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August 26, 2013
By Grace Bello
Think of it as American Idol for new authors: the experts weigh in, and the audience votes.

Since 2008, the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award has discovered and published authors, many of whom have never been published before. In this contest, which is capped at 10,000 entries, the book pitch and the manuscript are what matter—not an author’s track record or book industry connections.

Think of it as American Idol for new authors: the experts weigh in, and the audience votes. Publishers Weekly critics and Amazon editors curate the first rounds of submissions, but the final round enlists Amazon customers to vote for their favorite novel out of five finalists, which wins the Grand Prize—a publishing contract with a $50,000 advance. There is no fee to enter, and submissions are judged without revealing the authors’ names until the semifinal round—-a sort of blind taste test. “It forces the work to stand on its own and speak for itself,” wrote Terry Goodman, senior editor at Amazon Publishing, via email—which makes the ABNA contest perhaps the most democratic way of getting a debut novel published.

One of this year’s entrants, North Carolina–based Rysa Walker, couldn’t find a literary agent. She had started writing her YA novel in 2004, back when her son was still wearing Elmo slippers. In between teaching history online for the University of Maryland and shuttling her two kids off to school, she would work from her home office on her story about a time traveling teen named Kate. The book, inspired by her work as a historian and her interest in the equal rights movement, was titled Time’s Twisted Arrow.

When she reached out to agents, Walker says, “I didn’t hear back, or heard ‘this isn’t for me.’ ”

So she took her YA novel and self-published it through her own imprint, Gypsy Moon Books. She had entered the ABNA contest in 2012 with no success: “I left my name in the header of one of the files. I don’t know if that was it, but I didn’t make it past the pitch stage.”

"I remember the night the first-stage ‘winners’ were announced. I saw my name and the name of my novel and I screamed with happiness."
She decided to enter her book again in January 2013. After all, who knows what could happen?

Writing Was a Hobby

For many of the authors who have won the ABNA contest, novel writing was a hobby and becoming career authors seemed like an unlikely goal. When they were notified by email that they were still in the running, they were shocked.

“To me, [being a writer] sounded like being an astronaut or a movie star,” says Kansas-based Regina Sirois, the 2012 ABNA Young Adult Fiction winner for On Little Wings (Viking Juvenile, 2013).

“I was a closet writer,” says Amy Ackley of Brighton, Mich., the 2010 ABNA Young Adult Fiction winner for her novel Sign Language (Viking Juvenile, 2011). “I hadn’t told anybody that I wrote in my spare time.”

Florida-based Jill Baguchinsky had written three novels, all unpublished, before penning her tale of a teenage paranormal investigator, Spookygirl (Dutton Juvenile, 2012). Before James King of Wilton, Conn., wrote Bill Warrington’s Last Chance (Viking, 2010), he had written four novels that had gotten rejected. So when they heard about the Amazon contest, the aspiring authors figured they had nothing to lose. There was no cost to enter, and any rejection would be no worse than what they had already experienced when agents declined their manuscripts.

“I had always had zero expectations of making it up through the stages,” writes Barcelona-based Jo Chumas in an e-mail. Her thriller about a murder in Egypt in the 1940s, The Hidden (Thomas & Mercer, 2013), was a finalist in the 2013 ABNA contest. “I remember the night the first-stage ‘winners’ were announced. I saw my name and the name of my novel and I screamed with happiness.”

Alan Averill of Seattle discovered the competition by Googling the phrase “novel writing contest.” “I was surprised to get past the pitch [stage],” says the author of the 2012 ABNA General Fiction winner, The Beautiful Land (Ace Trade, 2013). “Each time it kept advancing, it felt more and more ridiculous.” He says of his attitude to the competition, “I’m just happy to be here!”

Breaking Through the Noise

The novels that survived round after round of judging offered a wide range of unique perspectives and sensibilities, culled from the respective authors’ diverse experiences far away from the Manhattan literary scene. But enduring the pressure of the highly selective contest came with its own set of challenges.

The ABNA contest was highly competitive from the start—and has only gotten tougher. During the inaugural contest in 2008, Amazon received more than 5,000 submissions from 2,000 cities around the world, all contending for one publishing contract with Penguin and a $25,000 advance. Spectators kept track of the authors and novels that were still in the running by viewing the list on Amazon’s Web site. Staying in the contest was a high stakes game, and not everyone thrived under the pressure.

Says Bill Loehfelm, whose Staten Island–based thriller Fresh Kills (Putnam, 2008) won the Grand Prize in the 2008 contest, “It’s weird because there’s a tremendous amount of rejection and, through the contest, a lot of the rejection is public. When you do it the traditional way, at least all the rejection is private. You don’t have everybody watching the contest seeing you get bumped.”

Thanks to an overwhelming response to the inaugural ABNA contest, Amazon widened the net the following year, opening up the contest to twice as many entries but shortening the competition from six months to three and a half months. This attracted submissions from every state in the U.S. and 21 other countries. Amazon introduced a panel of book industry insiders, including Sue Grafton and Sue Monk Kidd. Again, only one author would emerge triumphant.

Says Amazon spokesperson Brittany Turner, “We found that we were getting a lot of YA, so we decided to branch it off.” Two Grand Prize winners were awarded in the 2010 contest, one in general fiction and one in young adult fiction. And Amazon deemed self-published books eligible for entry, not just unpublished manuscripts. Though the competition would award two publishing contracts with Penguin, each author would receive an advance of $15,000, down from the previous year’s $25,000.

In 2011 and 2012, the rules remained the same, and the 2012 competition attracted the most entries in the history of the contest. However, in 2013, Amazon widened the winners’ circle once again and featured five finalist slots and, among them, one Grand Prize winner. To make it to the final five, a book needed to make it to the top spot in one of the following categories: General Fiction, Romance, Mystery/Thriller, Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror, or Young Adult Fiction. Why the expansion? Though the publishing sponsor for years had been Penguin, this year it was Amazon itself. “This was our opportunity to have each of our imprints publish one of the winners,” says Turner. From there, Amazon customers would vote for their favorite entry. All finalists would receive a publishing contract from Amazon, but the finalists would earn a $15,000 advance while the Grand Prize winner would land a $50,000 advance.

“The publishing world seemed to me like this scary, private club with only a few select members,” Chumas says. “Writers enter ABNA and the absolute only thing judged is their writing. It isn’t about who you know, who you went to school with, the color of your skin, your gender. ABNA entries are submitted anonymously so judges have no idea who is who. This means it’s a fair and equal playing field. I think that’s brilliant.”

Underdog Authors

From Amazon’s perspective, the ABNA contest serves several purposes. Says Turner, “It’s kind of a mix of giving authors a new outlet and having customers have a direct say in what makes it out into the world.” But also the retailing giant gets to leverage its self-publishing platform and scout talent for its own imprints: CreateSpace hosts contest entries, and Amazon Publishing’s various imprints bring the winning books into the world. But for the authors themselves, landing their book deals and advances is a dream come true.

Winning the inaugural competition transformed Loehfelm from a bartender who wrote on the side to an author who bartends on the side. But he says that the greatest gift he received thanks to the attention of the ABNA has been his agent Barney Karpfinger, who also represents John Lescroart. Says Loehfelm, “My goal was not to win a contest, it was to start a career.” He has since published Bloodroot (Putnam, 2009), The Devil She Knows (FSG/Sarah Crichton Books, 2011) and The Devil in Her Way (FSG/Sarah Crichton Books, 2013).

ABNA contestant James King was a freelance corporate writer who had written four novels, all rejected by agents. Then, at the age of 55, he enrolled In the Manhattanville College writing program and began writing a manuscript inspired by one of his neighbors, “a very gritty New Englander with a heart of gold.” King’s novel, Bill Warrington’s Last Chance, won the 2009 ABNA contest and was published in 2010.

The 2010 ABNA winners, Amy Ackley in the young adult category for Sign Language and Patricia McArdle in the general fiction category for Farishta (Riverhead Hardcover, 2011), both began their manuscripts far away from the New York publishing scene.

McArdle, a retired diplomat, finished revisions on her manuscript in January 2010 while visiting a refugee camp in Chad. Her novel about a woman’s struggle for redemption against the backdrop of northern Afghanistan was inspired by her experiences working in the region for the Department of State. “I kept a detailed journal when I was in Afghanistan,” she says. “When I came back, I considered writing a nonfiction account, but I decided I might be able to reach more people [with fiction] and I could also be freer with my opinions. I had never taken a workshop. I bought five books on how to write a novel.”

After her win for Farishta, which came out in paperback last year, McCardle’s now working on a film adaptation of the book and will soon begin her second novel. Ackley, who won the 2010 ABNA for young adult fiction, hails from Michigan where, after the death of her father when she was 16, she and her 17-year-old brother lived on their own. “I worked three jobs and put myself through college.” Despite her love of creative writing, she pursued a more stable career in human resources.

But then grief permeated her adult life as well: she lost a 37-year-old friend to breast cancer, who left two kids behind. “I saw those kids try to pretend everything was okay. I remembered how I was, and how much I buried my own grief. I took care of [my father] at home, and I watched him deteriorate every day. At that age, it’s very difficult to imagine your parent being mortal. And I started writing about that experience.” She says that she saw a need for a novel for young adults that dealt with terminal illness.

Sign Language hit bookshelves in 2011. Since then, she has been invited to speak at libraries, schools, and community groups about topics including how to reach at-risk youth. She is currently shopping around her second YA novel and is at work on her third book.

The 2011 competition selected Gregory Hill’s East of Denver (Dutton Adult, 2012) for general fiction and Jill Baguchinsky’s Spookygirl for young adult fiction. Hill’s first manuscript “got 130 rejections.” So for his darkly funny novel about struggling rural America, “the inspiration was not in anticipation of getting published.”

East of Denver won the 2013 Colorado Book Award for Fiction in June and recently got optioned for a film adaptation. Hill says that, thanks to winning the competition, “I’m no longer completely obscure, and that’s difficult to achieve, and I’m very happy that that’s over.”

Baguchinsky, a small business owner living in Marco Island, Fla., had spent a decade writing novels and trying to get them published. “It was always ‘wrong place, wrong time,’” she says. She wrote Spookygirl, her fourth book, as part of the novel writing marathon NaNoWriMo. When she won the 2011 ABNA in young adult fiction, she says, “It basically jump-started the career I’ve been trying to start for 10 years.”

Since Spookygirl hit bookshelves in August 2012, Baguchinsky has crafted several more manuscripts and found an agent, Danielle Chiotti of Upstart Crow Literary.

Sirois, the 2012 ABNA winner for young adult fiction, went from being a stay-at-home mom in Kansas who wrote fiction at her baby’s bedside to publishing her literary YA book On Little Wings: “I wanted a story that I would feel good about my daughters reading. I felt like it was getting to the point where it was difficult to find a story about a human who didn’t have superpowers and wasn’t saving the world. I wanted them to know that their lives still mattered even though there weren’t extraordinary circumstances.” Her novel explores one girl’s mother’s severed past, and the daughter’s quest to reconnect with her true roots.

Her book, which came out in May, landed on the Kids’ Indie Next List and will bring her to schools and libraries this fall to speak about reading and literature.

“I would call it a dream job,” she says. “I didn’t imagine I would make it into the pack—and certainly not to the top of the pack. It’s something I’ve always wanted but never expected.”

Seattle-based Averill, who won in 2012 for general fiction, was unemployed, having quit his job as a video game scriptwriter at Nintendo. As with Baguchinsky, NaNoWriMo prompted him to hammer out his novel. He entered the ABNA in early 2012 as a sort of last resort: “I didn’t know what else to do with the book. I had sent it to every agent who might be interested. It’s a sci-fi, fiction, horror, love story mashup. I had been turned down by all the agents, and I had nothing to lose by entering.”

This Year’s Winner

Goodman says of this year’s crop of entries, “Within the fiction category, there was a whimsical book about minor league baseball players in the 1930’s, a searing portrait of 19th-century gender limitations, a contemporary comedy set in China, and a book about a group of culinary experts set in London. All had compelling characters, original POVs, and a maturity in the writing that was heartening and surprising.”

Walker and fellow finalists Chumas, Ken Moraff, Evelyn Pryce, and J. Lincoln Fenn were flown out to the June 16 ABNA ceremony in Seattle. And to Walker’s delight, Amazon declared her book, renamed Timebound (Skyscape, 2013), the Grand Prize winner of the 2013 ABNA. She landed a book deal with Amazon and a $50,000 advance. Her novel comes out November 1.

Though she still doesn’t have a literary agent, Walker says the advance allowed her to scale back on teaching and focus more on her writing. She plans to expand Timebound into a series with two more full-length novels and two novellas.

Of winning her book deal alongside the four other finalists at the award ceremony, she says, “We all knew our books were going to get published; it’s nice to know we were all leaving with a chance to make it. Any one of those books can take off, it’s just a matter of whether it connects with the readers.”