So, You’re Entering a Literary Contest

Four Things to Consider

By John Prince

The literary contest season is coming up over the next few months. It’s a season when authors send in their “children” for assessment, add a few more dollars to their credit card debt, and live in various levels of anxiety awaiting the letter or email that will help define their future.

I liken it to high school seniors trying to get into the college of their choice. The rules are random and capricious, administered (or not) at will, and subject to all sorts of hidden factors over which you have no control. Sort of like hurling yourself out of an airplane with a parachute packed by a novice.


The first rule is to follow the rules.

If you’re a rugged individualist who flouts rules, give it up. The contest universe is owned by the contest; you are just couch surfing.

“The rules are too complicated!” I hear authors whine. “Then don’t enter,” is my response. Here’s how to decide:

 If the contest is very important to your career and book sales AND you believe that you have a reasonable chance of an award, bite your lip, read and understand the 38 pages of rules, pay the fee and enter. Otherwise, save your sanity and move on.

My experience is that the rules were originally created for a good reason. Then came the clarifications. More clarifications and explanations came to cover the loopholes until the rule book became like the IRS tax code—176,000 pages of regulations.

Most worthwhile literary contests have simple rules for submissions, judging and awards.


How do I find out what literary awards are available?

Do your research: Google it. Read the information. Make a decision: Enter/Don’t Enter. Next question.


That was easy. Here’s a difficult one: What genre do I enter?

Let’s say you just wrote a blistering mystery/romance/sifi/reference guaranteed to set any judge back on their heels. Hmmm!

Solution 1: Enter your work in all four categories? That could get expensive. And some contests will allow a work to be entered in only one category.

Solution 2: Have your friends/beta readers make a recommendation. What genre do they think it fits? A caution here: Choose readers who have experience of how the genre system works in literary contests and who can offer real-world advice.

Solution 3: Decide which genre the work fits into and enter. A couple of general tips. Apply in the genre which probably has the fewest entries—fewer entries = more chance of an award.


Quality and Luck are both factors in winning.

I’ve seen work that didn’t even get to the semi-final level one year receive a silver or gold the following year. In spite of attempting to be unbiased, judges are people and there are a built-in preferences that could make a difference. Judges may change from year to year. The quality and number of entries vary. Overall reader trends and preferences change over time. The takeaway: Do your homework, follow the rules and enter. That will help make your writing better—especially if the contest provides rubrics.


All things being equal, enter contests that provide rubrics.

(Comments and suggestions from the judges on how to make your work better.)

You may not agree with the rubrics (That judge is an idiot!) and that’s OK. You don’t have to agree, just consider the advice and try to incorporate it in your work. It’s like a critique group, but you don’t know the people in it.

Contests with rubrics may have higher entry fees, or the rubrics may be an additional charge. If you’re going to pay to enter, you might as well know why you won/didn’t win.


Most important: What are you going to do to “merchandise” the award if you win? (Make a list and be very organized. Let people know where/how to buy the book.) Here are just a few obvious tips:

News release to local media (news outlets/bloggers) The contest organizers will often provide a template. Call local media and try for an interview. Create a “hook” that appeals to locals.

Send the news release to your own list.

Contact local and special interest bookstores. Let them know what you are doing to promote the book. Ask them to stock it. Try to get a reading or signing party.

Several different iterations on social media over several weeks. Include the cover art. Use comments and photos from readers. Try to be humble.

Post everything to your website with links. Be sure to include a “Buy” button.

Ask (new) readers to post reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, and everywhere.

Call yourself “Award Winning Author” in your email, social media, and other signatures. Try to be humble.

Many contests provide winners with stickers or seals to place on the book cover. For print on demand (POD) suppliers like Amazon or IngramSpark, upload a new cover ASAP incorporating the sticker in the art so potential buyers will see it.


Some authors who read the above will say, “But, it’s so much work!” And it is. I’m sure that other authors have cautioned you that “writing the book is the easy part.” It is.

Good luck!

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