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Thread: Writing Contests -- What works?

  1. #1

    Writing Contests -- What works?

    Apologies if this isn't in the right place.

    Hi all,

    I am the president of a small romance writing group in Missouri, and over the past few years, we've noticed a dramatic decrease in participation in our annual contest. I believe there are several key reasons behind this, one of which being the draw of being read by an agent or editor is not as valuable as it once was. Granted, that's based on personal observations and not backed by data, so I could be wrong.

    Despite our group being primarily romance-focused, we welcomed writers of all genres to participate allowing that the category theme remained the same (Contemporary/Paranormal/Science Fiction/Fantasy/Historical/YA/MG)

    The contest worked like this: submit the first 2,500 words of an unpublished title. Each submission would be read by volunteers, then the finalists would be sent to agents and editors, who would award the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd entries. The group also issued a cash prize (not much; we're a tiny, resources-strapped group) and certificate of accomplishment. To enter the contest, the price was $25 for nonmembers, $20 for members per submission.
    This used to be wildly popular, enough so that it funded an annual two-day conference we have since been forced to suspend due to lack of funds. The contest this year received 4 entries and was canceled.

    So here are my questions:
    Does this model still have
    life?
    Where would you market this sort of contest? We used Facebook ads in the past, but Facebook is not returning the results it once did
    What inspires or would inspire you, as an author, to enter a smaller-scale writing contest?
    If you're a member of a writing group that holds an annual contest, can you share what is working with their model?

    Anything you can share will be helpful. Thank you in advance.


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  2. #2
    All about that action, boss. ElaineA's Avatar
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    Hi Rosalie! I'm not going to be helpful for most of your questions, but I can tell you why I've decided against submitting to contests anymore. Last year (or the year before, god, time runs away and I have no clue) I budgeted to enter some contests in hopes of getting an idea what I could do to improve my MS, but the feedback I got was no better (actually, it was worse) than if I'd sought out more beta readers here. (I've had the best of luck with my AW betas).

    In the end, it came down to a cost-benefit analysis for me. Since I'm unagented, I'm going forward in my career with the expectation that I will not get an advance. Therefore, money out--even as little as $25--has to yield some kind of return I find valuable. I paid a good deal to go to a conference and pitch agents face to face. I learned something there that I couldn't replicate anywhere else.

    As for your chapter marketing its contest, I do scan the "contests and conferences" in the back pages of the RWA magazine, even though I probably won't act on any of the offerings. (I stubbornly adhere to the mantra "never say never." ) I can tell you honestly I've never seen a Facebook ad. I don't use it personally, and if there are ads on my pseudonym FB page, I haven't noticed them.

    I'm sorry it's taken a chunk out of your chapter budget. I was a member of a tiny RWA chapter here in the Seattle 'burbs and it's a struggle, I could see. Wishing you all good luck as you guys get it figured out.
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  3. #3
    Scribe of the girls in the basement Marissa D's Avatar
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    My local RWA (NEC-RWA) chapter retired its unpublished contest a couple of years ago due to lack of interest, but our annual published book contest, which is open to self-published as well as trade-published books, is booming. Maybe a switch would help?

  4. #4
    reading all the things Anna Iguana's Avatar
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    Hi, Rosalie!

    I'm an author in the contest-entering phase of my life. Besides cost, the main thing that deters me from entering contests is awareness of how submissions numbers are exploding in online submissions. Services like Duotrope have made it so much easier to find and enter contests; competing against everybody in the English-speaking world, the odds often don't seem worth it. Too many times, I've sent work to a journal and been told "we already picked everything for this issue," though the journal's submission call was still open. I worry that would happen with a contest, too, only I'd never hear about it--that I'd be sending work to judges who were overloaded and had already seen enough entries to find something they liked.

    So, I'm more drawn to contests that limit entry to a narrower group (e.g., residents of a certain area), places that limit the number of contestants (either with a small time window to enter, or by closing submissions when a preset number of entries is reached), places that seek a narrower selection of work (that your contest was opened to all genres would actually make me less likely to enter), and places that charge lower fees (every time I consider a contest, I'm trading off how many journal submissions the entry fee would buy; I don't know if volume could make up for lower per-entrant fees, but--maybe?).

    Best wishes to your writing group, and thank you for all your efforts hosting a contest. I hope things pick back up.

  5. #5
    Elaine,

    Thank you for your feedback. I do believe one of the major obstacles we need to overcome is the feedback area, for exactly that reason.

    Our contest ads had a small budget but a large range, which likely made them nearly impossible to stumble across. So we'd need to configure the the targeted areas if we decided to do anything there again.
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  6. #6
    Quote Originally Posted by Marissa D View Post
    My local RWA (NEC-RWA) chapter retired its unpublished contest a couple of years ago due to lack of interest, but our annual published book contest, which is open to self-published as well as trade-published books, is booming. Maybe a switch would help?
    This is an idea I've personally been entertaining. Thank you!
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  7. #7
    Quote Originally Posted by Anna Iguana View Post
    Hi, Rosalie!

    I'm an author in the contest-entering phase of my life. Besides cost, the main thing that deters me from entering contests is awareness of how submissions numbers are exploding in online submissions. Services like Duotrope have made it so much easier to find and enter contests; competing against everybody in the English-speaking world, the odds often don't seem worth it. Too many times, I've sent work to a journal and been told "we already picked everything for this issue," though the journal's submission call was still open. I worry that would happen with a contest, too, only I'd never hear about it--that I'd be sending work to judges who were overloaded and had already seen enough entries to find something they liked.

    So, I'm more drawn to contests that limit entry to a narrower group (e.g., residents of a certain area), places that limit the number of contestants (either with a small time window to enter, or by closing submissions when a preset number of entries is reached), places that seek a narrower selection of work (that your contest was opened to all genres would actually make me less likely to enter), and places that charge lower fees (every time I consider a contest, I'm trading off how many journal submissions the entry fee would buy; I don't know if volume could make up for lower per-entrant fees, but--maybe?).

    Best wishes to your writing group, and thank you for all your efforts hosting a contest. I hope things pick back up.
    These are all really great points to take back to the Board. Thank you!
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  8. #8
    practical experience, FTW TellMeAStory's Avatar
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    The North Carolina Writers' Network publishes a weekly offering of opportunities to its members. That would certainly be worth your checking out.

  9. #9
    Quote Originally Posted by TellMeAStory View Post
    The North Carolina Writers' Network publishes a weekly offering of opportunities to its members. That would certainly be worth your checking out.
    Will do. Thanks!
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  10. #10
    Back on Track Carrie in PA's Avatar
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    There is one (huge, national) group I was a part of and I submitted to their contest for $25. I received feedback from one of the judges that was so ridiculous that I can no longer take the integrity of their contest seriously. I don't remember what the potential prizes were.

    Another group (statewide), I enter the contest each year, ($25/entry I think? It seems to me there's a sliding scale for entry fees, like subsequent entries are $20 but I'm not sure.) and the prizes are related to the annual conference. 1st place gets free registration, 2nd place gets 1/2 off, and 3rd place gets a smaller discount (not sure what %). Winning entries also get a nice certificate. The feedback has been consistent across the judges.

    Maybe change your prizes. Cash prizes are nice, but maybe it would be more beneficial to waive conference registration for winners. It *sounds* pricier, but it probably isn't in reality. Being read by an agent sounds nice, but has anyone benefited from that prize? (If they have, I'd market the crap out of that -- "Our 2015 contest winner landed Agent Fabulous and her book is scheduled for publication in November 2017!") Did any of the finalists land a deal or get published? Are you marketing the contest enough? Making it seem attractive to your members? What prizes do they WANT? Are you announcing the winners with a flourish? For the 2nd group I mentioned, the contest runs prior to conference, and all winners are announced during a dinner ceremony, where certificates are presented. Afterwards, winners are announced on Facebook and then featured on the website.

    Best of luck to you!
    Officially published! Strange Magic anthology, featuring my creepy story "Little Whirlpools" is now available!


  11. #11
    Quote Originally Posted by Carrie in PA View Post
    There is one (huge, national) group I was a part of and I submitted to their contest for $25. I received feedback from one of the judges that was so ridiculous that I can no longer take the integrity of their contest seriously. I don't remember what the potential prizes were.

    Another group (statewide), I enter the contest each year, ($25/entry I think? It seems to me there's a sliding scale for entry fees, like subsequent entries are $20 but I'm not sure.) and the prizes are related to the annual conference. 1st place gets free registration, 2nd place gets 1/2 off, and 3rd place gets a smaller discount (not sure what %). Winning entries also get a nice certificate. The feedback has been consistent across the judges.

    Maybe change your prizes. Cash prizes are nice, but maybe it would be more beneficial to waive conference registration for winners. It *sounds* pricier, but it probably isn't in reality. Being read by an agent sounds nice, but has anyone benefited from that prize? (If they have, I'd market the crap out of that -- "Our 2015 contest winner landed Agent Fabulous and her book is scheduled for publication in November 2017!") Did any of the finalists land a deal or get published? Are you marketing the contest enough? Making it seem attractive to your members? What prizes do they WANT? Are you announcing the winners with a flourish? For the 2nd group I mentioned, the contest runs prior to conference, and all winners are announced during a dinner ceremony, where certificates are presented. Afterwards, winners are announced on Facebook and then featured on the website.

    Best of luck to you!
    You make some really great points.

    Yes, people have been contracted by publishers as a result of the contest. Unfortunately, the one publisher I’m aware of (Samhain) is no longer around. I think we need larger-caliber judges than the small publishers.

    I’d be happy to waive the conference registration for winners, but in order to have a conference, we first need to have a really great return on the contest. At this point, the conference won’t return until 2019, pending the performance of 2018’s contest, since the contest is how we fund the conference.

    The marketing follow-up for the contest is definitely something that we need to work on as a group. Excellent points there.

    Thank you!
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  12. #12
    Back on Track Carrie in PA's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by RosalieStanton View Post
    You make some really great points.

    Yes, people have been contracted by publishers as a result of the contest. Unfortunately, the one publisher I’m aware of (Samhain) is no longer around. I think we need larger-caliber judges than the small publishers.

    I’d be happy to waive the conference registration for winners, but in order to have a conference, we first need to have a really great return on the contest. At this point, the conference won’t return until 2019, pending the performance of 2018’s contest, since the contest is how we fund the conference.

    The marketing follow-up for the contest is definitely something that we need to work on as a group. Excellent points there.

    Thank you!
    It's definitely a hard catch-22, needing contest money to fund the conference, needing the conference to give the contest purpose. Are there other fundraising things your group could do? Maybe simple things like Amazon Smile donations or restaurant fundraisers? In my area, lots of the local restaurants will give out coupons and 20% of your check will be donated to the organization. It's a win/win - the organization gets money, and the restaurant gets more business. They're usually Tuesdays, the slowest day for eating out. Brainstorm things that don't "cost" anything. Then use that as seed money. What about a contest that the prize is publication in an anthology? If you have already-published members of your group who would be willing to be "anchor" authors, that may help. What about involving local bookstores (especially used book stores)? They might sponsor a book signing event. You could self-publish it on demand, or maybe there's a local publishing company that might be willing to take on the project? That gives you all of 2018 to raise funds in non-traditional ways, then your 2019 contest could be solely for the conference.

    IDK, I'm just kind of spitballing here, hopefully there's a nugget of something that might help.
    Officially published! Strange Magic anthology, featuring my creepy story "Little Whirlpools" is now available!


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