2nd Prize Is A Set of Steak Knives

By Neal Comment

To be honest, when we read Hillel Italie’s AP dispatch on the Sobol Award, we were somewhat surprised by the comparatively light treatment of this “new and lucrative literary prize” for unpublished, unagented writers. Oh, sure, Italie noted some skepticism about Sobol Literary Enterprises, but that note of “doubt” comes from the company’s legal counsel, who then turns around and says he got them to allay his concerns, so everything’s okay. Brigit Kinsella’s coverage in PW Daily came off as even more credulous. Take this bit, for example:

“Manuscripts of unpublished fiction writers submitted to its Web site… will be evaluated to win the top prizes of $100,000, $25,000 and $10,000, and seven $1,000 prizes. All winners will then become clients of Sobol’s agency arm. Entries cost $85 each, but Sobol is banking on The Sobol Awards uncovering literary talent that yield book and movie deals to fuel the for-profit company’s coffers and to provide funds to continue the awards on an annual [basis].”

Let’s do the math: The cash prizes total $142,000. At $85 a pop, if Sobol hits its target of 50,000 prospects, that’s $4.25 million…more than enough to keep the company afloat even without making a single deal, right? But, you say, what if they don’t get that many manuscripts? Well, they only need 1,671 entries to cover the prize money. Admittedly, there are some expenses; Sobol hired Goldberg McDuffie to do their PR campaign, for example, and that don’t come cheap. Then there’s executives like Brigitte Weekslate of Bookspan, and Laurie Rippon from HarperCollins, plus judges Greg Tobin (ex-publisher at Ballantine), Neil Baldwin (ex-director, National Book Foundation), and Robert Riger (still a VP at Sparks), oh, and the so-far-unidentified agents who’ll eventually rep the winner’s books. Then there’s the anonymous apparatchiks who’ll be separating out the best manuscripts before the judges lift a finger; granted, they probably won’t get paid much, but Sobol says they’ll pay them. And let’s not forget the Seventh Avenue office space, the ads in NYTBR and other publications… Anyway, let’s throw out a completely speculative number for all that: $1.42 million. That’s only another 16,709 entries and, frankly, I think I’m highballing my estimate a bit. So again, pure speculation on my part, but I believe it’s not unreasonable to expect Sobol to be able to operate on entry fees alone without ever making a single deal.

At least Mark Egan’s Reuters article rounded up some publishing pros who don’t work for Sobol to declare, in the words of Norton executive editor Robert Weil, “I do not think this is a serious way of getting published.” Literary agent Gary Morris goes so far as to describe Sobol’s venture as “a lottery,” which is generous compared to what they’re saying on the blogosphere. Miss Snark comes right out and calls the enterprise “a crock of shit,” while POD-dy Mouth’s Girl on Demand describes it as “absolutely pathetic.” To add my two cents: Any “literary agency” that charges prospective clients a fee just to submit their work for consideration is almost certainly running a con…and I don’t care how many big-name clients Scott Meredith had when he was alive, so don’t bother emailing me the list. (At the same time, I hasten to add, there’s legitimate work to be done as a writing consultant, taking fees in exchange for helping to prepare manuscripts for submission to agents…but you should either do that or be an agent, not both.)