Tuesday, December 11, 2007

An Agent's View of Contests

In your posting on Monday, Oct. 1, you mentioned that you knew a lot of writers are entering contests, and some writers are winning awards. You said these awards are "really exciting" to agents.

This sparked some questions for me. How do agents view these awards on a more nuanced level than regarding them as good news? What would be the best way to present the book along with the awards? When an agent becomes aware that a writer has won some awards, how does that change the agent's perception of the writer?

[The author also asked how to proceed if his query has been turned down by agents, but now won an award.]

First, let me clarify that what I actually said in my October 1 post: "Many of you regularly enter contests and get recognition from agents and editors, which is really exciting." And what I meant by that is that the recognition you are getting from agents and editors can be very exciting. I had to actually check this because saying that contest wins can be very exciting to an agent didn't sound like me. I was happy to know I hadn't switched personalities since that time. So what exactly did I mean? And what really is my opinion on contests?

Actually awards are only moderately exciting to this agent. It truly depends on the award. An Agatha, Edgar, RITA, Golden Heart, Nebula, Pulitzer Prize, etc.? Yes, absolutely, all very exciting. But there are a lot of awards out there. I think every single romance chapter has a contest and I think every single conference has a writing award. Let me tell you honestly, I’ve judged an awful lot of those contests and I will say that more often than not I’m picking the best of the bunch, and that doesn’t mean that any of them were any good. Sometimes, honestly, it’s the best of the worst.

Does that mean I think you should stop entering contests or letting agents and editors know about your wins? Absolutely not. Keep entering and keep spreading the news, but as a client of mine, Angie Fox, recently suggested in a comment on the blog, when she entered contests she did so with an eye toward who was judging. If none of the judges represented or bought the type of work she was writing, she didn’t feel the need to enter. Her goal was to get their attention, not just rack up wins.

When it comes down to it, you could have racked up 25 different awards and I don’t really care. The only thing I care about is whether you’ve written a great book that I can fall in love with and really, really, really want to sell.

But to answer your questions more specifically. Mention your awards in your query letter. You can toss them in at the end with your bio or mention it at the beginning as your opener. Do what you think works for you. How an agent perceives them is obviously going to differ from agent to agent. I do think the one thing awards or contest entries show me is that you are very serious about your writing and intend to really invest the time and energy it takes to become an author, and not just a writer. As for the agents who already passed on your work: Let them go. Think of them with your next project, but a contest win (unless it’s major) is unlikely to make a difference at this point.

I do want to add that I think there are many advantages to contests and I know a number of our own clients have spent and do still spend a lot of energy in the contest circuit. I think how a contest can be used to your benefit can best come from them, and I hope they (and others, of course) will pop in and share.



kris said...

Oooh, can we call this "Confessions of a Former Contest Slut?"

In the past, I spent a lot of time & money on the contest circuit. When I first started I was very indiscriminate, entering any contest that judged my sub-genre. But with time and the advice of other perpetual entrants, I learned how to use contests strategically. These were some of the top reasons I found for entering:
1. To get your work in front of a particular agent or editor, especially if that person would be hard to reach otherwise - for example, an editor from a house that does not accept unagented work.
2. To get impartial feedback on a story. Useful both for those without critique groups & those who do have a group, but are afraid they might be too nice (or otherwise) to tell the truth.
3. for the prize. Some contests offer free registration to their conference. That was how I attended the New England conference, the last time I went.
4. For the prestige. There are some contests, such as the Golden Heart, the Maggie, and the Emily (I know only romance), which carry a lot more oomph than others. Those ones can be VERY helpful to mention in a query letter.
5. And sometimes, contests can be the only bit of positive reinforcement you receive. If you're receiving nothing but "I like this, but ..." rejections, your husband thinks you're insane for doing this, your friends no longer ask what you're writing because it's been years without a sale - well, at times like that, it can be very encouraging to know that a bunch of strangers think your work is totally wonderful.

My only request, though, is that if you're going to enter contests, you need to give back by judging as well. I've known too many people who enter willy-nilly but say they're just too busy to enter. Not good.
It's fine to wait until you know something about writing before you start judging, but keep it fair. And when you do, you just might find out the best lesson I ever got from contests: you learn FAR more about being a good writer by judging than you ever do from entering.

K J Gillenwater said...

I totally agree with Kris. I have entered only 2 contests over the last 4 years. The first was for feedback on a novel I was unsure about. The most recent I entered only because the final judge is an editor at a large publishing house...and in the past, some finalists have had their work requested by the final judge.

This was almost too good an opportunity to pass up.

The great news is, I finaled in this latest contest. So I am keeping my fingers crossed for that precious request....

Anonymous said...

I entered a few contests but only as an aside to paying some extra cash for the 30 page ms critique that was offered too. Unable to find a critique group, those paid critiques served me well as a kick start for what my (now sold) YA manuscript was lacking.

Anonymous said...

I entered contests at the last conference I attended, and I did so only with the hope of offsetting the cost of the conference. It worked!

My local writing club hosts two contests yearly, and I enter those to offset the cost of my dues. That works, too. :)

Anonymous said...

I agree that contests are a great way to get impartial feedback-- if that's what they offer. You have to make sure that's part of what's offered. A lot of contests just offer a sheet with check marks. What do you get from that?

*If* you have a plan to get in front of a particular editor or agent, that's great, especially if you final. A number of people I know have had manuscripts requested that way. But it can get expensive and time consuming, and most important about time, it takes you away from your real writing. (Contest slut?!!! Love it!!!)

These contests are fundraisers for the sponsors. Know that going in, choose carefully, and you'll do ok.

Kate Douglas said...

As a published author, I view contests differently--I enter the RITA, for instance, to get my books in front of judges who might otherwise not be willing to read my edgy, erotic romance. There are a couple of other contests judged by booksellers and librarians--again, I am hoping to expose my writing to new readers in a position to help me further my career. I currently have two of my titles entered in the Lambda Literary Awards contest--in this case, it's to reach a new community of readers. It's not about the win, so much as the exposure.

Anonymous said...

I've entered a couple of contests, but I do so very rarely and with a mind of what the contest is going to do for me. The last one I entered, I threw in my hat because I had already decided to go to the conference, and the finalists get extra appointments with the editors at the conference.

That entry paid off in the exposure I got from it, and it was awful fun to be a finalist at a conference.

I have recently judged two contests, and I agree that it was certainly an eye opener. I did my very best to give my entrants more feedback than they paid for. Each of them got comment sheets back with pages of commentary. If something didn't sit right with me, I felt obliged to explain why.

I put in hours of my volunteered time into those entries and from the bottom of my heart tried to help, knowing that all the entrants probably hate me for not "loving their work."

If you do enter contests, do take the time to send thank you notes to your judges. It is a hard hard hard thing to tell someone, "I'm sorry, but I really think this would be stronger if you approached it this way."

A good contest judge can't send you a form rejection. They'll explain themselves. When the sting wears off, at least acknowledge their time and effort if it is clear they made a true effort.

You don't know how deeply it would be appreciated until you judge for yourself.

Terry McLaughlin said...

I'm a fan of writing contests for a number of reasons, many of them mentioned here. My number one reason: I sold my first book to an editor who made an offer after reading the manuscript in a contest's final round.

Angie Fox said...

Confession time – I miss pre-pubbed contests. They can be incredibly valuable if entered with specific goals in mind. For example, after I wrote the first few chapters of my WIP, I found myself yearning for my favorite “first chapter” contest, the Fab Five. It can be a great way to get several opinions about those critical opening pages.

For me, it helps to know if I’m on the right track. It calms the inner critic, or at least it quiets her down for a bit. It can also let you know if a less-than-traditional opening is working. I entered The Accidental Demon Slayer when it was only a few chapters old and an English Lit professor friend told me it was crazy to start a book with the heroine locked in the bathroom by her offbeat biker witch grandmother. I really liked the idea, though, so I floated it in a contest. The judges liked it and also had some ideas about pitfalls to watch out for. It was the best $30 I ever spent. The Fab Five, in my opinion, has some of the best “first chapter” judging. They try hard and it shows.

Once the manuscript was complete (or close to it), I started entering contests with an eye for getting in front of the right agents and editors. Heck, talk about a captive audience. They have to read it. Hah! How else does that happen, right? So I figured if they didn’t like my initial set up or something, they’d at least have to read until the dog starts talking on page 10 and maybe they’d like him.

Another thing that was valuable (at least to me), I picked contests where I could attend the awards. For example, the Daphnes are at the RWA nationals every year, so since I was going to be there, I entered. As Chessie said above, it makes the conference a lot more fun. Plus, there is a high chance the agent/editor judges will also be at the awards. And that’s what happened. As a Daphne finalist, I was not only able to sit next to the agent who judged my category, but when the award packet contained a request for a full, she was right there for me to mention an editor had also requested a full (from a contest the week before). And, in a stroke of blind luck, that editor who made the request also happened to be at the awards.

Never in a million years would I have run into that editor. And, because I’m afraid of treading on toes sometimes, I doubt I would have waltzed up and introduced myself in the hallway. But, there I was grinning like a goofy person on stage at the awards. One of her authors found me and I was able to meet that editor and chat a bit about the book. Talk about being on cloud nine.

Plus, it made all the difference to me when that editor read the rest of the book and made the offer. I felt like I knew my editor a lot better to start with, because I could put a face with a name and remember how gracious she was to me when all she had was a partial manuscript and a hope that the rest of it would hold up.

So I say – do it. Enter wisely. Learn all you can. And, yes, be a judge too. It’s a great way to give back, and to learn even more.


Phoenix Sullivan said...

I've always been ambivalent about contests, and hearing these success stories helps me see the "other" side better.

Because the ultimate goal for most authors is to get their work in front of an agent or editor, I think of contests as a place to pimp your work. You pay enough money and someone will read the few pages submitted and maybe request more. Wouldn't it be easier to cut out the middleman and simply slip a $20 into each submission packet you send out? Seems a lot more honest at least! And the gamble is always that you don't final and you end up with a critique that may or may not have merit from a lovely volunteer who may or may not be qualified to judge.

I once had a published author as a judge in a free contest who basically told me I needed a remedial course in grammar. Hmm. I've been an editor for 20+ years and once taught composition in college. I have no doubt this person was sincere - just misguided. I got my money's worth on that one, I guess.

Maybe a few more success stories will better sway me. But are there better routes to editor desks that won't make me feel like I'm paying someone to read the work I'm trying to sell? I've noticed some editors who don't normally accept unagented work will accept submissions when they guest blog. Any other ideas?

Julie Weathers said...

Whoa, good timing.

I've been pondering this myself. I've been a staff writer for a horse racing magazine for seventeen years and the only award I really had any interest in was the AQHA Sprint Award. That was because, aside from winning, they give a really cool bronze statue of a running horse.

Lately, I've been thinking about entering some contests. It's hard justifying the time writing and entering them, when I think I should be finishing the novel.

This has given me a little deeper perspective on it.

Thanks all.

Christie Craig said...

Great topic and I must jump in, even if I'm a day late.

I'm a big contest believer. I sold my first book in '94 via a contest. I got my agent, the wonderful agent, (PLEASE SEE THIS KIM) in an indirect way via a contest, and my last sells were also indirectly set off due to some contests.

I'll just back up what everyone else has said by saying... Entering contests is a game. You have to know the rules to make sure you get the most out of it.

Great post.