Last fall and winter, we entered Book Design Made Simple in some independent publishing book award contests. In mid-April, we got word that our book had won gold at the Independent Publisher (IPPY) Book Awards. Nine days later, we won another gold medal, this time at the Next Generation Indie Book Awards.
After some discussion, we decided to attend both award ceremonies and Book Expo America (BEA) in Chicago. We reasoned that we would meet new people (indie publishers being our audience, after all), find out what BEA was all about, learn something by attending the conference sessions, and display our book at the Independent Book Publishers of America (IBPA) booth. And we’d be awarded our gold medals in person! After all, how often does that opportunity arise?
We managed to accomplish all of those goals, and enjoyed visiting Chicago at the same time. So what can we share with you about indie book award contests, to help you decide if they are right for you? Here’s what we’ve learned about the pros and cons of book award contests:
Pros of entering indie book award contests
- Ego. An award can do wonders for your head! It can give you the mental boost you need just as you begin to wonder if the entire publishing venture has been worth the effort. Frame those medals! Or wear them! Later on you will get a lift from looking at them and the memory of receiving them.
- Status. You’ll be able to display medals and stickers on your book, website, email signature, display table, and anywhere else you can think of.
- Money. Contests can be expensive (entrance fees are usually between $75 and $200 USD per category), but a few contests offer cash prizes to top winners. As gold medal winners in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards, we won $100 USD.
- Networking. If you attend an awards ceremony, meet as many other award-winning authors as you can, and compare publishing experiences. Offer to swap reviews, visit each other’s websites, and sign up for each other’s blogs. Connect on social media and post photos online. Make the most of your big night.
- Discovery. Whether you win an award or not, you will learn something about the value of your book. If you didn’t win an award or become a finalist, take some time to think about why your book didn’t win. Are there already too many books on your topic? Did you hire a professional editor? Is your design as good as the others? Did you enter in an appropriate category? Our book won gold twice in the Writing/Publishing category, but so far is a finalist in the Reference category. So the former category is a much better fit for us, but not all contests include that category.
- Fun. Enjoy your visit to the city! Build in some tourist time for yourself to make it a truly memorable trip.
Cons of indie book award contests
These contests are not the National Book Award or the Newbery Medal or the Man Booker Prize. Not even close. It seems that the major publishing houses haven’t heard of them. But that doesn’t mean they are worthless by any means. If you pick the contests carefully you can avoid the pitfalls. What pitfalls? Here are a few:
- Costs. All of the contests cost something: There’s an entry fee, and the cost of shipping multiple copies of your printed book (ebooks generally upload for free). Compare fees, and read about possible additional expenses if you win (such as purchasing stickers for your book or attending award ceremonies). Most contests produce good revenue for the sponsors, and some are even referred to as “pay-to-win” events that award all entrants. (We know of only a couple of not-for-profit contests.) In every case, the sponsors gain by increased traffic to their website as you spread the news of your win.
- Your bottom line. If you win, will your book sales spike to reflect your glory? Probably not, unless you work really hard at marketing. Despite doing just that, we didn’t notice any difference in book sales, and nor did any other winning authors we asked.
- Possible scam. Some are not really competitions at all, but simply ploys to get you to use a vanity press or self-publishing service. If you are invited out of the blue to enter one of these “contests,” be wary and read the fine print.
Is it worth entering book award contests?
That depends on you, your book, and what you hope to achieve from entering contests.
We asked several book award winners whether they thought entering contests was worthwhile. Most agreed that they noticed no increase in sales. However, it was unanimous that the awards reception, the medal, and the ability to put a sticker on their book was worth the entry fee, but not more.
Trena White at Page Two Strategies shared her thoughts: “We know from Booknet and Bookscan sales data that very few book awards actually help to sell books. The Giller Prize in Canada certainly does and the Pulitzer does, but most make no measurable difference. Still, awards are helpful for signalling a book’s quality to the book trade and to potential readers, and they can have a positive effect on writers’ careers. They’re prestigious and that’s valuable too.”
Was it worth it for us? Definitely. Did book sales increase and did we recover the costs of entering the contests? No. But people do take notice that our book has won awards, even if they’ve never heard of those particular awards. Potential readers assume that our book was judged by competent professionals in the publishing world, and was deemed by them to be one of the best in its category. So our book has gained prestige. And who knows what the long-term benefits will be? (That’s a blog post for next year!)
Which book award contests to enter
Which contests offer more pluses than minuses? Below is a list of reputable ones that have been around for a while. Because of the expense, we recommend entering no more than half a dozen contests. Research each one for yourself and see if it is right for you and your book. Don’t try to squeeze it into a subject category that doesn’t fit; simply try another contest. Most of the contests are open to international publishers if their books are written in English. In alphabetical order:
- Benjamin Franklin Book Awards, put on by the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA), is a big one. This organization has over 3,000 members, and among the membership, this is the most coveted award. It’s also the only one that shows you the judges’ comments about your book.
- The Eric Hoffer Award has been around since 2000 and is well respected as an independent entity with no corporate ties. It has fewer categories than some other contests. Cash prizes are offered.
- Foreword Review’s IndieFab Awards (soon to be called the “Indies”) strings out their process for a long time. They announce a suspiciously long list of finalists early on and then offer expensive advertising opportunities in their magazine. Even so, it is a popular contest.
- Independent Publisher (“IPPY”) Book Awards is run by the Jenkins Group (a book marketing firm) and is clearly a for-profit venture. However, they have built up a good reputation over twenty years. There are also several offshoots of the IPPYs, such as business and children’s book contests.
- National Indie Excellence (NIEA) Book Awards is run by Smarketing, a book marketing firm. A few overall winners are given valuable book promotion packages through outside companies.
- Next Generation Indie Book Awards is the largest not-for-profit contest. It is put on by the Independent Book Publishing Professionals Group in cooperation with Marilyn Allen of Allen O’Shea Literary Agency. After the ceremony they follow up with encouraging emails and general advice on how to leverage a win to improve sales. Cash prizes are awarded.
- Smaller-scale contests are run by some of IBPA’s regional affiliate organizations. These awards are also coveted and can result in decent sales to fellow members.
- USA Best Book Awards is sponsored by USA Book News and i310 Media Group. They offer good support for winners on their site and through press releases, plus they make connections with the entertainment industry.
- Whistler Independent Book Awards, new in 2016, is open to Canadian self-published authors. Each book receives a thoughtful critique that can be quoted for publicity. One interesting advantage to this contest is that the books can be up to 6 years old when entered. No ebooks.
- Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards offers valuable prizes. The top winner receives not only a large cash award but also a feature article in Writers Digest, a press release that is sent to major publishers, and a free trip to the award ceremony. Other winners receive cash or Writer’s Digest books.
What do you think? Should you send your book off to be judged alongside others? Are you confident that you have a professional product that can compete and perhaps even win? Does your book offer new information or make a unique contribution in some other way? If you think so, and your book has received honest, enthusiastic reviews, then go for it. But remember that most contests only judge books and ebooks that are fresh off the press. So do it now!