Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Are Contests for Non-published Manuscripts a Waste of Time?

I want to talk about unpublished contests. They were everywhere at one time, but I've seen a decline of contests and entries for the last several years. 

We know why the numbers have become smaller. Self-publishing.

Of course, anyone can be published with a mere push of a button. Doesn't everyone want a shortcut to a successful career? Hey, a few have reached that. But out of the thousands upon thousands of self-published books, ninety-plus percent are not best sellers.

Sure, there are contests out there for self-published books. But wouldn't you rather enter your unpublished manuscript into a contest and get feedback before the whole world sees it?

I believe that all unpublished (author) contests should take a long look at their rules (and some have already) and allow any author to enter.  That will help with their number of entries and increase their revenue.

Thankfully some have allowed published authors to enter as long as the manuscript is unpublished and in another category than what they're published in.  E.g., Show Me The Spark, Great Expectations.

Or just that the manuscript to be unpublished (can be same category). E.g., Tara, Hot Prospects. 

So here's my list of good things that come about entering 'unpublished' contests in case you've forgotten.

1) Where can a person receive three critiques of twenty-five pages or more, and cost only $10 per critique? 

2) If you final, your latest manuscript is placed in front of an editor or/and agent. Plenty of people out there say they don't need to write for a big five publishing house. Congratulations. Then that means your books are selling like hot cakes. But we know that's probably not true. And despite what you think, there are authors who write for their dream publishers and got there through contests. Paula Graves is one that comes to mind.  

3) And if it is a finalist and you don't get a request, that doesn't matter. It's great info for a query letter. Side note: If you final in several small contests, just mention the number of contests, not the names.  The editor might not recognize the names. But if it is a big one (Molly, Maggies, Golden Heart), then certainly mention the name.

4) If nothing more, sometimes it's nice to have an ego boost when your entry is a finalist and one of the judges tell you they can't wait until it's published.

So the answer is NO. It isn't a waste of time.

Former Contest Diva
Carla Swafford
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Time Magazine, [Circle of Danger] ". . . involves deadly assassins, drug lords and doing it."


Cari Hislop said...

You're right. That's way cheap for three unbiased opinions. When I started self-publishing I didn't know there were any contests (nearly ten years ago), but when I did find them I found I'd unwittingly unqualified myself. It's so bizarre how the publishing industry has changed in nine years. When I decided to risk the "vanity press" label I'd come to the conclusion (which was correct at the time) that my books wouldn't sell to a publisher because they didn't fit into the genre (as it was defined at the time). Today is a different story and that's been an interesting lesson. I don't regret my self-publishing for my Regencies. Over nine years I've probably made as much money as if I'd sold them all to a smaller publishing company. However, I'm working on stories in other genres and I think having contest feedback would be really helpful. This past year I've become friends with a fellow writer whose work I really admire and having that feedback has increased my writing speed. Sometimes we don't know our weak areas until someone points them out. With hindsight I should have done a few "contests" just for that!

Heather said...

Great post. I agree with all your points. I worry that the growing sentiment among some authors that contests are a waste of time is really a symptom of impatience. Writing is a long process, and it takes time to perfect the craft. Contests are incredibly helpful with that process. Unbiased and honest feedback (which you may not get from people who know you) is essential.

I am unpublished across the board. It would not deter me from entering a contest to know that my work would be competing against an unpublished work by a published author. You only get better through strong competition. And if I were to final - WOW! I would love to see more contests using the model of being open to unpublished works as opposed to unpublished authors.

Carla Swafford said...

Oh, Cari, you're so right. I wrote for years and when I finally got up the nerve to submit, don't I wish I had someone to say what I was doing wrong. Between my writing chapter mates and contests, I've improved tremendously.

No matter how good an author is, there's always room for improvement. :-)

Carla Swafford said...

Thanks, Heather. I agree. People are rushing their work out there before they've developed their writing skills.

Suzanne Johnson said...

Great post! I also think these contests have a lot of merit and LOVE the idea of opening them up. i know if I'd had contest feedback when I started a new genre I might have been able to avoid some missteps. And unless we're able to change and adapt, the contests won't survive.

Cari Hislop said...

I think people are rushing their work these days. I think to some degree the impulse to rush is innate in a work on something for months (or years) and you get to that last page and you want to shove it hard out into the world.

When someone says "I've written a book" I always think...I hope there were other books because it's so hard to judge one's first born. I thought mine was brilliant. I was so excited to have finished a whole freaking book (this must have been about '99), but it was a mess. I had two or three stories in my head and I only allowed myself to work on one so of course I kept forgetting which one I was writing. :/

It took me five novels to even figure out how I write (and then several more before I finished a book that was well formed). Every time I finished one I'd think "This one is publish worthy!" only it wasn't. It would have been SO helpful to know about contests. It would have sped up my writing skills. We often can't spot our weaknesses (they're like blind spots). I've recently been guilty of...chapters that go on too long (because I'm ranting through the characters - a friend pointed it out and she was right - it was so much better after I chopped it)...not enough description (leaving the reader in the dark)...trying to rush a story and nearly missing an important chapter... I roll my eyes at myself!!! If they were to open up contests to "unpublished manuscripts" I agree that would be brilliant. I don't think there's ever never room for improvement! :)

Louisa Cornell said...

47 Finals, baby. 47! And I have lost count of the contests I entered and didn't final in. Yes, ladies, I am a Contest Slut. (Or as Anna Campbell calls me "A Contest Courtesan.")

I count myself so fortunate that I discovered the availability of contests early in my writing career. I learned so much and the most important thing I learned was finishing the book is just the beginning.

Some of the very best writing advice I've ever received has come from judges' comments via writing contests. I cannot count the "aha" moments the score sheets and comments have produced.

I probably tend to err on the opposite side of many writers venturing into self-publishing. I am so paranoid about sending something sub standard out there for readers to pick to pieces I have hesitated to put anything out there.

My debut novella (and the only thing I have out there so far) and the anthology it is in has done very well. But I had the advantage of three very savvy previously published authors going over it with a fine toothed comb before we sent it out.

Too many books are being self-published, especially in romance, without the benefit of oversight by someone who is not vested in the author or the outcome.

We are gradually garnering the respect a multi-million dollar industry deserves. It would be a shame to slip back into the status of cliched mommy porn because writers are in such a hurry to become published they don't bother to become polished.

Contests have helped me at every phase of my writing career. I truly believe they are a necessary step in any romance writer's career. Whatever we have to do to make contests an attractive and viable option for writers, I am all for it.

I've dipped my toe into self-publishing and I like it, but that does not mean I have given up on traditional publishing. Hybrid is the way to go for me and I am actively looking for a traditional publisher and an agent to help me become a successful not working at Walmart hybrid author!

This is a great and timely post, Carla!

Ali Hubbard said...

Ooohhh! I love this post! I think it would be GREAT to open up contests in a way that would encourage more participation and factor in the impact of self-publishing!!!

Contests helped me realize that I had a LONG way to go before I should put anything out. Clearly not the "I'll write 3 or 4 books a year" strategy I started out with in February 2012. lol.

It made me look back at my day job took me 20 years to build that career. Why in the world would I think I could just write a book in a few months and publish it? Well, because so many people said that's what they were doing-and doing successfully.

But, we are not all the same. The advice I got (especially about GMC) has been something I've used ever since. And the Linda Howard judges were soooo awesome...I felt like I had mentors.