Breakthrough Winner

The dream came true yesterday for James King. His first book, "Bill Warrington's Last Chance," has won the annual Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest. The prize is what every aspiring writer wants most: a publishing contract and a $25,000 advance. Viking plans to release his novel next summer. James King.jpg

I caught up with Mr. King by phone as he was traveling back home to Wilton, Conn., from the ceremony at Battery Park in New York. "This is something I've always hoped for since I was a kid," he said. "My jaw is still hanging down."

If you're tired of seeing Ivy League undergrads getting these sweet publishing deals, King's life story will warm your heart. The 54-year-old has been a freelance corporate communications specialist for two decades. A couple of years ago he went back to school in Purchase, N.Y., for an MA in creative writing. The manuscript he completed during that program eventually beat out the thousands of other entries from around the world submitted to the Amazon contest.

Making it to the winner's circle is a testament to talent and endurance. Amazon editors selected 2,000 manuscripts in the first round, then cut the field down to 500. At that stage, reviewers from Publishers Weekly came in and narrowed the pile to 100 semi-finalists. "I was pleased to see I'd made that," King said, "but I thought, 'Well, that's the end of the road. I'll never make more than that.' "

In fact, he had so little expectation of being chosen as one of the three finalists that when an Amazon spokesman reached him by cell phone on the commuter train, King thought it was just an annoying telemarketer. "Okay," he snapped, "you've got me. What do you want?"

"It was just a fantastic experience. If I hadn't been on the Metro North, I would have been screaming and jumping up and down. I haven't had a full night's sleep since then."

Bestselling authors Sue Grafton and Sue Monk Kidd, Penguin Press editor Eamon Dolan and literary agent Barney Karpfinder posted their critiques of the three finalists online, and then it was up to Amazon customers to read and vote for their favorite -- like American Idol, but without the ad nauseam TV, magazine and newspaper coverage....

"Bill Warrington's Last Chance" is about a man who wants to reconnect with his estranged adult children before Alzheimer's ruins his mind. Unable to get their attention, he finally kidnaps his granddaughter.

"The story's based on a neighbor of mine," King says, "a crusty New England Yankee type. When I moved here 25 years ago, he'd recently lost his wife, and the house he'd practically built by hand was starting to fall apart. I'd go over and try to be of help when I could. That kind of character led me to develop the character in my book."

You can read the judges' enthusiastic praise here. Sue Monk Kidd, who knows book clubs like Mrs. Smith knows pies, claims "Bill Warrington's Last Chance" is just what they want to read. Naturally, Amazon is already taken orders.

-- Ron Charles

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By Ron Charles |  May 28, 2009; 5:04 AM ET Ron Charles
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