When publishers feel like whining, they know how to reach an audience. And in recent days, the complaining and sniping at the newborn baby that is the Sobol Award for Fiction has reached the passion of the "Hallelujah Chorus".
How can you charge innocent and hungry writers to read their work, raise their hopes and offer them coal, they ask? The legend of Scott Meredith once again stalks the halls. Remember Scott, the maverick who unapologetically for many years routinely charged writers to read their manuscripts? He was drummed out of the agents' inner circle for unethical behavior, but his ghost haunts them still.
Sorry, Scott, we are not your heirs. Sobol doesn't charge for reading manuscripts. There is a registration fee (like almost every literary contest in existence), and for $85, Sobol writers get a minimum of two independent evaluations, the chance to advance to a higher level and more readings, then perhaps win one of several substantial prizes and—there's more—the winners get professional representation for the winning titles. You'll notice they are not locked in the dungeons of Castle Sobol for the balance of their careers. They take their checks, their published novels and then can pick among the many agents anxious to represent an author whose value has already been proven in the marketplace.
Of course, we are talking about many writers and few winners. That is how contests (and real life) work. But our readers—librarians, booksellers and editors—have been given the challenge of not only evaluating the manuscripts in the context of the award, but also, when possible, to identify the writers' areas of strength and weakness. Ask yourself: How easy is it for beginning writers to find helpful feedback quickly and confidentially in the structure of contemporary publishing?
It is only when money changes hands that this complex and ambitious plan to help invisible novelists hits turbulence—major turbulence. Publishers and agents are good at math. Our electronic servers can only handle 50,000 manuscripts, and we state this up front on our Web site, www.sobolaward.com. Multiply 85 x 50,000, and you get a number that has taken on a life of its own—mythic dollars in the millions. The facts are that even though we have this gigantic capacity, only in our wildest dreams will the actual number of manuscripts registered approach that technical limit. The registration fees help toward the cost of the infrastructure, electronic and human. The revenue from one generation of writers' success will help fund the next. You can be sure that I will personally call every media outlet in my electronic Rolodex if I get to celebrate the arrival of manuscript #49,999.
New award is lose-lose," says Publishers Weekly, defending the reputation of the industry and fretting that we'll make "agenting look sleazy." "Crock of shit," agrees blogger Miss Snark (misssnark.blogspot.com), less politely, hiding behind a pseudonym and worrying about agents toiling in the literary sweat shops.
The bottom line is this: I've worked for and with writers my whole career. I'm the editorial director of the Sobol Award for Fiction, and proud of it. If our efforts to use electronic technology to reach large crowds of novelists standing outside the gates marked "Unsolicited manuscripts not accepted" are successful, I'll throw a publication party at the Four Seasons and invite the winners—and whiners.
|Brigitte Weeks is the editorial director of the Sobol Award for Fiction and a former editor of the Washington Post Book World.|