This year’s ABNA Contest

It’s that time of year again. Time for CreateSpace and Penguin USA’s annual Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Contest. Here’s the nitty-gritty:

This is the fifth time around this contest has been run, and although some of the progression details have changed over the years the bulk of the contest hasn’t. What’s on offer is a US$15,000 advance and a publishing contract with Penguin USA to each of two winners. What the details of the contract are is anyone’s guess, but my hunch is probably a limited initial run with not much editing or publicity help from Penguin (more on why I think this below). If anyone knows better though, please leave a comment.

The two categories are the catch-all General Fiction and the pukey Young Adult Fiction. I say ‘pukey’ because to me most of the titles you can find categorized as YA are the kinds of stories that make you nauseated. Anyway, what you need to have on hand to enter is a single-authored novel between 50,000-150,000 words. You would then plug into the contest site the first 3,000-5,000 words and a pitch of up to 300 words. Incidentally, it doesn’t matter if you’ve already self-published your title, those are eligible for the contest too.

Here are the tricky parts. The contest is officially open from 23 January to 05 February US Eastern Standard Time, but will stop taking manuscripts after the first 5,000 have been received. And if you do want to participate I suggest getting your entry in as soon as possible because if past years are any indication they’ll get their first 5,000 within just a few days. But the main obstacle to overcome here, and this has actually changed significantly since the contest’s first run, is the pitch.

Before I get to that though, a bit of background on how the contest used to be judged. Initially they had a team of editors and reviewers that would read your first 5,000 words and then either advance your book or drop it. Following that, books would be voted on so it kind of became a popularity contest as you could get anyone to sign in and vote for your book. Then they’d bring the pros back in to whittle down the list again, and (I’m a little hazy on this part) the final winners would be voted on. Last year, and again this year, your pitch is far more important. Now in the first round Amazon editors will only look at the 300 word pitches and choose 1,000 in each category to advance. Next, Amazon top customer reviewers (from Amazon’s internal reviewer rating system) will read the 5,000 word excerpts and reduce the number to 250/category. Round three has Publishers Weekly reviewers reading the excerpts, and their scores lowering the count to 50/category, followed by Penguin USA editors choosing 3/category. The final 6 will then be voted on by Amazon customers (presumably anyone with an Amazon account would be able to vote) and the 2 winners decided.

All in all, aside from the first round I think your entry would get a fair treatment by professionals whose focus is on the commercial side of things. Why I object to the first round pitch-is-everything stance is that it seems to assume that if you can write a commercially viable book then you can automatically write a sales pitch for it, something that may or may not be the case. Of course, the logic of the contest that will appeal to us writers is that it costs nothing to participate and you stand to gain a large amount in both money and exposure.

Very briefly, here’s why I think Penguin won’t put much into the winners’ books. Just as writers stand to gain a lot from the contest, Penguin stands to gain more. Here they have a chance to have many helping hands pick a book that they will have to invest very little time and money into getting ready and could potentially make them a great deal of profit. While the Amazon top reviewers and customers will probably be looking for an interesting read, the Penguin and Amazon editors (and maybe the Publishers Weekly reviewers too) are far more likely to be looking for what will sell well. And these people know what they’re doing.

Still, all in all, I’d say it’s worth taking a chance on this, especially if your book is mainstream. I know that Paul j Rogers and I both have YA decalogies on an ogre-troll romance in a hidden magic kingdom accessible through a trapdoor in a McDonald’s toilet where an evil but very charismatic witch has duped people into voting in the Social Democrats that we’ll be submitting. And that’s just the teaser!

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One Comment

  1. Paul j Rogers
    Posted January 21, 2012 at 12:56 am | Permalink

    Yep, there’s no escaping writing summaries. Query letters, pitches, (same difference): love it or loathe it, a career in the mainstream depends on boiling a story down to a few hundred words. Interestingly, the 300 word pitch’s inclusion whispers about their preference for story over character.

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