Erica Eisdorfer, a finalist in the 2008 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest, didn't win—but she got a book contract anyway. “I started getting calls from agents,” she told PW, “sort of one after the other.” Discovered after an excerpt of her entry was posted on the contest Web site, the 52-year-old Eisdorfer, manager of the Bull's Head Bookshop at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, eventually chose Alexandra Machinist, of Linda Chester and Associates, to represent her. Her novel, The Wet Nurse's Tale, was published by Putnam last August.

Fellow finalist Brandi Lynn Ryder had also unsuccessfully attempted to sell her novel, In Malice, Quite Close, before entering the ABNA. “It was going to be shelved, and I was going to write another book,“ she says. “Basically, I was just playing around on the Internet, looking at some literary sites, on the very first day of the contest. I'd never heard of it. But there was a little voice that said, 'Oh, do it, why not.' It ended up being a real dream come true for me.”

The ABNA made literary waves when it was first announced in 2008—after all, it was the biggest literary contest of its kind, and the winner, chosen from some 10,000 entrants, stood to win a $25,000 book contract with a Penguin imprint. But now, with the third crop of finalists set to be announced on February 25, a number of fascinating aspects of the contest have also emerged. For one, the advance has gone down to $15,000, but there are now two grand prize winners, one for General Fiction and one for Young Adult Fiction. And as Ryder's and Eisdorfer's experiences illustrate, more than just the winners can rightfully claim to have been discovered by the contest—in fact, in addition to the winner, five contestants from the initial 2008 contest also got Penguin deals. Beyond that, the contest has established something of a community for unpublished authors—a market Amazon now smartly hopes to encourage withits self-publishing options.

Why not, suggests Amazon spokeswoman Sarah Gelman. “We have been very impressed with the level of literary talent ABNA has attracted,” she says, “in both the 2008 and the 2009 contests.”

Literary 'American Idol'?

Of course, in today's publishing world, nothing is without some degree of controversy. The idea of the ABNA as a virtual slush pile—and one subject to such public, American Idol-style judging—doesn't sit well with some in the book industry. Lately, Amazon has been criticized for encouraging unsuccessful contestants to self-publish their books with CreateSpace and BookSurge, companies Amazon owns.

Prominently touted on the contest Web site, CreateSpace is billed as a “one-stop shop for publishing, marketing, and selling your book.” With the click of a mouse, would-be authors can talk to “a publishing consultant” about a “wide array of fee-based services,” including editing, book design, and marketing, they can even set up an e-store to enable distribution to “thousands of retail and wholesale outlets.”

In January 2009, National Book Critics Circle member Darryl Lorenzo Wellington, who reviewed entries for the 2008 contest, wrote a scathing critique of the contest in N1BR, the book review supplement to the literary magazine n+1.The ABNA was “intended for writers at the bottom of the literary food chain and cynically directed at the section of the public most susceptible to the culture of hype,“ he wrote. “I'm all for a more egalitarian process,” he elaborated for PW. “But I think this is a sham way of making this contest look like that, while you just reap people's money.” But despite its critics, the contest, in its third year, has continued to entice scores of would-be authors.

So how does it work? The 2010 contest began on January 25, when up to 10,000 entrants could begin uploading their entire manuscripts—novels of between 50,000 and 150,000 words—to Amazon using the company's CreateSpace platform, as well as a 3,000-5,000 word excerpt, and a 300-word “pitch.“ For the 2010 contest, writers had until February 7 to submit. After that, the pitches are judged by “Amazon editors“ through February 23, and a group of 2,000 entries, 1,000 from each category, general fiction and YA, are selected to go on to the second round.

In the second round, “expert reviewers” read the excerpts of this group of 2,000 and give grades of one to five in four categories: overall strength of excerpt, prose/style, plot/hook, and originality of idea. From there, 500 quarterfinalists (250 in each category) are selected, and their excerpts posted on Amazon, where any Amazon customer can download and rate the excerpts, again on a scale of one to five, but with one additional category: overall strength of submission. The manuscripts are then reviewed by editors at Publishers Weekly, and the reviews posted into the entrants' CreateSpace account by April 27.

For the semifinal round, 100 semifinalists (50 in each category) are selected by Penguin. A Penguin judging panelchooses three finalists in each category, who are notified in mid-May. Here's where it gets interesting: the grand prize winner is required to accept a contract with Penguin, with an advance of $15,000—and the terms of the contract are nonnegotiable.

An unspoken tenet of the contest, of course, is that it's set up to discover writers who, for whatever reason, have been unable to attract the attention of an agent or an editor at a major publisher—and the contest discussion forums certainly back that up. They're filled with writers who believe they've been unjustly overlooked or misunderstood, and that one day, with the right combination of pluck and circumstance, they too will be recognized. But Penguin Press editor-in-chief Eamon Dolan, who served as an expert panelist for the 2009 contest and read the three finalists' entries, suggests that belief may be misguided.

“The great majority of the winnowing was done by publishing professionals,” Dolan notes. “If you're worried you're not going to get your book past 'the man,' well, that's who made the determination of who the top three were.” In fact, Dolan says, the contest works not unlike how the industry does. “The system we have set up, with agents as a first filter and then people like me as a subsequent filter, works really well,” he says. “I'm pretty strongly convinced that there's relatively little that's really great out there, and we're looking for quality,“ he says. “I do think the cream rises to the top in this business.”

All Winners

Criticisms aside, the contest has proven enormously popular, and it has in fact given some writers the break they've worked for and others the support and confidence of a community of like-minded fellow travelers. For finalist Ian Gibson, whose entry Stuff of Legends will be published by Penguin's fantasy and sci-fi imprint AceBooks, the contest worked just as it's supposed to. “I hadn't tried to sell the book before,” Gibson, a 29-year-old assistant box office manager at a live theater in Victoria, British Columbia, told PW. “It's my first novel. I figured that the ABNA, since it gave responses about a month after you submitted, was a fast turnaround and would be good practice for getting rejected. Then I'd go through the usual channels. But it didn't really work out that way.”

Last May, the three ABNA finalists came to New York for the final round of judging. There, Ryder met Elyse Cheney, who represented her in her eventual deal with Carol Disanti at Viking. In all, Penguin has signed eight writers from the contest; the winner of the first ABNA, Bill Loehfelm, published his novel Fresh Kills with Penguin's Putnam imprint in August 2008, and a second novel, Bloodrot, was published in September. According to Nielsen BookScan, Fresh Kills has sold close to 5,000 copies in hardcover. “We were satisfied that we found a great author that we're looking to build,“ says Tim McCall, vice president of online sales and marketing at Penguin. James King, the 2009 ABNA winner, meanwhile, is set to publish his debut novel, Bill Warrington's Last Chance, in August 2010.

The contest, McCall adds, has also raised Penguin's online visibility. “There's a big online community on Amazon and that community has spread into other online communities,“ he says. “That community is talking about Amazon and Penguin as an annual event, and we're enjoying the way that's building.”

Greg Smith, meanwhile, a 44-year-old writer from Wilmington, Del., recently self-published his novel, Final Price (about a serial-killing car salesman) using CreateSpace. Smith made it to the top 500 of the 2009 contest. “I call it trying to make the tree in the forest make some noise,“ he says. “This is a good experience. I've got enough rejection letters to heat my home. It's really tough if you're not known or don't have a proven track record.“ Smith is currently promoting his book and selling it to bookstores on his own.

Megan Bostic, a 40-year-old writer in Tacoma, Wash., has entered the contest both years. In 2008, she made it to the top 100, though she only reached the round of 2,000 in 2009. But she's perhaps better known to the community of ABNA entrants as one of the more active participants on the discussion boards and as a prolific reviewer of entries. She estimates that she reviewed around 60 manuscripts the first year and between 20 and 30 the second.

“I suppose that part of it is a little bit self-promotion,“ says Bostic, who started writing full-time in 2002. “Some of us would give complimentary reviews. I would review a book, they would review me. It was a back and forth.” Bostic has met several other entrants from Seattle in person, but corresponds with many more online. “It's a great community for writers to get together and commiserate,“ she notes. Her ultimate goal, of course, is to get a book contract.

For writers like Eisdorfer, meanwhile, her eventual book deal has brought with it a realization: book contracts are only the beginning. Perhaps the writer's hardest work—like selling books—comes after. “It changed my life,” she says of her book deal. “The publishing contract was very validating. But I think being a bookseller has made me a realist about this because I see so many novels on the shelf that go back to the publisher. I'm still going to put bookseller on my tax return.”