Beware the Award-Industrial Complex

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The publisher of one of my books just informed me that the book won an award from a contest they entered it into, but instead of posting about my win everywhere I can, I'm writing this post in which I'm not even going to mention the name of the book or the award, because I don't believe the award is legitimate.

What do I mean by "not legitimate?" Not that the contest organizers broke any laws, or that winning wasn't an achievement to feel good about. I'm sure the contest judges did their best to fairly evaluate the submitted books. (After all, it's in their interest that the winning books be the best ones they can find. Just as authors and illustrators can benefit from the light the award shines on their books, the contest benefits from the light cast on it by its choices of winners.) And I do believe my book deserved to win.

What, then, is my problem?

It's that the contest organization seems to exist solely to run the contest. They are not sponsored by some industry group or literary organization doing work in the world beyond the staging of contests. Furthermore, everything about the contest seemed designed to optimize profits:

  • A fairly high entry fee.
  • Many different categories (to attract more entries).
  • Acceptance of self-published books. (I have nothing against self-publishing — I've self-published many books myself, and have continued to do so even after I began getting published traditionally — but it's odd for a contest to accept them right along with traditionally published books.)
  • Acceptance of books published in any year, even though it's an annual contest.

Googling the name of the award, I found only mentions by people who had won them, mostly authors and illustrators but a few agencies and small presses as well. But no major publishers, and no mentions of the award by news sites, especially publishing industry news sites like Publisher's Weekly.

I could stage such a contest myself. I could create the website, accept entries, process fees, and select winners. I could even have certificates and seals printed up (quite cheaply!) for the winners to hang on their walls and slap on their books. But will any of this help the winners' sales or reputations?

You could argue that it might. Maybe your social media posts about winning the award might spread a little further than your other posts about your book. Maybe seeing that your book was an award winner might tip the balance for an undecided buyer. Maybe the publicity that these contests promise to their winners really is significant.

I'm skeptical, particularly about the last possibility. At least for the contest my book won, my googling didn't turn up any evidence that the outside world was aware of the contest and its winners at all. And I think there's a real possibility that winning certain dubious awards can hurt your reputation with people who really know the industry, such as booksellers and reviewers. But even if, on the balance, the potential benefits of entering a contest outweighed the costs and risks, I'd suggest that we writers should refrain from entering such contests on principle.

These contest organizations are trying to create something out of nothing. They appear out of nowhere with a claim of industry authority and promise that if you pay their exorbitant entry fee, they'll reward some number of you with an edge over the rest. If they can get enough people to buy in for enough years, they can even attain a patina of industry authority, even though it came from nowhere.

They're like lotteries in that respect, except a ticket costs much closer to $100 than $1 and the grand prize is maybe a couple of thousand dollars at best, plus debatable publicity.

I think we should resist the proliferation of this business model. We should defend the health of the literary Commons.

If you agree, then ask these questions every time you're presented with a literary contest:

  • Does the entry fee seem high? Small handling charges are fine, but higher fees are a sign that the fees are what the contest is really about. (As a reference, here are the entry fees for four legitimate book contests my latest book was submitted to: $0, $45, $0, and $0. One of the no-fee entries was for the Caldecott medal. The $45 fee was for a contest run by a public library system.)
  • Are the judges respected authorities on the subject? (Are the identities of the judges even disclosed?)
  • Does the contest organization seem to exist only to conduct the contest, or are they primarily doing some other good work in the world, which the contest merely enhances?
  • Does the contest seem designed to maximize the number of entries, for example through a surprising number of awards, in a surprising range of categories, with surprisingly low entry standards?
  • Can you find any mention of the contest organization or its awards in serious news sources, especially industry sources?

The writing life is tough, and dubious contests promise both emotional affirmation and material sales boosts, but I believe that the latter is largely illusory and the former can be obtained from better sources.