06/04/2010 01:29 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The "American Idol" of Publishing

"When I was eighteen and read Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler, the desire to write a private eye novel was firmly planted in my soul," says Thomas Kaufman.

Kaufman went on to USC, studying writing as well as film. After his 1981 graduation, camera work not only sustained him, it won him an Emmy and a slew of other awards. But in between gigs, he would pack up his laptop and head for the nearest coffee shop to work on his novel. Once, he even wrote a chapter during one of his kid's friend's birthday parties at Chuck E. Cheese's (for the uninitiated, think working in the middle of a crowded amusement park, only louder and with more flying cake and sticky beverages). Other times, he could be found writing at soccer practices, play rehearsals, and the orthodontist's office.

In general, however, Kaufman did not write nearly as much during family time. "And I'm really glad about that," he says.

Thus, thirty-three years happily passed. Along the way, he accomplished his goal of completing a private eye novel, and began more. He encountered only one hurdle: Finding a publisher.

After numerous attempts, self-doubt began to set in. He continued taking writing classes, though, and during one of them, he heard about a contest run by St. Martin's Press.

Since 1986, the New York City publishing house has administered an annual competition in which unpublished novelists are awarded book deals. There are now several award categories including Crime Novel, Traditional Mystery, and Private Eye Novel. Among other criteria, manuscripts submitted must be original, previously unpublished works of book length -- no less than 220 typewritten pages or approximately 60,000 words -- written in English. Winners receive a $10,000 advance against future royalties. The competition has launched the careers of luminaries like Steve Hamilton and Michael Koryta.

In 2008, at the age of 52, Kaufman submitted Drink the Tea, a D.C. gumshoe novel he'd been working on for two years. "I thought I was tossing away six dollars mailing the manuscript in," he recalls.

He forgot about it until September when he received notification that he'd won. His reaction: "Disbelief mixed with panic that they'd chosen someone else named Tom Kaufman and called me by mistake."

In March of this year, St. Martin's published Drink the Tea to stellar reviews. "Kaufman pulls off a taut, compelling tale of violence and corruption," wrote The Washington Times. St. Martin's subsequently contracted Kaufman for a second novel.

I met Kaufman at his book signing in March at the Poisoned Pen bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona -- one of eleven cities on the Drink the Tea publicity tour. "You get rejected enough and you start to wonder if you're any good," he told me. "To finally have something published, with a major publisher getting behind your book, is wonderful validation."

"It's a life changer," adds Michael Wiley, a 48-year-old North Florida University literature professor. Having aspired to be a novelist since he was in high school, Wiley learned about the St. Martin's competition a few years ago while trolling the Web. He entered the search terms "untraditional ways of finding a publisher." In 2007, he earned St. Martin's Private Eye nod for The Last Striptease. "It was like winning the 'American Idol' finale but without an audience of twenty-five million," he says.

St. Martin's recently published Wiley's follow-up, The Bad Kitty Lounge.

"The St. Martin's Press awards programs is a key tool, giving a new author both a publishing contract and extra visibility, and attracting endorsements from established authors," says Barbara Peters, owner of the Poisoned Pen, one of America's preeminent crime fiction bookstores. "I give the winners priority reads and use the [award] information in marketing to readers and in setting up our events. Readers are more curious to meet a first-time novelist who is an award winner...Drink the Tea is a perfect example."

"There are a probably a lot of writers who, like me, think they don't have a chance," adds Kaufman. "I hope people hear my story and take heart."

If you or someone you know are among those people, click here for more information.