Shining a bright light into the dark corners of the shadow-world of literary scams, schemes, and pitfalls. Also providing advice for writers and industry news and commentary. Writer Beware is sponsored by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Inc.

June 9, 2015

Awards Profiteers: How Writers Can Recognize and Avoid Them

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

If you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you may have guessed that I'm not a big fan of writing contests and awards.

Partly this is because so many are a waste of time, with minimal prizes, negligible prestige, and zero cachet on your writing resume. Why not spend your energy on something that can get you closer to building a readership--submitting for publication, or publishing on your own?

There's also the risk of bad things in the entry guidelines--for instance, the Emerging Writer Awards, where simply submitting constituted a grant of publishing rights. Writers who don't read the fine print carefully enough may find themselves trapped by such provisions.

And then there are the contests/awards with a hidden agenda: making money for the sponsor. Such awards aren't really about honoring writers at all.

There's a complex of red flags that identifies profiteering contest and awards programs.

- Solicitation. To maximize entries, profiteering awards and contests solicit entries. An out-of-the-blue email urging you to enter a contest or awards program should always be treated with caution.

- High entry fees. Profiteers charge $50, $60, $75, or even more. There may be "early bird specials" and multiple-entry discounts to tempt authors with the illusion of a bargain.

- Dozens or scores of entry categories. To maximize income, profiteers create as many entry categories as possible, and encourage multiple entries.

- Anonymous judging. Profiteers promise expert judging by people with standing in the publishing field, but don't reveal who those experts are. In fact, the judging may be done by the profiteer's staff, who may simply pick winners out of a hat.

- Non-prize prizes. To avoid cutting into their profits, profiteers offer prizes that cost them little or nothing: press releases, media announcements, database and website listings, features on satellite websites or in self-owned publications. Some offer little more than the supposed honor of winning the award.

- Opportunities to spend more money. Profiteers' profits don't just come from entry fees. They also hawk stickers, certificates, critiques, and more.

Profiteers may deviate from this template to some degree: some do provide money prizes, for instance, and not all solicit. But if more than four of these red flags are present in a contest or awards program--especially if there's a big entry fee--you should think very carefully about entering.

What about prestige? Profiteer awards and contests don't typically command a lot of name recognition, but if you win or place, you'll be able to tag your book as an "award-winning book" and yourself as an "award-winning author." How much readers care about such designations, though, is an open question. With all the fake review scandals, as well as readers' increasing disillusion with authorial self-promotion, I think book buyers have become more cynical in general about what authors say about themselves.

Profiteer awards and contests, which overwhelmingly target and ensnare small press and self-published authors, are a cynical play on authors' hunger for recognition and exposure in an increasingly crowded marketplace. In my opinion, they are never a worthwhile use of writers' money.


Some examples of awards/contest profiteers:

JM Northern Media runs more than 20 literary "festivals" and conventions. JM Northern is a ferocious spammer; if you're a writer, you've probably been solicited for one or another of its festivals.

Unlike many other profiteers, JM Northern offers actual money prizes. But it can afford to. According to an article in that's no longer accessible, its Hollywood Book Festival received 2,740 entries in 2012. At $75 per entry, that's a gross of $205,500. Let's assume that the other 20 festivals, most of which have a lower fee of $50, also get a lower number of entries--say, 1,500 (I'm lowballing to demonstrate how insanely lucrative this scheme is). Altogether, that's over $1.5 million just in entry fees. A year. When you add in revenue from the critiques and merchandise (likely provided by JM Northern's own Modern Media Publicity), it wouldn't surprise me to learn that JM Northern's annual festival gross is well over $2 million.

- i310 Media Group sponsors the Best Book Awards, the International Book Awards, the American Book Fest and the Bookvana Awards. Entry fees are $69-79, and each program has scores of categories (more than 100 for the International Book Awards), fancifully-described prizes that boil down to website features and press releases, and the "opportunity" to purchase award stickers and certificates.

The Jenkins Group, a costly self-publishing services provider, runs at least five awards programs: Moonbeam Awards, Axiom Awards, eLit Awards, Living Now Awards, and the IPPY Awards. Entry fees range from $60 to $95, and there's the usual raft of entry categories and non-prize prizes. Even among profiteers, however, Jenkins is unusual in the amount of extra merchandise it hawks to winners. Check out the options for Moonbeam Award winners--no fewer than 29 items, ranging in price from $7.50 (for a Moonbeam Certificate) to $130 (for a Moonbeam Gold Medal--not even a real medal, just an image).

- WILDsound, another prolific spammer, runs continuous monthly contests and "festival events" for screenplays, books, poetry, short stories, and more. Fees range from $20 ("$15 OFF regular submission") for a first scene to $170 for a full novel, but average around $45. Judging is done by the usual cadre of unnamed "Professional Writers and Writing Consultants"; prizes are readings by--it's claimed--professional actors. You can sample these poor-quality videos here.

- Other profiteers include Readers Favorite ($89 to $109, depending on when you register; over 70 categories; plenty of adjunct merchandise and services for sale); the Pinnacle Book Achievement Awards ($90, over 50 categories, stickers and certificates for sale); Literary Classics (relatively inexpensive at $45, but the usual unnamed judges and hawking of adjunct merchandise); eLit Book Awards ($70-90, 65 categories, prizes consisting of website listings and spam--excuse me, newsletter mentions); and the Global Ebook Awards ($79, over 100 categories, with winners"eligible to purchase Global Ebook Award certificates attesting to their honor").


Sue Bursztynski said...

There have always been ripoff artists around, but the numbers of scammers have ballooned since the Internet made self publishing much bigger than it was before, when there were a few people being published by vanity presses and oters who had a niche market in mind. With so many people so desperate to be seen, there will always be those willing to take advantage. I remember one of our students being sucked into a poetry competition she had heard of through a spam email. They didn't charge you to enter, but they did tell you how impressed they were with your entry, however dreadful it was - and hers was excruciatingly bad! - and offer to sell you a copy of the published book. I told her they should be paying HER or at least giving her a contributor's copy. Fortunately, she had no money to buy the book - I even had to give her a stamp to send them her reply.

Victoria Strauss said...

Ah, the vanity poetry anthologies. That used to be a major scheme--there were dozens of these outfits--but I hardly ever hear about them now.

Shaun J. McLaughlin said...

Your article is a useful guide, but it begs the question: are there legitimate awards for indie writers? Thanks

Rebekkah Niles said...

In a certain online forum, we're currently having a debate over the value of contests hosted by chapters of national writing organizations (specifically the RWA).

When I entered a couple of pre-published contests, I saw them as $20 to $35 for developmental feedback on unpublished works from 2-3 different judges, and also a chance to win on the side, plus I don't mind supporting the RWA in general as I've gotten so much from the organization. It's clearly a fundraiser for the chapter and the judges are anonymous.

On the other hand, I personally found the feedback really helpful, and continued to use some of the things I learned in a different manuscript I've since published. But others have said feedback has been less helpful, and as the judges are volunteers from the chapters, they have varying levels of experience and even tact. I see the contests as educational tools, not marketing ones--but if you want prestige, they're not the best way to go, and make sure the ones you enter are either something you don't mind donating money to and/or give you something you consider valuable even if you don't win.

Jennifer R. Povey said...

I got spammed repeatedly by the "New Apple Book Awards for Excellence in Independent Publishing."

The terms are no longer up, but as I recall it was a like $80 entry fee with the prize being a sticker and mention on their website. 77 categories.

New Apple is a marketing company, so I'm sure the entrants and "winners" got solicited for their services.

Legitimate writing contests may or may not charge fees, but if they do, then the prize money should have a reasonable ratio with the fees - it's perfectly legitimate to charge a reading fee to cover the cost of a large prize. Non monetary prizes can sometimes be valuable, too, especially if there isn't a fee. (I've seen prizes that include club or group memberships, a stack of books, even an expenses-paid writing conference or retreat). And sometimes you get something with your entry fee - it's not uncommon for magazines to run contests for which the price of entry is a subscription.

Where you need to be careful is in the grey area between the obvious scammers such as New Apple and the legitimate contests. And be really careful with contests run by newspapers - for some reason, newspapers just LOVE to claim publishing rights to all entries.

Jane Steen said...

I bristle when I see awards where the winner gets publication + $2,000-5,000. So you give up your rights for a $2,000 advance? I suppose if you're desperate to be published...

But I did find a useful award last year. The Illinois Library Association is now running the laboriously titled Soon To Be Famous Illinois Author Project for indie fiction, which is free--I just had to get a librarian from my local library to sponsor me. I didn't win but I was one of three finalists, and got to go to the award reception in Chicago. There was no monetary prize but even as a finalist I've found benefit in being able to forge a solid relationship with my library and others in the area, the Chicago Tribune interviewed me, and so on. The ILA are offering to help other states replicate their award.

The Historical Novel Society, my own genre organization, has a few awards with small cash prizes that are free to enter as far as I know. They're all genuine attempts to find good HF writers, run by volunteers.

The Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award has been a good one for some indies--you have to be willing to be published by Amazon if you win, but the prize is $50,000 which is a decent advance. I'm not sure if they intend to keep it going, though, and would welcome other commenters' opinions about its value. I haven't entered it but my critique partner did, quarter-finaled, and subsequently was offered a book deal by another publisher.

I hope a few more people can suggest useful awards, especially for indie writers, because honestly, I haven't seen much benefit in any of the pay-to-play awards I've come across.

Jackie Weger said...

Oh!Victoria: I am so glad you wrote this blog. I know authors who love those contests and enter dozens. And believe those stickers and seals on books covers are grand and sell books. I think they just interfere with smashing cover art. The best award for me as an indie author is a book sale! And if the reader likes the book, an organic review.
To Rebekkah Niles: I was an early member of RWA and roped into judging Chapter mss. I was well-published by Harlequin and the only way I knew to critique was in the same manner my editors sent me revision letters. Oh my. I made so many enemies. Aspiring authors did not and still don't, have a clue about what a book goes through to reach publication. Tact has little to do with it. I don't go near aspiring authors now because most want validation that they can write, when the real question is "Can I tell a story?" It is an immense amount of work to bring a book to publication. Good luck to all with your books.
No Perfect Secret

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your article. I always enjoy reading what you have to say. Whenever I hear about authors being taken advantage of, it seems the blame is placed on the "unsavory" companies or vanity presses lurking to make a buck off of the self-published/indie authors. There's a lot of blame to go around in the traditional, "reputable" world, as well. When Kirkus Reviews charges indies $425/standard, $575/express service and Clarion charges $499/book for a review, there's nothing reputable about it, especially when you could be paying for an expensive bad review of your book.

I also agree about the contests and, unfortunately, I've entered some. The "reputable" ones, of course: Writer's Digest charges $110, $85 additional categories, Foreword charges $99. I've learned my lesson and won't enter again, but they, too, are taking advantage of some vulnerable folks.

No one is making any of us enter these contests or pay for the reviews. We have the option not to do so. It's the same with vanity presses. If an author does her research, wishes to use a company that knows a little more about simply getting a book published than she does, what difference does it make if she uses them? It's her money.

As for the "quality" argument too often used against self-publishing (and even more so against vanity presses), can anyone honestly say that whenever they walk into a bookstore, it's filled with quality inventory? Books of literary merit? I can't.

Sorry for the long comment. I just feel the blame isn't always placed where it should be. Thanks, again, for your articles.

Debbie Young said...

Well said, Victoria, I completely agree with you and always feel sad when I see an author proudly announcing that he or she has won an award I know to be meaningless. One tip I often cite for any authors thinking of entering competitions is to check out the list of the previous year's winners and see whether you'd be proud to see your book listed among them. Such a search usually brings up an array of very amateurish looking covers with unalluring titles, clearly the work of naive beginners who have been completely taken advantage of. I once mused online "How do such competition organisers sleep at night?" and a friend replied "On expensive silken sheets"!

One aspect of competitions that you haven't touched on is the effect on the morale of NOT winning. Even supposing an author is entering only worthwhile, upright competitions - and they do exist - you have to assume that you're more likely to lose than to win, and I for one find such rejection rather sapping. As you wisely counsel, better to get on with the more important task of writing and publishing the next book instead ...

msmariah said...

Wonderful post about award profiteers. I enjoy receiving awards from fellow bloggers, but I'm leary of awards from marketing companies.

Cathy Bryant said...

while I'm grateful for your warnings, I do love writing comps. I tend to enter the free ones (and no, they don't always get loads of entries)! In one year my income from these outstripped my income from royalties (admittedly it wasn't a great year for royalties). Writers definitely shouldn't enter hoping for prestige and huge financial rewards - with a full-length book you're probably much better off with publication. But with a poem or short story you can do very well with competitions, and then publish it too if you still have the rights. If it then goes into a collection then you can be paid again. My poem 'I Want One' first won a Creative Future Gold Award (£150 prize) and then won the Texas Pen2Paper Poetry Contest in 2014 ($100). It was then published in my second collection (Look at All the Women, for which book I've had royalties.
I should make a disclosure here - I've written a book about writing competitions, and I run a site (Cathy's Comps and Calls) that lists ONLY FREE wrting competitions, and none from the places I know to be dodgy (i.e. offering all entrants publication in an expensive anthology). I do think that people can have enormous fun and make money from writing competitions, but only if it's approached in a certain way. I hope that your readers won't be put off having a go - just from parting with money, or choosing the wrong path for their book.

Barry Knister said...

Thank you. This post confirms my suspicions about writing contests. My own skepticism leads me to think that even the better contests are "rigged" in some way. Like little magazines, I imagine many literary contests involve cronyism, favoritism, nudge-and-wink arrangements among members of an inner circle.

Anonymous said...

Hi Victoria,

Thank you so much for your article!!!!

Here are the other fraudulent/scam/faux contests that meet your criteria above (and that you have blogged about in previous posts)

Dan Poynter’s Global E-book Awards

The National Indie Excellence Awards

The Beverly Hills Book Awards

The USA Regional Excellence Book Awards

The NextGen Indie Book Awards

The IndieReader Discovery Book Awards

Writer Beware post about IndieReader Discovery Book Awards:

Previous Writer Beware post about contest scams: (the comment section is enlightening as well)

Allison Morse said...

Thank you for your terrific and informative post. This is important information!

Anonymous said...

Hi! Thanks for this very informative article. I was wondering about the International Latino Books Award. They have many, many categories and these are the entry fees
If entered by October 15, 2015, the fee is $65 per entry
If entered after October 15, 2015, the fee is $90 per entry
They don't even say they give a sticker to the winners....I guess is all about the promotion.

Victoria Strauss said...

Anonymous 7/13,

The International Latino Book Awards do bear several similarities to profiteer awards programs: high entry fees, dozens of entry categories, unnamed judges. On the plus side, the Awards seem to be sponsored by a legit organization (Latino Literacy Now) and they appear to have an association with the American Library Association; winners also appear to be promoted at major book fairs and trade events such as the ALA Conference.

So this appears to be a "bit of both" situation. I'm guessing that the awards do make a profit for the sponsor, but there also appears to be some real recognition and promotion for authors who win or place.

Even so, I think authors need to seriously ask themselves whether it's worth shelling out $65-90 for a chance of winning.

Hawthorne said...

Not just contests but applying for gigs can be precarious too. I bet we're all sick to death of responding to gigs with applicable scripts only to be told the old standard 'It's not what I'm looking for'. I get this all the time. My first script has been entered into two contests and the synopsis/logline sent in response to countless gigs - most reply with the above comment.
2 months ago I was surfing IMDB and came across a new Kevin Bacon film 'The Darkness'. The first act concerns a family vacationing in the Grand Canyon and the young boy accidentally finds a secret hole where there are several Native American stones. They steal them and are haunted/hunted by spirits etc
The first act of my first script concerns a family vacationing in The Badlands. The young boy accidentally stumbles upon a Native American Burial cave and steals the headdress of the skeleton of a Native Warrior. They are hunted/haunted but the narrative develops in a different vein. probably co-incidental but I remain skeptical.

Fiona Craig said...

Whilst I agree with you that there is a dark side to publishing, I'm surprised by the number of self publishers that manipulate Amazon. I think these practises of getting top seller are simply 50 friends all writing reviews before 12 midnight. It's easy to do. At least my book was read by independent authors and publishers on the other side of the world. Regards, Winner 2016 Bookvana Awards and Finalist International Book Awards for Stuck in a Rut - How to rescue yourself and live your truth.

Janet K Brennan said...

As owner of a small indie publishing company, I encourage my authors to give the awards programs a try. That said, we ask them to check with us first to make certain the awards are not on the "writer beware" list.

Anonymous said...

Whew! Thanks for your post and all of your comments. You just saved my friend from making a big financial mistake again. He was about to submit HUMANS NEED THREE HANDS, Will Human Nature destroy Nature and Humans? to a scam. Drats thought the Writer's Digest Self-Publishing Awards would be a reputable contest to join, since they have been around since the Great Depression. I found the entry price exorbitant. $99! Are they nuts, or are the authors nuts for submitting? Drats told me that THREE DAYS OF THE ANIMAL OLYMPIANS, Fight WITH Nature is doing pretty well, and that he hoped joining the contest might give HN3H a little bump in sales. I told him he sounds desperate and should find wiser uses for that hundred bucks. That was close, but after forwarding this blog to him, he relented.
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