When a book wins the Pulitzer Prize or National Book Award, or a children’s book wins the Newberry Medal, readers take notice. The book and the author then receive a great deal of media attention. Few other book contests are household words, but if you let people know your book has won a contest, it might still convince them to buy your book. And having an award sticker on your book cover or a statement on your website that your book has won an award can only help you to get media attention and boost your book’s sales.
But authors beware. Everyone is trying to make a buck today, and unfortunately, that has resulted in some unscrupulous people preying upon authors who are desperate to get their books noticed; these people have created phony book contests whose only real purpose is to put dollars in the contest organizer’s pocket. Remember, even if you win a contest, it does you little good if it doesn’t help increase sales and media attention for your book, so be careful what contests you enter. Following are some guidelines for determining whether a book contest is worth entering, just a waste of your money, or perhaps even a scam.
Who is conducting the contest?
Make sure the contest is being run by a reputable individual, company, or organization. The contest should be listed on a reputable website that has a full disclosure webpage listing all the contest rules, guidelines, and other information. Simply an ad in a magazine or on Craigslist does not make a contest legitimate unless it refers people to a full disclosure webpage.
What is the contest’s history?
Contests have to start somewhere so if it’s the contest’s first year, that doesn’t mean it’s not legitimate, but if the contest has a track record of a few years, it’s more likely to be worth entering. Besides a contest history, you should be able to find a list of past contest winners, which is great not only for determining whether your book has anything in common with the past winners so you determine what chance you have of winning, but it lets you determine the quality of the books that have won in the past to see whether it truly is a contest with critical judges, or just one of those contests where everyone wins-yes, those are out there.
What is the fee?
Some people will tell you to avoid contests with fees, but a contest with a reasonable fee is usually as, or more, legitimate. After all, people don’t run contests for their health. It takes a lot of time and effort to organize a contest and to read all those books. Fees usually pay for advertising the contest, for the prizes, and sometimes for small gratuities given to thank the judges for their time. Just make sure that as the contest entrant, you get the most important thing for your fee-someone who actually reads your book. And also that the contest winner actually wins something (see “What is the prize?” below).
Beware of additional fees once you win the contest, such as receiving a discount on book coaching services. You may end up having to pay for extra award stickers-no contest is going to give you unlimited stickers-but beyond that, there should be no extra fees.
Along with fees, also note how many copies of your book are needed. A legitimate contest will usually need more than one book because there are multiple judges who will need to read the book. See also if a statement is made about what happens to the books-do the judges keep them or donate them to a library? Either is fine. You just don’t want to enter a contest where the goal is to collect books that will not be read but sold to earn extra money.
What is the deadline?
It doesn’t matter what time of year the deadline to enter is, but it should be sufficiently far enough away from the date when the winners are announced. If a contest deadline is January 15th and winners are announced on January 30th, it’s likely that not a lot of books were actually read in a two-week period. At least a month should pass between the deadline and the announcements so the judges have time actually to read the books.
Who is doing the judging?
Not everyone is qualified to judge a book contest. You don’t want to enter a contest where the judges are made up solely of the organizer’s family and friends. You want to win a contest where well-known or at least qualified people-writers, publishers, publicists-are doing the judging. The contest should disclose who its judges are. Not “Judges may include” but actually listing the names of the judges, or telling you what group of people compile the judges. A list of famous past judges doesn’t help either if those people aren’t judging the year you enter, although such a list may show that the contest is reputable.
What is the judging process?
Believe it or not, there are contests out there where no one reads the book and everyone gets an award. Those contests are worthless. They might fool you or even some of your readers, but do you really want to win a contest like that where there is no real winner?
Also avoid the “crowd sourcing” types of contests. These contests ask authors to rally everyone they know to come and vote for their book and the book with the most votes wins. A book contest isn’t a democratic procedure, and those votes count for nothing. You could get all 2,000 of your Facebook friends to vote for you, but I bet most of them never read your book so who are they to say whether your book deserves to win over a book by someone with only fifty Facebook friends?
You can tell whether a contest has a reliable judging process simply by looking up some of the books that have won. Don’t be surprised if you find some “award-winning books” have major editing or print quality issues. Stay away from those contests.
A legitimate book contest will have judges and a judging process in place. There should be at least two rounds of judging. In the first round, all the books are read and scored or evaluated. Then in a second round, a list of finalists is named (which may even be announced) before the final winners are determined.
What is the prize?
Believe it or not, winning some book contests can be costly. Look carefully at what the prize will be. Here are some prizes you don’t want: attending an awards dinner you have to pay for, including travel expenses; stickers, trophies, or certificates you have to pay for (you should receive a set number of stickers, and only have to pay for stickers over that number); an electronic certificate you have to print yourself; extra services, such as a press release, that you have to purchase if you win.
Be especially wary of contests that award you “representation.” If the award is that a book will be published by a publisher, or serialized in a magazine, or represented by a literary agency, that sounds great, but read the fine print. Will the agent actually represent you or just look at your book? Will the publisher pay for the printing or expect you to pay partial or full production costs? In short, there should never be a fee associated with the prize.
A prize of some sort should be awarded. It doesn’t have to be anything major like a gold trophy-what good is a gold trophy anyway if it sits in your office where no one can see it? A better prize is one that helps you promote your book, such as a professionally written press release, a book review that is promoted to the media, a set number of award stickers to place on your books, or a special (and free) media package of some sort.
Book contests remain a great way to get people to take notice of your book-both the media and your target readers. But make sure you enter contests where you feel you have a good chance of winning and where entering and winning does not hurt your marketing budget, but rather is likely to pay off in publicity and book sales.