Sunday, September 19, 2010

Smart Marketing or Author Exploitation?

I ran across a short story contest this past week that got me thinking. Not so much about submitting to contests but about contests as promotion. This particular one is sponsored by Penguin and is promoting a bestselling author's new hardcover release of heartwarming stories inspired by a famous library cat, Dewey.

Here's what Penguin says about the author's first title:

Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World was a blockbuster bestseller and a publishing phenomenon. It has sold nearly a million copies, spawned three children's books, and will be the basis for an upcoming movie. [With Meryl Streep attached.]
So the follow-up, Dewey's Nine Lives, which is out next month, will likely sell a copy or two. The contest is to submit a "letter" of 200 to 2000 words relating a true story about a cat that changed a life. The winner's entry will be published in the paperback edition of Dewey's Nine Lives out next year.

The prize: A signed copy of the paperback (approximate retail value = $9.99).

Let's read that again. While the winner, the winner's friends and family, and many of the losers who want to see what entry beat out their remarkable story will snap up copies of the book and contribute to its bottom line, the winner gets a signed copy of the book for their trouble.

Here's the relevant fine print.

By accepting a prize the winners grant to Sponsor the right to edit, publish, copy, display and otherwise use their entries in connection with this Contest, and to further use their names, likenesses, and biographical information in advertising and promotional materials, without further compensation or permission, except where prohibited by law.
Plus, Penguin doesn't have to publish any of the entries if the quality isn't up to snuff.

Balanced against all that, of course, are these ideas:
  • The contest is targeting readers as well as pro or hopeful writers.
  • There is value simply in the exposure the winner's work will receive (although someone who is not looking to a career in writing won't necessarily see this same benefit).
So, a poll! (You may need to click through if you're on a reader.) (And if the embedded poll doesn't work, try this direct link.)



Sarah Laurenson said...

Hmmmm. Hm. Hm. Hm. Publishing credit of some kind, but how useful would it be really? Won't take as long as a book to write (one hopes). Hm.

I think it's not in the genre I'm pursuing and therefore of dubious value as a pub credit. While I wouldn't mind having my words in a book, I'd like to have a bit more control over the final draft and a bit more "compensation".

I know someone whose story wound up in a Chicken Soul type of book. Trying to find her name was difficult. Finally found her story and they had changed it quite a bit from the original. And the compensation was nil. I think her name was on it, but her name didn't show up anywhere else in the book - like in the list of authors.

Matt said...

There's a comedy website I visit -- cracked dot com -- that uses this technique.

They have weekly photo shop contests and the winner gets $50, but they post all the entries. So basically they get hundreds of man hours while paying next to nothing.

Tangent: they also pay $50 for articles you write, but they don't show ones they don't buy. End tangent.

I always thought $50 was a week prize, but people still enter those contests so why should they sweeten the pot?

But regarding the Penguin prize: they're expecting kids to enter that contest, no? I think they're choosing based on strength of story and editing it themselves, not writing ability. I'm not sure though. I haven't followed the link because I'm a lazy, lazy man.

Matt said...

I tried using the poll but my vote wouldn't register. It redirected me to the website.

*weak prize

Phoenix said...

Hi Sarah: Yeah, not sure how useful a cred it is in the grand scheme.

Hi Matt: I think they're targeting adults. But if sites can pay out $50 for something that's one small piece of fleeting entertainment, then surely some compensation for presence in a book shouldn't be an outrageous consideration.

Thanks for letting me know about the poll. It worked once then quit. The code looks fine. But it's the second company that this happened with, so I don't know what's going on. I popped in a direct link to the "add a poll" site right above the goll.

Dave F. said...

Let's say Penguin gets 1000 responses or entries and they don't pick yours. What do you have after that? A short story that is tailored to a particular audience and might not suit any other online or print journal, magazine or ezine. So then you have to spend time revising it to sell it to another publisher.

Meanwhile, you aren't writing what you like or what you want or what your heart beats faster too.

I learned all about this "stuff" when my group of 4 researchers was asked to prepare a chapter for a book (technical articles) and for six months, the four of us fulfilled the "deal." We edited the damn book for the editor and me, being the junior member got to do all that work and neglect writing up my research for almost a year.

That wasn't worth it and neither is Penguin's freebie. Penguin can put a few $$$ where their mouth is and run a real contest.

Anonymous said...

I don't worry about trying to polish and publish everything I write. Sometimes it's nice just to write for fun and a change of pace. A good break from a regular writing project can give you a fresh wind. And isn't everything we write good practice toward being better writers?

I like entering contests on Webook, realizing it is just for fun and not to get ahead. It's also a good way to meet other writers.

Phoenix said...

Good perspectives all!

Dave, I understand where you're coming from. I auditioned for Wizards of the West Coast back before they called themselves that. They solicited ME and asked me to send them a 50-page proposal for a new series they were working on. Twice. I was shortlisted both times, but didn't get the gig. A lot of time down the drain.

But as Michelle points out, it did give me experience writing to a bible that I wouldn't have gotten otherwise.


Actually, this has given me an idea for a contest of my own. *sly look*

Matt said...

Let's not forget another guy that gets unpaid writers to provide %65 of his material. An Evil guy...

Phoenix said...

Matt: I guess some writers are happy to sell their souls just for exposure. ;o)