Risk and reward

The late fall is when many of the published author contests open for entries, and every time the season rolls around I wonder whether I should go contest-happy or not. The expense, the paperwork, the mailing hassles, and the fact that it’s also the holiday season all spell a must-miss experience. But you mustn’t miss it.

You see, there are excellent Machiavellian reasons to enter. Contest judges are an enforced audience. They have to read, or pretend to read, your book. Maybe some will like it enough to buy the next one. There’s also the tantalizing promise of finalling or even winning your category. And, of course, there are contests that will forward the feedback forms to peruse. In my experience, most judges who write comments are honestly trying to be helpful, and I usually learn something. Yes, occasionally there’s one that’s snarky or just strange, but those are fortunately rare.

And, finally, entering contests feels like one is doing something positive. As authors, there’s a fairly limited amount we can do once the book is “out there.” Filling out entry forms gives us an illusory sense of control.

In a manic fit, this year I entered both my 2009 books in quite a few contests, which gave me a scoring data pool. Breaking with my personal traditions of apathy and sloth, for once I actually kept track of the results. I discovered something fairly interesting.

The book that colored outside the lines received either very high or very low scores and finalled or won in many of the contests. The one I wrote as a crowd-pleaser scored more consistently and with a higher average, but received fewer nominations in the end.

What does this actually mean? I’m not sure my test sample was large enough for rash generalizations, but I’ll make one anyway: To be exceptional, you have to accept the fact that some people will hate your work. Just go for what floats your boat. It’ll probably work out better in the end.

Oh, and fill out the entry forms, because you might win. The thing with contests—besides being great fundraisers for the chapters that sponsor them—is that they are low-risk with great reward if you do succeed. For the price of an entrance fee, you can put “award winning author” beside your name.

Cheap thrills. We get ‘em where we can.

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