Sobol Cuts 3-Book Deal with Fireside;Actual Books To Be Determined

By Neal Comment

Remember the hubbub over Sobol Literary Enterprises back in September? Several industry observers (ourselves included) expressed skepticism about the contest, which promised unpublished fiction writers a shot at cash prizes and literary representation if they were willing to pay $85 to have somebody take a look at their book. Well, as Hillel Italie reports for the AP, the three writers who win the top prizes won’t actually be getting a literary agent who’ll work to find the best deal for their manuscripts, because Sobol’s already cut a publishing deal with Touchstone Fireside. The least cynical among us might ask if this means Sobol’s going to take 15% off the prize money as commission, while the more caustic could wonder pointedly just how much negotiation if any there will be over the details of those contracts, and how well a writer is actually served by such an arrangement. Although I do concede that a Touchstone paperback will be a much more impressive thing for the winners to wave in front of their relatives than, say, an iUniverse edition. (As it turns out, Touchstone will be paying for world or U.S. rights.)

You’ll recall that the company claimed the $85 entry fee was necessary to cover administrative costs—and that we worked out the math to suggest that if they hit their target of 50,000 submissions, they’d rake in $4.25 million, very likely several million more than it would take to run the contest. A spokesperson says Sobol has pushed back the deadline because submissions aren’t coming in the volume expected; right now it’s received “more than 1,000,” which means it probably haven’t even raised all the prize money yet, let alone administrative costs. (This raises a very good question: Is Touchstone paying for these books? And if so, how much? It seems nobody was willing to tell Italie.) Still, Sobol insists that it’s doing fine even though “It’s been very hard to get the word out… The Internet has been more difficult to penetrate than we had hoped.” Now that’s an understatement… Author and scam exposer Victoria Strauss summed up the prevailing sentiment among online literati when she commented, “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.”

UPDATE: Touchstone’s parent house, Simon & Schuster, finally put out its press release on the deal this morning, with a hilarious quote from Sobol president Gur Shomron: “Our multi-stage system of judging and identifying winning manuscripts is unprecedented.” Yes, nobody’s ever thought of having advance readers winnow through a slush pile to ferret out the best manuscripts and pass them on to the top judges before—we salute the contest’s commitment to innovation! Also, pseudonymous blogger Miss Snark points out that an agent who reps both author and publisher is an unethical agent, and believes “signing up the publisher before you have the project is tantamount to doing that. Requiring the winners to be represented by the agent who also runs the contest is a classic conflict of interest.”