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 — 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 seeing your posts about the award might cause some people within your social networking reach to buy your book that ordinarily would not have. Maybe it helps if someone googling your book finds a mention of it on the contest's online listing of its winners. You might decide that it's worth paying the entry fee for a shot at these limited benefits, and if that's the case, then verily, you have your reward. But that's all you're likely to get, and you might be doing some harm.

It's very unlikely that these wins will carry any weight with bookstores or serious reviewers. In fact, they might even hurt your reputation in those realms. The fact that I could find no mention of the contest I won by any major news outlet or industry stakeholder was a sign that they were well aware of its meaninglessness.

Because of their limited — or even entirely debatable — value, because even that value is dependent on creating an impression of industry authority that isn't actually there, and because submission fees seem to be their entire business model and mission, I find these contests deceptive at worst and exploitative at best, and have no wish to support them by entering them or, if someone else enters my book on my behalf and I win one of their awards, legitimizing the award by using it as part of the promotion of my book (which might hurt my reputation more than it would help my sales, anyway).

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.)
  • Does the contest organization seem to exist only to conduct the contest, or are they doing other good work in the world?
  • 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 these contests offer 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.