Writers’ contests: A good thing, or a flash in the pan?

I recently read a BBC article discussing writers’ contests and book prizes.  The thrust of that article (you can read it for yourself here) is that these contests have become one of the main avenues for new books (and their authors) to become noticed in an over-saturated literary market.

Cue my opinion…

It’s true!  The winner of the Man Booker Prize or the Canadian Governor-General’s Award or the slightly better-known Nobel Prize for Literature do tend to get a lot of attention.  And that attention often translates into sales, which makes both authors and their publishers happy.  Ideally, the reader (leaning heavily on the sometimes-good-sometimes-lousy tastes of the judges) also gets something out of the bargain.

Many of the older contests (the hundred- and fifty-year-old variety) were created with an “academic” focus, linked in indirect ways to marketing initiatives.  In recent years, a rash of book prizes and contests have sprung up (many publications have their own in-house contests as well).  These contests are often funded by book industry-affiliated companies, whose interest in selling books is self-evident.

Because there are now so many contests out there, they are becoming increasingly specific, targeting authors (and readers) from the smallest of niches.  Are you left-handed, balding, and of Romanian ancestry, with a special interest in Byzantium?  Consider submitting your fiction to the Transylvanian Southpaw Chrome-Dome Historical Fiction Contest.  Do all of your short stories see characters fishing on the 60th Parallel in their underwear?  Well, they might see success at the Sub-Polar Semi-Nudist Anglers’ Literary Awards.

Yes, I’m being dumb.  But my point is that there are so many contests out there that it’s tempting to question the value of winning any one in particular.  Unless a writer has come away with one of the bigger awards, I suspect that bragging about it on a resume would only send an agent or publisher to their computer to make a quick Google search.

In that sense, I see book awards and prizes as a short-term solution to the runaway inflation of competition that is occurring across the publishing industry.  Very much like when the Fed prints more dollar bills, having so many writing contests out there diminishes the value of winning them.  Over time, it seems inevitable that the advantage of winning all but the biggest contests will lessen.  As an attention-getting (i.e., marketing) mechanism, they will eventually become as ineffective as other formerly-effective marketing strategies.

If and when that does happen, the optimists among us (I am one, sometimes) may feel certain that a new and effective road will open to hopeful writers seeking the attention of the world.  After all, the internet has revolutionized the publishing industry, and we can all click-click our way straight across the globe.  And yet, the pessimists (oh yes, I am sometimes one of those as well) might point out that the problem is not with any particular strategy, but with the way in which competition has turned the entire publishing industry upon itself, like a school of piranhas in a cannibalistic feeding frenzy.

It would be irresponsible of me to end on such a dire, hopeless note.  Competition can be healthy, and can serve to weed out the crappy writing that readers should not be subjected to.  Writing contests can be a great way to catapult an otherwise unknown book into the spotlight.  But what do we do when everyone has a dollar bill?

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About jackfrey
Jack Frey lives somewhere in Northeast Asia with his wife and two young boys. He finds the letter K to be the most aesthetically pleasing of all the consonants, in both its upper and lowercase forms. Like many of us, he is currently seeking publication of his first novel.

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