Before You Enter a Book Contest…

I recently completed my second year judging for the Ben Franklin Awards. I enjoy volunteering as a judge because it gives me an opportunity to get a broader view of what is happening in the publishing community, particularly with indie/small press books. I wanted to share a few thoughts about entering contests in general based on my experiences as a judge, as I think they may be useful for authors who are may want to enter contests in the future.

Don’t enter a costly book contest unless you have a plan.

And I say this as someone who judges for a costly book contest. The typical entry fees for many book prizes range from $75-$125 per book, and extra if you want the book entered in multiple categories. Then you have the cost of the actual book itself, including shipping. In most cases, you will need to send multiple copies per category (The Ben Franklin awards require four copies). You can easily end up looking at a cost of over $200 for a single entry.

Awards by themselves do not generate sales bumps. If you win, you will need to have a plan in place to leverage your success. One title I reviewed for the contest was so wonderful I wanted to buy a copy as a gift for someone else, only to discover the book was not available for sale on Amazon. The only way to order the book was directly from the publisher…by mailing a check! Another title I wanted to find in ebook format to gift to a friend, only to discover no ebook version was available anywhere.

In other cases, I went looking for author websites to learn more about the author, and I was unable to find a web presence. No stationary web page. No blog. No Facebook. Nothing.

In these cases, the authors or publishers are in no position to really leverage a win. Before spending money on entry fees, make sure you already have the distribution and infrastructure in place to capitalize should you win. Otherwise, you are flushing money down the drain.

Enter Wisely

Again, awards contests are expensive endeavors. You can end up spending hundreds of dollars on a single competition. And unfortunately, all awards are not created equal. The Ben Franklin awards are tied to the Independent Book Publishers Association, a non-profit trade group whose members include not only publishers, but book stores, academic institutions, and libraries. If your goal is to get your print book in stores, winning a Ben Franklin award is a way to get noticed (though it will do very little for you if you aren’t actively looking to put books in stores). Despite my personal reservations about their contests, the Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book awards still carry a lot of marketing weight if you actually win. And even if you don’t win, the WD awards have a good reputation for providing constructive feedback to authors.

But other contests are little more than opportunities to spend more money. Look carefully at who is sponsoring a contest to determine that organization’s motivation. Many of these contests exist only to collect entry fees and add-on charges. For example, winners of the Foreword Book of the Year are offered the “opportunity” to use the digital foil seal on their books…for a $99 license fee. The Indie Book Awards sell not only stickers, but also award certificates ($20 each) and medallions ($25 each).

Some contest mills host elaborate galas that winners are invited to attend (at the winner’s cost, of course). And even these awards ceremonies are money-making ventures for the contest mill, as winners end up spending hundreds or thousands of dollars to attend. Others include prize packages that are self-referring. For example, it may include “an interview on a nationally syndicated radio program” that turns out to be owned by the same company that s running the contest. Or it may include an inflated “promotional package” of the company’s own marketing services.

Remember: nobody will be reading your book from cover to cover

My category was small compared to some of the others, and it still contained two dozen entries. I had less than two months to judge them all, and some of those books were over 500 pages in length. Some categories will have between 50-100 entries. If you think the judge is carefully reading your book from beginning to end, you are sadly mistaken.

Why is this important? Because too often indies take shortcuts (like self-editing) or don’t take due care with presentation (book cover, formatting, readability) and insist that their work stand and fall on the power of the storyteller. That’s a nice dream, but your ability to tell a story is only part of the judging process.

One title I judged was printed 100% in the papyrus font. It was pretty for all of two pages. After that, my eyes started to hurt. Another book was full color with a charcoal gray background and light gray print. Again, it was pretty until I actually tried to read it and started to get a headache. How well is your book going to be judged if it is causing the judge physical pain to read?

To maximize your chances, make sure your book is professionally produced. This includes not only having a nice cover, but making sure your text is readable (not just pretty). This includes making sure margins are sized correctly to avoid too much white space or text running into the spine. This includes using high resolution images so that your interior art does not look washed out or blurry. If applicable, this means making sure your table of contents and index is accurate and complete. If non-fiction, this means making sure you are correctly citing your sources and making correct use of footnotes and endnotes. The entire package, not just your ability to tell a story, is being judged.

Don’t treat the judges like criminals

Just like book reviewers, most judges for a contest are volunteers or only paid a small honorarium. In most cases, the only payment we get are the free books we are judging. And after judging, we have anywhere from 20-100 books sitting around that we have to figure out what to do with. Some will become a part of our permanent personal libraries. Some will be donated to our local libraries or charities. Some will be given to friends and family as gifts. Some may be traded or sold at used book stores. But the ones that are defaced, stamped, or have REVIEW COPY NOT FOR RESALE written all over them? They may end up in the trash/recycle bin.

I honestly don’t understand why someone would spend $100 or more to enter a contest and then deface a book out of fear the judge might get $1.50 trade-in at the used book store or sell it on ebay for $5. Please understand that we are getting cases of books to judge. We can’t be expected to keep them all. We want to find good homes for those books if we can. We volunteer to judge for these awards because we love books! But if you insist on sending us something that is defaced, you leave us no choice but to dispose of it when the judging is complete.

Do feel free to send bookmarks, post cards, and other promotional material with the book (unless the contest prohibits it)

Again, we volunteer to judge because we love books. And if a particular book grabs our interest, we will want to know more. While sharing a few bookmarks or a promo flyer won’t influence our judging, it may influence how much we talk you up after judging is complete. I know a gentleman who judges for a different contest that often uses the entries as a way of finding guests for a regional book fair he operates. A librarian friend of mine has used promotional material included with entries to make book recommendations to the library committee.

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