The Seventy-Five Dollar Sticker
April 17, 2018 § 10 Comments
In fifth grade, I won a county-wide writing contest. I think that’s how they got my name. I had been “selected” for Best Young American Authors. Or Who’s Who in Young Authors. Or 100 Young Poets. Something like that. Of course I was thrilled–I’d gotten a real letter in the mail telling me my special status and requesting a copy of my story, my bio…and an order form for the number of copies of the anthology I would buy at $45 each.
My mother figured out it was a racket, but I was only a little disappointed. I’d already gotten a medal and a certificate from the school superintendent, what greater prize could there be?
The anthology racket is still alive, barely. Self-publishing has made massive inroads on paying for the excitement of your name in print. Independent authors invest more up front, but make some money back in sales. Independents control the quality of the work and physical presentation, rather than being positioned with everyone else who wrote a check, regardless of their ability to write a coherent sentence.
But as one head of the publishing-scam Hydra hisses beneath a stone, another pops up, ready to do even less for authors, for even more money.
Maybe you’ve gotten an email: there’s a contest your book is eligible for! If you win, your book will be presented to movie producers and in an ad on Goodreads! Press releases will feature you! You can put shiny gold stickers on your book cover! And it’s only $75! Per entry! In as many categories as you want!
Sadly, these “contests” are simply money-making machines for the organizers. “Winning” adds no credibility to your book, doesn’t help with sales, and seldom results in any publicity beyond free internet announcements. In fact, there are often so many subcategories that everyone who enters, wins. Their $75 didn’t buy fair consideration and worthy competition–it bought a sticker. (Additional stickers may be purchased at just $25/pack!)
There are plenty of legitimate contests and awards. But contests that mean something are usually contests you’ve already heard of, or affiliated with reputable magazines or organizations. Entities that do more than hold contests. You might be part of their mailing list, but they rarely solicit your entry personally. You may need your publisher to submit the book on your behalf, or to be nominated by librarians or booksellers. The judges are published writers or noted agents and editors. Past winners include writers you’ve heard of, or whose biographies mention MFAs and literary or mass media publications. There may be an entry fee, but it rarely tops $50 for a book or $25-30 for a story or essay. Books can only be entered in the year they are released, and only in one category. Legit contests offer specific, measurable prizes, like “$1000 and a guest lecture at X College,” rather than un-checkable weasel-language like “promoted to industry insiders.” You don’t have to purchase your own prize stickers if you win.
Over at Writer Beware, Victoria Strauss points out ways to spot a for-profit contest…
There are any number of moneymaking contests that focus on published books. Their M.O.: a huge entry fee, dozens or scores or even hundreds of entry categories, and the sale of additional merchandise to winners and honorees. Prizes are typically things that cost the sponsors little or nothing (website features, electronic press releases, vague promises of publicity campaigns). Judges are never named–and may not exist–and, although commercially published books are sometimes declared winners, the contests are marketed mainly to small press and self-published authors.
Profiteer awards and contests don’t typically command a lot of name recognition, but if you win or place, you’ll be able to tag your book as an “award-winning book” and yourself as an “award-winning author.” How much readers care about such designations, though, is an open question. With all the fake review scandals, as well as readers’ increasing disillusion with authorial self-promotion, I think book buyers have become more cynical in general about what authors say about themselves.
Pay-to-play contests are aimed squarely at authors eager for recognition, and for that extra something to help their book stand out. Cynical, shady organizations recognize and exploit that hunger.
Genuine book awards do launch careers. They’re also highly competitive, and a lot less “rah-rah” about the prizes, because their name alone is the prize (i.e. Booker, Pulitzer, Nobel). One day, you’ll be in the running. For now, skip the contest entry and use that time to write another essay, something that will draw real attention to your book. Something beautiful. Something more powerful than a $75 sticker.
Wondering if a contest is legit? The Alliance of Independent Authors has a handy chart.
Writer Beware is a valuable resource for all writers. Their blog and searchable archives explain scams and name and shame predator agents and unscrupulous publishers.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She’ll be teaching Creating Memoir From Memory on June 10, as part of the Cedar Ridge Writers Series in New Jersey.