My memoir, Daughter of Spies: Wartime Secrets, Family Lies which came out in the fall of 2022, marks the first time I’ve published with a small independent press. In the three years since acceptance, I’ve learned lots about how much it costs to produce a book, how important distribution can be, and the amount of time and energy that goes into marketing and publicizing a book, no matter if it’s self-published, traditionally published or released by an independent press.
The one thing that has stopped me in my tracks is the number of “come-ons”, scams, and false promises that land in my inbox daily. These include payment for reviews on Instagram or with “influencers,” (I admit to hating that word), hybrid publishers wishing me to submit my next book, advertising offers, emails encouraging me to submit my book for a festival and so on. Every one of these involve me spending money and, in the end, they will cost me far more than I ever expect to make in royalties. And all of them prey on a writer’s desperate desire to be lifted above others in the great cacophony of modern life where people more and more choose visuals on devices over reading the printed word.
I’ve quoted this figure before but it’s worth repeating. In the US alone, over 4 million new books were published in 2022. (These include both self-published and commercially published books in all formats.) As a comparison, ten years ago in 2013, just over 275,000 books were published in the US. No wonder writers are desperate and prone to scams and false promises.
The one I’m focused on because I jumped on board are the hundreds of awards. I entered 15 contests, some of which were approved by the Alliance of Independent Authors and some of which were given a caution or negative rating. I was advised by experts in the field such as the knowledgeable and experienced publishing specialist, Jane Friedman, to check how long the contest has been around, to study past winners, to look for a list of judges, to evaluate how important the prize is to members of your book community, and most importantly, to look at contests that are created primarily to make money. In the beginning, I paid some attention to this advice but the lure of a possible award (how could they not pick me?) made me throw caution to the winds.
Here’s the bottom line. I’ve entered fifteen contests and I’ve spent close to $900 on contest fees. I’ve been shortlisted in a memoir magazine contest and been declared a finalist for another book award. In one case I won a Bronze Medal in the Female Memoir division, and in another, I was named a runner up in the Memoir category. None of these “honors” paid me any money. The announcement of my “win” is most often followed by a bombardment of emails encouraging me to pay more for editorial or marketing advice or for a bronze medal on a colored ribbon or to enter more contests or book festivals. I’ve won no mention at all in six contests, and five have yet to report.
However, in many cases, the list of “winners” is truly daunting. I’m convinced that most of the writers who submitted “won” something. In one contest, I counted the finalists, winners, and runners up and came up with 146 entries that garnered some mention. It cost me $50 to enter that contest. If 500 people entered just one of the possible categories (and I suspect there are many more desperate and eager authors like myself), the income off the bat is $25,000. Where does the money go? Who are the judges? Are they paid? Starting a writing contest seems to have become a profitable business.
Of course, there are reputable contests for writers from PEN awards to the Pulitzer Prize to the excellent listings in Poets and Writers Magazine. If I have one piece of advice to offer to writers interested in submitting to contests, I’d say stick to the reputable listings including the smaller and less well known awards you can find at the Alliance of Independent Authors . Don’t fall into the trap I jumped into. Don’t waste your money on the “for profit” contests that might give you a momentary burst of gratification (see, they did pick me!) but in the end will do little to sell your book or get it to new readers.