and the response has been positive. People seem to like it, for the most part, and even, like any good book, seem split on their reactions; some people think the opening drags before it gets to the story, while others have noted they loved the opening but sensed a shift of tone and execution later. The manuscript is obviously finished, and I’ve written a good enough pitch–though for a different project–it’s been a Galleycat finalist. And hey, new headshot!

The contest entry period for 2011 begins this coming Monday, January 24th.

But I’m not submitting my book. And I’ll tell you why.

Here are the contest rules. They seem relatively straightforward enough.

They trouble me.

First of all, note:

By submitting an Entry and if you are selected as a Quarter-Finalist or Semi-Finalist, you grant Penguin the exclusive first publication rights to your Entry.

Just by submitting, you are granting rights should you win the contest. You can’t win the contest and then say, “Well, right then. Nice, thanks for the honor, but really I was just seeing how I’d do.”

Not that you’d want to.

Plus, it’s troubling. Especially that phrase “first publication rights.”

Which brings us to: what does publication mean?

It’s something I’ve discussed at length before. It’s why I argue there’s no such thing as self-publishing. It’s all publishing. The only things that change are the media and agent of it–and by agent, I don’t mean the literary ones who weren’t properly seduced by a manuscript; I mean the agent of content, the entity who gets it out there, delivers it to the masses like Prometheus delivered fire from the Heavens.

Especially right now, when digital publishing is in such flux, “exclusive first publication rights” is a big, important phrase.

The rules don’t really make the terms of the contract explicit. There’s no discussion of them, nor elaboration. Not even a mention of royalty structure, which is the tenet that, generally, as more of an author’s books sell, that author receives a greater percentage of royalty. For example, 7% royalty on the first 5,000; 10% royalty thereafter, up to 10,000; and 12.5% royalty thereafter again.

The rules point to the prizes for better explication:

The publishing contract with Penguin is not negotiable, and each Grand Prize Winner must sign “as is” (as described in the Official Rules) if he/she wishes to enter into the publishing contract being awarded. The publishing contract awarded to the General Fiction Grand Prize Winner will provide for payment to the author of a non-refundable advance of $15,000 against anticipated royalties for world rights in all languages with hardcover royalties of 10% on the first 5,000 units sold; 12 1/2% on the next 5,000 units and 15% thereafter. Trade paperback royalties are 7 1/2% and mass market royalties are for 8% for the first 150,000 units sold and 10% thereafter. The publishing contract awarded to the Young Adult Fiction Grand Prize winner will provide for payment to the author of a non-refundable advance of $15,000 against anticipated royalties for world rights in all languages with hardcover royalties of 10% on all copies sold. Trade paperback royalties and mass market royalties are for 6% on all copies sold. First US publication format (i.e., hardcover, trade paperback or mass market) will be determined in publisher’s sole discretion based on, among other factors, the type of book and market conditions.

So there’s no negotiation, first of all. If another publisher–say, Random House, or Grand Central–hears some buzz your manuscript has generated by doing exceedingly well in the ABNA contest, no matter. Even if they offer you ten times what Penguin has, no matter.

Also, do you notice the big thing missing from the above terms?

If you said digital rights, you’re totally right.

Which is important. Because we know paperback and hardcover pricing. Roughly $15 for the former and, what, $25 for the latter? Maybe $30 now? It’s been ages since I bought a hardcover at list price.

What bothers me, as a writer, is that digital terms are not addressed. I’m not sure if the fact that they are not leaves them out of the contract entirely, but that “exclusive first publication rights” clause gives me pause. After Penguin has published the hardcover (or paperback), have they exhausted their rights? Can the winning author publish a digital book to Kindle and nook when the hardcover comes out?

It’s not clear, and it’s not negotiable.

That’s a huge problem, potentially. Especially right now, when digital content and the creation and distribution thereof is growing at an exponential rate and big corporations are bumbling around trying to figure out how to keep prices high for a product whose price wants to be far lower than most people are acknowledging. There’s lately talk that more corporations are considering the $5 ebook as the right way to go, but that neglects that it’s pretty much always been the right way to go, and a lot of people–myself included–had been saying that for a while.

It takes corporate publishers, generally, ages to catch up with technological trends and business revolutions. It took a while for Apple to suddenly become the largest music retailer in the world–was it three years? Two? It took a while for the iPod and iTunes to mature fully and just generally take over the world. If Amazon plays its cards right, it’s going to do for books what Apple did for music, while Barnes & Noble and Borders vanish like Tower Records and Virgin Stores did, as well.

I wouldn’t be surprised, in fact, if, in a few years, the ABNA eschewed corporate sponsorship to go with Amazon. I won’t enter that non-negotiable contract granting exclusive first-publication rights on submission, but if the prize were a deal with Amazon to bundle Meets Girl on every new Kindle, for a year?

That, I’d consider.

Not the current ABNA, though.

Edit to add:

Just got an email from Amazon.

Dear Will,

Thank you for your interest in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Contest and for your patience since you last contacted us. The Grand Prize Winners will be able to review the full contract after they have been selected. The contest-winning contract includes an option on your next work and grants Penguin the right to publish display (ebook) and audio editions of the work as well as the printed work.

Best regards,

Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Administrator

So you can review the full contract after you’ve been selected, but, as stated above, you’re granting those rights “by submitting to the contest.”

Would you really sign a contract without first reading it?

I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t.

I honestly think you’re better off using the Kindle direct publishing platform to put your novel on Kindle than entering the Breakthrough Novel Award contest.


  1. The included excerpt here mentions both paperback and “mass market” rights. Before you addressed the issue of digital rights, I actually had made the assumption that digital rights were included in with the “mass market” rights. If not, what is mass market referring to?

  2. I think it refers to the paperback format, Dillon. There are two: trade paperbacks, which are the 5.5″x8.5″-ish size (actual dimensions vary), and then mass market paperbacks, which are smaller (4″x6″ or so?). Mass market paperbacks tend to be the smaller size one would find on, say, shelves at the drugstore. Think of Stephen King novel; those are mass market size. Trade paperbacks tend to be a little larger. I think mass market paperbacks might be more inexpensive to print, and so corporate publishers usually order a large-volume printing of them at one time. When publishers plan more conservative print runs, they tend to go either hardcover or trade paperback. Trade paperbacks tend to cost around $14.99; mass market paperbacks cost tend to cost around $7.99 or so.

    Interestingly, I’ve heard the notion that the area ebooks and digital distribution will ultimately render obsolete is the mass market paperback segment. I think it’s a fair idea, myself. The price point should hover around the same area (if not slightly lower for ebooks).

  3. Thanks for the link to the post Will.

    I am wondering whether you meant your last sentence or whether it has a typo.
    “I honestly think you’re better off using the Kindle direct publishing platform to put your novel on Kindle then enter the Breakthrough Novel Award contest.”

    because that’s exactly what I doing – publishing Pentecost on Kindle and POD and THEN entering ABNA (mainly for any potential publicity if there is any chance of making top 100)
    if you meant “than” , fair enough!
    I actually wrote the novel for the contest, it has been my driving force for the last year, my deadline – so I am keen for it. I did read the detail of the post and consider that it’s worth it. We can always write more books, we have a whole lifetime ahead of us 🙂

    Thanks, from relentlessly enthusiastic Joanna

  4. Thanks for noting that, Joanna. I composed that update in haste, because I was seeing a lot of authors polishing their pages for the contest. Fixed the typo.

    I wish you all the best with Pentecost, whether that means winning the Amazon contest or not.

    You know there are a lot of other contests worth entering elsewhere, yes? With, ultimately, better prizes than the ABNA?

  5. Hey Will,
    Other better prizes than ABNA? When and where? Please do mention. Thanks.

  6. I was so glad to find your article. I’ve been angsting over the ABNA contract language. It really sounds horrific, but the contest keeps showing up on the short lists of “credible” contests. I’m in academia, which means self-publishing is the death-nell, so ABNA sounded better, but …. It’s tough when one is a newbie. I’ve only got one book out, no agent, and probably won’t make enough to pay for the ink if I go small press, but I really, really don’t like their language. Can one even withdraw their work during the five month contest if accepted elsewhere? Doesn’t sound like it. What do you think?

  7. Hey, D.K. To be honest, I’m not sure. It looks like once you’re in, you’re in. I can’t see anything regarding simultaneous submissions or the like. I think I’d reconsider submitting if I were worried about the things you’re worried about (for good reason).

  8. I appreciate all the incite into the fine print with this contest. I still have a question…what is the harm to the author if, after they received the contract, decide NOT to sign it? Penquin certainly can’t force you? Can they? Wouldn’t they just move on to the next entrant?

  9. I’m not sure you can NOT sign, Sue. “By submitting . . . you grant Penguin the exclusive first publication rights to your Entry.” Seems to me that submission to the contest = signing the contract.

  10. Hmmmm….I interpreted that as “right of first refusal”, not the signing of a contract. I guess a little more clarification is needed, although I would rather not pay a lawyer to simply enter a contest!

  11. I think if it were “right of first refusal,” it would say that. It says “first publication rights,” and further language indicates that Penguin is the only party in the agreement with the right to decline the agreement (see that blockquote from the prizes section to note the contract is non-negotiable and must be accepted “as is”). The rules seem to indicate that the simple act of submitting your manuscript automatically grants Penguin first publication rights to it if you manage to win a semifinal round or better.

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