Are Writing Contests Worth the Fees?
We all want a shiny gold sticker for our cover! With more and more writing contests popping up every day, it’s important to determine which ones are reputable, whether entry fees are acceptable, and how to spot dangerous terms that infringe on your copyright.
For a more detailed discussion on this subject, you may wish to take my course: Are Writing Contests Worth the Fees? It is a 30-minute video, including how to make the most of a contest win, along with a resource sheet for $25.
As an indie published author, I wanted to differentiate myself from the crowd of books being published every day. Additionally, the publicity of a win boosts book sales long after the buzz of the book launch has died down.
A win offers proof to potential new readers that your book is a good risk for their book-buying dollars.
Therefore, I don’t consider entering contests to be some sort of vanity. It's a component of my publicity or marketing strategy and budget.
How do you know if a contest is reputable?
Look for a list on the contest website of the sponsors and judges. Sometimes the judges aren’t listed by name, only by general title, such as “an editor from Random House” or “an agent from Writers House.” I assume that is because each year the actual participants change, but there’s an ongoing relationship with an agency/publishing house to be part of the judging panel. Ideally, you want to know that professionals are judging the contest.
If, however, there is no judging information listed, I would consider it a red flag. I wouldn’t immediately disqualify that contest from consideration, but if there was more vague language in the rest of the contest description, I would likely steer clear of that contest.
What do the winner(s) receive? Often there are cash prizes or items equivalent to cash—an ad on the sponsoring organization’s website, free conferences, writing books, magazine subscriptions, reviews, and more. Others offer only publicity related items and that shiny decal to place on your book.
Some legitimate contests offer very little in terms of cash prizes but are well-known enough that the publicity or recognition you receive is valuable enough to enter.
You’re going to hear advice from people (often those in the traditional publishing industry) to never pay an entry fee. I completely disagree. While there are some scammy, high entry fee contests, I think that if you use your keen powers of discernment, you’ll be able to avoid those. I’ve paid as low as $20 to enter a contest and more than $100 to enter others. One of my litmus tests is if there is a higher entry fee, then the cash prizes should be higher, too.
ODDS OF WINNING
Often it is difficult to determine the odds of winning, because even the contest organizers cannot know how many entries they will get from year to year. However, you can do a little research and look at the contest press releases announcing winners from previous years, and sometimes that will tell you the number of entrants. Also, look at previous years’ winners to see if any well-known authors are included. If they are, then you know the contest has broad appeal and likely draws a sizable number of entries.
CONTEST TERMS - BE VERY CAREFUL!!
Always, read the fine print or terms of agreement/entry very carefully. The basics will include the number of categories you can enter (for the contests with multiple categories), which year of publication is allowed to enter, the entry deadline, decision date, the method of awarding prizes, and more. Any special notes about giving permission for marketing companies to contact you should be clear. (For the record, that doesn’t bother me, you can easily unsubscribe from any unwanted emails in the future.) However, it should also be clear that your contact information is kept private otherwise.
Sometimes you might see that the contest sponsors reserve the right to substitute prizes. This phrase can be a red flag unless there is added language about equal monetary value or some such qualification.
A few scam contests have language about the author giving up rights to the work being entered. Here’s where you must pay careful attention. Some contests will state that you’re giving the contest sponsoring group the right to first publication if you win or giving up your copyright with no payment. Or by entering you’re allowing the contest group to use your material in any way that it wants.
READ THE FINE PRINT TO PROTECT THE RIGHTS TO YOUR WORK.
Even reputable organizations can get caught up in bad “right's grabbing” practice. Last year, I wrote a blog about a contest sponsored by the well-respected library association that had terms with this very language I’m warning about. Read the full post here.
Many of the nationally recognized contests are only open to traditionally published books. This includes the Andrew Carnegie Medal, Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, Kirkus Prize, Man Booker Award, National Book Award, Nobel Prize for Literature, Pen/Faulkner Award, and the Pulitzer Prize. This also includes many of the genre-specific awards like those for children’s literature, mysteries, nonfiction, romances etc…
However, there are many, many awards open to independently published or small press published works. Here are a few resources where you can find contest lists and reviews:
Alliance of Independent Authors Contest List and Rating: https://selfpublishingadvice.org/author-awards-contests-rated-reviewed/
The Book Designer: https://www.thebookdesigner.com/book-awards/
Publishers Weekly: Awards List for Self-published Authors
Ongoing for shorter works: Submittable.com
You will never be able to enter all the well-regarded contests you are eligible to enter, because it would be cost prohibitive. Do your research to find those that are the best fit for your book and your budget.