Writing Contests: Worthwhile Pursuit Or Meaningless Fluff?

As a newbie author, I had to navigate the murky waters of writing contests on my own. With this post, maybe I can help other novelists swim through the channel.

Image credit: Microsoft Clip Art

Image credit: Microsoft Clip Art

Substance or Fluff?

Like published books, writing competitions have mushroomed, leaving a writer to wonder if they’re worthwhile. Or even reputable.

I’m not referring to prestigious wins like the Edgar, Hugo, or Booker awards, but rather to more commercial competitions, of which critics abound:

—There are too many categories.

—They’re simply money-making schemes.

—They take advantage of authors.

Given this negativity, I flailed on my lonesome in deciding which contests to enter, hoping I wasn’t getting conned in the process. Between my own research as well as advice I gleaned from Sell More Books! Book Marketing and Publishing for Low Profile and Debut Authors by J. Steve Miller and Cherie K. Miller, I drafted a list.

I decided on the following three:

USA Best Book Awards

Readers’ Favorite Awards

Independent Publisher Book Awards (IPPY Awards)

Others I considered worthwhile but didn’t enter were:

EPIC Awards

ForeWord Book of the Year Awards

National Indie Excellence Awards

The Results?

The Seneca Scourge won Best New Ebook: Fiction in the USA Best Book Awards and the Silver Medal in the Readers’ Favorite Contest. I was thrilled to display my wins on my social media sites.

Or was I?

My hirsute doppelgänger…

The Ugly Gorilla in the Room…

A negative online report of book-contest scamming was all it took to sour my experience. An anonymous blogger raked Readers’ Favorite over the coals and then finished them off with grenades and bazookas.

I won’t link to the blog to avoid giving it traffic from my site (though it’s indirectly linked to below), but suffice it to say, this blog has attacked (libeled?) successful self-published authors, calling into question these authors’ review-seeking methods and contest wins.

As a result, I fell into a funk and was reluctant to display my newly acquired win. But three things helped me move on:

1. Writer Beware, a great resource for authors about the schemes and scams awaiting new writers, has called this blog into question, listing reasons for their skepticism (though Writer Beware is by no means fond of these contests).

2. When I queried Readers’ Favorite about this mysterious blogger’s assertion that every book entered in a Readers’ Favorite competition wins, I was informed of the absurdity of that claim. The president of the organization told me they receive thousands of entries from around the world, not only from independent authors but from traditionally published authors as well.

Furthermore, the company is endorsed by Random House Publishing and reviews for other big publishers, too such as Penguin, Simon & Schuster, and HarperCollins, not to mention best-selling authors James Patterson, Nicholas Sparks, and David Baldacci.

3. I was beaten by a celebrity in my category. If Readers’ Favorite is good enough for actor/director/producer/author Eriq La Salle, it’s good enough for me.

‘Dr. Peter Benton’ and a shy me. I will use this picture ’till I die.

I’m sure purists will roll their eyes and argue I’ve come to the wrong conclusion. If it isn’t a Pulitzer, then it isn’t a win. But I wanted to project positivity about fiction competitions, particularly those overlooked by traditionalists. As with so many things, shouting naysayers get the attention, so this post is my dose of optimism for authors making a go of marketing.

Bottom Line?

Do I feel entering contests is worthwhile? Yes, but do your research. Am I proud of my wins? Sure. Did it help me sell more books? Maybe, maybe not.

But it did give me an excuse to visit Miami for the Readers’ Favorite Award Ceremony and have my book showcased at the Miami Book Fair, not to mention get my picture taken with a celebrity.

And a seagull…

Bienvenido a Miami…

Bienvenido a Miami…

Authors, your thoughts? Readers, do book awards sway you as prospective book buyers?

194 Responses to “Writing Contests: Worthwhile Pursuit Or Meaningless Fluff?”

  1. butimbeautiful

    First, massive congratulations!!! I think you have every right to feel proud and extremely cheerful – those sound like genuinely hard-won awards. I think the blogger in question is clearly talking crap. Secondly, I have to say I don’t take any notice of awards myself, but that’s because my choice of books is somewhat random, based on what comes up on Amazon in the ‘you’d like this so I bet you’d like THAT!’ category, and friends’ recommendations. But I still wish I’d won one! (mind you I didn’t enter but if I had)

    Reply
    • Carrie Rubin

      Thank you! And you should enter; I bet you’d win. :)

      I don’t usually pay attention to what Amazon recommends me because I already have such a long reading queue. But that doesn’t stop them from sending me endless emails…

      Reply
  2. Carol Balawyder

    Thanks for this post. I am weary of contests that ask for high fees. It’s good to know that there are scamers in this business as well…well, maybe not good to know but good to be aware.

    Reply
    • Carrie Rubin

      I felt the fees I paid for the few contests I entered were reasonable (around $50-60 dollars I think). Some may consider that too much; others may think it’s low. I just wanted to make sure the contests’ names were reputable, and I think the list I came up with was.

      Thanks for reading and commenting. I appreciate it!

      Reply
          • Carol Balawyder

            Too bad…Maybe this will give you an idea I copied it from the article:

            In 2006 I entered a competition for Historical Fiction from Fish Publishing. My story did not win, but it was chosen as a runner up and anthologised. I went to the prize giving in the lobby of a London hotel with a couple of friends and eyes as wide as saucers. There was a book with my name in it. The book had an introduction from the competition judge, Michel Faber, author of Crimson Petal and the White. He compared my story to the works of Roald Dahl. I think it was about then my head exploded from sheer delight because the memories get more hazy, but at some point a Well Respected Agent from a Large Agency came over, said nice things about my story and gave me his card. I was walking on air. I thought perhaps that taking the idea which was scratching around in the back of my head and trying to turn it into a novel wasn’t such a dumb thing to do after all, and with my magic confidence bag brimming over, I set to work.

            I sent the Well Respected Agent a first chunk of what became ‘Instruments of Darkness’ a few months later. He didn’t take me on, but he did take the time to read what I had sent carefully and offer me some thoughts on how to rewrite it. I remember reading his letter on the bus and feeling both flattered and dismayed. The confidence bag was emptied out again, and though I thought his advice was both sensible and useful, I couldn’t help wondering how I’d ever gather the enthusiasm necessary to start all over again. In my memory it was a rainy, late autumn evening in London, all brake lights reflected in wet tarmac and people with colds huddled over the evening papers. It was probably a gorgeous day in June, but such is memory. Somewhat overwhelmed by the day job, its instabilities and responsibilities and with a relationship slowly unravelling, I simply couldn’t find the energy I needed to start work on the novel again. Then a friend of mine pointed out that the Daily Telegraph were running a ‘First Thousand Words of a Novel’ competition. Louise Doughty had been doing a regular column for the paper on creative writing and the competition was there to round it off. The columns are gathered together in a book ‘Novel in a Year’, by the way, which I have used and highly recommend. The novel was too much for me, but a thousand words? That I could manage. I worked hard and sent off a brand new version of the novel’s opening pages then got on with the rest of life.

            It was some months later I found I was one of the five winners. That was a good day. Our prize was lunch at La Poule au Pot in Chelsea with the judges, who were the then literary editor, Sam Leith, Louise, her agent and her publisher. What I remember most clearly was the moment Louise started a sentence with ‘Imogen, you’ll find when you’re a published novelist….’ Not ‘if’, she said ‘when’. The magic confidence bag was refilled. Over the next weeks I rewrote the entire novel and sent it to an agent a friend from my poetry workshops had recommended. She liked it. Four months later I had my deal, and a year after that I was holding ‘Instruments of Darkness’ in my happy little paws. On publication the Telegraph ran a feature full of the flattering sort of quotes my publishers will be using until the end of time.

            Winning a competition is not a guarantee of success, but it certainly helps. If I hadn’t won a place in the Fish Anthology, I doubt I would ever have summoned the confidence to attempt a novel, and I would not have got the crucial advice of the Well Respected Agent. That advice made the second version of my opening interesting enough to win over the judges at the Telegraph. That gave me the confidence to write something which got me an agent of my own and then a deal, and now the chance to hopefully help someone else by judging competitions myself. Writing is a competitive business, but strangely enough it is through competitions that you can meet people who want to help you and offer the encouragement and confidence that we all need. Write it. Send it. Cross your fingers. Maybe today will be one of those special days for you.

            http://www.imogenrobertson.com

            Reply
    • Carrie Rubin

      Thanks for reading. Would a Hugo or Booker be nicer? Sure. But it’s nice to have other options for those of us for which it’s not a reality. :)

      Reply
  3. Main Street Musings Blog

    Congrats on your awards, Carrie! I think legit contests can be helpful to one’s writing career. A friend of mine entered her manuscript in a contest several years ago and the prize was getting published. She’s since gone on to write a second book that received favorable review in The New York Times. Thanks for the resources and advice.

    Reply
  4. Inion N. Mathair

    Carrie don’t let anyone steal your glory. What you accomplished is a merit any writer worth their salt would love to have. As for the competitions, we’ve entered dozens & learned the hard way that you must in fact do your research before wasting your time & money on a scam. Matter of fact, we are currently involved in a competition for Poetry and have been contacted & told that we’ve made the finalists. We’re still crossing our fingers& hoping that we have a chance but in the end, we’ll believe it when we see it. As for your book, if we we’re you, we would be wearing a crown & doing the wave. (Hand tight, fingers together slowly turn the hand like the Queen of England). And if you gotta take second, only to another, what better way than to have someone as famous as Mr. LaSalle to stand next too!! Congrats girlfriend, we’re screaming and jumping up and down for you!!! :) :)

    Reply
    • Carrie Rubin

      Thank you! That’s nice to hear. I think the cynic in me has kept me from enjoying the wins as much as I could have. But they’re still a nice tool to add to my marketing toolkit. :)

      Reply
  5. Jennifer M Eaton

    I’ve never entered a contest, but I don’t see the harm in them. I have been warned in the past to look at the reward, and decide if the entry fee (if any) is worth the prize. I think any way you can get some recognition for your book is good. But I also agree you should do your research.

    Reply
    • Carrie Rubin

      There are so many scammers out there looking to take advantage of aspiring writers and authors nowadays, that research is key. I find Absolute Write Water Cooler and Writer Beware to be really useful. Predators and Editors is another good one.

      Not sure why your comment went to moderation. Sorry about that. Seems to be happening quite a bit on my blog. Not sure why.

      Reply
  6. DrewK

    An award might lead me to pick up a book but if the story’s topic doesn’t look good to me I probably wouldn’t read it. But if I thought it looked interesting, seeing it won an award might help me decide.

    Reply
    • Carrie Rubin

      I think it’d be the same for me. The win might sway me to read the book if I was on the fence about it. But the book’s premise and a quick read of the first couple pages is what ultimately decides it for me.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Reply
  7. michellejoycebond

    I was always afraid to enter contests because of scams. I likely never will and just cross my fingers that going through an agent will be enough to get my book published. :)

    Reply
    • Carrie Rubin

      And even then, publishers may enter your book in a contest for you. Several books entered get submitted by publishers, and for some contests, only the publisher can enter the book, not the author. And yes, an agent would be wonderful. :)

      Reply
  8. Kourtney Heintz

    Carrie, I’m so glad you embraced your wins. I think indie authors have to use everything in their arsenal. You researched these contests and selected what you felt were the most reputable. I think you were smart in your approach and those wins definitely count! :) Now I’m off to check out Readers Favorites. :)

    Reply
    • Carrie Rubin

      Thanks, Kourtney. I agree, those of us who don’t have the backing of a big publisher need to use what we can to improve our visibility. It’s easy for someone who has others marketing for him or her to think these contests are less than worthy, but for the other 99% of us, we need to do our research and decide what would best work for us. Although a win may not sell more books, it certainly can’t hurt. Just one more tool in the author’s kit.

      Reply
      • Kourtney Heintz

        The promotion and the visibility are worth the entry fee. Winning or being a nominee gives a book more credibility especially when it’s self-pubbed or small pressed. I don’t know how many sales they may translate into but they are definitely an important tool in the author’s kit! Well said!

        Reply
  9. Anne Chia

    Hi Carrie, I feel that we are in such a small global village now, with all these internet and social media interactions that it definitely makes sense to be open to non-traditional awards and such. Celebrate your award, I love your outlook to it though, and research can never leave you worse off than when you started. I think that someone who’s entered too many competitions and never won any was just being a sore loser.

    Reply
    • Carrie Rubin

      I think you’re probably right. Sour grapes are easy to manifest when one blogs anonymously, closes out their comments, and provides no evidence of their claims, as this blogger did. :)

      Thanks for your insights, Anne. Hope all is well!

      Reply
  10. The Hook

    I have no desire to buy a book that has been awarded to death. I like to think I’m slightly more evolved.
    But only slightly.

    Reply
    • Carrie Rubin

      You raise a good point–the book with five+ sticker awards on it seems a bit much. But if someone has already recommended a book to me that I’m on the fence about, a win might help sway me to read it. Speaking as a reader, not an author.

      Reply
  11. muddledmom

    I think it’s great (and obviously Eriq LaSalle did too!). Congrats! It sounds to me like a legit award. As I tell my kids, someone will always have something negative to say. Probably a sore loser.

    Reply
    • Carrie Rubin

      Yeah, that blog sounds like sour grapes. If one’s going to make accusations, he/she best have some evidence to prove it.

      Thanks!

      Reply
  12. Katie

    I was scammed by a poetry contest many, many moons ago. Although, it was not a clever scam so I came out of it intact. Good that you did the research! Celebrate! As a reader….seeing contest wins attached to a book makes me think, “well at least someone liked it.” They register about the same as critic’s quotes. My decision is more based on the blurb. 8)

    Reply
    • Carrie Rubin

      Like you, I base more on the blurb and a quick read of the first page or two. That’s enough to let me know if I’ll gel with the writing style. But seeing an award win might sway me to read a book if I was otherwise on the fence, particularly if it had been recommended to me by someone else.

      Sorry to hear you were scammed. I think there’s probably more risk of that with poetry and short story contests since there seem to be so many of those. But with all the self-published books making their appearance, the scammers are rearing their heads in this area too now.

      Reply
      • Katie

        An award can push me that extra bit or to look at it more seriously than I had initially planned.
        I suppose anywhere people are trying to break into a creative field, scammers see it as an opportunity. I guess it works for investors too. I have a lost cousin oversees that just won the lotto… ;)

        Reply
        • Carrie Rubin

          Haha, don’t we all? :)

          Sorry your comment went to moderation. That’s been happening a lot for me. I have it set up that if someone’s commented on my blog before, they don’t need further moderation. Not sure what WordPress is playing at here…

          Reply
  13. Aussa Lorens

    I can’t speak with any sort of experience but I think that if you’re doing your research it makes a lot of sense– there is always going to be someone on the internet who has something nasty to say about every single in the world. But they can definitely get into our heads and mess things up. Congrats on the award though, that’s awesome and super exciting. I think that seeing that a book has won an award (even if it’s not a Pulitzer) probably does sway me if I’m on the fence about giving it a read. Guess I’m just a herd animal.

    Reply
    • Carrie Rubin

      “But they can definitely get into our heads and mess things up.”—Isn’t that the truth? I thought I was immune to this, but apparently I’m not. Even though after reading more about this bizarre blog and learning the blogger was most likely a disgruntled competitor of those successful writers he attacked, I still let it get inside my head. So much so that I contacted the president of the contest to discuss my concerns. He probably thinks I’m a crazy lady now. My name will be forever flagged…

      Thanks for your thought as a reader, though from what I’ve read on Mark’s blog about his beta reading of your book, you’ll be doing this publishing/marketing thing in the future as well. And I have no doubt you’ll succeed. You’ve definitely got some writing chops.

      Reply
      • Aussa Lorens

        A disgruntled competitor, of course! And I doubt the president think you’re crazy– he clearly deals with a whole other level of madness! It makes sense for you to have been concerned.

        And… wow, thank you! Mark is amazing… I owe an incredible debt to him. He felt free to go ahead and draft an acknowledgments page for himself though ;) But I really don’t know how I will ever thank him. Aaaaand if I do in fact reach that point I will be absolutely STALKING your blog for tips.

        Reply
        • Carrie Rubin

          Deal. :)

          (I’m not sure why your comment went to moderation. This has been happening to me lately with some of the other commenters, too. I have it set so that if a person comments once, they don’t need further moderation. Weird.)

          Reply
  14. memyselfandkids.com

    I am leery about entering contests at this point. However, researching them as you did is clearly the key.
    I think it’s awesome that you won and you should be very proud.
    Btw, he was also in Coming to America – remember?

    Reply
    • Carrie Rubin

      I didn’t remember that until someone sent me a clip of the scene. He had some pretty groovy hair in that movie!

      Thanks for the kind words. I figure award wins are just another small part of the marketing toolkit. Granted, Pulitzers sound a lot better… ;)

      Reply
  15. mummylovestowrite

    I think that you are a clever lady and did a lot of research to come to your conclusions about contests. Therefore, you should be extremely proud of your award. Congratulations x

    And Miami?! You had me at Eriq La Salle ;-)

    Reply
  16. ParentingIsFunny

    This was all good and interesting info. A whole new world to me. (Did you hear Jasmine singing in your mind just now?) I think it’s super cool that you won those awards. Way to go!

    Reply
  17. calahan

    Whenever I lose a contest, I make myself feel better by publicly ridiculing said contest and that the person that did win was scammed. Therefore, my losing is actually turned into my winning and the tears that stain my pillow are called tears of joy. *sniff*

    Reply
  18. La La

    Eh, whoever criticizes you can just eff off. An award is great, and can push you ahead and sort of confirms that writing is worth it (to me anyway). A win is a win, right?

    Reply
    • Carrie Rubin

      I like to think so! But I feel bad for those authors he named by name (he was mostly dissing their reviews but also some of their awards). If you’re going to make accusations against specific people and tarnish their reputations, you better have evidence to back up your claims (which, of course, he didn’t). Smells like sour grapes…

      Reply
  19. PinotNinja

    Congrats on your wins! And a hearty BOOOOO! to the curmudgeon behind the blog that tried to rain on your parade. I think that any opportunity to bring your book and new readers together is a fantastic opportunity, and good on you for taking the risk on the contest and following through.

    I only wish that I knew before you were in Miami for the book fair. It happens literally on the street where my office is — I would have come downstairs, cheered you on, and taken you on a cafe con leche and pastelito binge!

    Reply
    • Carrie Rubin

      Haha, although your last paragraph is very kind, words like that strike fear into a shy introvert. ;)

      I didn’t know you lived in Miami, though. My son and I had a great time there. Plus, I thought I was pretty cool checking out the home of Dexter…

      Thanks for your kind words about the win. I won’t let that blogger’s rain frizz my hair!

      Reply
  20. Ron Herron

    Congratulations on your award, Carrie. I won a Readers Favorite silver this year, too. Probably saw you there. Had a gold last year. I only entered because RF was one of the few really good review sources. Kirkus Reviews is probably the best, but they want a $495 reading fee. There’s no guarantee of a good review with either one. But that’s the way it should be. You can buy a review … but you can’t buy a GOOD review.

    Awards are nice, but they won’t sell your book. There’s too much competition out there. I’ve blogged about indie publishing for past couple of years, and think I have a handle on it … finally. And my advice (for what it’s worth) is to keep writing … keep submitting to good review sources (like Kirkus or Readers Favorite) and don’t get discouraged.

    If you’re interested, my blog on indie writing is called Painting With Light and it’s at http://www.ronherron.wordpress.com

    Reply
    • Carrie Rubin

      Thanks, Ron! I appreciate you reading and commenting. And congratulations on your award. We probably did indeed cross paths, though I’m notoriously bad at sticking to myself. I’m the worst networker ever. Thank goodness for social media or I’d be in trouble!

      I can’t believe how expensive Kirkus reviews are. I’m not willing to pay that, and I know my publisher isn’t, either. Going with a small press publisher is almost like being self-published in that I still have to do all the marketing myself. They did, however, run a promotion on BookBub for my book, and that helped a huge amount.

      I’ll check out your site when I get a chance. Thanks again!

      Reply
    • Carrie Rubin

      Thanks, Valentine. I hope I’m not making non-authors flee, though, so next week I’ll forgo a writing topic for something much more senseless. Those are always fun–no research involved. :)

      Reply
  21. 4amWriter

    Great article, Carrie. I admit that I shy away from contests/competitions because I am such a skeptic. I’m always looking over my shoulder, sure that someone is ready to scam me! I tend to follow the footsteps and advice of people whom I respect and know wouldn’t lead me astray. So, basically, I trust bloggers in my circle or writers that I have come to know through conferences and workshops. Even if it is a reputable company, I still wait to hear from someone whose opinion I trust before I submit my stuff.

    Great photo, by the way! :)

    Reply
    • Carrie Rubin

      Thank you. :)

      I feel I have a better pool of people (bloggers, etc.) to seek advice from now. When I started out, my net wasn’t as wide, and I had to muddle through a bunch of stuff on my own. But I was happy with the three contests I entered and would enter them again, so I’m glad to have had the experience. Like you, I’m skeptical, so even my wins I take with a big grain of sea salt. :)

      Reply

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