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For example, I'd guess Malice Domestic's unpublished author grant or an SCBWI Work-In-Progress grant are worth mentioning since they're well known and come from respected organizations.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 If the contest is for unpublished work, google to find out if the authors from five plus years ago actually got published.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!
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.