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Contests & Awards: Are They Worth It? | NINC



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Authors are always on the lookout for ways to garner more publicity for their books. One way that’s been around for quite a while is to enter a contest. But there are many contests out there, and some of them charge high fees to enter, or require that you mail printed books to judges at your cost.

The first thing to consider is what you want from the contest or award. Is there a cash prize, which can be beneficial for writers whose income is often sporadic and unpredictable, or simply a certificate? Can becoming a finalist or a winner bring you new fans? Robin Lee Hatcher has “had many finalist books and won many times as well. With very few exceptions, awards make the author feel good but [don’t sell books].”

Sometimes the validation that comes with being a finalist in or winning a writing contest can be just what you need, especially if you’re currently struggling with your writing or in need of some positive reinforcement.

How do you decide which contests to enter?
It’s important to consider the criteria for an award. Do you qualify by your level of artistry, your area of residence, or your subject matter? There are contests for writers of mystery, romance, or science fiction, as well as ones for Southern writers and nature writers. Alaska, Florida, Virginia, and New York are among the many states that grant awards to resident writers.

In some cases, the decision is made for you. Mystery Writers of America, for example, requires that your book come out from a publisher who is recognized by the organization. A self-published author can’t nominate his or her book for an Edgar award, no matter how good it is. Other organizations might require you to be a dues-paying member to enter.

Basically anything published in the correct year that the voters think is either science fiction or fantasy qualifies for entry for the Hugo Awards. That’s broad, and you’re competing against many, many authors. The awards are voted on by fans, so unless you have a big fan base I wouldn’t enter. The same is often true of awards given out by fan conferences.

I wouldn’t enter a contest with a broad focus. Best Mystery Novel, for example, could pit you against hundreds or even thousands of other entries.

In the past, I’ve entered the awards sponsored by Lambda Literary. They’re a long-established group with a wide reach among readers, and winning a Lammy can generate great publicity. Lammys are voted on by judges who are authors, editors, or other literary professionals, and some of the categories are quite narrow—best lesbian poetry, for example.

Before you enter, look at last year’s winners and finalists. Are the finalists publicized? Many readers look at these lists to find new writers, and even being a finalist can give you a publicity bump.

In 2023, I entered my golden retriever mystery Dog of Thieves in a contest sponsored by the Dog Writers Association of America. The fee was only $20 and I was able to upload a PDF of the book rather than mail out copies. People who belong to the DWAA, by their nature, enjoy dogs and books, so this was a great crowd to get my work in front of. The DWAA listed the top five finalists on their website in advance of the award, and I used that in my social media.

I was delighted that Dog of Thieves won the award for best novel. And winning provided yet another promotional opportunity.

The bottom line is to look at what you can get out of a contest. For an aspiring writer, the opportunity to get feedback on a work in progress, or a finished work, can be invaluable. The Malice Domestic mystery fan convention co-sponsors the William F. Deeck-Malice Domestic Grants Program for Unpublished Writers. The winner gets a free attendance at the conference. Sarah Bewley won in 2012, and that gave her the motivation to finish her book, Burning Eden, and get it published.

Many conferences offer similar competitions, for first lines, short stories, flash fiction, or full-length work, and the only requirement is that you be registered for the conference. Winning can provide bragging rights or publishing connections. But before entering, be aware of what you can win, and appraise your chances based on how many people have entered in the past.

Don’t feel too bad if you don’t win a contest or an award. Remember, the judges are real people with their own ideas and prejudices. Agents and editors may judge a book on its commercial value, while readers will have a different view. And while many contests can bring positive press, there are times when big contests can also create negative headlines because of unfair practices. It’s good to research contests and their reputations before entering to determine if things have been changed for the better since the upheaval.

Elaine Isaak “entered a Colorado writing contest for novels, which resulted in such a destructive critique letter that the contest administrator felt the need to write a cover letter to go with it.” She didn’t feel bad though, “because the book had gotten picked from the slush pile by a major editor just a few days before, and went on to be my first published novel.”

Robin Lee Hatcher said, “My practice these days is to enter respected contests that are judged by readers, not other writers or publishing professionals. My goal is to get my books in front of readers who may not know my books.”

Nancy Cohen lists a series of pros and cons for entering contests on her website. Among the things she suggests to look for are the sponsoring organization; who the judges are (readers, booksellers, librarians); cost; prize; competition; and your past experience with the sponsoring group.

For an established writer, winning or getting a finalist nod in a well-regarded competition can be an excellent addition to a resume, and the ability to call oneself an “award-winning writer.” This designation can go on your book jacket, your website, and your promotional materials. Just be ready to back up that claim!


 Neil Plakcy is the author of over 60 novels in mystery, romance, and adventure. He lives in South Florida with his husband and two rambunctious golden retrievers.
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