Book awards – Worth it or not?

By Carol / December 9, 2014 /

Tis the season – not only the holiday season, but the book award season. Readers’ Favorite and Writer’s Digest, to name just two, announced winners in recent weeks. And with those announcements, author hopes are either realized or dashed.

Like corn sprouting after a spring rain, a debate about the value of entering book award competitions rose up in a Facebook author group this week. The cost of an entry can be hefty when you compare it to how many books one needs to sell to recoup that expense.

"Go Away Home" receives the 2014 Readers' Favorite silver medal in historical fiction from founder Debra Gaynor

“Go Away Home” receives the 2014 Readers’ Favorite silver medal in historical fiction from founder Debra Gaynor

Basking in the glow of having won my first such award this year, I’m inclined to say yes, it’s worth it. Well of course I would, right? But as a marketer (that’s where I spent 30 years of my career), I know neither the question nor the answer related to the value of entering such competitions is simple.

The awards themselves have varying degrees of history and credibility. The judging itself is subjective, regardless of the organization doing it and no matter how they try to make it otherwise. Writing is subjective. Reading is subjective. Award judging is subjective. And then there’s the cost. Would I feel the same if I hadn’t won?

Knowing all this in advance, I felt it worthwhile to enter. Award competitions offer a range of benefits, tangible and intangible. Here are a few that come to mind:

  • Judge feedback – Competitions generally provide feedback on each entry. Whether an entry wins or not, it’s useful to get the input on how to improve.
  • Winning provides validation of yourself as a writer. You’ve slaved away for years on that book; it feels good to know someone else thought all that effort worthwhile.
  • The award on your book cover offers a third-party endorsement for readers. I know I look closer at books that tout an award sticker.
  • The award news is a tool to keep book buzz going – with media, at book talks, in cocktail conversation.

Can any of that be connected to specific book sales? Sometimes, but often not.

The cover of "Go Away Home" sports an award medallion.

The cover of “Go Away Home” sports an award medallion.

I chose to enter my novel Go Away Home in three competitions: Readers’ Favorite, Writer’s Digest Self Publishing Competition, and the Next Generation Indie Book Awards. I chose these three based on the reputation of the organizations and the recommendations of authors with more experience. My total investment in these entries was $250. The results so far:

  • Readers’ Favorite – 2014 silver medal in historical fiction.
  • Writer’s Digest – I did not win, but I did receive thoughtful judge comments that I am using in book promotion.
  • Next Generation – The jury is still out; I won’t hear until May 2015.

While few awards can make an author’s career – the Pulitzer Prize comes to mind – most awards are simply one element in an author’s overall marketing effort.

It’s unrealistic to point to any one activity and tag it with the success or failure of a product. Marketing is cumulative. Marketing can also be expensive. A book competition entry: $75 – $150. A blog tour: $100 – $300 or more. A single ebook promotion: $14 – $1,700.

Each author has to decide what she or he can afford to invest in getting the word out. Then evaluate whether that expenditure was worthwhile in the overall scope of the entire marketing effort. Marketing is part art, part science, and always more effective when it starts with clear goals, a plan, and evaluation that leads to a better plan the next time.

I’ve made expenditures I can tie more directly to book sales than I can the money spent on these awards, but so far I’m not disappointed I made the investment. I enjoyed meeting other authors at the Readers’ Favorite award presentation in Miami. My husband and I piggybacked a beach vacation on the trip. And books are selling. It’s all good.

What do you think? Do awards matter when you buy books? Have you entered award competitions? If so, why and what did you see as the value? If any? Would you do it again? I’d like to hear your thoughts.

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  1. Kathleen Pooler on December 10, 2014 at 6:43 am

    Dear Carol, first of all congratulations on achieving all your well-deserved awards. I appreciate your practical tips gleaned from your own experience of submitting your books for awards. I especially like your comments about marketing being “part art, part science and more effective when it starts with a clear goals, a plan and evaluation…” Thanks for all you do to help us all find our way through the maze of publishing and marketing.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on December 10, 2014 at 7:30 am

      Thank you, Kathy. Even after 30 years in the business, much of marketing remains a big experiment to me. I’m happy to be part of a big author community – including you – that so willingly shares what we learn.

  2. Sharon Lippincott on December 10, 2014 at 8:45 am

    Congratulations on the hard-won award Carol. Although the jury is still out on #3, that may be a good thing. When you win, you’ll have a fresh round of buzz.

    I so appreciate your perspective that the decision to invest should be personal and purpose driven. I used to cringe at the size of investments many writers make in editing, production, etc. realizing the unlikelihood they’d come close to recouping even half of that. Then a light went on. My brother runs marathons. He travels all over. He ran in Boston this year and may go overseas next year. This is on top of a months long string of more local runs in the Northwest requiring travel, meals, and overnight stays. Nobody questions the fact that running marathons is a serious investment of money as well as time, and profit is NEVER a motive.

    If we divorce investment in books from profit and think of it as a learning experience and personal pleasure, the entire equation changes. You’ve obviously done this, at least to a large degree. Bravo! Bask in the glow of a job well done. And BTW, I hope you sell truckloads of books.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on December 10, 2014 at 2:34 pm

      The comparison of writing/publishing/marketing a book to running marathons is an interesting one, Sharon. We all do get to decide what our priorities are and what brings energy and joy to our lives. Travel? Wine? Cigars? Running? Boating? Fishing? Writing? I’ve been fortunate to be able to combine several of my interests (travel, wine, & marketing) in the pursuit of writing and publishing my books. It’s all perspective. Thanks for bringing that thought to the discussion.

  3. Paulette Mahurin on December 10, 2014 at 9:14 am

    It was well worth the investment for the reward of the well deserved recognition of reader’s favorite. And, the noteworthy comment from Reader’s Digest. Excellent for promotion for a great book with a beautiful cover. Promotion is not for the faint of heart, but if you don’t put yourself out there then who will? Good job, my friend, for all of it. And, Happy Holidays.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on December 10, 2014 at 2:37 pm

      “Promotion is not for the faint of heart.” So true, Paulette. I took a big gulp when I put down money for the first BookBub promotion. It turned out great, but could as easily have gone the other way. It was an investment I convinced myself I could make just to find out. I’m glad I finally ginned up the courage. As it turns out, that’s a lot of what marketing is – getting up the courage.

      Happy holidays to you, too.

  4. Shirley Hershey Showalter on December 10, 2014 at 2:22 pm

    Thanks, Carol, for describing your experiences so thoughtfully. If I had read it in 2013 when BLUSH came out, I probably would have followed suit. Now it’s too late, but I am thinking of doing a list of everything I learned about writing, editing, and marketing a book for the sake of others.

    In general, I love “two-fers.” In this case, could you deduct both the entry fee and your travel expenses as a business item? Even if you didn’t do that, another way to look at the experience is that you got a “vacation with benefits.”

    Almost none of the money we spent this year for travel could be justified in purely economic terms. But almost all of it was a “two-fer” decision. We got adventures and connections with friends, and, yes, the book continues to sell also!

    • Carol Bodensteiner on December 10, 2014 at 2:42 pm

      You’ve inspired me with your “two-fer” approach to travel and marketing, Shirley. I’ve reached out further geographically since reading about your Amtrak marketing tour. A “vacation with benefits” is exactly how we looked at our week in Miami. I have deducted the award entry fees and will have to look into what travel expenses might be deductible. At least the hotel the night of the award program should qualify. Thanks for reminding me to look into that.

      P.S. You might check the entry requirements on some of the competitions, Shirley. Some allow for entering even a year or two after publication.

  5. Valerie Rind on December 10, 2014 at 6:03 pm

    Hi Carol,

    Congrats on your win!

    I’m glad I planted the corn seed that led to this helpful post! Entering book competitions is another marketing/promo option where there’s no single “right” answer for everyone. It’s a bit frustrating and confusing to us newcomers.

    I just entered my first competition, IBPA, at a cost of $190 ($95 per title per category; I entered one title in 2 categories) and will know in March whether I earned the right to refer to my book as “award-winning.”

    Thanks again for keeping the conversation going!

    • Carol Bodensteiner on December 11, 2014 at 8:51 am

      I’m glad you started the conversation, Valerie. Awards are a topic of interest to many of us. I don’t know that my post made the subject any less confusing, but perhaps it offered a few added ways to think about the subject.

      Good luck in the IBPA competition.

  6. Susan G. Weidener on December 11, 2014 at 7:53 am


    I think you have to go into book contests/awards with eyes wide-open. Unfortunately, many are money-making scams. I, personally, have never been one for book awards or contests; how the investment does or does not translate into book sales isn’t clear to me and most of these sites apparently offer little in the way of explanation or statistics to back up why an author should invest the money.

    This blog post on book contests’ “hidden agendas” and associated comments is very interesting:

    Just from reading the comments, it seems a few contests offer more prestige and credibility, while others are well-known scams or money-makers and might even tarnish an author’s reputation by touting their awards from those groups.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on December 11, 2014 at 9:12 am

      Couldn’t agree more, Susan. I think it’s fair to say that all award competitions are intended to make money – whether that’s the primary goal or not I suppose depends on the competition. They also raise awareness of good work, promote the industry they represent, and create community.

      I’ve been involved in award competitions for advertising, public relations, marketing, agriculture, and education – most frequently as an entrant and sometimes as a judge. In all cases, we entered to raise awareness of the good work we did and touted the wins broadly. In no case that I can recall were we able to say the win resulted in additional sales. But the awards were a source of pride for the team and our clients; they caused potential clients to give us a second look, and they were part (only part) of our marketing strategy.

      Absolutely, authors should check out the credibility of the awards they think about entering. They should also realize that they may – but probably will not – be able to tie an award to specific sales numbers. Awards are one element of an overall marketing effort.

      • Susan G. Weidener on December 11, 2014 at 10:37 am


        I appreciate that you consider RF Award an “overall marketing effort.”

        I feel that contests can fall into the same category as paid reviews or paying for guest blog tours. How much are we willing to spend? Another question: How “ethically fair” is it to other writers (assuming some of the 5-star reviews on Amazon for some books come with a fee or are an outgrowth of a paid service) to other authors who struggle to get reviews without paying? I have tried for years to get people to review my work on Amazon . . . many say they will and then nothing. When I see dozens of 5-star reviews start popping up . .. it makes me wonder. Then again, I’m a journalist and it is ingrained in me to question.

        For our Women’s Writing Circle anthology, we paid for a Kirkus Review, but split the $379 cost $15 ways. All felt they wanted to give the book a shot by having a review . .. knowing how hard they are to come by. As it turned out, the Kirkus review was quite good, but it did absolutely nothing to generate sales on that book.

        • Carol Bodensteiner on December 11, 2014 at 10:55 am

          I don’t object to people getting paid to provide a service. We make decisions like that all the time. I’ll pay someone to replace a broken window even though I could do it myself. I’ll pay someone to set up a blog tour. They have the contacts it would take me weeks to make. In both cases, I have better uses of my time. Each of us has to decide where and how we spend our money.

          The question of “fair” is another post entirely. Life seldom is. People use the points of leverage they have. Traditional publishers have contacts and access and credibility we indie authors can only dream about. Is it fair? Doesn’t matter. They have them and use them. I know I’d do the same if I was in their position.

  7. April Yamasaki on December 11, 2014 at 9:44 am

    Congratulations, Carol, and thank you for sharing your experience. I appreciate all of the thoughtful comments too. I’ve been so focused on writing and publishing that I’ve never thought about book awards/contests, but they sound like another possible avenue of raising a book’s profile. I’ll be returning to this post and comments for future reference. Thank you.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on December 11, 2014 at 10:27 am

      I’m glad you found the post useful. Good luck with your writing and publishing, April. They do come first.

  8. Pat on December 11, 2014 at 10:37 am

    Congratulations on the Reader’s Favorite Award. I wish I could have been in Miami just to meet you. Someone I feel like the connections made may be more important than the actual award. I have often wondered if any of them are worth the investment, so thanks for sharing this useful post.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on December 11, 2014 at 10:46 am

      I wish you could have been there, too, Pat. You’ve touched on what I felt was the most valuable thing about the event – meeting so many authors I’ve come to admire and only previously met on social media. It was the conversations over a glass of wine or over breakfast the next morning that I’ll remember long after the award loses it’s luster.

  9. Joan Z. Rough on December 11, 2014 at 2:54 pm

    Thanks for this helpful post, Carol. I’ll be looking into this as I move closer to publication.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on December 12, 2014 at 10:09 am

      You’re Welcome, Joan. There are so many marketing options to consider; I’m glad to shine light on one of them for you.

  10. Elaine Mansfield on December 11, 2014 at 4:46 pm

    Thanks for this timely article. My publisher just entered my Oct. 2014 book in The Chautauqua Prize competition. Of course, a long shot, but everything is. We have a few others in mind and we’re trying to focus them carefully and not waste dollars and copies of my book. You encourage me to keep knocking on doors and see if anyone opens.

    Congratulations. From where I stand, it’s a big deal. There are so many entries and so many books, so it’s wonderful if your book stands out from the mob..

    Wishing you good fortune and empathetic judges for the NG review.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on December 12, 2014 at 10:13 am

      The approach you and your publisher are taking is wise. Focused, intentional, within a set budget. Good luck in The Chautauqua competition, Elaine. You have as good a chance of winning as anyone.

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