But I Won a Contest

Champion cup
Contests cost both time and money to enter. Not to mention effort. Are they worth it? Yes, they are. Becoming a finalist is one way to get noticed. Sometimes the first prize awarded the winner is publication with a certain publisher.
But will a contest win always lead to publication? No. I have been and continue to be a judge for many different contests, and here are three reasons why I can tell you that a contest final, or even a win, won’t always lead to publication:
1.) You never know what entries the contest will attract. Even the same contest will attract different levels of entries from year to year. One year, all three finalists may find publication. The next year, perhaps none of the finalists will be published — at least with those entries. What happens in the publishing world itself depends on quality, timing, and other factors.
2.) Contest judges consider entries against each other and have no need to consider what’s available on the market.When judges rate and rank entries, they are not comparing those to all other books in the category currently available to readers. But when an editor is judging your manuscript for possible publication, she must consider every other book in the category at her house and published by others, ranging from the unknown but talented author to the perennial bestseller. So while your entry may win against the immediate competition in a contest, the going is tougher at a publishing house.
3.) Contest judges are reading based on merit alone, not what is marketable. A story that is totally out of the box may be amusing, entertaining, well-crafted, and could win a contest. But this type of proposal is more difficult to market in CBA than some of the more popular categories. A contest win may help an unusual book get noticed, but finding an agent to offer enthusiastic representation and then a publisher to take a chance on something way out of the box is a different exercise than winning a contest. For that matter, even a sweet-spot CBA story may be difficult to market for various reasons. See Point 2.
This post is not meant to discourage contest entries, but to bring a semblance of realism to the process. Indeed, I have found wonderful, talented authors through contests. So keep entering. Just be strategic and know that God is in control.
Your turn:
Have you ever placed in or won a contest? What happened?
Did you find an agent or publisher through a contest?
What contest do you think is the best to enter?

13 Responses to But I Won a Contest

  1. Ted May 2, 2014 at 11:47 am #

    I placed in a short story contest. All the stories that placed were assembled into an anthology and published as an eBook. The proceeds were split among the authors. It is the first time I have ever been paid for a story I wrote. As silly as it may sound, I framed the email from PayPal.

  2. Jenny Leo May 8, 2014 at 5:53 pm #

    This post could not have been more timely. I just wrote a blog post about my complicated feelings about the lack of connection between contest wins and publishing contracts. My favorite part of your post: “A contest win may help an unusual book get noticed, but finding an agent to offer enthusiastic representation and then a publisher to take a chance on something way out of the box is a different exercise than winning a contest.” I believe my story might be termed unusual, a bit. Not totally out of the box, but sort of dangling over the edge of it. Anyway, it makes perfect sense to me now why a contest judge might enjoy my story but a publisher might pass. Thank you for this light-bulb moment, which has cheered me up considerably.

    • Jenny Leo May 8, 2014 at 5:55 pm #

      I should add that, for me, the BEST thing about contests is the judge feedback. If I never won anything, that alone would be worth the price of entry. Winning is gravy. Tasty gravy, but gravy nonetheless.

  3. Jackie Layton May 8, 2014 at 6:43 pm #

    This has been an exciting week for me as far as contests go. I’m a Genesis semi-finalist. I’m also a finalist in another contest for the same story. This was a story I’d put on a memory stick and deleted off my computer.

    Even if I don’t win either of these contests, it’s been exciting and encouraging.

    Another one of my stories came in second place in the Cat5 contest last year. I learned so much from the feedback in that contest, it was worth the money.

    Thanks for explaining how agents look at contests. Have a great weekend!

  4. Matthew Sheehy May 9, 2014 at 6:17 am #

    I won a Genesis award two years ago which opened doors to agents who had interest in my MS. After winning the award and having subsequent contact with agents, I came to the conclusion that I needed to work as hard on the last 385 pages as I had on the first fifteen. Also my MS was far more convoluted than my polished one-page synopsis. I needed to write the simpler book that was in my synopsis.

    One agent in particular gave me great advice: experts to consult and books to read. I set my Genesis entry aside and wrote a completely different MS and started/outlined several others, needing to divorce myself from my Genesis-winning story, the story that I loved the most. Just recently–two years later–I’ve picked it up again with a fresh perspective.

    So winning the contest ultimately taught me that I wasn’t as close to publication as I thought I was and that I needed a lot more writing wisdom.

    • Jenny Leo May 9, 2014 at 6:41 am #

      “Write the simpler book that was in the synopsis.” This! Rereading my Genesis entry, I think, “Hey, that sounds like a good read.” lol Then I look at the manuscript as a whole and realize that, while those first fifteen pages are as fine-tuned as a violin, other parts are, shall we say, not quite ready for Carnegie Hall. Rolling up my sleeves.

  5. Andrea (Wood) Nell May 9, 2014 at 6:50 am #

    When I won the first contest I ever entered, the Frasier in 2011, I thought that it was then end all be all, my fast track ticket to the publishing world. That was not the case. I had a lot to learn, still do. I have since won the First Impressions in 2012 and have semi-finalled in the Genesis a few times. It has not yet led to an agent or publication. I have received requests and recognition, but no contract offers. But I would never consider any contest a wasted effort. I have grown so much as a writer through the judges feedback, toughened up, and learned the value of criticism. I believe God called me to be a writer, but at this point in my writing journey, I have come to accept that if His only purpose in my writing is to change and refine me through the process, I’m okay with that. That doesn’t mean I’ve given up all hope, but it sure helps me be more content. Thanks for a great post, Steve.

  6. Jeanne Takenaka May 9, 2014 at 7:12 am #

    Great post, Tamela. It’s interesting to hear about contests from an agent’s point of view. I’ve finaled in a number of contests, but I haven’t won one yet. The main reason I enter them is to get feedback on my stories from people who don’t know me. It’s been insightful. I try to enter contests that have a good reputation for offering this. And, I’ve begun looking at the final judges as a possible reason to/not to enter.

    The finals always encourage me, but I know it will take more than a contest win to gain an agent’s (and one day a publisher’s) attention. I’m good with that. I see it more as a stepping stone than an open door.

    Some contests I’ve gotten great feedback from are the Frasier, The Idahope contest and the Genesis.

  7. Michelle Lim May 9, 2014 at 7:18 am #

    Contests are so subjective! The feedback can be super helpful, especially if the judges agree on one particular element that needs strengthening!

    I would say my top two contests for feedback are The Frasier (through My Book Therapy) and The Genesis (through ACFW).

    I’ve semi-finaled in both and am now agented. I wouldn’t say that the contests brought me an agent, but more that the contests prepared me to interest an agent in the craft category.

  8. Jenny Leo May 9, 2014 at 8:01 am #

    I’d also like to give a shout-out to the Cascade writing contest through Oregon Christian Writers. I’ve gotten some very useful judge feedback from that one.

    • Theresa Santy May 9, 2014 at 8:57 am #

      What a thrill is was to win the 2013 FaithWriter Page Turner Contest. But when the confetti cleared, my life looked relatively the same. I still had to clean toilets, and I still had to work hard if I wanted to finish my novel-in-progress.

      I would definitely recommend the Page Turner Contest at FaithWriters.com. On this site, you’ll find a heartwarming community of writers. The contest (which rotates from fiction to non-fiction year by year) is free with paid membership. The prize package includes a nice cash prize, free editing of your manuscript, free advertising of your published book, consideration of publication, and more. (All entries receive free feedback).

      Once I finish my self-editing and peer review process (which will be soon!), I’ll hand the manuscript over for free editing services and then I’ll find out whether or not I’m offered a publishing contract.

      The jury is still out on where my contest win will lead, but one thing I’ve learned is that no matter what, prizes or not, I need to stay focused, keep working hard, sitting in that chair and typing away. And at the end of every day, I must give all my writing over to God, because as you pointed out Tamela, He is in control.

  9. Andra M. May 9, 2014 at 11:31 am #

    I participated in the Genesis contest a few years ago, but for an odd reason: I was happy not writing, being completely content in my life. I asked God if I should give up writing and seeking publication, and I used the contest as a “fleece before the Lord.” I told God that if I made the finals, I would continue trying, but if not, I would quit.

    I was dumbstruck (and more than a little teary-eyed) when my story won.

    Admittedly after applying the changes the judges suggested I haven’t tried super-hard seeking publication. I know my story is a bit “out there”, so finding a publisher is challenging.

    When the timing’s right, I’ll know, and the timing isn’t right quite yet.

    Besides, I have other stories that need writing in the meantime.

    Great post. It definitely puts contests in perspective.

  10. Laurie Norlander June 2, 2014 at 8:55 am #

    I won the 2012 Women of Faith Writing Contest. The grand prize included having my novel, Mirror Images, published by WestBow Press, the self-publishing division of Thomas Nelson. It was an amazing opportunity and a thrill to see my book in print. I held a book launch party and was able to generate good media coverage in my hometown. The book sold well locally, and readers have been kind in their praise. I’ve done some small speaking engagements at libraries, book clubs, etc., but despite positive reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, online sales have been sluggish, to say the least. I’ve found getting published is only the first step up a very tall mountain. Without an online presence, specific audience niche, or marketing expertise, it is very hard to generate the kind of sales that will attract a traditional publisher or agent.

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