Tuesday, September 29, 2015


According to one oft-cited source, about 81% of all Americans say they want to write a book. That’s 243 million aspiring authors! And furthermore, there are about six million book proposals, queries, and manuscripts making the rounds among American publishers and literary agents at any one time.


What do these stats tell me? Well, it’s not rocket science: Almost everyone has a story inside them, and they want to share it with the world. Some kids grow up dreaming of a career in medicine, or law, or show business. Me, I wanted to write. Indeed, no matter their day job, about four-fifths of us want to write. It’s a passion. A calling. I know it well.
But once you’ve written that story, what then? How do you attract the attention of agents and publishers? If you ask around to the experts, many will say that you should enter your work into contests. Win a few awards, they say, and the gatekeepers will surely beat a path to your door. Fame and fortune are only a blue ribbon away.

And yet...

If you ask 100 of these laureates, about 90 will tell you that their day in the sun ended far too quickly. They won a contest or three and enjoyed a moment of glory, but then it was over. Editors and agents wouldn’t return their calls or emails, no matter how hard they tried. An eminent panel of judges praised their work to the highest heavens, but no one else seemed to notice or care.

What’s the problem? This is one of the most common questions I hear when I speak at writers’ events.

In my career I have served as a judge for several writing contests, so I have some inside information here. Frankly, a prize in a writing contest doesn't necessarily mean that your book was exceptionally good. Sometimes it just means that you were among the least-bad among a mediocre field of entries.

In any case, the author’s names are removed from the manuscripts before the judges see them. With this anonymity, I can’t show favoritism to someone I know. All that’s left for me to evaluate, is the story itself. The plot, the structure, and execution. I write a one-paragraph evaluation, or fill in a few blanks on a questionnaire, and my job is over. I can get on with my life.

But when you send that same manuscript to a publisher, the situation is very different. You’re asking them not just to validate the quality of your work, but also to invest in your career. They might expend tens of thousands of dollars, and hundreds of man-hours, on each title. (Yes, really.) They need authors who know the craft and the business, and bring substantial platform to the equation.

The same goes for agents: You’re asking us not just to validate the quality of your work, but also to invest in your career. I (or one of my staff) will read your book, critique, edit, and polish. Then we contact dozens of publishers until we find one who will lay out those precious dollars and hours. We encourage you, teach, exhort, spur you on to do your best. All of this, for a paycheck that might never come. 

My time in this business has taught me that the world has no shortage of good stories or competent scribes. What we need, is for a few of those wordsmiths to work the business end with us -- which most refuse to do, because they think it's someone else's job. In short: A contest is all about the book, whereas a publishing deal is (almost) all about you. One is about the craft, and the other is about business. Very few writers possess this full skill set. Very few will put in the work, pay their dues, and do what it takes.

How about you?


  1. I really enjoyed your blog. Being an Author myself I have first hand been through everything you mentioned in your blog.

  2. Winning a contest doesn't guarantee a sale, but NOT winning a contest doesn't guarantee you'll never sell. I'm grateful for that. Insightful post.

  3. I use contest winning paraphernalia (certificates, bookmark plates, medals, etc) as motivation. You can believe they're sitting within clear view of my computer while I plot. ;)

  4. Contests also encourage you to keep writing and expose you to different points of view outside of your normal circle. One thing to watch for in contest critiques is are you hearing the same thing over and over. If you are--pay attention.
    But in the end they are subjective. If you're discouraged remember the story of my talented friend who submitted to a contest but didn't make the semi-finals. The next year she resubmitted the very same manuscript--with NO changes--and won.
    Keep submitting, keep writing, and keep connecting.

  5. I'll put in the work! I've learned to enjoy both sides of the business.