Why You Should Enter Writing Contests

by Carol Van Den Hende
published in Community

Welcome to the Author Marketing Toolkit, where you can learn from 20+ years of time-tested marketing and insights expertise, translated for authors. I’m Carol Van Den Hende, an MBA and strategist who’s known for bringing chocolate when I speak at conferences (surely, we’ll get back to in-person events one day!). I’m thrilled to be joining you here at DIY MFA to share actionable insights.

In the last few articles, we’ve discussed author brand, how to spark great book cover design, and creating professional, valued posts on LinkedIn. Now, we’ll discuss the role of writing contests in marketing your work.

Why Participate in Writing Contests?

Have you wondered how to break through among hundreds of thousands of books that are published every year?

As a debut author, it’s important to overcome readers’ natural tendency to be skeptical about a new writer’s work. One way is to build credibility with authoritative sources, such as blurbs, reviews, testimonials, and awards.

Today, we’ll focus on writing contests, so that you can pursue the claim of being an “award-winning author.” Or even better, “multi-award-winning author!”

Awards don’t only matter to new authors. Best-selling romance writer Nancy Herkness believes “a mention of a contest win on a book’s detail page or a retail site can often reassure a first-time customer and validate their desire to purchase the book.” In addition, she’s found that contest judges are avid readers who talk about books they love. “Several booksellers who judged my books in the early days of my career are still handselling my new work to customers and book groups.”

She also values the power of awards as validation for the writer. Nancy says “Publishing careers are rollercoaster rides, the ups, and downs influenced by many factors that are totally out of the writer’s control. One thing we have within our grasp is producing high quality work. Being a finalist or a winner in a contest is proof that we have done our job well.”

Myriad Writing Contests

During the busy period leading up to launch, authors have limited time to investigate contests. There are, of course, the most famous literary recognitions, like Man Booker Prize, Pulitzer, PEN/Faulkner, National Book Award, and genre-specific awards like the Hugo for the best in science-fiction and fantasy. If you’re in the running for these, congratulations and good luck!

You’ll quickly find that there are many other writing contests, too. Some are run by writing organizations and their chapters. Writer’s Digest runs a well-known set of competitions. Other contests are geography-specific, like ones in Ireland, where I’d enjoyed being part of writing groups when I lived in Dublin for a short-term assignment.

Each one has specific qualification rules, varying deadlines, and entry fees (if applicable). Prioritize contests with relevant categories, and responses before key milestones (like your publication date). If you only have Advanced Reader Copies (ARC), you may also need to narrow contests to those that would accept ARCs.

It’s helpful to prioritize the contests that best suit your needs, as costs can add up. Publishers may enter your work into some contests. If there are other writing contests that you want to enter on your own, submission fees can range from free to several hundred dollars per entry.

Helpful Resources!

The sheer number and scope of available contests can be overwhelming. For instance, each website houses information in different places. You can use a spreadsheet to track viable ones.

There are also compilations of contests, like those at Poets & Writers (pw.org).

Or, take advantage of technology! I paid for a service called Book Award Pro, which automates searches to identify the awards you qualify for, tracks deadlines, and can even enter your book for consideration. (Full disclosure: I don’t get anything for this endorsement. I simply love the service, and have come to know and respect Book Award Pro’s founder, Hannah Jacobson!)

Results and Best Practices

Debut author Jon Hinderliter found that contests played a role in driving sales. In the weeks following the announcement of his book awards, Amazon sales rank spiked 705%! “Data tells a story, and I’m finding that award contests influence book sales,” said Hinderliter about the positive results on his book The Death of Content as King: How a Data Democracy has Revolutionized Marketing.

Six weeks before my publication date, I received the good news that Goodbye, Orchid had won recognition as the 2020 American Fiction Award winner for urban fiction, and Pinnacle Achievement Award winner for multicultural fiction. My book had achieved the status of “multi-award-winning!”  

These wins boosted my spirits in the busy time before launch, and gave me a concrete reason to engage readers. The congratulations poured in, as friends and supporters were genuinely excited for Goodbye, Orchid’s success. 

Since then, the book has been recognized sixteen times. Some of the awards include the Independent Author Network Outstanding Fiction Award, Royal Dragonfly Award, Book Excellence Award, Kops-Fetherling International Award, Chanticleer International Book Award, National Indie Book Excellence Award, and more.

These best practices helped along the way:

  • It sounds obvious, but follow instructions precisely, so you don’t give any reason for your entry to be invalidated
  • Select contests that highlight your genre—for instance, I didn’t apply to mystery or thriller contests, as that doesn’t match my work 
  • Choose categories that suit your work. For example, Goodbye, Orchid won for best first novel, multicultural fiction, urban fiction, cover design, disability awareness, audiobook quality, and other categories.

You’ve won! Now what?

If your book wins an award, congratulations! 

Let readers know, through places such as:

  • Your author newsletter
  • Social media sites (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc)
  • Goodreads (create a blog post, and update your author profile)
  • Your website (I house all the awards on my media kit page, and update my bio with them)

I enjoy sharing contest wins with my publisher, editor, or book cover designer, as a way to recognize their part in the book’s success. It’s also important to inform your publicist so they can publicize the news. As my book won one, two and then many awards, Koehler Books published an article about me on their homepage, Women Who Write featured my work on their website, and multiple media outlets wrote articles about Goodbye, Orchid.

Another option is to tag fellow authors who’ve also been recognized in that contest, as well as the contest organization. You can get creative and sponsor a promotion with other authors who’ve won. Here’s an example of Book Excellence award winners creating a giveaway to celebrate our win, and at the same time, be able to gather reader email addresses:

writing contests
writing contests

You can also update your social media header banners to showcase awards. Here’s an example of mine:

writing contests

Tell us in the comments below: What are your experiences with writing contests?


Carol Van Den Hende is the award-winning author of Goodbye, Orchid, a public speaker, and MBA with 20+ years’ experience in marketing, strategy, and insights. Carol is passionate about simplifying marketing concepts into actionable steps that authors need for publishing success. Please sign up for Carol’s newsletter at https://carolvandenhende.com/contact or linktr.ee/cvdh

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