I’ve been a self-published author now for about two years, and, as other authors will confirm, the hardest part about this is finding a way to promote your work. You can spend 10 years writing the most amazing book, but no one will read it unless you figure a way to get people’s attention. There are lots of ways to do this, and over these last two years I’ve tried quite a few. Some were great, and others weren’t, but part of the process is figuring out what works and what doesn’t. With that in mind, earlier this year I entered a number of book contests. Honestly, I don’t really care about contests on their own. Sales seems like a much better way of ranking books, but since there are so many self-published authors nowadays, I think readers are skittish about buying a book because they don’t want to read anything that stinks. And of all the books that stink, self-published ones tend to stink the worst. (Except for Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, which is my #1 most hated book of all time. LOL)
Anyway, the best way to convince people that your work isn’t a stinker is social proof. If there are a lot of good reviews, people tend to trust that your books is good, and that’s definitely one way to do this. Even better is if a trusted friend tells you about the book. A third way is if the book did well in a contest. I know when I’m in a bookstore and come across a book that won a Nebula Award, I’m much more willing to give it a shot, because odds are pretty high that it’s not going to be a waste of my time. But how to do do this as a self-published author? Turns out there are a whole bunch of contests you can enter.
So, what I did was enter my books in a number of contests. I researched each one beforehand, and sort of got a feel for what I was getting into. There are plenty of sites out there that rank contests, so it’s pretty easy to stay away from ones that are basically scams. I entered ones that were universally praised, but also a few that had some mixed reviews since I wanted to see what would happen. As of today, I’ve had results back from a handful of them, and figured I’d report back my experiences here so that other authors might be better informed.
The book that I used for most of these contests was Killing Adam. I know this is a good book, and not just because I wrote it. It’s had a ton of reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, and I’d say on average will rank between 4 and 5 stars. So it should do alright in a contest. Maybe not necessarily an overall winner, but definitely should get some acknowledgements here and there. I also entered The Earthling’s Brother in one, as well as Pointe Patrol in another.
Given that, here’s my feedback on a number of contests:
The Eric Hoffer Awards
This contest is usually ranked very highly, with “recommended” tags on most of the contest scam sites. I would definitely do this one again. I know for a fact that they read my book, and Killing Adam ranked about where I thought it would, getting shortlisted for the Grand Prize, earning an honorable mention in the SciFi section, and being a finalist for the First Horizon Award (for first novels).
If you’re looking for a contest to enter, this is definitely one to check out. I trust them enough now that I’ll probably go get the first place finishers in the genres I like to read, because I’m pretty sure they’re going to be great books.
IndieReader Discovery Awards
I almost didn’t enter this contest. It gets mixed reviews on most of the ranking sites, and they have one of the most expensive entry fees at $149. But what’s money for if not to burn, right?
The Discovery Awards will post a write up of your book as they make it through the judging, and as I began reading through all the results, one thing became very clear to me: they make a huge point to give a good write up to everyone, no matter what. I think what they’re trying to do is give you quotable blurbs to put on your Amazon sales page. So one thing that your $149 gets you will be a sentence or two that you can use in your marketing, and I suspect this is true even if your book is crap. I just went to look at the blurb they left for Killing Adam, and now it’s gone, so I guess it’s temporary too!
I can say that when I read my result, it was good, and at the same time, I wasn’t totally sure if the judge had actually read anything more than the back of book and a few of the amazon reviews. The book is about an Artificial Intelligence program that comes to life and ends up running the country. On the back cover, I said this: “Few realize that behind it all, living within every brain and able to control all aspects of society, there exists a being with an agenda all his own: the singularity called Adam, who believes his is God.” So when the report came out, the judge went off about how Adam “crowned” himself a god, and then took over the world. But that’s not really how it happened, and you’d know that if you read the book. They also said something about “scattergun pacing” (or something like that), and it does have a fast pace, but you can also get that from a quick read through the Amazon reviews.
So in summary, I’m not 100% convinced my book was actually read, and I’ve got a nagging feeling that maybe this was all about writing a blurb and then moving on to the next book in the pile. I can’t be certain, but I know I’m not the only writer who doesn’t feel quite right after entering this contest, and I think the “mixed” rankings on this one are accurate. Enter this one if you want a nice blurb to be written about your book. Just make sure to grab it before they delete it after the winners are announced.
This was another highly recommended contest. I didn’t enter Killing Adam here, but my other two books instead. What I like about this one is that they’ll give you a four point report on your book in the following categories: Plot/Idea, Originality, Prose, and Character/Execution. They then give it a final score. You can choose to publish the report on your BookLife page, or keep it private (if the judge hated your book, for example). The Earthling’s Brother earned a 9/10 in the Plot and Originality sections, and 7/10 in Prose and Execution. Whether or not I agree or disagree with this, I have no doubt that the judge actually did read my book and think about it. The report you get is serious, and not full of superfluous adjectives like with the Discovery Awards. They’re not trying to give you marketing material, they’re actually trying to give you editorial feedback. This is what I would expect from a self-respecting, legitimate book contest. I entered the currently running version of this one, and don’t expect to win–darn!–but I have confidence in this one, and would enter it again.
Independent Publisher (IPPY) Awards
This was another “mixed” contest in the online rankings. I think at one time this one was highly regarded. My feeling here is that it probably got too popular, or, maybe more likely, became too profitable. After being through this one, I have absolutely no idea if my book was actually read. In fact, if you look through their FAQ’s, you’ll find this interesting tidbit:
Q: Do the judges read every book from cover to cover?
A: Every book entered is thoroughly evaluated and scored, typically by 3 to 5 judges, in various criteria such as ‘design’ and ‘originality.’ Our book awards judges are seasoned experts, with many years of experience at assessing a book’s quality. Each entry has an equal chance to impress the judges, and the further a book makes it into the judging process, especially in fiction categories, the more likely it will be read completely.
Did you catch that? They couched it in terms to make it not sound too harsh, but basically this means that they can take a look at your cover, maybe read the back, and then that’s the extent of their responsibility. “Each entry has an equal chance to impress the judges?” That may mean they lay them all out side by side, look over the pile, then pick one. Each book has an equal chance of being picked. Could have been yours!
Maybe I’m being hard on these guys, but consider this. The fee to enter the IPPY Awards is $95. If you go to their site, you’ll see that there are 88(!) categories, and they have to split the winners across three web pages. This tells you how insane the field is. They show 3-4 winners per category, which means that there are at least 88 x 3 = 264 winners displayed. Now multiply those 264 winners by the $95 entry fee, and you’ll find that there’s over $25k in entry fees sitting there, just for the winning books alone. They only show the top three or four books in each category. How many books in total do you think there were in all those categories? I mean, if there were only 10 books entered in each category, the gross income from this contest is around $83,000. What if there were 20? What if there were 50? 50 books entered in each category represents $418,000 in entry fees. That’s a lot of money.
If you were running this contest, and found yourself with $418k in entry fees, and roughly 4,400 self-published books to judge, how would you judge them? One easy way is to not read the books. Just pick a winner. This one has a good cover… first place! It says right there in the FAQs that reading is optional, so it’s not like they’re running the contest contrary to their own guidelines.
I think this particular contest falls into the scam category. I know that various IPPY judges have written blog posts over the years to protest that they’re actually holding a legitimate contest, but honestly, I call bullshit. If it’s not a scam, then let me see the report card that the judges wrote down for Killing Adam. If you can’t show me that, I have no reason to believe that the book was actually read. And if the book is not even read, can someone please tell me why I’m paying my $95 entry fee? I’m definitely going with “scam” on this one, and won’t be entering again.
So that’s four contests down. I’ve entered more (yeah, sort of went crazy with it), so there may be a follow-up to this post in a few months. I will say that my experience does line up pretty well with the various independent rankings of these contests, so I highly recommend any authors thinking about going down this path do some research to find the legitimate contests and stay away from the scams. Eric Hoffer and BookLife are both good ones. I think the Benjamin Franklin Award is also a good one, since I know you get to see the judges’ feedback cards at the end. But I’m sure these are in the minority. Unfortunately, I think the majority of contests really might be nothing more than a sleazy attempt to make some money off of desperate self-published authors who are struggling to find a way to set themselves apart.