by Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman), The Hot Sheet
Whether you’re an unpublished or published writer, one area where everyone should exercise caution is when entering book contests and competitions. The rewards of winning them can be very low, and the cost to enter very high. Still, contests can play an important role in helping emerging writers get noticed and achieve recognition for work that might otherwise go unnoticed.
The reason that contests can be such a tricky area is that anyone can start them (and anyone does!) and they can be profit centers for businesses that run them. While there’s nothing inherently wrong or fraudulent about a contest producing a profit for the organization or business running it, the prize should be meaningful enough to justify the entry fee the writer is paying, whether that’s a monetary prize, a publishing contract, or something else. It’s nice to have the ego boost from winning or placing in a contest, but for it to make business sense, it should help advance your career in some way or make you visible to the right people in the community.
I usually divide competitions into two major categories: those for published work and those for unpublished work. For this post, I’m going to focus primarily on contests for published work, although a lot of the same considerations apply to both types.
Know Who Can Enter
For some book prizes, authors can enter their work themselves, but others are open to publishers only. One of the most well-known award series, the Pen Center USA awards, allows both authors and publishers to submit work for consideration. But some of the most prestigious awards, such as the National Book Award, only allow entries or nominations from publishers.
Get the Right Attention
In a media landscape where it’s increasingly difficult to get attention for one’s work, prizes can offer a publicity shortcut to authors and publishers (it becomes an easy marketing and PR angle), but can also benefit readers (the work is likely to be worthwhile if it won a prize). Most people don’t question—or don’t have to be told—the value of winning a prize like the National Book Award. But what about prizes that you haven’t heard of—or new prizes? Or what about prizes that focus on bringing attention to self-published work?
Here’s what to consider.
Are the Guidelines Clear and Professional?
If the guidelines are confusing, contradictory, or seem to be hastily put together, avoid the contest. Sloppiness may very well slip into the judging, the prize fulfillment, and the overall handling of submissions.
How Long Has the Contest Been Around?
If it’s a new contest, how long has the sponsoring organization or business existed? Do you trust this organization or business to run the contest well? Take a close look at the guidelines and look for professionalism. See if the prizes are commensurate with the entry fees. Look for quality judges with names you recognize.
Compare the Entry Fees to the Prizes—or Other Perks.
A high entry fee doesn’t automatically mean the contest is suspect. Sometimes high entry fees are justified when feedback is provided to entrants. Significant monetary prizes or many monetary prizes (for runners-up) can also justify higher entry fees.
Study Past Prize Winners and Publicity Surrounding the Contest.
Follow the careers of past prize winners and see if you can determine any positive effect from winning. How is the prize worked into the book’s marketing copy, cover, or author website? Who was the prize win publicized to? If the prize is one that’s highly valued by a particular community—such as teachers, librarians, professors, or professionals in a specific field—then the prize may help lead to better book sales and distribution or more opportunities to be seen and heard by those audiences.
The competition does bear some responsibility for publicizing the winners of the contest and helping get recognition for those winners. Try running Google searches about the contest and see what media outlets report on the results. If you can find no one talking about the contest or its results, that’s not a good sign for the winners.
The prize to be careful about pursuing is the one that’s operated primarily as a for-profit venture by the business or organization behind it. They may be running the prize to play to authors’ desire for validation, and then making money off the sale of promotional activities or products related to becoming a finalist or winner. If you’re pitched the “opportunity” to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars to buy advertising about your prize, it may not be a prize you’ll benefit much from winning.
Whatever your reasons for entering contests, just be sure to adequately research them before you submit your work. Significant entry fees are often involved with any kind of contest, and you can easily spend hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars trying to win something. You can also end up wasting your time if you pursue a win or a prize that ultimately doesn’t matter to anyone in your community. If someone hasn’t heard of the prize, then the burden falls on you to explain its significance or meaning, and to also use it in such a way that you gain some kind of marketing or career benefit from it. Be sure a contest or a prize really will at least potentially open doors for you with the right people, and pursue it with a larger strategy in mind, rather than a validation-seeking one.