Should authors enter writing contests?

Some people say contests are a tremendous marketing tool. Others say they’re a waste of time. 

In this article, we’ll explore the pros and cons of contests so you can decide what’s best for you.

Contests can work as a marketing tool. They don’t make a lot of sense for nonfiction authors because people don’t typically buy nonfiction books based on the quality of the writing. A reader buys a nonfiction book because it answers a question they’re asking. 

Even a poorly written book can answer a question. For example, when you’re assembling a desk and the instructions are poorly written by someone who doesn’t speak fluent English, you still read the directions carefully because you want to know how to build the desk.

For fiction, readers care deeply about the quality of the writing, and contests can be a great way to establish credibility.

There are five levels of credibility labels for authors. In order from lowest credibility to highest, they are:

  • Author
  • Award-Winning Author
  • Bestselling Author
  • New York Times Bestselling Author
  • #1 New York Times Bestselling Author

Your book cover will feature the highest title you can claim. Even if you can only claim to be an “award-winning author,” people will take you more seriously.

Pros for Unpublished Authors

One challenge for beginning authors is finding someone to give you good feedback on your writing. When you’re starting out, most of the feedback you receive is unhelpful. It’s either gushingly positive, and no one will tell you how bad your writing is, or it’s overly critical, and your spirit gets crushed. Some people even give you bad writing advice, and if you implement it, your writing will worsen.

Feedback

Entering a contest is a great way for unpublished authors to get unbiased feedback. 

Learning to Handle Negative Feedback

It’s better to get a helpful critique from professionals who care about the contest than a slew of negative reviews from Amazon reviewers.

Possible Mention in the Media

If you’re an “award-winning author,” radio hosts, podcasters, and journalists will introduce you as such. Interestingly, people rarely ask what award you’ve won.

Compare to Authors in Your Genre

Contests let you see how your writing compares with the other submitted pieces. If a reasonable number of entries have been submitted and you place in the top three, you’ll know your writing craft is improving. 

Deadlines

Entering a contest means you get practice meeting deadlines. A deadline is a magical date that makes you finish. Most authors need deadlines to improve their craft.

Pros for Published Authors

New Readers

A prestigious award can introduce you to new readers who are familiar with the award. When James L. Rubart won the Christy Award, he gained new readers who hadn’t heard of him but knew of the award.

Clout With the Media 

Being an award-winning author gives you more clout with editors, agents, and interviewers. National media will want to know whether you’ve won awards, and if you have, they’ll be more likely to interview you.

Tax Deductible Business Expense

Nearly all contests charge an entry fee, and as an entrepreneur, you can deduct the fee as a marketing expense. Check with your CPA to find out your state’s laws. You can also check out our course, The Tax and Business Guide for Authors, or our interview with an author-friendly CPA.

Recognition From Your Peers

Your fellow authors will take note of the awards you’ve won. When they see you’re serious about your craft and career, they’ll be more likely to want to partner with you on future endorsements or promotions.

Advertising Boost

Winning a contest is a great excuse to push your book to the top of people’s minds for an advertising boost. Fiction books typically sell best right after release. When you win an award, you can email your list or notify your followers, and you may see another spike in sales.

Contract

Several major contests offer the winner a publishing contract with a traditional publishing house. Contest winners tend to do well because their writing has been proven in the contest. Publishers tend to put marketing money behind winners.

Cons for Unpublished Authors

Feedback

The quality of the feedback you receive depends entirely on who the judges are. I’ve seen judges hammer a book that became a bestseller without being changed. Find out who the judges are and their qualifications.

Cost

There’s nothing wrong with spending money marketing your book. You often need to spend money to make money. The $25-$50 you spend entering a writing contest could be spent elsewhere in a potentially more effective way. 

Spending money on a contest you win is a good investment. But it’s a gamble. If you lose, the expense is still tax-deductible, but it can get expensive. Entering ten contests at $50 each means you’re gambling with $500. For $500, you could run a BookBub Featured Deal, which is almost guaranteed to give you a 100% return on your investment. 

Choose the Right Contest

Research the judges as much as you can and find answers to the following questions:

  • Who has won in the past?
  • How many entries does the contest take?
  • How long has the contest been running?
  • Who sponsors the contest? 
  • What are their credentials?

You can’t enter every contest, so do your research. Spend your time and resources on the best ones. Push past the hype and find out how it’s being conducted.

Scam Contests

Scammers abound in the author world, and the contest arena is no exception. Some contests happily charge $50 per entry, and after they receive 10,000 entries, they laugh all the way to the bank and never review a single manuscript.

Cons for Published Authors

Cost

You’ll pay $25-$50 to enter, and you’ll have to ship multiple copies of your book to the judges. Those costs add up quickly. 

Some traditional publishers will cover these costs and submit your book for you.

Awards Don’t Impress Many Readers

When James L. Rubart tells another author that he won a Christy Award, they say, “Wow! Congratulations!” But when he tells readers, they often respond, “Who’s Christy?” 

Awards don’t persuade many readers to buy your book. Award-winning and bestselling have no correlation. Many award-winning authors never become bestsellers. 

Don’t get so distracted writing for contest judges that you forget you’re actually writing for readers who pay to buy your book.

Everything Takes Time

If entering contests takes a lot of time, you won’t have time to hone your craft, build your email list, or read in your genre.

Be strategic and thoughtful. Either enter contests until you win one and then stop entering or pace yourself and enter two contests per year.

Contests can be useful, but they will not make or break you. It’s one tool in your author toolbox.

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