A Contest Win May Not Help You Get Published

If you are looking to be published, yes, DO enter contests.

But a contest win may not result in your book’s publication by a traditional publisher. Today I hope to help you become less frustrated and more understanding regarding some reasons why.

First of all, contests’ criteria don’t reflect all the requirements of publishers, nor should they. Most contests judge on such factors as grammar, compelling hook, character development, and story. This world exists outside of the constraints of a traditional publisher.

However, since agents and editors seek excellence in these areas, competitions are relevant and can be a great way to receive helpful feedback. A book can win a contest, but then editors and agents have other factors to consider, such as:

  • Word Count. Most contests don’t focus on word count. Yes, there can be calls for “long” or “short” entries, but these are usually for published books. An author can win an award, but an editor needing a 90,000-word book will not contract for a 40,000-word story. Authors revise and resubmit every day; but when you’re looking to be published, why not start with a book that fits the publisher’s guidelines for word count?
  • Judges Don’t Consider Category. Most contests allow the author to select the category to enter, which makes sense and should not change. However, many authors mislabel their genres. I’ve judged many an entry that didn’t fit the category, but still gave the entry high marks based on the contest’s criteria. However, when an author submits to agents and editors, a mislabeled manuscript shows shaky knowledge of the market. Please know that I won’t turn down a fantastic romantic suspense novel mislabeled as a contemporary romance, but why not be accurate from the start?
  • The winning entry may be a standout among a bunch of duds. I don’t mean to be harsh, but no contest boasts the same number of stellar entries each year. To cite another example, a horse that wins the Kentucky Derby one year might have won fifth place the previous year among faster horses. In any match, the pool of entries is a factor. Yes, the winning entry has been judged best out of that batch that year, and that’s always great. But there’s more.…
  • The world outside of the contest is colossal. You may be the hometown beauty queen; but regional level comes next, then state level, then national, and international. Small contests are like the hometown pageant. Yes, you want to tell everyone about your success; but know that traditional publishers seek to crown Miss Universe.

Your turn:

Have you ever been a contest judge? What did you learn?

What do you do when feedback from a contest seems harsh?

What have you learned from entering contests?

Which contests do you plan to enter this year? How did you choose?

33 Responses to A Contest Win May Not Help You Get Published

  1. Avatar
    Rita Stella Galieh January 16, 2020 at 4:44 am #

    When I first began writing, I entered contests and judges’ comments were so helpful. However, after taking several courses and reading/taking note of several ‘How to’ books, I have found that writing and rewriting is a more important use of my time. I tend to discover more about each of my characters as I discover who they are. Sometimes I’ve ‘sent them to Coventry’ by removing their weak POV and substituting another stronger character. And I still enjoy the way they seem to develop the more I rewrite.

    • Avatar
      tamela@stevelaube.com January 16, 2020 at 7:44 am #

      Many writers have told me that rewriting is more important than writing. I’m so happy to hear you are enjoying your writing journey!

  2. Avatar
    Robin Malcolm January 16, 2020 at 5:07 am #

    I have entered a number of contests. The first time one of my stories was shortlisted, I was over the moon. What I learned really quickly was how thin my skin really was, because over the moon turned to crushed when I didn’t win.

    The next year, I entered a different story in the same contest and won. What I learned from that was that it is incredibly affirming to have your work recognized– that it helps erase some of the self-doubt that nobody will ever want to read what I write. But that there is a new kind of self-doubt that takes over afterwards- that of “what if I can’t do it again?”

    Oddly enough, I have received almost no specific feedback from any of the contests I entered. Only that the year that I won, I was up against a record number of entries and a lot of stellar work. I’m still not sure why my shortlisted story didn’t win the previous year, or what the judges thought I could do to improve it. But the win did show me that I can do this.

    Thanks for this great article. I appreciated the thoughts!

    • Avatar
      tamela@stevelaube.com January 16, 2020 at 7:46 am #

      Congratulations! No doubt if you continue to hang in, you will find increasing success!

  3. Avatar
    Daphne Woodall January 16, 2020 at 5:18 am #

    I’ve not entered contests for some of the reasons mentioned. And I’ve observed major publishers prefer to acquire authors the tried and true way. I’d still consider entering for the experience but not expecting a book contract. And the term “Award Winning” makes me wince when it’s been watered down. But I’d happily accept a “Christy Award” when I’m worthy.

    • Avatar
      tamela@stevelaube.com January 16, 2020 at 7:48 am #

      Though some contests are more prestigious than others, when an author wins an award, there is meaning to that. 🙂

  4. Avatar
    Nancy Lohr January 16, 2020 at 7:11 am #

    This is a good post, Tamela. I would add that it is helpful to me as an acquisitions editor to know which contest(s) an author has won, not simply that they are an award-winning author. For the very reasons you have noted, the award tells me what is being recognized, and while any win is valuable for the author, a contest win differs from winning something like the Newbery, National Book Award, or the Edgar Award.

    • Avatar
      tamela@stevelaube.com January 16, 2020 at 7:50 am #

      Nancy, thank you for reading and commenting! Yes, a great proposal does list the author’s awards by name. And you are certainly correct that different prestigious awards judge by different criteria.

      Hoping you find lots of book gems in 2020!

  5. Avatar
    Loretta Eidson January 16, 2020 at 7:14 am #

    In my early stages of writing, I entered as many contests as I could find. Thrilled that I’d placed in several of them sent me over the top excited. I just knew that meant at any moment I’d receive a publishing contract. Ha! I look back and see how I’d misinterpreted the process. I love contests. The judge’s comments can be very helpful in fine-tuning my novel and I look forward to their wisdom. I did receive one judge’s extremely negative and critical comments a couple of years ago and her words cut to the core…but I haven’t given up. I had to step away from my keyboard, pray, and let go of my hurt.

    I have judged in contests and by that one hateful critique, I learned how “not” to judge. There’s a way to judge without inflicting pain.

    Contests I plan to enter are Genesis and Serious Writer. I will enter others as I locate them.

    • Avatar
      tamela@stevelaube.com January 16, 2020 at 7:51 am #

      You are right to focus on those, Loretta! And thank you for posting. Your comments should encourage a lot of authors and remind us all that authors labeled “overnight” successes seldom are.

  6. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser January 16, 2020 at 7:17 am #

    There is just one contest,
    and I’m in it every day,
    entered under protest
    but in that I have no say.
    I daily need find reason
    to ignite my heart
    against the inner treason
    that tears my life apart.
    Each morning brings a mountain
    that I must duly climb
    against the pain’s fell fountain
    and the running sands of time,
    and the only joy that I can take
    is that joy which I bend to make.

    • Avatar
      tamela@stevelaube.com January 16, 2020 at 7:52 am #

      Andrew, may this day and every day bring you joy. You give us much joy here every week. God bless you!

      • Avatar
        Andrew Budek-Schmeisser January 16, 2020 at 5:25 pm #

        Tamela, thank you so much for this.

        Things are bad beyond describing, with a tumour the size of a skillet in my gut, but being able to be part o this community…I cannot describe the joy and love in which I live.

        Please know that you make a difference to me. You help make life worth living.

  7. Avatar
    Deena Adams January 16, 2020 at 9:16 am #

    Hi Tamela. Thanks for your post. I started my writing journey a year and a half ago and was hesitant to enter a contest because I figured I had no idea what I was doing. With fear and trepidation, the day before the deadline, I entered my women’s fiction novel in the 2019 Blue Ridge Conference Foundations contest and won second place! I was flabbergasted.

    That, along with positive comments from an agent appointment, gave me the confirmation from God I’d asked for to keep writing. That alone was worth every dollar I spent to enter.

    I’ve since entered the Crown contest (didn’t place) and the First Impressions contest (double finalist and first place!) I plan to enter the Genesis contest this year.

    Aside from the joy and encouragement that comes with a win or acknowledgement, the feedback is helpful in many ways, including the knowledge that one judge may love my entry while another points out every negative aspect of it. That helps me realize agents, editors, and publishers will have different reactions, too. If one doesn’t accept my submission, that doesn’t mean someone else won’t. 🙂

    For now, I plan to continue entering contests because I need the critique and the push to keep going.

    • Avatar
      tamela@stevelaube.com January 16, 2020 at 12:14 pm #

      That’s a great attitude, Deena. Thanks for pointing out that not everyone has the same taste. That includes agents, editors, AND readers!

  8. Avatar
    Naomi January 16, 2020 at 11:01 am #

    I finaled in Indiana Golden Opportunity contest. I can’t remember if that category was inspirational or historical (haven’t seen a category with Biblical Fiction.😂) the feedback was helpful… although I wondered if it was just not many options to choose from. I think the most valuable was the confidence that came from submitting (twice actually). It’s scary to send your baby into the world!

    • Avatar
      tamela@stevelaube.com January 16, 2020 at 12:16 pm #

      What a wonderful point — a contest is an excellent way to test the waters and build confidence.

  9. Avatar
    Sonja Anderson January 16, 2020 at 11:57 am #

    Years ago, after I had (what I hoped was) a really good draft of my first novel, I entered the Pacific NW Writing Association contest. It wasn’t a cheap contest, but the prize, for me, was the guarantee of written feedback from three different judges.

    I was very excited to become a finalist out of the many entrees from around the world, and happiest of all when one of the judges told me she sincerely hoped it would become a published novel someday.

    That feedback was gold for a newbie! I hung the finalist badge on my office wall, and it helped me find the courage to persevere through the long years of searching for (and finally finding!) a publisher.

  10. Avatar
    Linda January 16, 2020 at 12:28 pm #

    I entered several contests last fall and didn’t place, but got some great feedback. I learned a few things: judges are human, they all have different tastes and expectations, and you can’t please everyone. I had one judge tell me my submission was the best she’s seen in her 20 years of judging, while another claimed my MC wasn’t relatable. All things considered, the feedback I received was valuable and made my time, effort, and entry fees worth it.

    • Avatar
      tamela@stevelaube.com January 16, 2020 at 12:43 pm #

      This is a good chance to engage your writing friends in separating the wheat from the chaff!

  11. Avatar
    Peggy Booher January 16, 2020 at 1:29 pm #


    Thanks for this post. I always gain perspective from your posts and those of the other agents on this blog. The Steve Laube blog is one of my “go-to” places for encouragement, perspective, and a sense of professionalism in writing.

  12. Avatar
    Linda January 16, 2020 at 2:25 pm #

    I have regularly entered the Genesis Contest and First Impressions for a few years now. In that time, I’ve been a semi-finalist twice and a finalist. The feedback from judges is helpful MOST of the time. Occasionally, a judge decides to give low scores because he or she just doesn’t like my story. Those critical comments are of no help to improving my craft, and I find them more irritating than hurtful. The contest experiences, as well as my critique partners, are the reason I now have an agent.

  13. Avatar
    Sharon K Connell January 16, 2020 at 2:36 pm #

    Thank you for this article, Tamela. I think too many writers spend too much time on contests instead of improving their craft.

    Although I’ve won some contests with my stories, I don’t advertise that fact as a rule. It doesn’t make my writing/stories any better. I’ve decided to focus more time on writing good books for my readers than trying to win any more contests that (in most cases) readers have never heard of.

    • Avatar
      tamela@stevelaube.com January 17, 2020 at 5:33 am #

      I think writers are hoping that the feedback will help them improve craft, but not everyone’s experiences are the same. 🙂

      Definitely advertise your wins in your proposals. Editors will want to know.

      Happy writing!

  14. Avatar
    Kathleen Freeman January 16, 2020 at 3:24 pm #

    I’ve entered contests, and placed and won with multiple stories- 6? It tells me my stories are appealing and my writing catches attention. I find the feedback helpful.
    Best of all, I’ve been blessed to connect to some fabulous people because of contests. God has also used contests for encouragement in surprising ways.
    When judging contests, I love being able to zero in on a writer’s big skill areas, offer tidbits of help and encouragement where I can. Sometimes, the competition is fierce, and all the writers should be published. Other times, the entrants each need to learn some vital skill, but the best characters, best story, or best voice, out of the ones available, wins.
    Me? I will keep working, growing, and writing, because I must. To the glory of God!

  15. Avatar
    Melanie Jones January 16, 2020 at 7:46 pm #

    Many years ago, I was a finalist in the Genesis Awards. I was confused by the scoring in the first round, with two judges giving it high scores and one middle scores. In the final round, both scores were low. I got frustrated and put the book away for a long while. Some of the critiques broke down the whole premise of the book. But with encouragement from an acquaintance who is an NYT bestselling novelist who read my entry, I finally got it back out and am working on it again. I’ve made some suggested changes, and with the author’s advice, I’m sticking to my guns on one issue with a minor change. Overall, it was still a good experience. It taught me to have thicker skin, to stick with it no matter what, to seek other opinions and make recommended changes and not be married to my words.

  16. Avatar
    M. R. Shupp January 18, 2020 at 1:39 pm #

    This is really enlightening and something I haven’t thought of before. I automatically assumed any contest win would boost your novel in front of an agent or publisher. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

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