Reinventing the Writing Contest
How one eBook retailer is making literature more social
Millions of people dream of making it big in literature, yet there are very few who actually manage to finish a book, let alone get published. One eBook retailer is taking a page from reality TV competitions by looking for undiscovered writing talent in a new contest format.
Winning a writing contest has always been one way to bypass the publishers’ slush piles of unsolicited manuscripts. But the problem with these contests is that winning is like playing the lottery: for each lucky winner there’s an enormous amount of losers. That makes the experience frustrating for writers and creates yet another way for their work to remain unread.
eBookMall, one of the most experienced independent eBook retailers, wanted to do something different. Inspired by the TV successes of American Idol and The Voice, they came up with an exciting approach to running a writing contest. eBookMall’s “America’s Next Author” contest is engaging, transparent, and entertaining.
eBookMall set about to do something new and asked: What if there’s a transparent alternative? What if each author could read the competition’s entries? How can writers involve their friends and family to help them win, without making it a popularity contest?
Martijn Leenders, eBookMall’s Managing Director explains: “In all these boring contests, you send in a story, wait a couple of months, and probably never hear anything again. That’s not very useful if you want to make it as an author. We also realized there are no writing contests where the most important factor of actually becoming a successful author, namely your mass appeal and marketability, play any significant role. America’s Next Author combines writing quality and popularity, all while offering authors a great platform for getting noticed.”
So how does America’s Next Author work? At first glance, it appears to be a well-designed collection of stories and author profiles, where visitors can vote for stories and post reviews. This is where things become interesting, because this contest combines several online and social voting methods into something eBookMall calls “Author Rank”. Each author’s rank is featured prominently on their profile page and is updated daily.
Leenders explains: “In addition to having the public decide which stories they prefer, we needed an advanced ranking system that would sort out quality and potentially great stories. In other words, what Google does for search, we are doing for authors.”
The ranking takes into account a large number of factors, including votes, Tweets, Facebook likes, reviews, and many more. eBookMall developed its own sophisticated ranking algorithm that is able to determine which reviews are written by more reliable readers, weeding out those that are seeking to unfairly manipulate results.
Bonnie Martin is eBookMall’s publishing manager, and says: “From the start there were authors who tried to outsmart the system. It turned out there was no need for us to worry, because the ranking system is able to cope with any unusual voting patterns. We’ve already had three weekly nominees with excellent stories, showing that the ranking system works well. And what I like most about America’s Next Author is that everybody can follow the progress every single day.”
Those daily updates to the Author Ranking turned out to be very popular amongst participants. “Authors check in daily to see how they’re doing. Some have told us it’s very addictive to see what their promotion efforts bring in terms of ranking and reader feedback. I’m almost worried we’re keeping them away from their writing.”
Leenders smiles, before adding, “For readers it might even be more fun. Since writers can still join while the contest is underway, readers get to discover new stories, see if their favorites are winning, and they even have the chance to win an iPad or eReader for their reviews.”
However smart their ranking algorithm, eBookMall does use a jury as well. Similar to popular TV contests, a jury is looking for hidden gems that didn’t make it to the top of the public vote. The jury will nominate four authors as wildcards, adding them to the eight that are picked by the public. These twelve authors will continue on to a battle round later in the competition.
“We needed a safety valve. This is the first time someone is doing anything like this and our ranking system was never tested in a large contest. With our system performing better than we expected, the jury can completely focus on helping out writers by giving additional feedback,” says Leenders.
It wasn’t an easy path, Martijn Leenders explains. “We encountered some skepticism, mainly from people who were worried about how this would work and how we would deal with plagiarism and publication rights. That was not unexpected because this contest is something quite different from what they’re used to. Authors are not always accustomed to having their writing open to the public and presenting themselves as a brand. That takes a lot of guts!”
The contest has seen serious interest from the publishing industry. In theory, America’s Next Author and its underlying technology might be useful in engaging readers and discovering new talent.
Authors seem to like it so far. Leenders says: “After the first week we started receiving messages from participants who are seeing a sudden rise in interest on their own Facebook pages and blogs. That makes us proud of the work we’re doing. We’ve managed to create a new platform for authors to test the quality of their work and see if they’re up for bigger things in literature.”
Or as one participant posted on Twitter, “Your contest is an emotional roller-coaster!”
- America’s Next Author has reinvented the writing contest, bringing it into the 21st century with social media and online voting.
- America’s Next Author removes the lottery-like effect of old fashioned writing contests by allowing participants to promote their stories.
- It’s not just a popularity contest! eBookMall’s “Author Ranking” algorithm uses many factors to determine the quality of the writing, too.
- Like American Idol or The Voice, America’s Next Author seeks to find undiscovered talent.
- In 2012 authors have to meet their readers where they are, on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and other social media platforms. This contest pushes writers to do that.
- Honest reviews posted on stories give aspiring authors real feedback that they can use to improve their craft. It takes courage to be open to criticism, but it’s worth it.
- Writing is usually a lonely endeavor, but when you enter America’s Next Author you’re immediately involved in a community of writers and readers.
- Our jury members provide a safety net. They double-check the results of our ranking system and are looking for hidden gems that might have been missed by the public.
- It’s also fun for readers! Everyone can read all the stories for free, and there’s a chance to win an iPad or eReader for writing quality reviews.
America’s Next Author Competition — http://www.ebookmall.com/americasnextauthor
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(This article may be re-posted.)
I’m kind of fascinated by the debate over traditional publishing vs self publishing. Some authors are saying that traditional publishers aren’t offering enough marketing help anymore, and that they end up having to do a lot of marketing themselves. If they were to self publish, they’d have to do all of the marketing but they’d make much more money on each sale. But I have to wonder if this is just coming from authors who haven’t been able to get a book accepted by one of the big publishers.
I also keep reading about authors who self-published and became extremely popular and made a ton of money. But real examples of this seem hard to find. It’s usually just “I heard about …” rather than actual examples. When Fifty Shades of Grey first became popular, I thought that it was book only available on Kindle, but it turns out that author was published by an imprint of Random House, one of the “big six”.
For example, in this recent article on the Huffington Post:
It used to be enough to be published by one of the big six publishers to sell your book. Now, a published author has to be an online marketing machine, just like self-published authors. And traditionally published authors are turning to self-published authors for tips to reach readers.
As Pittis wound down with her workshop, a woman turned to me. “I just met two women who self-published, and they are each making $40,000 a month,” she told me in a whisper. “Debut authors,” she added.
This is a good moment to explain that most romance authors — traditionally published or not — don’t make a lot of money. Many multi-published romance authors have day jobs and hope for the moment they can make a living with their books.
The same article then continues:
As we shuttled out of the luncheon on our way to more workshops, a woman got my attention. “Screw the Big Six!” she said to me.
“I’m published by the Big Six,” I said, sheepishly. … What was wrong with me, I worried. Was I stupid not to self-publish?
The woman’s mouth dropped open, and her eyes grew large. “Really?” she asked. “That’s fantastic. How did you do that? I’ve been trying for ages.”
I think this is probably a pretty universal thing. The feeling of acceptance an author gets from being traditionally published is a pretty large pull, whether or not that author still has to do some marketing on her own.
But what is an author to do? The standard advice has been to have a website, a blog, and be really active on social media. But now there are articles coming out saying that this might not be the answer. I found this article at The Guardian interesting. It’s kind of long, but this is the part that really stood out for me:
Self-styled eSpecialists such as Penn often invoke the 80/20 rule which advises that, as a sales person (in this case an author), you should spend 20% of your time writing and 80% of your time networking through social media. In tune with this, self-epublishing author Louise Voss recently informed me that the success of her ebooks came about as a result of spending about 80% of her time marketing.
And if that seems like a limitation on your creative time, consider the case of San Diego-based “book publicity and promotions expert” Paula Margulies, who is taking the 80/20 rule even further. She claims that when tweeting and Facebooking you should spend “80% of your time posting about things other than your book, and 20% selling. That’s right – 80% of what you post should not be a sales pitch.” Why does she recommend this? “Because readers are human beings, who long to make connections with others … They join social networking sites not to receive non-stop reminders to buy, but to develop relationships.” Margulies advocates that authors blog and tweet about hobbies and personal activities: things you like, and which you think will draw other people to you. Essentially, 80% of your tweeting should be about cats, food, sport, what’s happening outside your window – all the things that millions of non-writers tweet about. This theory is backed up by many other self-appointed social media specialists.
Let’s look at the stats. If we take Margulies and Penn seriously, how much time does this leave for actually writing? Most self-epublished authors hold down a day job, so let’s give them three hours a day, after work, for author activities. That’s 1,095 hours a year. Reduce this to 20% (since you have to spend 80% of your time covertly self-promoting online), and you get 219 writing hours a year, which works out as 18 12-hour days to write a book.
So … if you have to promote your book yourself it will be a HUGE job that won’t leave you enough time to actually write a book in the first place. If this is true, then my feeling is that being traditionally published is a better bet, in terms of marketing, at least, because your book will be on your publisher’s website, maybe even in some bookstores, and they will do some marketing for it.
On the other hand, if you just can’t get a publisher to buy your book, ebooks are now popular enough that self publishing isn’t a totally terrible idea. If you do sell any copies you will make more money because you don’t have to give a cut to a publisher, and maybe if you gain even a small amount of popularity a big publisher will take notice.
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