Amazon Breakthrough novel award

As the 2009 edition of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest ramps up—the “American Idol” of the book world, if you will—Darryl Lorenzo Wellington has published a rather sorrowful insider’s account of last year’s (the first), at n+1.

Having always promoted itself as a company that empowers readers, the Amazon contest appealed to (manipulated?) a very internet-savvy reading community. A short history: in late 2007 Amazon issued a call for online manuscripts, and from October 1 to November 5 accepted the first five thousand manuscripts they received. Volunteers from Amazon’s interactive community of “Top Reviewers” (self-styled lit-lovers who have written thousands of customer reviews) weeded those five thousand entries down to 836.

Then the so-called professionals got involved. NBCC critics received truckloads of the full manuscripts and browsed them. The critics penned anonymous capsule reviews, following a format provided by Publishers Weekly. Amazon created a special webpage featuring a five-thousand-word excerpt from each novel, available for download and customer review. The “contestants” were stacked in alphabetical order by their titles, without cover illustrations—like test products without wrappers or packaging. Eventually Amazon added the Publishers Weekly reviews, thus creating a webpage where anyone who wanted could view mostly negative and occasionally scathing reviews of nearly a thousand unpublished books.

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