Contests: To Enter or Not

Mary Keeley

Blogger: Mary Keeley

Over the holiday weekend I spent time debriefing after serving on faculty at the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference. Up until now, I’ve had vacillating opinions about the long-term value published and unpublished authors reap from entering contests. You might have had similar thoughts and question contests: to enter or not. I came away from this conference with a decidedly positive perspective.

Contest judges rate entries solely on the quality of the writing. A judge’s personal Writing Contestpreference can come into play as well. Most contest evaluation forms don’t ask judges to assess if an entry is saleable. Publishers, on the other hand, must view a submission more objectively. They may also like the story and agree the contest winner deserved the honor, but if the publisher doesn’t think the book is marketable, there won’t be a contract offer. In other words, a judge doesn’t have to evaluate a submission from a business perspective, but a publisher does. This is one reason my thoughts have fluctuated.

Another reason is that authors need to weigh the validity of the judge’s feedback. Judges aren’t perfect or all-knowing. Case in point. An author, who writes historical fiction and had researched scrupulously to give an accurate portrayal of the historical culture, received this feedback from a judge: “I’ve watched enough Westerns to know…” I kid you not. Enough said.

But after the winners of the Selah Awards were announced, I observed agents making their way to unagented award winners when the banquet ended. A quiet flurry of business was taking place. Because I’d been impressed with many of these winners in their pitch meetings with me during the week, I too was interested.

There are four factors that led me to want to learn more about the winners in the genres I represent:

  1. The pitch meeting. The author knew what to say about the book that I need to know: accurate genre identification, the nonfiction book’s theme or compelling message, the novel’s unique theme and concise, easy to follow description of the main plot and the main character’s emotional arc and conflicts.
  2. Preparation for answers to questions about brand and platform. The author had given considerable thought to brand and had read books by a number of other authors in his or her genre to be able to identify the unique elements that establish his or her own brand. The author’s followers had offered feedback organically, which gave further clarification. And the author was ready with current social media numbers, number of emails collected, and unique website visitors per month. The author was ready with an explanation of the strategy used to build the platform.
  3. Knowledge of the current market. The author has been following industry and author blogs to be up to date on the kinds of books that are marketable at this time. And the author had his or her finger on the pulse of the target audience and directed the writing to meet the readers’ felt needs.
  4. Winning the contest. It’s impossible to confirm the quality of an author’s writing in a 15-minute pitch meeting. That’s why the judges’ award decision became the tipping point to follow through on my interest in the author.

I wasn’t surprised that the authors who stood out in the first three factors also walked across the stage to receive their contest awards. This is how contests can work for you too, when you polish your craft to the level that your book shines above the rest before you submit.

TIP: If you enter a contest, it pays to be present at the conference that hosts it, where you are available to agents, should you win.

I didn’t expect to sign any new clients at the conference because it doesn’t often happen that quickly. But I came back with two. They demonstrated the fruit of their labor in doing what it takes to become a publishable author. Let this be an encouragement to you. Your hard work attending to these four factors is a direct path to giving yourself the best chance for a contest win and agents’ attention.

What have you experienced with entering contests? Was the judge’s feedback helpful? What contests have you entered or plan to enter this year?


Contests: to enter or not? Know the pros and cons before you submit. Click to Tweet.

Weigh a judge’s feedback on your contest entry. Apply the constructive, excuse what sounds wrong. Click to Tweet.