Thursday, March 01, 2018


A few days ago, an aspiring picture book writer asked about a contest. The contest seems to be reputable, or at the very least, isn’t a scam, although the writer was concerned the contest organizers want to be able to publish the winning entry in their newsletter and then the rights revert back to the author. Someone else pointed out that contest wins look good when querying, which made me wonder, and I thought I'd ask you since it seems like a good question for your blog:

Which contests wins are worth mentioning when querying? More importantly, how can writers gauge this?

For example, I'd guess Malice Domestic's unpublished author grant or an SCBWI Work-In-Progress grant are worth mentioning since they're well known and come from respected organizations. Maybe the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, even though many people have a complicated relationship with the company. Some regional organizations—like Willamette Writers—have an annual writing contest but I’m not sure if anyone outside of the region has heard of it.

My traditionally published debut novel is a finalist for my state’s book awards, which are a judged competition. So, if I have to join the query trenches again (hopefully not), I’d guess this is a solid addition to my bio, although my manuscript description and sample pages are infinitely more important.

Your friend's hesitation about the contest folks wanting to publish her work if she won befuddles me. What does she want to happen? Nothing? A contest is primarily to attract attention to a project. It's hard to do this if you just get T-shirt and nothing else.

Contests to avoid are the ones that are clearly set up mostly for the proprietor to make money, rather than bring recognition to the winner. (check out one of my favorite examples: the New York Book Festival)

Contest to avoid are ones that require you to surrender all rights, in perpetuity.

Contests to avoid are the ones that grab rights if you enter, let alone win.

How can you tell?
Google the contest name. If it's not sponsored by a legit organization (like SCBWI), no one is talking about the contest, and it wasn't covered in any news articles, or mentioned in trade magazines, it's probably not a contest you'll get much benefit from.

Check out the entrance fee.  If it's more than $50 a book, it's probably being run for profit, but not yours.

Check out who won in years past. Have you heard of any of them? If the contest is for unpublished work, google to find out if the authors from five plus years ago actually got published.

Read the rules!

If you've entered a contest, use those same benchmarks to determine if you should mention it.

And add another benchmark: did you win?  Semi-finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough contest meant at least 50 people placed higher.  I'm probably only interested in the top three.

Conference contests are a little different in that often the entries are only people who attend the conference (check the rules to make sure, not all are like this)  A limited entry pool means my interest is limited.  You can "win" if you're first in a field of two, but it's harder to win if you're one in a field of a hundred plus.

Contests I pay very close attention to:
1. William F. Deeck Malice Domestic unpublished novel contest. I rep three winners of this contest. 'Nuff said.

2. Level Best anthology. Not really a contest, but I always read the stories selected for this anthology.

3. Black Orchid Novella award

If you mention you won a contest haven't heard of it, I google it. If you say you were a finalist or something else, I ignore it.

The contest you mentioned for your state is for published books, so generally those wouldn't be in a query letter unless you're looking for a new agent. If that's the case, sure, an award is nice, but the bigger question is really how did the book sell.


Carolynnwith2Ns said...

A contest true story.
A few years back I entered every Writer’s Digest short fiction contest they had. My high hopes after each entry had me reaching very low as a loser to find enough steam for the next one. While discussing this with my daughter, she read my most recent entry. She loved it, said it was fantastic, and asked if I minded if she entered.
“Go for it,” I said.
Why should I mind? Though I knew she was a good writer, it wasn’t ‘her thing’. She had never entered before, did not read the magazine, and her entry, I thought, was okay but not as awesome as mine. I hoped she wouldn’t be saddened by a non-reaction regarding her first piece, that it wouldn’t set her back, that she’d be okay when it came to the rejection she’d obviously experience as a neophyte. What if I won and she didn’t even place? Oh...a mother’s worry.
Out of over a thousand entries, she came in second.
My entry was lost in a flood of bottom dwelling losers.
Moral of the story.
Even bottom dwelling losers have awesomely talented kids.

Colin Smith said...

Janet: You forgot to mention the most important contest: your writing contests!!

Seriously, if you're querying Janet, and you've won one of her contests at least once, mention it. Though she probably remembers you. She used to keep a spreadsheet of winners, I believe. ☺

Janet Reid said...

Colin's right. If you won a contest on this blog, tell me. It doesn't go in a query to another agent though. And yes, I keep a tally of contest winners.

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

My contest win was years ago, but I still plan on mentioning it if I ever query Ms. Reid. It's still one of my favorite writing success moments. :)

Bethany Elizabeth said...

I keep trying to think of something clever to add, but I've only had one cup of coffee and my brain is fried.

2Ns: I admire anyone who can write short stories. Someone who can do it well on her first entry--that's something to celebrate!

Steve Stubbs said...

Carolynnwith2Ns said...
My entry was lost in a flood of bottom dwelling losers.

If you had a learning experience, that does not make you a loser.

If you learned something, you are a winner.

If you learned a lot, you won big.

Dean R. Koontz pointed out in one of his books that Dickens was dismissed in his day as "a mere populist writer." The literary darllngs of his day are long forgotten.

The only contest I care about winning is a significant payday.

Kathy Joyce said...

Winning a story contest may not get you an agent, and entering may bring a lot of rejection. But, the once-in-a-while win feels so validating to me that it's worth slogging through contests. Plus, my writing improves with every one. At least, I think it does.

Cheryl said...

I'm learning right now about one of the problems with a small contest.

Last February I entered a regional library contest, free to enter. Wrote what might be my best story and sent it in, figuring that since judging was in March I'd have the story back by now. Except they had to get a new judge and judging was pushed back to June.

I won second place ($300 and a spot in the anthology). Cool. The cheques were sent out in November and the books were soon to follow. Or so they said.

So far no book, no word on the book, and because of that I don't have the rights back to send the story out as a reprint yet.

It's killing me to know my best work is in limbo.

AJ Blythe said...

Janet, what if you live across the ocean? The Malice Domestic grant contest you refer to is only for those in the US - unless the rules have changed in the last few years. I imagine referencing local contests wouldn't mean anything to US agents?

One Of Us Has To Go said...

AJ, may I ask whereabouts in Australia you live? Roughly? Anywhere near Byron Bay? (Sorry, it's not linked to your question, though.)

Janet Reid said...

AJ, generally I don't care much about contests. If you mention one I haven't heard of (which would be likely for any Australia contest!) I would google it if I was interested in knowing more.

The only real problem with listing contests in queries is when an author lists one of ones for profit that are clearly not about quality. That makes the author look like a raw recruit, and that's the image you want to convey (even if you are.)

AJ Blythe said...


One of Us, not near Byron. I'm in Canberra �� Are you in Byron? There's a great writers festival held there each year (run by a friend of mine).

One Of Us Has To Go said...

G'day AJ,

No, I am in Canada. But I have been to Australia when I was young/ER ;) and had an experience in Byron Bay that's just too funny.

I was 23, on my own and only able to speak crap-Genglish (=English kind of too literally translated from German to English), trying to ask for access to my email account when I instead, mistakenly, booked myself a private teacher for surfing (ocean).

I wrote about it and thought it could amuse you. Might send you the link to it sometime :).

AJ Blythe said...

Hah, too funny One of Us. I should be easy to contact (I've listened to Janet and not wanting to be chomped have double checked I'm trackable *grin*).

One Of Us Has To Go said...

AJ, so you're a female cozy twittering Aussie that likes to peek?

(Yeah, I understand, I don't want to be eaten either, that's why I didn't put any link here ;) ).

Twitter soon :).

Stacy said...

Just a friendly reminder that Writer Beware is a great place to research agents, publishers, and contests to find out who/what is legit and who/what isn't. And Victoria Strauss, who runs Writer Beware and has been since its inception, seems pretty interested in taking questions from writers. She really should win an award for this--she's put some of the worst actors out of business.

Writer Beware

Not sure if I've gotten the link right. I'll repost if I haven't.

MA Hudson said...

One of us has to go - that’s hilarious! A few of my in laws are Byron surfers, they’ll love that story.

One Of Us Has To Go said...

MA Hudson, I am so pleased that you liked my true story :). It's nice to have made you laugh!

Say G'day to your in-laws. And that my English is much better now, I can articulate the difference between accessing the internet and surfing the waves.

If you know of a local, little newsletter in Byron Bay who I could send this to, please let me know πŸ˜€πŸ’—.