December 5, 2012

Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award gets more Amazon-y


In a further move towards gobbling up every aspect of the publishing business they can get their hands on, yesterday Amazon announced changes to their Breakthrough Novel Award.

In past years, the two grand prize winners received a $15,000 advance and a contract with Penguin, who co-sponsored the contest and were involved in the judging. This year, however, in a thoroughly classy move, Amazon is offering winners $50,000 advances and a contract with Amazon Publishing — all that money to assuage, presumably, the fears of authors that their book may get just about as far as Penny Marshall’s, with Barnes & Noble and independent bookstores still adamant about not carrying Amazon Publishing books (although, ahem, not always).

This will be the sixth year Amazon has given out the award, which is initially judged by a combination of Amazon reviewers, Publishers Weekly staff, Amazon Publishing editors, and finally by Amazon customers. Amazon has also expanded the number of categories they’ll be considering, to neatly line up with the imprints that Amazon Publishing already operates; this year, they’ve added Romance, Mystery/Thriller, and Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror. Since the number of titles Amazon Publishing signed up slowed this year, as Jeffrey Trachtenberg reported in the Wall Street Journal in October, it’s not unreasonable to wonder if Amazon is thinking of their contest as a way to draw in titles for their 47North, Thomas & Mercer, and Montlake Romance imprints — and once the eager authors have already participated in the contest and have their books up on CreateSpace, for potentially lower advances and worse terms than if Amazon had had to go looking for them.

Last year’s winner in the general fiction category was Alan Averill’s The Beautiful Land, which is due to come out from Penguin’s Ace Trade imprint in June 2013. Because part 1 of the contest is to pitch your book (which neatly excuses Amazon Publishing editors from having to write descriptive copy for the book in the end), Averill’s pitch goes:

Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy steals a time machine that’s low on batteries and attempts to save girl from impending annihilation …You know how this goes … A love story with time machines. A science-fiction novel for people who don’t read science fiction. And an elegantly timeless tale about the nature of memory, heartache, and redemption.

It all sounds great. And there’s nothing wrong with running a contest that gives many writers the chance to have their work read by many readers — couldn’t be better, in fact. But my overwhelming suspicion is that what Amazon cares about, above all, is quantity: more books for sale through Amazon, rather than supporting each book, as indie publishers do and trade publishers try to do. Quality can be a convenient way to quantity, but if it’s quantity you care about, then the individual authors, about whom Amazon makes such obnoxiously fawning statements, will not, in the end, be well served. Because some of them are going to seem expendable — necessary for bulking out the ranks, but meriting no other kind of interest — and Amazon, like other large companies, will treat them like that.





Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.