Monday, November 11, 2013

Are Writing Contests and Book Reviews Worth It?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Today's question covers more than just writing contests, but the industry professionals I contacted had very similar thoughts on the book review aspect. Reviews are pretty much an after-the-sale issue, not something that would help you land an agent:
Q: Talking to established writers, or those within a specific genre, the common wisdom seems to be: enter lots of contests hosted by your genre association, plunking down bucks; cross your fingers that you'll win something to at least catch an agent's attention; use that win to promote yourself to established review channels; catch a wave of sales through an established channel, either through a book distributor or web site that uses this filter to sort through all the new books; use that bona fide to leverage your next book, ad infinitum.
Are these really all they're cracked up to me, especially now that self-publishing and eBooks have unleashed a torrent of new books and writers? Is the Amazon model of peer reviews the only way to go? Does that work for new, lesser known authors? Are contests really worth the bucks? I'd be interested in hearing from an agent, a book reviewer, a book buyer, and/or a new author who used this technique. Also, hearing from your readers how many this DIDN'T work for.
A: Let's tackle the book contests first. I've never entered a contest, and never felt the need to do so. I don't think any writer needs to in order to get an agent or get published. Unless the prize is a publishing contract, a contest win does not equal a book contract. I always felt it was smarter to submit to agents and editors, who can help achieve the goal of selling a book.

However, if the goal is to get feedback, then contests can be a valuable tool, especially if the judges are people you respect and whose feedback you feel can help make the book better. Many contests provide feedback on entries, sometimes from people you'd never be able to ask to critique your work otherwise.

Of course, there's no harm in entering legitimate contests you can afford (if they have entry fees), and if you enjoying doing it, feel free. Contests wins won't hurt you, even if they won't help you. Ultimately, the book is what matters most. An agent or editor has to love the book. If they love it, then it won't matter if you have contest wins or not, and if they don't love it, a slew of wins still won't make a difference. A win could get you a page request if an agent or editor is on the fence about your book, and that contest win makes them give you the benefit of the doubt and ask for more.

If you enjoy entering contests, keep entering them. If you don't like the idea, don't feel you have to.

Next part of the question: Using a win to promote yourself to review channels. Unless the book is published, you won't get reviews. I don't know of any sites that review unpublished works, and if the book isn't out there to buy, it can't get sales to promote your future books. Contest wins and reviews are totally different things. The only crossover here would be if a published book won a contest, then you might use that to try for some extra reviews.

There are a multitude of avenues to promote your book beside Amazon or peer review. Common wisdom is, "readers can't buy a book they don't know about," so whatever gets the book out there for readers to discover has the potential to work. Note the word potential. No marketing tactic is guaranteed. The only proven thing that sells books is reader word of mouth, and that's something authors have no control over. We have no idea what will resonate with a reader and who will talk about it. Books that have gotten a ton of promotion still flopped, and books that were self published and had almost no promotion have taken off due to readers loving them.

There is no silver bullet or proven path to writing success. That's even more true in today's publishing world with all the options a writer has. So don't feel you have to do one specific thing (besides write a great book). However you want to connect with readers and promote your book is up to you, and however you want to pursue publishing is up to you.

I asked some industry professionals to chime in on this one, and here's what they had to say:

Sara Megibow, Agent Nelson Literary Agency: All agents are different, but for me the best way to find new clients is via the traditional query. If an author has contest wins but I don't love the query, then I won't ask for sample pages. If an author has a great query and no contest wins, then I will ask for sample pages.

Dario Ciriello, Publisher/Editor Panverse Publishing: Call me a cynic, but as publishing becomes ever more competitive I see an awful lot of people and organizations looking for new ways to profit from writers desperate for publication and recognition. That's not to say all these are scams: there are many honest and well-run promotions, contests, etc., that do give the winner a chance at positive exposure. But the odds are generally going to be against you, and the stark truth (I'm speaking here as a publisher) is that most writers desperate for publication just aren't ready.

Instead of spending money and energy entering contests and facing one disappointment after another, my advice to writers would be to focus 101% of their attention on improving their craft. Join and participate in a good critique group, write a lot (daily), and read a lot. Hang out with writers more advanced than yourself. Recognize that for most people it takes years and hundreds of thousands of words to become proficient. When your work is good enough, the chance that your query will get an agent's attention is far higher, and you can query agents for free, without entering contests.

In the case of self-publishers--and again, only if they're at a stage where their work is of real worth--there may be more reason to consider some judicious spending. Goodreads giveaways, money spent on early print ARCs and mailings (do your ARCs at least four months before publication), promotional postcards, etc. Amazon reviews help, but as people become increasingly wary of them, their value has diminished. Nor do free giveaways via Kindle Select have much value anymore, since everyone's Kindles are loaded with free books, most of them junk. My advice would be to focus on spreading word-of-mouth on your book. Hosting a well-attended, well-thought book launch party with a reading may be money very well spent: if you can get thirty or forty people enthused and pumped over your book, they can evangelize in a way no advertising will. It's all about building momentum, and the self-publisher can't stay still for long. Most of all, don't forget to start on the next book right away, and staying within the same genre or writing series will definitely help.

Jami Gold, Paranormal Romance Writer/Blogger/Frequent Contest Winner: Writers might have many different goals for entering contests: receiving feedback, prestige/validation, wanting an opportunity to get in front of the final judge, etc. The pros and cons of entering contests depends on the goal.

Receiving Feedback: Are you a new writer and don't have a circle of experienced writing friends to critique your work? Contests can be great for providing necessary feedback. In that case, look for one that offers 3 or more preliminary judges, a statement that judges are encouraged to give feedback, and maybe a testimonial from a previous entrant stating how the feedback they received helped them succeed.

That said, just as with any kind of feedback, not all judges (even in the "best" contests) will provide quality feedback. So remember the rule to take what works for you and forget the rest.

Prestige/Validation: Are you hoping for a feather in your cap? Contests can definitely help with a point. Other writers (especially in the genre) are impressed by finals. Agents, editors, or readers? Not so much. I've seen agents even say not to bother listing finals on queries unless for a super-prestigious contest (like the Golden Heart for the romance genre).

If we win, that's a slightly different story. Agents say to mention wins in our query, especially if the contest is one they've heard of (run by a writing organization they respect). However, as with anything else, it's still going to come down to what they think of the writing itself--even for the super-prestigious contests. For readers, even if the contest doesn't mean anything to them, being able to list a win in the book description wouldn't hurt.

On a personal level, our scores let us see how our work stacks up against others and how close we might be to reaching that finalist level. Multiple finals and/or wins can help us trust that our story is good. Once might be a fluke, but multiple wins feels more like the real thing.

I haven't experienced the review channel situation yet, so I can't speak to that. I'd guess it might depend on how familiar the review channel was with the contest. (Is it a review blogger specific to the genre? Or was it a super-prestigious contest?) Otherwise, even contest wins might seem like empty praise, similar to blog awards (while we appreciate them, they don't actually mean much in the big picture). Contest wins might be enough to convince an "I don't take self-published books" review blogger to look anyway, but I wouldn't count on it.

Opportunity with Final Judge: Is the final judge an agent or editor you'd love to get your work in front of (and avoid that query/submission process)? Eh, maybe contests will be good for this. Obviously, our work first has to be good enough to final, and that's often more subjective/flaky than we'd think.

But honestly, in my experience, most final judges don't request more work. My novel has placed in 9 out of 12 contests this year, and I've won several of those, yet I've received only one request (that I never heard back from). I struggle with my query, so I really hoped this would be the magic answer, but it didn't work out that way.

How could we win a contest and yet not receive a request? Many reasons. They might like the story more than the others but not love it. They might love it but already have too-similar of a client. They might not like the story but it's stronger than the other finalists. Etc., etc. And of course if we win and don't receive a request, what then? Should we follow up with them anyway? I don't have an answer for that. *smile*
  • Other Benefits: I don't mean to come off as being down on contesting. I don't regret the money I spent in the slightest. I learned more about:
  • taking criticism
  • gaining a deep understanding of how subjective the business is
  • following submission guidelines
  • how to make a first page that grabs readers, etc.
Most importantly to me, I saw how my work improved its scores over time. Sometimes we're too close to our work to see improvement, so this can be a great boost. And you'd better believe that I mention my wins on my queries (and will do so in my book descriptions when the time comes). While they might not help, they certainly don't hurt.

ETA: Jami was so inspired by the question, that she dug a little deeper and did her own post on the topic.

Ann Meier, Mystery Writer/Frequent Contest Winner: Like most good questions, the answer isn’t as straightforward as you might like. It depends on your expectations and motivation for considering a contest.

If the contest provides feedback, it may be a very good way to get an objective opinion on what works in your writing and what you need to improve on to make your writing better. In these situations even if you don’t win, you gain something for your effort and entry fee.

Some contests, especially those sponsored by associations of writers in a particular genre like romance or mystery, offer inclusion in a collection of short stories that the organization will publish. If your entry wins, you gain recognition and a publishing credit to add to your writing bio. The downside is that unless your entry is a winner, you most likely won’t receive any feedback. This can be discouraging, but hey, learning to deal with rejection is a big part of a writer’s journey.

Let’s say you enter your work in a contest and it places or wins. Enjoy the victory, but don’t expect your contest success to sway the decision of a potential agent or editor on its own. It’s nice to be able to mention that the work you are submitting garnered an award when you are citing your credentials, but it’s your concept and writing that will get you to yes.

In making a decision to enter your work in a contest, consider the reputation of the sponsoring organization, the cost, the effort required, and what you expect to gain from participating.

So there you have it. What are your thoughts on contest wins and book reviews? What has worked for you? Not worked for you? What advice would you give someone struggling with this?

If you're looking for more to improve your craft (or a fun fantasy read), check out one of my writing books or novels:

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for plotting a novel, and the companion Plotting Your Novel Workbook, and my Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series, with step-by-step guides to revising a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011).

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.
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  1. I've put my published books forward for contests, but my reasons for that are prestige and exposure. I could never bring myself to hand over a whole, unpublished book to a contest, with the notable exception of the very one that WiDo Publishing held, with a contract as the top prize.

    I also think reviews are better for boosting sales than getting agents. I don't think anyone will genuinely review an unpublished book, and once a book is published, you can't exactly use that one to land an agent.

    One thing I am curious about, is could an unagented author increase the odds of a query being accepted by an agent if they could point to existing books they had published, whether self-published or with a publishing house?

    1. Sure, that happens all the time. Numbers often play a role there, but if the book they're currently submitting wows an agent, previously published books can help. Self pub often doesn't because the sales are typically low, which can translate to a bad track record to publishers. But other factors also play a role, like if the new work is in a different genre or market than something that didn't do well. And if past works sold well, then that's a plus!

  2. Great post, Janice. I wouldn't pay to enter a contest. I have submitted queries through a few agent contests and WriteOnCon, but I think when I'm ready to query, I'll go for the querying agents vs. contests. I think I'd have a better chance of getting attention because contests often have word limits that are harder to meet for fantasy stories in my opinion.

    I do think that contests are good ways to create buzz for your book once it's published. I follow book review blogs and most reviews don't get many comments unless there is a contest tied into it.

    1. I agree there about the blog contests on review sites. I've noticed those seem to drive a lot of traffic. But to play Devil's advocate, how many folks are there just to enter the contest and never actually read the blog? I've heard folks complain about that as well. So many factors to consider.

  3. Call me a cynic, but I'm wary of contests. Especially those you have to pay to enter. I'm afraid of being that granny on the phone who gives her social security number away. Weird, I know.

    1. I don't think it's weird. I was always wary about fee-based ones as well. Writers need to be wary with so many scams aimed at us.

  4. I have had some contests garner me some good exposure. And the wins were good for my struggling ego and my beginner's resume. However, none led to actual contracts. I think there's a place for them, but I think the expectations need to be for a result other than selling a book, for the most part.

    1. I agree, and that's what I hear from most folks. They seem more of a learning option than a publishing avenue.

  5. This is one of the most informative posts I've read on the pros & cons of entering contests. Thanks!

    1. Thanks so much! I was lucky to know several folks who had a lot of experience with contests.

  6. Great post, Janice! It was good to see how others' thoughts aligned with mine. I think I might crib my very long answer I gave you for a blog post pointing to here. LOL!

    1. It was interesting that we all felt basically the same way. Crib away! It's a good topic and I bet you have more to share on it. You're a contest queen. Send me the link when you do and I'll add it here.

    2. I just emailed you. The post went up today. :)

  7. Replies
    1. Thanks! :) Apparently I DID have a lot to say. LOL!

    2. And all good stuff. It's something a lot of folks are interested in, so it's good to have some meaty posts out there.

  8. Hi,
    re: contests: everything I've published in the last few years has been because of contests: 2003 poetry chapbook contest, Word Journal, (Mythmaking, published in 2004 Word Journal); 2011 First New Author (fiction) Contest, Swyers Publishing (Mother, Murder and Me, published 2012); 2012 Grassic Short Novel Prize, Evening Street Press, (Halley and Me, published 2013). advice to writers -- enter contests -- but only the ones that don't charge exorbitant reading fees. And the ones that will publish your poetry collection, novel, novella, etc. Sandy Gardner

    1. That's awesome, Sandra. And great to hear of a positive and helpful experience regarding contests.

  9. Hi Janice, great subject for a new writer like me. There was some great publishing advice mixed up in here, especially the idea of holding a reading, inviting 30 or 40 people and getting some enthused hype for your book! Thank you!

    1. Most welcome. I think Jami Gold has written a lot about contests as well, so if you're looking for more, pop on over to her blog. (and yes, looking back I see I linked to her site in the post)