What should writers know about contests?
The absolute most important advice I can give you is this: read and understand the fine print.
Understand what you’re entering
Know what you’re entering. Know what happens to your work in the event you win (or even/especially if you don’t win). Make sure you’re completely comfortable with it.
For instance, in the event you win a contest, are you comfortable with the prize and what is often a completely non-negotiable publishing contract? Do you want to try for a better deal by going through the traditional publishing route and finding an agent?
There’s no correct answer here: it’s up to you. But make sure a) you know what happens when you enter/win and b) you can live with it. And think very long and very hard about anything that could tie up the rights to your work. And when in doubt: don’t enter.
Will contests help you find a literary agent?
Now: do agents and other publishing types look favorably on successful contest wins/finalists?
Here’s the thing about that. Even the biggest writing competitions have… what, a few thousand entries? Agents get 10,000+ queries a year and take on maybe a handful of clients. Going strictly by the numbers, an agent’s inbox is far more competitive than any writing contest. Accordingly, many agents take contest wins with a grain of salt.
If you win or are a finalist in a large contest by all means, include in the query as a publishing credit. But I wouldn’t necessarily call it a difference-maker in a query. It can definitely help, and there are some genres where certain important contests are taken very seriously, but it’s not usually something that’s going to make or break you.
And if you’re a Semi-Finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough: I wouldn’t mention it. Every time the Amazon contest rolls around agents are suddenly besieged with Amazon Breakthrough semi-finalists, and while yes, it’s a good achievement that you should absolutely be proud of, to us it seems like there are several bazillion semi-finalists.
Writing contests can help
All that cautionary stuff aside: I’m not down on writing contests! I know how hard and lonely it is for writers who are struggling with the Am I Crazies and are wondering about that big question: am I any good?
Writing contests can provide that crucial validation from people who don’t know you and hey, they like your work! It can be a real confidence booster, and that can make all the difference in the world.
So definitely consider entering writing contests, just make sure you do it with eyes wide open.
If you have questions about specific contests: don’t forget that discussion forums are a great place to sound out your fellow writers. Experienced smart people are standing by.
Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching!
For my best advice, check out my online classes, my guide to writing a novel and my guide to publishing a book.
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Art: The Winner Of The Derby Race by James Pollard
So, if you get an agent it's worth more than winning a contest in a query that you're sending to an agent. But you already have an agent?
Sorry, but that does not compute.
It seems that a 15K advance and a publishing contract thru a contest doesn't hold any weight with an agent?
I must be misinterpreting your post. Essentially, you're telling writers to forget the contests with a much better chance of a "win" and wait for a far less chance with an agent.
Also, a finalist or honorable mention is still worthless?
It's hard for me to understand where a bird in the hand isn't worth diddley to the elusive bird that's flown the coop.
I can't speak for Nathan, but I think he was trying to explain that as an agent, he's more interested in reading queries about good novels he loves than he is in reading about contests and finalists.
And from what I've heard with other agents, I think he was being extremely kind in this entire post. I know one agent who couldn't care less, and he's an agent with many big books.
I've been listening to these contest discussions on blogs for ages, and the same people who are always defending them wind up disappearing, never to be heard from again. While the real writers continue to stick around and do things the hard way.
Robert A Meacham says
I like contests because I live for deadlines, rules , and pressure. I am looking forward to the contest in January.
Nathan Bransford says
Yeah, agents are interested in selling, but unless you're a celebrity, bad writing doesn't tend to sell. So I tell people who aren't famous to write well.
you're right. you always got watch out for the good and the bad contests.
Edward W. Robertson says
I'm sure you're mostly right, but some contests, as Nathan noted, do matter–e.g. the Writers of the Future contest for sci-fi/fantasy. As a result of winning the 2002 contest, Patrick Rothfuss was put in touch with an agent who agreed to represent a novel that had been rejected far and wide before that. A few years later, The Name of the Wind became a NYT bestseller.
Even winning the WotF contest is no sure thing, as a glance at past victors will prove, but Rothfuss is hardly the first to launch a career off it. Your comment was probably pointed at the many, many, many smaller contests than this one, but there are certainly a handful with real power.
Cat Torres V says
I recently wrote about the advantages in joining contests for new writers(sorry for the promo, but the post may be useful for new writers: https://hubpages.com/hub/Tips-and-Advice-for-New-Writers-from-a-Fellow-New-Writer), but now that I've read Nathan's post, I'm re-thinking some of these reasons.
Overall, I still think that it's good practice for getting used to 'rejection' and the discipline of meeting deadlines and wordcounts. And when the contest includes some critique or feedback, it's really a great learning experience.
So I hope that joining competitions will help me prepare for the real competition… getting an agent!
What about fees for contests? Is that normal? I've never entered a contest because I don't want to pay someone to possibly read what I wrote…lol. But great advice! Thanks.
Gordon – I apologize. I started this, and I realize you're just upping the ante, so it's my fault. But upon reflection, let's not go there on Nathan's blog. Maybe another time and space.
But this is a family blog, so probably best not.
Great post as always.
It's not a problem for me though, since as a non-American who lives in Japan, I am usually ineligible for everything.
Thanks for the insights, Nathan. I always wondered what (if any) importance agents gave to contest wins, especially when those are based on popular votes.
I gave up contests a couple of years ago, primarily because my writing style tends toward literary–which, as we all now, has a (very) limited following these days. Still, sometimes I am tempted, some contests sound so….juicy, resisting can be difficult 🙂
Starting NOW, I'll never again agonize over entering, even if it should have an almost irresistibly appealing theme. Whew!
Ahhh.. fine print. How many times do we blindly leap into the acceptance of terms due to the sheer enormity of the task it would be to read them fully?
I may have already signed away my soul several times over without ever being the wiser.
In this case though, I would certainly take the time for the drudgery.
"…Agents act like they are keenly interested in quality writing–but they're not. You and I both know bad writing (depending on how bad it is) can be edited…"
As someone who has been published I find your above quote bizarre. Yes, books get edited. Yes, not all books are to my liking or I'd guess, yours. Romance novels shouldn't get compared to the latest Michael Chabon, which shouldn't be compared to a cookbook, and so on. Different genre's have different standards. But the attitude that an editor or agent lives to serve you by fixing your sucky writing isn't going to serve you well.
Editors and agents do not have the time to hold your hand and teach you about sentence structure, character arcs, verb usage, or come up with half of your plot for you. They want something that looks like, tastes like, and smells like, and reads like a book. THEN they add value through their edit suggestions, making it even better.
Why would they bother with a writer with "bad" writing, which may take six months to overcome when they can give an edit letter to someone who's already done the hard work of becoming better BEFORE they submit?
WitLiz Today says
Back in the ancient of days when I was a budding concert pianist facing a major concerto competition, I had reservations leading all the way up to the moment I stepped on the stage. Sure, some of that was my nerves jingling worse than bells on a reindeers ass, but I also couldn't see the point of putting my sanity on the line like that.
However, after downing five post-play margarita's, and reflecting upon the experience of skipping off the stage secure in the knowledge I had played well, despite the best efforts of my accompanist whose hands had suddenly turned to stone; and despite the fact I and my compatriots were asked to leave the audience after standing up and cheering each and every competitor and calling for encore's, I sobered up eventually and came to really appreciate the experience.
I even forgave my accompanist, saying something like, "Brian if you ever play like that again, I'm going to bury you in the school's Steinway and laugh diabolically when they find your dead, lifeless body clunking up the hammers!"
The point is, the critique I got from the judges, though wildly divergent in their views on most issues, was extremely helpful. From then on the concerto got better and better and at one point I played it flawlessly to a standing ovation. (I also quit drinking too. Maybe that was good, ja?)
With Mr. Bransford's last contest, (even though I didn't enter it) I was able to fix what had been bothering me about my first chapter for months. Even with endless revisions, I still had that nagging feeling something was fatally flawed with it. Anyway, when I read so many of the very fine first chapters, I had an epiphany.
I really think anytime a writer or author has the opportunity to learn and grow, whether it be through contests, or submitting their work to be critiqued, or reading writing blogs, whatever will add to their repetoire of writing tools, they should take it.
wow, lots of great advice for people who love writing, thanks a lot, i will probably use this information for good use.
Helpful alternate perspective post. It never dawned on me that agents get multiples more submissions than any contest judge.
Shoot, and I thought a competition win was the equivalent to my striking a giant gong, and entering behind a cloud of smoke – when in fact it's only a doorbell. And probably an annoying one at that.
Oh well, everything helps to tilt the teetering egg. If I need enough bells to fill a hand choir, so be it.
Anyone know where I can rent a choir robe?
The actual point I was trying to make is that I think if one item won't push an agent over the edge, a lot of them might just garner a request for the full ms…
I think it all adds up, just like Malcolm Gladwell says about plane crashes, 7 small–individually insignificant–things.
Thank you so much for the advise ! I have only entered two small contests, and did not use work that is for my hopeful bigger picture.
Question for you, or someone like you. Have you ever been asked to judge a contest due to its genre being one you are close to ? Did you ever look into the writers you chose as a winner ?
sex scenes at starbucks says
Though I won a small contest (and a book, the best prize ever!) and I have some honorable mentions under my belt, I now think ALL CONTESTS ARE A WASTE OF TIME. I feel pretty strongly about that, if you didn't notice. Thing is, I have a very limited time to prepare my work for submission. Most writers have less time than me. So why spend all your time on some stupid contest when you could be sending out your work to agents (and editors, in the case of short stories) for Real Actual Money? Contests are just playtime. If you intend to sell your writing and make it a job, then spend your time doing the real work.
sex scenes at starbucks says
Also, it's my experience that I've gotten far greater feedback from my critique group than a contest judge, plus you get the added benefit of DOING critique, which is as or more valuable than receiving it. Yep, I did put my time in on the contest circuit. No more.
Fawn Neun says
Hmmm… well, with this morning's news that some UK publishers are offering the staggering amount of 500 GBP's for literary fiction, I don't think I'd turn my nose up at 15K American.
"But if you think GLBT Kintergarden Vampire Erotica is the bomb."
First, I'd like to know why Gordon is so anti-LGBT. I'm sensing some passive aggressive comments here.
Second, I'd like to know who is publishing LGBT vampire erotica to five year olds. The erotic romance writers I know market their work to adults, and state it clearly.
Some people may disagree with me, but I'd rather self publish and have total rights to do an ebook as well. Traditional is fine, but I like control 🙂
Wilhem Spihntingle says
I think the Amazon contest would be a great avenue for a manuscript that could'nt find a home. Nothing to lose, and imagine if you actually won 🙂 Not so sure about entering a manuscript that hasn't been shopped around already by "traditional" methods.
Nathan, sorry. This is the last one.
I decided that this conversation on Nathan's blog wouldn't end well, so it was best to stop.
That said, I do acknowledge that I started this, so I thought it was best I stop it. Sorry if you felt set up – that wasn't my intention.
But your comments to me were out of line and hurtful. I'm disappointed, I thought we were starting to be friendly. Now I just feel hurt, and don't particularily want to talk to you.
I hope you'll consider getting back to a more friendly exchange. That would be my preference.
It's hard to see why winning a national short-story contest listed in the Poets and Writers website would ever be a bad thing. Let's not collapse contests: blog contests are not national contests run by big journals–Narrative, Boulevard, etc. Many of those contests have good judges–Joshua Ferris is judging the latest Columbia contest–so, to be honest, I don't understand where you all are coming from. Obviously saying you won an award from your local library when you were five is idiotic, but 'I won the 30 under 30' award from Narrative? Many agents would take notice.
Courtney Price says
I didn't scroll through all 85 comments, but here's my thing with contests: I can't stand the ones that include a "vote" online! It just means that one person got more clicks from their friends or cleared their cookies more. Nothing else! SO, any "talent based" competition that includes a vote is completely silly to me.
Nathan, not sure if you're checking in before xmas, but this story from Andrew Sullivan's blog shocked me:
Essentially Laredo is about to be bookstoreless–250,000 people without a local bookstore. The comments indicate that there is a Walmart there where people can buy books, but that is not a bookstore.
How do you think this plays into the eBook trend, if at all? One of the arguments against eBooks is the sensory experience of a bookstore (in addition to holding the book). I wonder if people HAD to buy online anyway, if that wouldn't translate into more of a willingness to do the whole Kinddle, nook, whatever, thing??
In any case, happy holidays!
Nathan Bransford says
Definitely very distressing. I like e-books, but I also don't want bookstores to close. They provide an essential function. I'm hoping this isn't a sign of things to come and that we find some kind of balance.
Anthony James Barnett - author says
In the past I've entered short story contests, been placed, and had the work published in anthologies.
I have later regretted it because the stories would have been eligible for much higher paying markets had I waited.
Competitions might look good on a CV, might do a flagging ego a power of good, but they've never actually done my career any good.
Susan Gratton says
I entered the Amazon Breakthrough contest. Is it okay if I tell an agent I lost? LOL
Well, it all depends on the contest, doesn't it. I recently won a place in a residential ms development course with a brilliant one-on-one mentor. It was one of the best weeks of my life, in writing terms, and gave me the confidence to keep writing when I had reached one of those "Why the hell am I doing this?" points.
The contests I enter, mainly through RWA, are the ones that offer valuable feedback and critiques. And usually a contract to the winner. $22 is a small price to pay.
i entered a local contest and received inane comments on my MS, so inane that two of the writers who heard them actually moaned in exasperation. In this contest they didn't give the names of the judges—now I think I know why. This has really put me off contests.