Last spring, I entered my novel into a writing contest on a whim, with my state’s writing association.
I felt my odds of winning something seemed decent enough it was worth the $40 entry fee, and at minimum, I’d receive the judges’ feedback, which would be extremely helpful for honing my craft.
Who can resist an opportunity to see how you measure up to your peers?
In early summer I got news that I was a semifinalist. Then in August, that I was a finalist. It started to get exciting. I could really, actually place! But I tried not to think about it too hard, to avoid too much disappointment later.
Well friends, I not only placed, I got first place for the published fantasy category.
And then in a completely unexpected twist, my novel received the organization’s top honor as 2016 Book of the Year.
I was completely floored. Winning an award is a really nice pat on the back—you’re doing something right, and those high-starred reviews on Amazon are not just out of politeness.
Held up to high standards of objective judging, you made the cut.
But beyond fueling a writer’s ego, what can an award do for your author career?
As soon as you are declared a winner in a contest, you get to slap “award-winning” in front of your byline any time you want.
And you should definitely want to. The external affirmation of an award can help new readers consider you worth a risk. Over time, this is a credential that pays off.
This new tag next to your name should be able to help you get a few more speaking gigs, too.
My award came with one opportunity built in: I’ll be the “person of renown” at next year’s conference, and will deliver an address the first day. Which is terrifying, but at least I have a year to prepare for it.
While at the conference, I got invited to address a writer’s group, and I’ve already started sending out queries to see what else I drum up—post-award is no time to kick back and relax … it’s time to jump into high gear!
“But I’m a writer, not a speaker!”
No, I am sorry, but you are both.
Being prepared to take on speaking gigs is a powerful way to expand your platform. I know it’s awful—when I step on a stage my hands visibly shake.
But the more you do it, the easier it gets. Start small in your own community and work your way up. If it helps, round up a panel to work with. But don’t let a fear of public speaking hold your beloved book back from success.
Any time you earn recognition for your work, be sure to send out a press release to any reporters in your area who cover books, or arts and culture in general (just one per media outlet please, so do your research to find the best first).
Your returns on a press release may vary, but odds are you’ll get at least a hit or two, and every mention can help readers discover and remember you.
Copies in hands
This result was immediate: As soon as the awards ceremony concluded, people were stopping me to say they couldn’t wait to purchase my book in the conference book store the next day.
At a winners’ signing in the morning, I sold 20 books in about 90 minutes—and got as many new subscribers to my email list. For comparison, I sold fewer books than that over a three-day local comic con.
I saw a jump in my Amazon ranking over the following week, too.
Putting it all to work
So how do you find the right contest for your book? Chasing the Man Booker or the Pulitzer on your first shot is probably not going to pay off. But, winning an award that lacks credibility won’t help you much, either.
A few tips:
- Look to your local and state organizations. These often offer competitions that draw in a smaller pool since they’re not national, but most writing associations are still respected influencers in their region.
- Research the judging process. I’ve seen contests before where books are nominated by readers, and then voted upon online—this is less a judge of writing quality than a popularity contest.
The contest I entered had a meticulous process including objective scoring thresholds to reach semifinalist and finalist status—so even being named a finalist was a true accomplishment. Another thoughtful feature this contest used was that to account for varying tastes in writing, the judge whose score was farthest away from the others was tossed (whether it was higher or lowers than the others).Look for contests with high standards and a clear, thoughtful judging process.
- Assess your work honestly. Do you genuinely feel that your manuscript holds up to the competition? What do critique partners tell you? Online reviews? Submitting a work you don’t feel is your best is just throwing your money away.
- Genre considerations. Look at the competition’s past results. How does your genre fare? Are there specific categories for your genre in this competition?
Don’t submit your hot romance novel for a literary prize—you may have written the most wonderful romance ever, but genre fiction is not what that competition is looking for! Find a romance competition instead.
- Fringe benefits. Make sure you gain a benefit from the contest even if you don’t win—most commonly, you should receive the judges’ comments on why they scored your manuscript the way they did.
A time to seize opportunities
This was a great mid-year jumpstart to bring my book sales back to life a bit, and reaffirmed my efforts after a mid-year sales slump.
But taking full advantage of the opportunities is taking a ton of work, so be prepared. I’m reaching out to libraries, book stores, media outlets, and whatever else I can think of to seize opportunities.
Quite frankly, winning an award is some awful hard work. No sooner did I receive this unexpected honor than my heart started to race with all the new to-dos on my list. But it’s the good kind of work to have, so it’s hard to complain.
Want to create this situation for yourself? Don’t be afraid to get out there and submit!
Do you submit your work to writing contests? Why or why not?