Last week, technology entrepreneur Gur Shomron announced that he was starting up the Sobol Awards, for which fiction writers could submit manuscripts to a committee of publishing professionals, and—for the mere price of $85—might win cash prizes, and, more importantly, an opportunity to crash the hallowed-yet-forbidding, exalted-yet-disparaged gates of Big Publishing by winning literary representation with Sobol Literary Enterprises. The announcement carried a "what could be bad?" tone: $85 is not a fortune, except for the most desperate of would-be writers, and if it would guarantee that said writers got a shot at the Big Time…well, why not? Besides, the $85 would end up being more like a Sobol processing fee than the dread reading-for-hire fee, and why shouldn't Sobol get paid for its work?

I don't know if the brains behind this plan thought they'd get as much attention for this initiative as they have—and assuming they'll get thousands of submissions—I'm not sure they'd care. After all, this kind of pay-for-play is not uncommon or particularly controversial in the poetry world. To be fair, there were some people who considered it a boon, at least for writers (for whom any chance is a boon).

"For many of us who spend hundreds of dollars on creative writing classes, mailings to agents who most of the time do not even have the courtesy to reply, not to mention contests and awards whose importance and financial rewards are nominal, " one reader wrote in a message to our Web site, "I think Sobol is a breath of fresh air." But overwhelmingly, the mail was skeptical; the Sobol Awards are "demeaning," a "sham" and, basically, just another way to manipulate the hopes and dreams of artists everywhere, said many, few of whom identified their relationship to the publishing community.

What I think: the Sobol Awards are less win-win than lose-lose. Yes, the agency will likely line its pockets with thousands of dollars; yes, there may be one heretofore unsung writer who will be thrilled to have major representation and publication. But thousands of others will get nowhere, and end up no more acknowledged than they were before.

The real damage, though, might be to the publishing industry as a whole, an industry that is not necessarily held in the highest regard, even by the writers who yearn to crack it. (I was struck, earlier this year, by the vehemence of public reaction to the publishing business in the Frey and Viswanathan scandals, for example). Publishers, agents, even booksellers, are the evil gatekeepers; we're "insiders," we're "cliquish," we're "superior"—and when we screw up there's a palpable glee in some quarters. What a contest like this does is make agenting look sleazy by giving hope to the millions of wannabe great American novelists—and then immediately dashing those hopes, all for a price. (That, and probably unwittingly marring the reputation of longtime legitimate agent Nat Sobel, who has mistakenly been confused with the agency sponsoring the contest.)

I have nothing against agents trying to make money—and God knows, I have nothing against writers who want to get published. But contests like this make everybody look bad by contributing to the perception that agents are charlatans and writers are nothing more than desperate prey.

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