Friday, September 27, 2013

Getting Down To Business: To Contest or Not To Contest

This month columnist Donna Alward tackles the debate on the relative worth of contests and if you should (Or shouldn't) enter them...

It's September. The next few months are what I like to call "Contest Season". There are tons of contests open - for unpublished authors, for published authors, as well as writing contests like Harlequin's So You Think You Can Write (SYTYCW). Should you enter? There are lots of factors to consider, so let's break them down a bit.

1. The Golden Heart. This is RWA's biggie for unpublished authors. Pros: If I were unpublished, I'd give this one a shot. It's prestigious. There's publicity attached if you final, and at the RWA conference you're treated to some nice perks like first shot at agent and editor appointments, networking opportunities, not to mention each year's finalists tend to form a very supportive group. It also gets a lot of attention from agents and editors, and I've seen a lot of those manuscripts go on to sell. Cons: it's one of the more expensive contests, and the deadline is definitely firm. It's also pretty big, so there's some stiff competition. Recommendation: Yes

2. Chapter Contests. A lot of RWA chapters hold contests for unpublished authors. Pros: These are great because it's generally a smaller field, there's often feedback attached, and the final judges are generally agents or editors. A final or win also gives you a little something-something to add to your query letter. Cons: There are still entry fees and deadlines to be met.  Recommendations: Yes, with a caution to pick and choose within your budget. How do you decide? Look at the final judge. If it's an editor or agent that you'd normally target with this particular story, that's a strong argument for the Pro side.

3. Writing Contests. Pros: Writing contests like SYTYCW or online pitches are great for getting your work in front of editors and getting fairly fast feedback. There are generally no entry fees so they cost nothing more than your time and work (which has value, but at least your wallet doesn't get any thinner). Cons: Sometimes the "short" format of what you're submitting doesn't do your story justice. The number of entries can be very high as well, making the field very tough. Also, a lot of people enter with incomplete manuscripts, and then either rush to finish or abandon that story and start something else. I know lots of people who have tons of started stories and very few finished ones.  Recommendation: Yes, but put some thought into the format and the prize at the end. And also realize that THIS IS NOT THE ONLY PATH to publication. An awful lot of people still sell by going the write/submit/revise/acceptance route through normal submission channels.

4. The RITA. Pros: This is the big daddy for our industry. It's like... our Oscars. Your book has been judged by your peers as being the best of the best. There are perks at Conference, it definitely puts you in your publisher's good graces, and while you're at RWA you are treated like a Princess. Cons: Your book is sent to five random judges, so the results can be arbitrary (I often think there's a lot of luck involved with the judges you draw). It also, to my knowledge, may up your profile a bit but really doesn't translate into mega sales. It can be expensive: $50 to enter and the cost of postage for shipping books. If you enter, you're also obligated to judge, which is time consuming (that being said, there's always a chance you'll discover a new fantastic author).  Recommendation: Up to You. The RITA is more about the prestige, but being a finalist is hugely fun and rewarding and validating, and that's never a bad thing.

5. Chapter Contests for Published Authors. Pros: The field is often smaller than for the RITA, and some of the contests are fairly prestigious. Both the Bookseller's Best (Detroit RWA) and National Reader's Choice (OKRWA) awards are handed out at RWA conference with a bit of hoopla. There's publicity value in finaling and yes, that validation thing again. Other contests include The Holt, The Golden Quill, The Bookbuyer's Best (and more). Also, sometimes librarians and booksellers are the final judges, and it's never a bad idea to make a good impression on those two groups of people! Cons: entering several contests can be costly, especially when you factor in shipping books to each one.

So, my overall opinion? Contests are fun, but their value can be a very personal thing depending on what you consider important.  They are not the only way to success or to get your books in front of editors, agents or readers. Look at the options, decide what fits best for you, and relax.

You can catch up with Donna at her website at


  1. I love your picture, Donna :)

    I haven't entered many contests... I usually forget about them or miss the deadlines, and I only enter the Rita even every other year or so (it's so expensive, for one thing). I do like being a contest judge -- I forgot how much until I've been working through some recent entries for a contest I volunteered to judge. I couldn't do it constantly, but I like the reading and the crit, and it lets me read a selection of things I might not other wise. I should probably try to get into a few more contests, but leopard and spots and all that... ;)


  2. This is a great post, Donna! I sold my first two books as a direct result of three contests. :) Mills & Boon's New Voices and a Golden Heart final for one book, and SYTYCW for another. As an unpubbed, I contested selectively, like you suggested above--choosing them based on the final judge. I've yet to enter anything as a pubbed author, but I'll remedy that soon. :)

  3. Score one for the GH here - I sold because I won the contest. It opened doors and garnered me feedback I never would have gotten otherwise. As for chapter contests - it's a crap shoot. I think, for a new writer, they are excellent for getting feed back. As an experienced writer, it's best to target your contests wisely - for example, pick a contest where the judge is an editor or agent you want to work with. And once you've finalled in front of that said person, don't keep entering the same piece. Instead, show them different work. That will make a better impression.

  4. Great post Donna! I entered a few contests last winter and found some of the feedback very useful and validating. My recent TARA win was mutually exclusive to my contract offer, but I think the contest feedback helped me polish my ms in the right way to get the attention I was looking for from a publisher.

    It's hard to know what to keep and what to discard in terms of feedback, trusting your gut and listening to the majority of judges comments helped me tremendously.

    My scores were crazy high and crazy low, no in the middle for this girl. So I kept the good feedback and suggestions, put the bad aside and moved on full steam ahead. And it worked. I guess there's something to be said for timing.

  5. OH, and forgot to add - awesome post. Great advice that I plan to forward to several of my friends.

  6. I had a comment but it never showed up!

    Barb, good point about DIFFERENT WORK. I hold my pitch contest every year, and sometimes I see the same people entering the same ms. It makes me sad. I want to see writers move FORWARD and show me something new and improved!

  7. Great info, Donna! I've entered some contests and the feedback has been invaluable. It's probably one of the best ways for people to get unbiased feedback on their manuscripts. If you're wondering what you're doing wrong and why you can't get agents or publishers to take notice, the judges in contests will most likely provide you with some answers.

  8. Donna
    Just wanted to say thank you. This really made me stop, reassess and think especially about whether or not I should enter SYTYCW this year or not.
    Really useful. Thanks again