How to Avoid Scam Book Contests

Guest Post by Irene Watson

Winning a book contest is a good way for authors to achieve publicity for their books. But unscrupulous individuals who know there’s a desire by authors to win contests have capitalized on that situation by creating many contests whose sole purpose is to make money while scamming the authors. To determine whether a contest is worth entering or even legitimate, look closely at the contest guidelines.

When a book wins the Pulitzer Prize or National Book Award, or a children’s book wins the Newberry Medal, readers take notice. The book and the author then receive a great deal of media attention. Few other book contests are household words, but if you let people know your book has won a contest, it might still convince them to buy your book. And having an award sticker on your book cover or a statement on your website that your book has won an award can only help you to get media attention and boost your book’s sales.

But authors beware. Everyone is trying to make a buck today, and unfortunately, that has resulted in some unscrupulous people preying upon authors who are desperate to get their books noticed; these people have created phony book contests whose only real purpose is to put dollars in the contest organizer’s pocket. Remember, even if you win a contest, it does you little good if it doesn’t help increase sales and media attention for your book, so be careful what contests you enter. Following are some guidelines for determining whether a book contest is worth entering, just a waste of your money, or perhaps even a scam.

Who is conducting the contest?

Make sure the contest is being run by a reputable individual, company, or organization. The contest should be listed on a reputable website that has a full disclosure webpage listing all the contest rules, guidelines, and other information. Simply an ad in a magazine or on Craigslist does not make a contest legitimate unless it refers people to a full disclosure webpage.

What is the contest’s history?

Contests have to start somewhere so if it’s the contest’s first year, that doesn’t mean it’s not legitimate, but if the contest has a track record of a few years, it’s more likely to be worth entering. Besides a contest history, you should be able to find a list of past contest winners, which is great not only for determining whether your book has anything in common with the past winners so you determine what chance you have of winning, but it lets you determine the quality of the books that have won in the past to see whether it truly is a contest with critical judges, or just one of those contests where everyone wins—yes, those are out there.

What is the fee?

Some people will tell you to avoid contests with fees, but a contest with a reasonable fee is usually as, or more, legitimate. After all, people don’t run contests for their health. It takes a lot of time and effort to organize a contest and to read all those books. Fees usually pay for advertising the contest, for the prizes, and sometimes for small gratuities given to thank the judges for their time. Just make sure that as the contest entrant, you get the most important thing for your fee—someone who actually reads your book. And also that the contest winner actually wins something (see “What is the prize?” below).

Beware of additional fees once you win the contest, such as receiving a discount on book coaching services. You may end up having to pay for extra award stickers—no contest is going to give you unlimited stickers—but beyond that, there should be no extra fees.

Along with fees, also note how many copies of your book are needed. A legitimate contest will usually need more than one book because there are multiple judges who will need to read the book. See also if a statement is made about what happens to the books—do the judges keep them or donate them to a library? Either is fine. You just don’t want to enter a contest where the goal is to collect books that will not be read but sold to earn extra money.

What is the deadline?

It doesn’t matter what time of year the deadline to enter is, but it should be sufficiently far enough away from the date when the winners are announced. If a contest deadline is January 15th and winners are announced on January 30th, it’s likely that not a lot of books were actually read in a two-week period. At least a month should pass between the deadline and the announcements so the judges have time actually to read the books.

Who is doing the judging?

Not everyone is qualified to judge a book contest. You don’t want to enter a contest where the judges are made up solely of the organizer’s family and friends. You want to win a contest where well-known or at least qualified people—writers, publishers, publicists—are doing the judging. The contest should disclose who its judges are. Not “Judges may include” but actually listing the names of the judges, or telling you what group of people compile the judges. A list of famous past judges doesn’t help either if those people aren’t judging the year you enter, although such a list may show that the contest is reputable.

What is the judging process?

Believe it or not, there are contests out there where no one reads the book and everyone gets an award. Those contests are worthless. They might fool you or even some of your readers, but do you really want to win a contest like that where there is no real winner?

Also avoid the “crowd sourcing” types of contests. These contests ask authors to rally everyone they know to come and vote for their book and the book with the most votes wins. A book contest isn’t a democratic procedure, and those votes count for nothing. You could get all 2,000 of your Facebook friends to vote for you, but I bet most of them never read your book so who are they to say whether your book deserves to win over a book by someone with only fifty Facebook friends?

You can tell whether a contest has a reliable judging process simply by looking up some of the books that have won. Don’t be surprised if you find some “award-winning books” have major editing or print quality issues. Stay away from those contests.

A legitimate book contest will have judges and a judging process in place. There should be at least two rounds of judging. In the first round, all the books are read and scored or evaluated. Then in a second round, a list of finalists is named (which may even be announced) before the final winners are determined.

What is the prize?

Believe it or not, winning some book contests can be costly. Look carefully at what the prize will be. Here are some prizes you don’t want: attending an awards dinner you have to pay for, including travel expenses; stickers, trophies, or certificates you have to pay for (you should receive a set number of stickers, and only have to pay for stickers over that number); an electronic certificate you have to print yourself; extra services, such as a press release, that you have to purchase if you win.

Be especially wary of contests that award you “representation.” If the award is that a book will be published by a publisher, or serialized in a magazine, or represented by a literary agency, that sounds great, but read the fine print. Will the agent actually represent you or just look at your book? Will the publisher pay for the printing or expect you to pay partial or full production costs? In short, there should never be a fee associated with the prize.

A prize of some sort should be awarded. It doesn’t have to be anything major like a gold trophy—what good is a gold trophy anyway if it sits in your office where no one can see it? A better prize is one that helps you promote your book, such as a professionally written press release, a book review that is promoted to the media, a set number of award stickers to place on your books, or a special (and free) media package of some sort.

The Pay-Off

Book contests remain a great way to get people to take notice of your book—both the media and your target readers. But make sure you enter contests where you feel you have a good chance of winning and where entering and winning does not hurt your marketing budget, but rather is likely to pay off in publicity and book sales.

Irene Watson is the Managing Editor of Reader Views, where avid readers can find  reviews  of recently published books as well as read interviews with authors. Her team also provides author publicity  and a variety of other services specific to writing and publishing books.


Posted on June 17, 2012, in Publicity & Writing, Writing & Publishing. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. The best contests have multiple judges so they as for around 4 to 5 books. Also, we rarely enter contests which cost more than $50. The more SPECIFIC contest the better, such as the Lambda Awards for gay/lesbian literature or the Asian American Literary Workshop awards for Asian-Americans. I avoid generic contests now for the most part. They are too dilute to have an audience that cares.I also avoid contests such as the National Book Award, because winners can be drawn from books never even submitted to the contest. That strikes me as patently unfair. On the plus side, by submitting to NBA you are getting access to judges who are opinion leaders including NPR commentators.

  2. Ah, yes…past winners.Irene, you hit the nail on the head! I entered a contest several years ago and was somewhat surprised to learn, when the list of winners was published, almost all were from academia. If I had looked at the results from the previous year's competitions, I would have avoided that contest and saved my money.

  3. Which is why it is important to know what you're focusing on. Those reading this article are obviously on track to have found you and your integrity. I'm grateful to be able to put one of your award stickers on my book, and know that it was legit. I think your shiny gold award makes any book look impressive and special to customers, reporters, booksellers. Everyone. Thanks for all your efforts Irene to make your awards internationally recognized by the publishing industry. It has certainly helped my book. A much needed and informative article, thanks.Janet

  4. I agree with this post. My three children's books have won ten national awards in 2011-12 – one of them, The Magic Word, won a Reader Views Literary Awards 2nd Place – so I can speak from experience. The Magic Word has six of the awards – and only because the entries were so far in advance, and I had no idea it would win so many!! But there are many awards out there – including the Mom's Choice which is $300 – that are way out of line for entry fees. I have found $60 to be about average – and some have reduced fees for early entries. Also beware those who require you to send a check to an individual instead of an organization! The other point is that for Indie authors there is not much chance of winning a Newbery or ALA etc (wihich affects Children's Choice as well, since it's ALA), because they have a "suggestion" that your publisher be on their list of member publishers. The SCBWI is the same way – their Golden Kite award requires membership, and you can't have a full membership unless you have an "approved" author. Many restrictions everywhere, which hopefully will improve as people realiza that hlep-publishing and self-publishing does not always mean less qualified authors! Thank you, Reader Views, for providing such a great contest which included Indie authors!

  5. Amanda M. Thrasher

    I appreciate this article since I've often wondered about such contests, good to know.Thank you for posting.

  6. Irene, you know how highly I regard the annual Reader Views contest. I'm wondering if anybody has any useful information on an organization, JM Northern Media LLC, based in Hollywood, that runs a number of annual contests, usually with a major city or event in the contest title. The winners of the contests are determined not only by the quality of the writing but also by the marketing intentions of the author. JM Northern appears to offer promotional services for authors. I can't understand why an author's marketing plans should be a factor in a book contest. (In my own case, I've published the first two novels in a four-book series. I've gotten excellent reviews and some awards for them both. But I've held back on throwing significant money into a marketing campaign until after I've published the entire series, sometime in 2013. So I guess that means I don't have any current marketing intentions, other than attempting to receive favorable reviews and awards for each novel when I publish it.) I'd appreciate any information on JM Northern, pro or con.

  7. Note to Victor R. Volkman. The National Book Award isn't open to all "self-published" books. It allows only the following: "Self-published books, provided that the author/publisher also publishes titles by other authors.(Note: The Foundation may request the publisher's catalog to verify this.)" That leaves my books, and most other independently published books, out.

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