Reprinted with permission from WordWorks Magazine, Winter 2018

by me, Donna Barker

Because there just wasn’t enough space under my bed for any more manuscripts, I was determined to have my dark humour, paranormal, social commentary, women’s fiction, murder mystery become a novel — agented and traditionally published.

And so, after paying for a professional development edit and following all of the very good advice I received, I started the joyful task of querying agents. I was buoyed by the immediate, positive responses I received: several requests for partial and full manuscripts. I was less floaty when agent-after-agent — 55 in total — passed. Many wrote back with comments that all sounded pretty similar,

“You have an engaging voice as a writer and the characters and story are interesting, but I can’t think of a single publisher who would publish … whatever this genre is that you’ve written.”

Blub, blub, blub. Discouraged, and with my confidence swimming with the fishes at the bottom of Howe Sound, I tossed out the Irish sweater my grandma knit me when I was 17 to make room under my bed for one. more. manuscript.

Almost a year after receiving that last agent’s, “thanks, but no thanks,” I was tagged in a tweet, “Congratulations to @donnabarker, winner of the Chatelaine award for best Mystery/Suspense.”

Huh? I didn’t even remember having entered a contest. But I had, 15 months earlier.

Looking at all of the other category winners, I realized that my entry was in the minority, being only a manuscript — that most of the other award-winners were real books being read by real-life readers. This gave me the boost of confidence that I needed to say, “to heck with being an agented author with all their silly rules about needing to write in one clear genre,” and to self-publish Mother Teresa’s Advice for Jilted Lovers.

While my contest win gave me what I needed to make the leap from aspiring to published author, I realize that many authors have different “Why bother?” reasons for entering writer’s contests. So, I asked a few for their thoughts.

Why bother? BC Authors share their thoughts on contests

Lawrence Verigen, multi-award-winning author of the Dark Seed Trilogy says he has “no doubt that writing contests are of great benefit to authors and their creations…

“Being a finalist and winner of an award gives you third-party, respected recognition for your work. That means someone out there thinks your book is better than the other books entered. The intent is for readers to have extra confidence that your book will be time well-spent and enjoyed, which adds up to more exposure and sales.”

Kath Curran, author of Before It Was Easy, and a Finalist for the Whistler Independent Book Awards, believes that, “To be successful, a new book by an unknown author needs two things: writing that is good enough to charm or at least engage its readers, and a bit more good luck than bad.

“By putting our name and our work in front of many individuals at once, whether we win or not, a writing contest amplifies our book’s chances of finding its audience. Yes, even if we win the contest, the odds of success remain small. But they are bigger than before, and it is by such active measures that we incrementally build our own luck.”

That’s the same reason why Mary Ann Clarke Scott, author of the self-published, Having It All, romantic women’s fiction series, enters contests. And wins!

“In an overcrowded marketplace, exposure for your work and your brand is more important than ever, for all writers, but especially for self-published writers. You have to try everything available to you within your means, contests included.”

Caitlin Hicks, whose first book, A Theory of Expanded Love, has won more contest awards than I’ve had lovers, says, “I’m hoping the success of Theory will make my next book more attractive to agents and put me in a better bargaining position to land a larger publisher for my second book. Being an author… it’s all about hope and desire, isn’t it?”

Luck + Hope + Research = Recognition + Exposure. Maybe.

There’s no doubt that winning the right contests can help you achieve all of the benefits that motivate the award-winners above (or their publishers) to pay the entry fees. Of course, there are no guarantees that you’ll be a finalist or win every, or even any of the contests you enter, but there are a few things you can do to improve your odds, aside from submitting the best book possible.

Some contests lean toward more literary works while others award genre-writing. Know where your book fits and submit accordingly.

Some treat self-published books as equals to traditionally published, while others don’t. Don’t waste your money with the misbelief that you’ll be the author to buck that trend.

Some contests are judged blind with the author unknown to the judges, while others allow the judges to know who wrote the books. Does this impact who walks away with an award? Sometimes it’s easy to figure out by looking at a few years’ history of wins. Luck can be biased.

Good advice, read between the lines

Lawrence Verigen: “As long as you think your writing, editing, interior layout and cover are worthy of an award, you should put in the effort to enter as many categories as you can find that your book(s) fit with.”

(Take away: Submit your best possible work! Contests are not a place to send an unedited, poorly formatted manuscript. Details matter.)

 

Caitlin Hicks: “Kirkus Reviews (technically, not a contest, but absolutely a competition) is expensive but essential. Foreward Reviews Indies Book Of the Year Awards and iBooks Best New Fiction are also important contests. High profile contests like these help libraries and bookstores make the decision to acquire your book.”

(Take away: Do your research about who uses the contest results to make buying decisions. If your big goal is to get your book into Chapters, know which contests Chapters buyers’ respect.)

 

Mary Ann Clarke Scott: “Contests are a dime a dozen and not all of them are worth your time and money. Make sure the contest organization is ethical, professional and has the clout you need. In the end contest wins are just a stepping stone as you attempt to lift your head above the crowd. Ultimately it’s readers who will determine your success.”

(Take away: Have a plan to use your contest to help you reach your next goal. Which begs the question that you know what your next goal is! Otherwise your winning status will be virtually invisible to the broad reading community mere seconds after the congratulations Tweet’s been posted.)

 

Kath Curran: “Everything about writing is a kind of contest. You train, you practice, your work is never ‘finished.’ And then there’s a contest. With a deadline. The work is ready after all. Whether or not you win a prize, you are a winner now—you have a completed draft … and you’ve taken part in a community that supports other writers like yourself.”

(Take away: Being a writer is a solitary act. Becoming a successful author is so much easier with a community. Build relationships your co-contest winners to cross-promote or support other’s goals in other ways. (I met Caitlin, Kath, and Lawrence due to our shared contest wins.))

How to answer your own, “Why bother?”

So, “why bother” entering book contests? I think the real questions to ask yourself before you pay your money to take your chances, are,

  • What do you hope to gain from a contest win? and
  • How will you leverage a win if you do walk away with a prize?

Answer those questions, take the advice of your award-winning peers, and then hope that your luck is more good than bad on the day you’re assigned your judges.