Lessons from the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award

I’m probably not the first to write about the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, because there were several self-published books entered in it.

Including mine, God’s Thunderbolt: The Vigilanates of Montana.

I entered it, although it has already won the 2009 Spur from Western Writers of America, as an experiment. In the first ABNA contest, it didn’t make the first cut. I dropped the “prologue” on the advice of an experienced, published author, and made some more editing changes, none of which materially altered the writing or the story.

This year, with the contest open to self-published books, I thought, what the hell. Let’s see how my literary Western does outside its niche market area.

It made it into the top 50, or 1%.

Not bad, I think. OK, so it is not among the finalists, but I’m pretty surprised at how well it did. It received good reviews from the professional reviewers, and highly enthusiastic reviews from readers, as well as terrific comments from people who did not offer a review. Cool. The review from Publisher’s Weekly was not enthusiastic, in that the reviewer did not love the book, but it was good enough to post on my website, especially the conclusion.

PW said it’s “An excellent western with an intense moral gravity.”

One or two people knew it had already won the Spur, but no one spilled the beans.

Interestingly, when I read the excerpts from the three finalists, I was not impressed. Neither were some of the judges, or so their reviews said. One out of every three reviews of each of the finalists’ excerpts mentioned doing more or less editorial work to make the novels work. Here are samples of judges’ comments:

“no real buildup of complexity or tension, leaving us with a series of semi-connected incidents rather than an overall narrative arc.”

“there’s a tendency to tell rather than show. The dialogue often becomes stilted, and the characters feel two-dimensional, as if they’ve been created to embody various facets of the themes rather than as human beings in their own right.”

“the denouement feels slightly patchy and rushed, and there are a few clumsy moments when the author spells out the nuances of a situation or conversation rather than trusting his own skill to bring them across more subtly.”

“A novel that begins as a character-rich and probing (and genuinely compelling) … takes a razor-sharp turn away from this hot subject”

And this: ” The narrative is seriously lacking in discipline, with no detail spared, no regional ritual excised, no minute element of military-camp protocol truncated. … 150 pages too long. The love affair is preposterously drawn out, and crucial events are anticlimactically telegraphed rather than dramatized. … And yet I am intrigued by the potential here. … I do firmly believe that with a strong editorial hand (it) could be a hugely successful, even revelatory, novel.”

Why did they win, while 47 others did not? I don’t know. What do you think?

  • First, congrats on getting into the top 50. I only made it past the pitch, the except is what excluded 4000 of us (per side), and that’s where I had to stop paying attention to the ABNA process. I don’t want this to sound like a rant at all, since I know I wouldn’t win anyways, I just want to explain what I saw and my conclusions afterwards. It was the except reviews that were messy, horrendous affairs. A lot of good books, ones that probably should have been finalists, were probably cut for bad reasons. If you followed the boards, you’d have noticed quite a bit of outrage when people got their Vine reviews back. It would have been fine if it were normal outrage or disappointment at not making it through. But this was a group of fine writers who could take critique when it was correct.

    But this outrage was justified, terribly so. Several people posted the Vine reviews they received, and links to their excepts. I will grant that some reviewers were wonderful. But several were not. I know one author, who has now been offered a book deal and has been selling truckloads of her book on Kindle, who lost in that round because one reviewer decided that even one swear word, in context, was too many, ignored the rest of the novel, and harped on that. I won’t talk much about my reviews, so it doesn’t sound like this is about me. It’s not, it’s about everything I saw go on. My reviewers didn’t care for my book, but not because it was bad, both liked it. But one saw a mistake that ruined it all for them (fixed the three! words since then), and the other thought I was writing for a much younger age-group than I am, and had “suggestions” to make it easier for children to understand. I did submit to the YA category, but my book is not for children.

    After that, I cannot help but think the entire process has been a crapshoot, based on whether you get a good reviewer or not. An objective one, who knows what criteria to judge from. There was an excellent, wonderful article on a news site written by one of the Vine reviewers talking about his experiences and how he judged things. He knew the difference between liking a particular genre and being objective. He knew that these might be rough drafts that would be hit with the editing stick later on. He knew exactly what criteria to focus on, and could think from a publisher’s point of view.

    Even then, there was also several threads by people saying they received terrible, gut-wrenching reviews from both reviewers, but still made it to the next round! They were asking why they made it to the next round! Other’s received good reviews from both, and were cut. There was no transparency.

    I’m certainly okay with being dropped early, since I knew that it’s tough to make it past other great authors when you’re only being judged on the first few thousand words of your work. Many of us were fine with being cut. But the inconsistency, individual bias, and “luck of the draw” system, has really put me off.

    Going back to the people who were cut at the second round, the other self-published author I payed attention to is currently sitting in the top 20 for each of the three categories her book is in, plus publishing deals in the works. With her curse words left in.

    It’s luck. And a contest like this should never, ever be about luck. Period. Amazon needs long, clear standards for the reviewers in the initial rounds to strictly follow.

    Sorry for such a long comment, but it was tough seeing great people cut on things other than the merits of their works. I sincerely applaud you for making it that far. Many books that did make it through were good. You are in the top %1, and that’s a wonderful achievement.

    • I agree, James. You’ve touched on the primary lack in the contest: standards of excellence. Maybe I’m naive (probably so), but I associate “contest” with “excellence.” I expected to read stunning excerpts from the finalists, and I saw two inferior ones and one better-than-average.

      Even after reading the reviews of (now) all three excerpts, I’m no wiser than before about the criteria for winning the ABNA.

  • “After that, I cannot help but think the entire process has been a crapshoot, based on whether you get a good reviewer or not.”

    Kind of like publishing?

    • Yup! You’re right, Kristen. The criteria for winning the ABNA are just as mysterious as the criteria for placing a book with a publisher or an agent.

      Self-publishing makes more sense all the time!

  • I have a feeling that when it came down to it, there was just no way that they could give that many books a fair critique and picked only a few frontrunners to judge. My book (already a successful and well-reviewed self-pub novel) made it into the top 250. The vine reviews were good but the PW ‘review’ was nothing more than a flat synopsis, an indication that the reviewers were possibly overwhelmed by the numbers of books needing to be reviewed. I’d have been happy with a bad review but what I got was something useless that basically amounted to a recap of the jacket copy.

    Having now read the finalist’s excerpts and their associated reviews, I’m as baffled as many others by the choices.

    • Congratulations for making it into the quarter-finals! That’s an achievement to be proud of.

      “Baffled” is exactly how I feel about it. Do you think you’ll enter the ABNA again?

    • A.S., forgot to mention that if you enter the ABNA again, I wish you success.

  • Kristen’s response is spot on, and hilarious. I didn’t think of it that way, and have been laughing ever since. I could have avoided my entire post and just written that!

    A S: I work in a field involved where data is received, checked, reviewed, and then quality controlled. We do the equivalent of 1000 reviews a week. All with strict quality standards with someone making sure we did it right. It only requires a team of 15 people, tops, to do it all pretty quickly, or in about 4 weeks like Amazon had. Amazon had more reviewers than that. I don’t think that the main cause was that they were overwhelmed: I think they don’t have a proper procedure in place.

  • Once again, James, I agree, but as I wrote earlier, I don’t think they have criteria for a “good” book.

    Forgot to say above that if you enter ABNA next year, I wish you success.

  • I entered my historical, White Seed: The Untold Story of the Lost Colony of Roanoke, in 2009, and it made it to the top 100. I too received a review from Publishers Weekly which was overall positive, but a little snooty, with the reviewer hinting that he or she usually didn’t read genre fiction, etc. However, a little editing and the review works fine.

    Having published four books commercially, I thought I could go all the way to the top three or four, so I entered in 2010. I used the same exact excerpt, and never made the first cut.

    Go figure.

    Now, the book is POD published and available on Kindle. Doing well, actually, in the top 100 in the Kindle Historical Fiction category. I will soon launch a major campaign to win Agency representation. But if I don’t get that I don’t see it as the end of the line. I know what I’ve created and I know it can do well. It will just take longer if I have to do it all on my own and show them how.

    Leave no stone unturned and never give up. And don’t let the bastards grind you down. Best!

    • The great hing about self-publishing, Paul, is that we can go direct to the reader without the intervening publisher. It’s a viable alternative to traditional publishing for some, and a shortcut for others.

      I’m glad your book is availble on Kindle and doing well! All the best to you, too!

  • I also made it to the semifinals with CALLING OUT YOUR NAME in the YA category, but the book is enough of a “crossover” to adult fiction that it was tough for it to make it to the top three. I also found the reviews uneven and sometimes confusing (the PW reviewer used the phrase “passe conclusion,” which I couldn’t clearly parse). I think a semifinalist review or comment from the Penguin readers would have been hugely helpful. Maybe they’ll do it next year… In the meantime, I’m getting an agent read based on its winning two silver medals, from Moonbeam and Foreword Magazine, so we’ll see.

    Ironically, Penguin published my first novel twenty years ago…maybe the ABNA folks knew that about me and didn’t want to risk any possible appearance of conflict or favoritism (the book didn’t sell well, though).

    The YA world these days tilts strongly toward fantasy and speculative fiction, usually in dystopic settings – see the New Yorker’s summer fiction issue from a couple of weeks ago – and I think the top three were broadly in that vein. My story is anything but – a “real-life” picaresque adventure that could’ve happened to any kid setting off on a cross-country trek.

    Good work, Carol, and best of luck.

    • Ned, we’ll never be able to second guess any publisher, or any contest that doesn’t specify its criteria, but bases its selections on some amorphous “feel” for what might sell well. The publishers, in my opinion, are trying to time the market as it were, to speculate in advance of public taste. That’s about as successful as trying to time the stock market.

  • Carol, couldn’t agree more. They rarely know what they want unless they’re chasing an upcurve (i.e. Penguin was starving for new mystery novels 20 years back…), but then they also can spot literary excellence (I think of DeLillo, Roth, Updike…) and will usually (but not always) publish such works, figuring they’ll be mid-list but wanting to support them from their big sellers.

    I think ABNA was looking for both… this year and last. Just a guess, though.

    • Ned, you’re probably right about what ABNA has been looking for. But I’m still mystified by the finalists’ reviews, although I’m very happy for their success. May all writers succeed with their dreams!

  • Thank you, all. Would you all do it again? I might with my next. Best!

    • Do what, Paul? Enter the ABNA? Perhaps, but not in 2011. It’s a very long contest. Self-publish again? Darn right! In fact, I’m self-publishing Gold Under Ice tlater this summer through CreateSpace. Good luck to you!