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Writing contests: what to watch as you enter

December 27, 2019
Posted by:
Ron Seybold

Authors need validation from the outside. It can be as simple as getting a friend or a loved one to read and praise the early writing, or as complex as following a 2,700-word instruction manual for submitting a 7,500-word entry in a contest. Many steps lie between those extremes.

Above them all are the ultimate competitions: grants and prizes. A National Endowment for the Arts grant for creative writing isn't a writing contest. NEA status and Pulitzer honors are the platinum standard for author validation. Publishers nominate their books for prizes in this category.

We can all dream of a Nobel Prize, or we did until Bob Dylan got his — somewhat earlier in his literature career than Ernest Hemingway did. Aim your book's entries at prizes where you have a fair chance at winning.

Steer clear of this

There are contest awards that don't need a $35-$95 entry fee; or insist on publication rights for an anthology for which the author is uncompensated; or demand that entries are never before seen on any Web site — even a personal blog. Some contests don't suggest that you have "a disinterested party" review your grammar or spelling before you submit.

Some contests are not operated by a volunteer bookstore which hosts an annual event built around awarding nine prizes. Some contests don't operate with four rounds of anonymous judging before agents decide who's the winner. Nearly all contests do not require the winners to be present to win, like some kind of sweepstakes or bingo prize.

How do you avoid all of that mess, the spine of the Faulkner-Wisdom contest?  You commit to a handful of promises to yourself.

Keep your entry fees reasonable. As an author, you're working with a limited budget, unless you're already won a grant or have a book that's earning well. Entry fees above $100 are outrageous and not common, but you can easily spend $75 getting a book that's been published considered by commercial ventures. Magazine and journals like to run contests to raise their profile and raise funds. They also raise the experience level of their readers or judges, most of whom are uncompensated.

Two book contests for self-publishers, the IBPA awards called IPPYs, and the Indies, from Foreword magazine, seem to be open to first-time publishers. These contests require several printed copies to enter. The North Street Prizes are another contest for books from smaller to micro-publishers. North Street winners, in particular, are self-publishers. All three of these contests are under $100 to enter.

Few contests will take less than $35 for an entry. Automatic entry into contests by way of a purchase, like for review services or self-publishing work, might be worth whatever you pay extra for it.

Fees are like the grease around an auto motor: everywhere by now, and essential. Unlike fees to submit for publication, contest fees reward a small number of winners. Getting published in a journal is an opportunity that's only limited by the appetites of editors. Only one half of one percent of entries at Faulkner-Wisdom earned a prize for unpublished manuscripts.

More than 400 entries poured in for the Faulkner-Wisdom contest — which by the way, is different from the PEN/Faulkner award. The contest reports that 158 made it to the second of four rounds. Nine got onto a short list. Short lists are worthwhile as validation and as a publication credential.

Keep an eye out for how the fee money relates to the prize. More than$12,000 dollars was collected in 2018 at the Faulkner-Wisdom contest for novel entries alone. It's being spent to cover "some of the administrative costs of the competition, including deliveries to preliminary readers and judges; travel and housing expenses for out-of-town winners and judges; and gold medals awarded to winners."

It looks like one author winning that award gets $500 in travel expenses, plus a gold medal. That's a lot of money collected for the reading the novel entries, plus the administration, unless that's a heavy gold medal. The real weight, of course, is for the nine writers who get to report they were shortlisted.

Watch out for the rigor of instructions. A vast set of forms and authentications lies in front of an NEA grant. A colleague with 50 years of poetry and advertising experience told me he earned one "by just keeping on filling out forms" and submitting his previously published prose. When you see warnings about not submitting by fax, or reducing a prize award for self-published books edited by professional freelancers, or explicit instructions on naming a file, consider how much time you should spend on the administrative creation process.

A modern contest should be able to take your book in a reasonable format, through a website or as an attachment, without cautions about submitting entries where any prior editing can be viewed on the pages. Yes, there are instructions at Faulkner-Wisdom like "don't send your entries with the edits visible."

Look for a competent round up. Free and paid contests are archived in several useful places. A searchable database of free contests is at the Winning Writers website. They want to collect an email address, to send an infrequent newsletter, to get access to a big, meaty list with commentary.

Reedsy, a publishing services company, also operates a database of contests. Again, it's searchable with multiple categories, including a ranking of worthiness.

Many major book awards are announced in the final two months of each calendar year. Nearly all of them require a publication contract of some kind to be considered. The publicity department at your publisher should have a plan ready for submitting your book for major prizes. Booklist, the library industry publication that reviews books from traditional publishers, has a comprehensive list of the major awards on its website.

Image by klimkin from Pixabay

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