‘Keep Your Eyes on the Prize: Unpublished Manuscript Competitions and You’, by Martin Shaw

It’s a commonplace to say that the path to book publication in Australia for most emerging writers is not just a long one, but also often quite opaque and mysterious. Sure, there are writing courses to finesse your craft, and a number of fine journals, magazines and websites to write for and build up some publication history. But what do you do with that book-length manuscript that you’ve been working diligently on? Are you feeling that it might actually be ready for submission? At the back of your mind are you wondering, “How on earth do I go about this? Just submit it and hope that it’ll be noticed in an editor or publishing house’s slush pile?”

At this point there are a number of avenues open to you. You could submit your manuscript directly to a publishing house (more on this below), or approach an agent (full admission: I’m one of those), or even a manuscript assessor first to get some feedback on whether it needs work before you submit it.

Or: you could enter one of the growing number of competitions out there for unpublished manuscripts. It’s these I want to dwell on here, not just because they are sprouting up everywhere, but also because although they can be a wonderful vehicle for making a bit of a name for yourself as a writer, they are not without their murkier aspects that might possibly do harm to your nascent writing career.

Each and all of these competitions do at first glance seem to constitute an ideal opportunity – one need look no further than the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript and the careers it has launched (Graeme Simsion, Maxine Beneba Clarke, Jane Harper, to name just three). Or there’s the Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award, which Hannah Kent won with the manuscript of her novel Burial Rites. And perhaps the most well-known prize of this kind in Australia is the Vogel Literary Award, for a writer aged under 35. It has launched many writers into orbit, including Tim Winton, Kate Grenville, and Eva Hornung.

In these competitions your manuscript will be considered (I’m not going to say ‘read’, because it’s fair to say that for the majority of submissions to these prizes only a percentage of the manuscript is read), and if the stars align you might land on a shortlist or even win the gong.

Nowadays, alongside the above mentioned competitions, there are a number of others that are getting plenty of publicity – including the Scribe Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers, the Richell Prize, the Dorothy Hewett Award for an Unpublished Manuscript, the Text Prize, the KYD Unpublished Manuscript Award, and the Penguin Random House prize for a literary manuscript. And only a few weeks ago there was a new competition announced for work emerging from the NaNoWriMo movement, underwritten by an online publishing platform as well as two traditional publishing houses.

So far so good, you might say! Lots of opportunities for me, an emerging writer, a wannabe book author! But what I’d like to suggest to you is that if you are planning on entering these prizes, you should always be on the look-out for something of an ulterior motive from the folks running the competition. For what is now the case more often than not is that there is a publishing house involved: either it’s a prize they are offering on their own initiative (Hachette, Text, PRH), or the publishing house is offering financial support and/or helping with the judging (PRH for KYD, UWAP for the Dorothy Hewett). And what do these publishing houses seek in return? Answer: first dibs on considering the winning entry, or any shortlisted entry (or even any entry) for publication. Which is the dream, you might say! (That you could still land a book deal without even winning – this can only be good, right?)

It makes perfect sense for publishing houses to see and seize the opportunity in these prizes. After all, most of them are usually inundated with submissions week after week, and ideally they desire some sort of filtering process so that they only need spend time considering work which to their mind has real potential. And of course the opportunity of seeing work exclusively, before any other publishing house or any agent has set eyes on it, has great appeal. As such, you might notice that with the KYD prize, for instance, a senior commissioning editor from PRH is on the judging panel. Which isn’t necessarily nefarious in any way! (The terms and conditions of the prize are no longer available online, so it’s impossible to say whether there is any proprietary agreement involved here with submissions – but it’s likely that there isn’t any. UPDATE: the terms and conditions are now available to read, and they mention no proprietary agreement with PRH.) It’s just a case of a publishing house securing an excellent opportunity for themselves to access some quality manuscripts, and no one should be in the least surprised to see a relationship grow between this publishing house and the winner and/or shortlistees: this is how publishing tends to work, after all: by editors locating writers on their radars and going on to form relationships with them.

Alas, things seemed to get a bit shadier with Penguin Random House’s competition. Announced earlier this year, there existed some particularly extreme clauses in the terms and conditions of the award – a tweet by writer Ben Walter first drew attention to this fact. The worst of the clauses stipulated that simply by entering, all of the entrant’s intellectual property rights irrevocably became the property of PRH. (Once Walter drew attention to it it was then quickly amended – although now all traces of the prize, including the terms and conditions, have disappeared.) This episode is a terrific reminder how important it is to have your eyes open if you are thinking of entering a competition, to always read the terms and conditions and be sure you truly know what each term and each condition means, legally speaking, and also morally. Above all, it is increasingly important to be aware that if you are entering a competition that features the involvement of a publishing house, that you make sure you know precisely what this might mean for your manuscript.

There are some current unpublished manuscripts competitions that are very straight-up. Consider the competitions run by Hachette: its Manuscript Development Programme, and the Richell Prize. With the former it is very clear that one of its key spoils is the opportunity for you to work with Hachette’s editors, with the hope (but not promise) of publication down the track. (“Hachette Australia does not guarantee publication of manuscripts selected for the programme but reserves the first right to review the selected manuscripts.”) Nothing is set in stone – it’s just assumed that a writer entering this competition would consider it a win-win situation. And the Richell Prize offers as part of its terms not a publication deal in itself but that they will “mentor the winner through to a stage where we both feel comfortable discussing publication opportunities”. Another clause states that “Hachette Australia will have the first option to consider the finished winning work and finished shortlisted entries for publication” – which basically means that before you start possibly entertaining interest from other publishers on the basis of your shortlisting, you grant Hachette first right of refusal, which seems fairly reasonable.

The storied Vogel Literary Award has several sponsors, including the publishing house Allen & Unwin, who in the competition’s terms and conditions are granted the right to publish the winning book. It is worth noting that this right is not just for Australia – Allen & Unwin are granted exclusive worldwide publishing rights. Some might argue that requesting exclusive worldwide rights is a big grab, while others wouldn’t find it unduly problematic, simply viewing it as a sensible way for them to recoup their investment in the award. (The Text Prize for young adult children’s literature has the same condition.) But it has to be noted that Allen and Unwin are granted these exclusive worldwide rights not just for the winning manuscript, but also to any other entry they feel is of sufficient merit. Sure, for some entrants this might be a great scenario – that you might be picked up by a fine Australian independent publishing house without even needing to win sounds marvellous. But that you grant these rights simply by entering – and that no literary agent could easily extract you from this situation should it seem in your interest to do so – is something about which every entrant must be fully cognisant.

Scribe’s Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers (coordinated with Express Media) goes into considerable detail in its terms and conditions about just what entrants are consigning when they enter the prize. Naturally, Scribe acquires the first option to publish the winning entrant. They also get first dibs on all of the shortlisted entries, and have three months after the prize is awarded to choose whether to exercise this option. And this competition’s prize money is a fairly paltry $3,000 (it used to be just $1,500, and in the very first year of its awarding the prize was divided between two co-winners), particularly as “the prize money may form part of any commercial arrangement” – meaning that this $3,000 may very well double as the author’s advance for a publishing deal. And, although this is of course not explicitly stated, it is the absolute norm for publishing houses these days to vigorously insist that a publishing deal includes exclusive world rights. As such, any manuscript discovered through this competition becomes potentially a very savvy acquisition for Scribe – and it could be argued the author’s best interest is likely lost among all this.

The latest competition to spring up, recently announced by online publisher Tablo, has them teaming up with Hardie Grant Egmont and Pantera – each of whom wouldn’t be involved unless it could result in potential publishing deals. The latter house, a relatively new player in the Australian publishing landscape, is known to have a number of idiosyncrasies in their arrangements with authors, including that royalties are not paid to authors until all costs, including marketing costs, have been earned back. Pantera also attempts to lock authors in for their entire career – the option clause in an initial publishing contract with Pantera demands all of an author’s future works, and if an author does ever want to leave, and then publishes with another publisher within two years, the author is required to pay 50% of their earnings back to Pantera. It should go without saying that this is the last situation an emerging writer would want to find themself in.

So, is there some huge and sinister plot in the Australian publishing industry? No.

Should you just try the traditional route to publication? Not necessarily.

Are all these prizes scams? Not at all!

Each of these competitions is potentially a wonderful opportunity for an emerging writer. Enter one. Enter them all! But please, do so with your eyes fully open. Be aware that in most cases these competitions are a means for publishing houses to secure promising intellectual property without rival houses being able to get a look-in, and at the best possible terms. Neither of these motives are necessarily in your interest as an author.

Remember: these competitions are just one course of action. Instead, you could talk to other writers, particularly published ones, about their publishing houses and editors, and figure out whether they seem a good fit for your manuscript. (If your relationship is solid enough with said writer, they might also be prepared to make some sort of introduction.) Although, you don’t need to possess a network like that – you can simply identify – and this shouldn’t be too difficult if you commit to immersing yourself in as much Australian publishing activity as you can – who are the best publishing houses for your work. Even better: try and find out which editor was responsible for any books that seem similar in spirit to your own, or simply impressed you a great deal, and then approach this editor via a submission. (There’s no guarantee for how successful this could be – the walls of the publishing stockade are kept deliberately high.) Similarly, another canny move would be to identify any literary agents who represent authors that appeal to you. Or, if you have any sort of budget, consider turning to manuscript assessors or freelance editors, for not only will they provide a great deal more feedback than you would get from entering a competition or submitting a manuscript directly to a publishing house, they could very well have links to editors or publishers.

Lastly, but also maybe most importantly: if and when you do find yourself in possession of a publishing contract, whatever you do, don’t sign it! That is, at least not until you thoroughly understand all the clauses and terms, hopefully with the assistance of an industry professional like an established author or another editor or a literary agent. These days, the fine print of standard publishing contracts – not unlike the fine print of some of the competitions discussed above – tend to weigh heavily in the publishing house’s favour. Details like subsidiary and territorial rights, as well as option clauses, can have far bigger implications on your career than, say, the amount of the advance or the royalty rates.

Having a book published is a dream come true – but your career is more real than any fantasy. Looking out for your own interests doesn’t make you cynical or greedy. Letting others encroach upon those interests? You already have it hard enough as a writer in this modern world – don’t make it any harder.

Martin Shaw works as a translator, literary agent and author manager in Leipzig, Germany. For many years he was the head book buyer for Melbourne's Readings bookshops.