As reported by both Publishers Lunch’s Michael Cader and The New York Times‘s Motoko Rich this morning, Penguin Group is teaming up with Amazon and Hewlett Packard for a contest called The Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. Unpublished manuscripts will be first submitted to a group of Amazon’s top-rated reviewers (one suspects that all the manuscripts will pass Harriet Klausner’s loose standards with flying colors). From here, 100 finalists will be handed off to a panel consisting of Elizabeth Gilbert, agent Eric Simonoff, Penguin imprint founder Amy Einhorn, and NBCC President John Freeman.
The winner will receive a $25,000 advance and a publishing contract. But it is within these details that things start to get dicey. As Cader noted this morning:
The winner agrees to accept Penguin’s publishing contract “as is” and acknowledges it “is not negotiable…if he/she wishes to enter into the publishing contract being awarded.” But Penguin’s director of online sales & marketing Tim McCall says “it’s a good contract,” noting that “it is designed for someone who is getting their start in the business. That’s really what Penguin is looking for–a brand-new voice.”
In other words, the author, sidestepping the protective safeguards that an agent can ensure, has no leverage whatsoever in squaring away the contract details.
Likewise, since John Freeman is being billed in all publicity materials I can locate as “the president of the National Book Critics Circle” and has made no efforts to separate his personal participation from his association with the NBCC, I must therefore presume that, because Freeman is the head of the NBCC, the NBCC must, as a matter of course, endorse this contest, which represents authors abdicating all publishing rights, without discussion or compromise, to a single conglomerate. So is the NBCC now in the business of favoring one publisher above all others? That doesn’t seem like a sign of critical integrity to me. The NBCC’s support of this contest is no different from a critic who decides to throw his integrity to the wind and only review books by one publishing house.
While it is true that Freeman’s participation here is not an explicit “political activity” under the IRS code and Freeman is legally in the clear, it would make me feel more comfortable about the NBCC’s integrity if Freeman had lived up to the standards of what a “political activity” constitutes. Freeman’s alliance with Penguin is dangerously close to IRS requirements in which “organization leaders who speak or write in their individual capacity are encouraged to indicate clearly that their comments are personal and not intended to represent the views of the organization.”
It seems hypocritical for the NBCC to suggest a code of ethics for litbloggers when there remains not a single code of ethics for NBCC board members. (And why have the results for the NBCC ethics survey remained unannounced? Do ethics only apply to the online upstarts?) Shouldn’t a 501(c)3 organization of book critics stand for a variegated critical environment in which many publishers and critical voices are underneath one umbrella? And shouldn’t it stand for an environment in which organization leaders remain transparent about their activities and untainted from corporate influence?