It’s a pleasure to share author Kelly A. Harmon’s thoughts this week as she gives us an interesting perspective about entering writing contests, particularly the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Contest. Kelly writes fantasy and dark fantasy, and even though her novella, Blood Soup, won the July 2008 Fantasy Gazetteers Novella Contest, she cautions that contests aren’t always worth their hype.
I used to feel that if a writing contest was free, I’d be all in. But despite the possibility of a $50,000 jackpot from the free-to-enter Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Contest, I find several of the rules raise the stakes too high for me.
No Negotiating Allowed
Amazon requires that you sign their contract “as is.”
I don’t have to be a lawyer to realize that signing something ‘as is,’ especially without being able to see it first, means the contract must be very slanted toward the publisher. Of course, this isn’t an issue unless my book is good enough to win (let’s hope it is)—but why bother entering the contest if I might have to decline at the last minute?
Total Rights Grab by Amazon
According to the rules, if you sign the contract, you give Amazon the right to publish your work “in all formats” world-wide.
Since we don’t get to see the official contract, we don’t know what formats Amazon guarantees to publish winners’ work in or what foreign or other subsidiary rights they’ll pursue. If they never get around to publishing a hardcover or enhanced media, or if they only publish in English, does the contract contain language reverting those rights to the author in a timely fashion? If not, authors stand to lose money they could have made by self-publishing or offering the rights to another publisher.
Amazon does publish summary information they refer to as the “Contract Highlights” but it’s somewhat misleading.
Unfortunately, these only specify that Amazon will publish in hardcover, paperback, ebook (Kindle only, right?), and interactive editions. Audio book is listed in the royalty payment structure on the same page, but it’s fairly clear an audio book isn’t part of the deal. I’m guessing they reserve that option for when your book is wildly successful in other formats. (In the meantime, you’ve lost any sales you could have made by holding back these rights.)
Manuscript Locked Down for Six Months
The submission period for the ABNAC is a mere two-week period in January. But if you commit your manuscript, you’re not allowed to shop it anywhere else until the contest ends in June, even if you’re knocked out of the contest in the first round. That’s almost six months wasted.
This rule alone is a deal-breaker for me. In six months my manuscript could reach a dozen or more agents or editors who might be interested in publishing it. Or I could publish it myself. One lucky hopeful will win $50k, and Amazon enjoys the leisure of sorting through 10,000 manuscripts while keeping everyone’s hands tied until they decide.
The Math Reveals Less Earnings
You upload your polished manuscript in all its required parts, hopeful that even if you’re not the big winner, or one of four finalists who will win $15k, you might be selected by Amazon for publication. Six months pass by and you’re offered a contract. Then what? Fame and fortune?
One of last year’s finalists talks about his experience on Reddit. Perhaps the most significant takeaway for me is found in the comments, where he mentions he’s only sold about 300 copies of his book, mostly in Kindle version, for which he earned a 35% royalty (per the ABNA Contract).
Let’s use this winner’s example. Using round numbers, and supposing that out of 300 copies, 200 sold on Kindle for $6.00 each, he made (6 x .35) x 200 = $420. If you self-publish, you only have to sell 100 copies to make the same amount of money—because you can earn 70% royalties in most markets at that price point. (Plus, you’ll have a six-month head start in the market.)
For paperback copies, using CreateSpace, there’s wiggle room on how much you will earn depending on the number of pages of the book and where you set your price. Let’s assume the book sells for $15 and you’re going to earn $2 per copy sold. For the 100 PB sold, you would earn $200. But if you’re a finalist in the contest, you only earn 15% of the list price of each paperback sold. This means Amazon will pay you $1.50 x 100 = $150 for the same book.
You can do a lot less marketing (and more writing on your next novel) if you do it yourself, and still make more money—if money’s your goal.
Locked Into Amazon
If you sign a contract with Amazon, your words will only be available where Kindle and Amazon Publishing items are sold. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: My largest sales are from Amazon. But if you sell to another publisher (or self-publish) your words can be available in multiple electronic formats—so you’ll also attract buyers from that group of people who won’t by a Kindle book on principle. As for print copies, though one assumes book outlets are treating the publisher like any other, it’s unclear how well Amazon Publishing books are distributed. We know CreateSpace offers the opportunity for distribution to in brick and mortar stores but gives no guarantees, and their distribution terms don’t seem to meet current industry norms, making their products less desirable and therefore less widespread. Among other things, books ordered via CS are non-refundable and non-returnable, a deal-breaker for most wholesale booksellers.
Again: We’ve no idea what Amazon’s contract says. On the “Contract Highlights” page Amazon states: “The following terms apply specifically to ABNA contestants and not necessarily all Amazon Publishing contracts.” So even though winners get an AP contract, it may not be the same as a “true” AP contract. And the contest version might tie up your next book with first right of refusal. It might tie up your next five books. What if the contract stipulates you must offer all your subsequent books to Amazon until your book earns out the $50,000 advance?
Is it Worth the Effort?
I don’t think Amazon is an evil, corporate empire determined to give writers a bad deal. In fact, I admire their capitalistic spirit and ingenuity. They’ve made it possible for me to get a bunch of my previously published shorts and novellas back into print. Instead of a sold-once-and-trunked backlist, my stories are available for purchase 24 hours a day in most countries of the world. But I’ve also made them available via Nook and Smashwords, and very soon, Kobo, because it makes more sense to me than to go all-in with Amazon. More sales outlets equals more sales.
Ultimately, you’ve got to weigh the facts against your personal goals and do what works for you. I’m only saying why it doesn’t work for me. If Amazon changes the rules, I’ll reconsider. As for other contests, I recommend checking the rules carefully to see what you’re giving up in exchange for publication. Do the math. Research the contest reputation. Evaluate the pros and cons based on your criteria, and act accordingly. Good luck!
Kelly A. Harmon used to write truthful, honest stories about authors and thespians, senators and statesmen, movie stars and murderers. Now she writes lies, which are infinitely more satisfying, but lack the convenience of doorstep delivery. Her short fiction appears in Deep Cuts, Triangulation: Dark Glass, Bad Ass Fairies 3: In All Their Glory and other anthologies. Her story “Lies” was short-listed for the Aeon Award. Blood Soup, her award-winning novella, is recently re-issued by Pole to Pole Publishing. Ms. Harmon has published non-fiction at SciFi Weekly, eArticles, and several magazines and newspapers on the East Coast and abroad. Read more at her website and follow her on Twitter: @kellyaharmon.