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How to Win a Book Contest
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Set in a dark future, Eliana, an angelic dancer from another world, joins Jeremy, a 16-year-old genius, in a race to save a dying planet––Earth.
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The Angel & the Brown-eyed Boy Cover––An example of a striking, light colored, dominant cover

 Book contests. You see them advertised everywhere, sponsored by book publicists, advertising agencies, consultants, “book shepherds,” and even book publishers. The questions are: What will winning a contest do for you? And––how can you win a book contest if you enter it?
 
I know something about these topics. My first two books won a total of twelve national awards in contests for independent presses and self-publishers. An interviewer once exclaimed, “What! No one has won twelve book awards.”
 
Well, I have. I'm good at it.
 
What will a book award do for you?
 
I’ve read promotional materials that claim that winning an award will catapult your book into the ranks of bestsellers and make your name as an author.
 
Hasn’t worked out that way for me. I do have a friend who read my earlier article on this subject, Win Book Contests –– Make Your Book a Winner! on Your Shelf Life.  He took my advice and had his self-published book made into a hardback, entered it in a contest, and won. He was signed by a traditional publisher within weeks.  Years later, he remains signed and happy and selling like crazy.
 
It can happen. (The other thing about my friend is that he’s a supreme marketer and his book sales were spectacular before and after the contest. Also his book is really good.)
 
While I don't promise life-changing results, here are a few reasons book awards are worth pursuing.

1.     An award will increase the visibility of your book. My first book came out in 2006; the second in 2009. I’ve just brought out two more books. I’ve found it much harder to make sales and keep sales momentum going now than in earlier years.

I think that the difference is due to the phenomenal increase in the number of Indie books and authors and their marketing activities. Your book must stand out from and above the hordes.

An award can provide that essential difference, provided it's part of a marketing arsenal. The unspoken truth about book awards is that you have to put your winning book, with its pretty new sticker or badge, in everyone’s face and keep it there, or nothing will happen.

2.     Goodies. Some contests have really good prizes. Money, publicity campaigns. Trips to holy places: Book Expo America, for one. These are worth competing for by themselves.

3.     An award can be a badge of quality and reassure your buyers. I was participating in an on-line discussion the other night when a woman EXPLODED about how sick she was of buying poorly produced self-published books. Here’s a really good, though rude and insulting,  blog article with an incredibly vulgar title that talks about this problem and presents an excellent critique of self-published books. (Read the comments and links beneath the article. They’re also good.)
 
We in the self-publishing/independent press world need to face this problem and police ourselves. I think that book awards can do exactly that. An award-winning book should represent the highest quality available in the indie/self-published book scene.
 
Now that we’ve established good reasons for entering book contests, how do you win?

I’m going to give it to you straight. Winning a book contest requires a huge investment of time and a relatively large investment of money. It takes years to prepare a book good enough to win. Getting the peripherals­­––your web site, blog, and press packet, with everything it includes–––takes more years.
 
As an example, I started my new book, The Angel & the Brown-eyed Boy, in January of 2008. I’ve worked on it full time since then, except for when I was working on my other new book, Tecolote: The Little Horse That Could.Tecolote was supposed to be a redo/upgrade of an eBook we already had. Hah! What a joke.

I’ve been in constant communication with book designers, proofreaders, editors, graphic artists, web people and more, for three years. I’ve even been in touch with Tecolote, the horse behind the book.

I don’t know how my new books will do in contests; the results aren't in. Because I did well at one time doesn’t mean I will again. No guarantees in life. I’m not guaranteeing you anything in this article, either.

Now that I’ve made you really happy, let’s get into the nuts and bolts of winning.

The key is: If you win a book contest, you already know how to set up a winner. You know what excellence is and you know how to bring it forth. Getting the result is a job of work, like mucking out stalls at our ranch.

I think I’ve done well in book contests because I used to show horses and win. When you win in a horse show, it's because you started with a winning horse, then schooled, conditioned, fed, bathed, and trained him to perfection. You know all the rules as to the type of equipment and attire you should be using, and you employ them. You know how to ride and enter the arena with all sails flying. The judge will recognize you the instant he sees you.

In a book contest, the judge faces an array of books. Your book has to leap out and SING. Also tap dance.

HOW DO YOU GET A BOOK TO TAP DANCE?

1.  Hardbacks show up better. You’re a judge.  Thirty or forty books are sitting on a table. You won’t be able to read all of them. You see a well-designed hardback with a killer cover. Your eyes and hands gravitate to it. Wow. It’s beautiful. The paper even feels classy. You put the book in the “keeper” pile. Hardbacks have more weight in competition.

Though this is changing. The hardbacks do show up better, but so much contemporary fiction is put directly into a trade paperback (and eBook) format that well-produced soft backs can also win.

(I have experience judging a book contest, which is one reason I know all this stuff. I can’t say anything about the contest except that the quality of the books was fantastic. And the winners showed up immediately.)

2. Your title and cover will make you a winner or sink you. Do you know how to judge a cover? Lewis Agrell of The Agrell Group, wrote a terrific article on what makes a winning book cover.

For a quick tutorial on commercial design, let’s look at phone book ads. Open the yellow page ads in any phone book. Scan the page quickly. Where do your eyes land? Note the ad. Do it again on another page, and another.

In all probability, the ad that draws your attention is simple. Uncluttered. Either black, white, or mostly empty. The ads that grab your eyeballs and hold them have attained page dominance. People hire consultants to create dominant ads for them.

Now go to a bookstore sale table and look at the books. Which books grab your eyes? Which do you pick up? Buy? A book contest is like that table. Clear, bold, design that dominates the competition will win.

Your cover must have an emotional hook. Think archetypes. Primal images. Something that grabs the inner psychology of your reader/judge.

To win and much more importantly, to be purchased, your book cover and spine must dominate any table and any bookshelf.

3. Your title is really, really important. Your title embodies your book’s essence. It is the first text the reader sees. It should be engaging, easy to read, evocative, and compelling––it should set the emotional tone for your book. As should the subtitle or tag line (the one line description below the title). Also, most of the big catalogs of books will list your book by its title only. It better be memorable.

4. The words on your cover, flaps, and first few pages of your book, your book’s copy, should be unforgettable. These words are your prime real estate and are what will make your book succeed. The book contest judge, book store owner, and your buyer will make a decision about your book based on these words––in seconds. You want emotional hooks, ease of reading, and enchantment.

Writing copy is a skill. You can write text like an angel and not be able to pump out a winning tag line. Emmy-nominated screenwriter Laren Bright, the best copy writer I know, wrote an article about “The Most Important Writing in Your Book.” It’s copy. That's what sells the book.

I say: Hire it done if you can possibly afford it. Copy writing is like writing poetry. You need to be able to produce succinct messages packed with meaning and emotional associations in a tight space.

5. Book design, interior & exterior: Your book should look like Random House produced it, no less.
Every page and every word should be as well designed as your cover. Go to a book store and look at bestselling books. Get a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style and memorize the order of pages in a book. Memorize the whole thing.

A very important note: Never have your title page on the left side of the book. Do not do that. (I saw books with this flaw in the contest I worked on. This is such a bad error that if you don't know how bad it is, you're in big trouble.) Know the proper order of pages in a book. Know what a half title page is and where it goes. The contest judge will know about these.

6. Self-publishing, small presses, template designs. Some contests are specifically for self-published books, by that I mean books put out by the big POD printers like lulu.com, iUniverse, Outskirts Press, CreateSpace and the rest. If this is your competition, let your lulu imprint show.

If you’re in open competition, hide it. Some people/judges have prejudices against self-published books. There’s not as much of prejudice against author-owned small presses––after all, Benjamin Franklin had one. So did Mark Twain, DH Lawrence and tons of big literary names. If you own and operate a small press, that puts you in a different category, even if your book was printed by CreateSpace or Outskirts Press. Just make sure that nothing about the mass producers shows.

If you take this approach, create a killer logo and press name, and have the book professionally designed and produced, you’ll be in good shape to compete.

Templates: Many of the big POD publishers set up their books' interiors using templates. These don’t show up well in contests. The text is set too tightly, and the margins are too small. There’s not enough variety in the overall design. In contests, judges may see several books with standard interiors and the same cover photo. If your book is one of thirty in a category, or one of three hundred, it has to stand out.A template won’t do it.

7. Professional production: The book contest judge may not have time to read all of your book, but he or she will sample pages and text. Typos, lousy interior and exterior design, cheap paper, all of it pops out. Hire an editor, copy editor and proofreader. Hire a book designer. Believe it or not, they’re not all super expensive. Look at my blog roll on Your Shelf Life. Some great professionals are listed there.

Also, you can find independent book-making professionals who are cheaper than the design and other services offered by the big POD, author services. I was poking around on one of the major sites recently. They were offering a "big sale" on their "professional editorial and design services." The sale price was twice what I pay for my professionals and I get top quality work. I was on kindleboards the other night, and a number of old-timers advised newbies the same thing. Shop around; you can do better with your own pros.

8. Peripherals: your web site, stationery, & press kit. You did include those with your entry, didn’t you? I assure you, the winners did. The book contest judges are very likely to check your website, especially if you make it through enough of the hoops to stay in “the good pile” to the end. The “ad-ons” are breakers.

Two books might be ranked about the same, but if one author has an amazing web site and hosts a blog with a bazillion visitors a day and provides vital services to the world––who do you think will win? Ditto if on author provides copies of his book’s terrific reviews, testimonials, and advertising materials in a lovely custom folder.

Oh, yeah. What about the video for your book? Is that linked prominently on your site? Mentioned in your press kit?

As a reality check, the press kits for Tecolote: The Little Horse That Could.& The Angel & the Brown-eyed Boy, took me about four months' work, sandwiched between other book production tasks. The press kit for each book includes a one sheet (an 8.5” X 11’ glossy sheet advertising your book), custom business cards, over-sized custom postcards, a Press Release, Author Bio, and Sample Interview specifically written for each book. All are designed and printed professionally. These items were placed in presentation folders that matched the books' designs.

9. The book itself, as in––what’s between the covers? In your writing group, you concentrate on literary skills and arts. Word by word, you construct and deconstruct and reconstruct your masterpiece. Ditto working with your editor. Your write, rewrite, have your manuscript slashed and burned, and make it rise again. You struggle to express exactly what you want, worry about pacing and plot and characters.

I was in two writing groups for a total of eleven years. I’ve worked with maybe six or seven good, tough editors. Almost all of this was grueling, painful, hard work. My writing has improved. The quality of the content of your book matters, especially if you want it to sell. If you want word of mouth to propel it. If you want to read it yourself in future years and not be embarrassed.

Most likely, the contest judge or panel of judges isn’t going to read all of your book. They’ll sample it and look at different aspects of it.

Does that mean you can skip the eleven years of writing groups and all those creative writing classes? No. Whatever random page a judge’s eyes fall upon will produce an impression. All the pages have to be good, since you don’t know which ones will be read. You need to know lots. What terms relating to race, ethnicity, or sexual preference are OK to use in modern literary and cultural circles, for instance. Get it right.

Producing a book that wins contests is a big job requiring a commitment of time and money. It doesn’t have to be a HUGE commitment of money, but its going to cost something. Before you enter a contest, you should know what you’re up against. Hope this helped.

Copyright 2011 by Sandy Nathan. All rights reserved.
 
 

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Sandy Nathan, award winning author
http://bloodsongseries.com  Numenon & The Bloodsong Series
http://talesfromearthsend.com The Angel & the Brown-eyed Boy; Tales from Earth's End
http://sandynathan.com  Sandy's Web Site
http://YourShelfLife.com