May 24, 2016

What to Look for in Published-Author Contests

Gold medal with text: Contests for Published Authors: Are They Worth It?

So… Remember how I mentioned last week that my book Treasured Claim was a double finalist in two contests? Let’s add two more finals to that list. *boggles*

I received a call—an actual phone call!—from…someone? (I was too flabbergasted to catch the name) with RWA‘s huge Fantasy, Futuristic, and Paranormal chapter (also known fondly as FF&P). She told me—along with some other things that promptly fell out of my overwhelmed brain—that Treasured Claim is a double finalist in the Fantasy and Best First Book categories of their prestigious Prism Awards.

Wow! That’s six finals for my debut in three contests! In just the past week! (Not to mention Ironclad Devotion‘s final last week too.)

I guess Elaina, my dragon-shifter heroine, and Alex, my modern knight-in-shining-armor hero, are connecting with judges. *grin*

Those characters changed my life, and whether I win or not, I’ll always be grateful for the doors this story opened for me in my writing, my voice, my series, and my career:

  • I discovered my writing voice with Elaina because hers was so strong that I learned the difference between author voice and character voice.
  • I wrote the first 30K words of Treasured Claim in less than two weeks (when I was “supposed” to be writing a different story), teaching me that chasing the shiny new idea isn’t always a bad thing. *smile*
  • I learned that I wrote better by the seat of my pants and forever left plotting behind, as those 30K words (and all the rest of the story) erupted from my brain without a plan.
  • I formed the basic worldbuilding blocks of my Mythos Legacy series because I had so much fun with the story that I didn’t want to go back to that abandoned one (yet…all in good time).

So today seems like a good time to touch upon the contest arena for published books. *smile*

How Contest Goals Differ over Our Career

Starting with Contests for Unpublished Writers

I’ve written before about some of the goals we might have when entering a contest for unpublished authors. In general, contests for unpublished authors are designed to help writers along their publishing journey, such as providing feedback or an “in” with an agent or editor.

In that old post, I shared some of the elements I took into consideration before entering unpublished contests:

  • Receiving Feedback: Does the contest encourage their judges to give feedback with their scores? How many first-round judges do they use?
  • Final Judge: Is the final judge (agent or editor) someone I’d like to have look at my work?
  • Prestige: Is the contest one I’ve heard of, or does it have a “name brand” sponsor?
  • Category Breakdown: Does the contest have a category that matches my story?
  • Ease of Entry: Is the contest easy to enter, with PayPal and electronic entry?

In another post, I shared other issues to watch out for:

  • high entry fees
  • small print about rights to our story
  • scoring sheets that don’t weigh the right story elements
  • entry length that doesn’t capture our best opening hook
  • requiring (and judging) a synopsis
  • judged based on a popularity contest

How Our Goals Might Progress over Our Unpublished Journey

  • We might use the feedback or our contest scores as benchmarks to track our progress as a writer.
  • We might hope to skip the query process by getting our work in front of a favored agent or editor as the final judge.
  • A precious few unpublished contests have enough prestige to attract agents who approach finalists or winners to submit their work.

Contesting as a Published Author

Once we’re published, our goals for contests will likely change again. Published-author contests are generally not set up to help writers improve their writing or find an agent or editor. Instead, contests for published authors are designed to reward writers for publishing achievements.

Where the unpublished contests are forward-looking—craft improvement and career shortcuts—the published contests tend to be backward-looking—recognizing greatness in an existing book.

That forward vs. backward issue makes sense. An unpublished book isn’t set in stone, so suggestions for improvement are welcome. Published books, on the other hand, aren’t looking to make changes.

Keeping those differences in mind, let’s take a closer look at contests for published authors…

What to Watch Out for in Contests for Published Authors

Some of the same pros and cons we talked about with unpublished contests still apply, with a slightly different focus:

  • Judging: Who’s judging our work?

Rather than focusing on the final judge, we might look for a certain type of judge. Do we want our work judged by readers or authors? Librarians or an expert panel (do we know who these experts are)?

Do we want to avoid the “popularity contest” style of “judging,” where we have to convince our friends and contacts to vote for us?

My Perspective: I mostly focused on contests that were judged by readers, book bloggers, and librarians. I always avoid popularity contests like the plague. *smile*

  • Prestige and/or Prizes: What’s in it for us?

Some published-author contests include significant prizes, everything from cash to guaranteed professional reviews or other legitimate publicity, etc. Other contests offer only “exposure type” prizes.

Many published authors enter contests to provide “social proof” to potential readers that our story is worth reading. However, while a few contests are familiar to readers, the vast majority are not, so it’s hard to say how much even a win would help our sales.

My Perspective: I looked at the list of finalists from the previous year to see if big-name, traditionally published authors (or their publishers) considered the contest worthwhile. The contests I entered were often a Who’s Who for my genre.

  • Focus of Contest: Is the contest a good match for our work?

Some contests are open only to traditionally published books, some focus on self-published books, and some are open to both. Some contests are open to books of any copyright date, and others are open only to books copyrighted in the previous year. These differences might affect the contest’s prestige as well.

In addition to eligibility issues, some contests don’t have differentiated categories, so some genres (which tend to be looked down upon) might not fair well with judges. Like in unpublished contests, our story isn’t likely to do well if it doesn’t match one of the contest’s categories. That said, if there are more than a dozen categories, chances are the contest is a scam (see below).

My Perspective: I looked for contests open to both traditionally published and self-published books, figuring those would have more competition (and perhaps prestige).

  • Entry Requirements: How do we enter, and what does it cost?

There are countless award scams targeting indie authors. Many contests focus on making money off our entry fees. In contrast, some contests are free to enter (but might include rights issues in the small print).

Entry can also be complicated at the published-author level, as we might need to submit a PDF or ebook file, which could easily be uploaded to pirate sites. Or we might need to mail in autographed print copies (which obviously adds to the expense).

  • Small Print: Is the sponsor trustworthy?

Some contests include a rights grab, such as wanting to include our work in unpaid anthologies. Some don’t instill trust for controlling access to our ebook files. Etc., etc.

Depending on our situation, we might look for contests with certain prizes, or we might focus on high-prestige awards. We might look for “open” contests or ones specific to new indie books. We might enter contests to fulfill our dreams or hold off self-doubt, or we might want to create an Award-Winning Author brand.

There’s no right or wrong answer. But just like with unpublished contests, if we have a better idea of our goals, we’ll know what to look out for and what contests to avoid. *smile*

As a reader, do you pay attention to any awards for published books? If so, which ones? If you’ve entered a published-author contest, what did you look for in the contest? Were you happy with your choice, and if not, why not? Can you think of any other tips to watch out for or insights into any of these contest traits?

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Comments — What do you think?

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So proud of you Jami! 🙂 And this book totally deserves it!

I am a bit jaded on these contests, but then I’m not writing fiction. We’ve only ever entered one (Writer’s Digest’s), and the feedback was laughable. I don’t know who the judge was, but they rated us 0/5 on characterization, 0/5 plot and a few other things…which makes total sense as it entered as a NF entry. Oh, and they said the ET’s cover was not bright enough and needed more happening on it because of the type of book it was. As you know, our covers are probably some of the brightest out there for writing guides, haha. So yeah, I probably should have just lit that 100 on fire and at least gotten a pyro fix or something. LOL

Rhoda Baxter

Congratulations! That’s a brilliant list of accolades.

I’m inclined to go for contests judged by librarians and booksellers, because they might recommend the book to others if they liked it!). There are a lot of great books out there, so even making it onto a shortlist is an achievement… (but I would say that because Please Release Me made it onto a shortlist or two *grin*).
I’m not a fan of the popularity contest type thing either. I really hate begging people to go vote.

There are so many contests out there and they all cost money. I use similar criteria to yours before deciding (Paypal being a big one). I write UK based romances, which are really novels with strong romantic elements, so I have to check the categories really carefully.

Good luck with FF&P comp! Hope you win!

Tahlia Newland

Then there’s the awards that don’t judge against other books but against a list of criteria for excellence. I really like those because they look at my book on its merits, not on whether they like it better than another book that happens to be in the contest at the same time. This kind of award is good for niche market books that are out of the box enough (like mine) to never win the other kind of contest simply because they’d be lucky if the judges were their target reader.

They’re also good for an author’s confidence because if they get a BRAG Medallion or An Awesome Indies Badge of Approval, they know their book is good no matter how many sales they make. When it’s so hard to sell books, I think it’s important for authors to know whether it’s just their marketing that’s the problem or whether there is something wrong with their book.

Roland Clarke

Brilliant set of accolades. Congratulations.

I’ve saved this post in case I ever get a chance to enter another contest. Thanks for all the thoughts and ideas.

I entered my debut novel in two competitions, and didn’t even make it beyond the first lap. Now the book is unavailable and nobody wants it, despite a few 5* reviews. Maybe with the next one………

Gloria Oliver

Congrats on all those finalist nominations! Kudos!


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