Writers’ contests: The good, the bad & the very ugly (& a few tips)

I opened my email the other day to find a note from the Next Generation Indie Book AwardsCongratulations, it read, …your book has been named a Finalist in the GENERAL FICTION/NOVEL (Over 80,000 words) category…

Oh, I thought.  What’s that?  Did I enter that contest?  Immediately my skeptic kicked in until I remembered, yes, I did enter this contest many months ago when I was fixated on book marketing.  But now I found myself researching it again just to see if there was any legitimacy to it, and for that matter, any legitimacy to any of the contests designed to part independently and small-press published authors from their money (most have entry fees).

An award winner? Just wish the publisher had given it a cover I like more than this one!

What’s the point of giving awards for books?  It used to be – back in the day as they say – that book awards recognized truly gifted authors whose work has or is destined to make a difference.  Of course, that presupposes that those judging for the awards have the capability to distinguish the very best – whatever that might be at any given point in time.

These days, however, in addition to these long-standing, prestigious awards (at least they’re prestigious in some circles), there is an absolute glut of awards and contests for writers.

The Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America posted a terrific description of awards and award scams here.  They differentiate among outright scams, contest mills, award mills, fake contests etc.  The list is long and very dispiriting.  But why would a writer enter a contest anyway?

If your book is published by a traditional publisher, that traditional publisher just might decide to enter your book in an appropriate award contest.  Or not.  If your book is independently published, then watch out.  You are going to be vulnerable to every possible attempt to get you to enter a contest.  Why would you even consider that, anyway?

In a word: publicity. This is the promise.  Your book will be read by others who might, just might, like it. Or at least they might – just might – actually read it. They might like it enough that you might win an award.  And that award will mean publicity (not the New York Times kind of publicity, though).

Lots of other people have researched these contests, so I thought I’d take a slightly different tack.  I hypothesized that if a book award is so credible, then the books awarded must be of high quality.

I took a random sample (albeit a convenience sample for all of you researchers out there), to get a bit of anecdotal evidence to support or discredit my thesis.

I started with the 2012 Independent Publisher Book Awards which bills themselves as the “World’s largest international and regional book awards competition” and selected their first-place winner in the popular fiction category, Vertical, by Rex Pickett (Loose Gravel Press — Pickett is co-owner).  Surfing over to Amazon, I read inside the book, as I would do if I were at a book store trying to decide whether or not I wanted to read the book.  In case you didn’t pick it up – and I certainly did not – Pickett’s first book was Sideways, which later morphed into the film Sideways.  So, I read.  My conclusion:  I’m ordering this book.  He writes in an accessible and entertaining way: this just might be my summer schlock reading for this year.

Next on my list was the Writer’s Digest Award for self-published authors.  They charge $100 to enter and offer the following:  chance to win $3,000 in cash, national exposure for your work, the opportunity to catch the attention of prospective editors and publishers, and a paid trip to the ever-popular Writer’s Digest Conference in New York City![1] Well, after more online research than I care to mention, I could not identify even one of their winners.  I’m sure they’re listed somewhere, but I can’t seem to find them – or at least I’m not willing to do spend any more time on it.  Onward!

The Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award is a highly visible award for self-published authors.  Their prize is a publishing contract with Penguin with whom they are partnered.  I selected Bill Warrington’s Last Chance: A Novel by James King which won in 2010.  A multi-generational saga, the book is not really my personal cup of tea.  I started to read it, and it’s as good as any “coming-of-age” “road-trip” novel, so it’s mainstream.  Just not my thing.  But the reader reviews on the site are really quite good.  Given the number of their finalists who are published on their own Createspace, though, I have a few questions.

At this point I’m beginning to think that the high-profile of these awards really do have some substance to them.  Obviously, there will always be scams, but in the grand scheme of things if you do your research, entering a contest like this just might get you what you’re looking for: recognition and a bit of publicity — a bit.  But beware; there are more scams than there are legitimate contests.

I have a few suggestions to authors who are interested in entering their work in book contests:

  1. Before doing anything, sit down and decide what your objective is.  If it’s to get onto the NYT best-seller list, you might be a wee bit unrealistic.  If you want publicity, it’s possible.  If you’d like a bit more exposure, you’ll likely get it.  At least your work will be read by someone.
  2. Decide how much money you’re willing or able to cough up.  Many of these contests, even some of the more credible, do charge for entries.
  3. Do an online search for contests that fit your particular genre, just as you would when seeking a compatible publisher.
  4. Select four or five that impress you the most and research them.  Look at what bloggers or independent writers are saying apart from what is on the web site.
  5. Read the contest’s web site very carefully.  Look at every bit of the fine print.  Then go back to the blog I linked to above from the Science Fiction Writers and check to make sure that none of the red flags are there.
  6. Make a decision on one or two contests.
  7. Read the entry requirements carefully.
  8. Follow the instructions to the letter – and make sure your entry is in before the deadline.
  9. Then wait.

Oh…it might be worthwhile to make a note of contests you enter.  See my opening sentence! And what’s my conclusion about that contest?  Still don’t know what to think.  I’ll let you know.