There was a fascinating discussion on RWA (Romance Writers of America) Chapter Leadership group just a few days ago about how so many established chapters are jettisoning their long-established writing contests or have already abandoned them.
This is a bigger deal than it seems since, in the past, contests were a great way for chapters to fill their coffers, supplementing dues with entry fees that enabled its members to benefit by having the funds to get terrific speakers, which in turn attracted new membership, etc. It’s unlikely we’ll see the end of the Golden Heart (the RWA’s premier award for an unpublished romance fiction manuscript) but chapter contests? According to the listserv, there were a decent number of responses indicating they had given up their contest within the last five years.
Like so many endangered species, the contest appears to be dying, with many RWA chapter board members saying they could no longer garner the minimum number of entries required or that well-known authors cranking out multiple books a year and the overburdened editors reading them were no longer as available to wade through submissions. So why is the demise of such a time-honored writing tradition taking place now?
I’ve got a few educated guesses, but my main reasons for the end of the chapter writing contests are improved technology, the recession, and the meteoric rise of self-publishing.
Technology is clearly a biggie. Even ten years ago, social media was still in its infancy (we are talking the Friendster era) and videoconferencing for people who did not work at a fancy corporation with a dedicated room didn’t really happen until 2003 when Skype was born. Even then, most people had a very variable (and slow) connection which would have made the transmission rather hiccupy, so this particular technology was reserved for a few years for loved ones thousands of miles apart (and probably phone sex).
You’re wondering what this has to do with writing contests. Since a major reason for people entering contests is for the detailed critiques often given, entering a contest in the hope you’d make the top entries and warrant detailed feedback from a knowledgeable person in the industry must have been incredibly attractive. Now, we have Harlequin contests where readers can vote on manuscripts in real time and regular writing critique groups meeting on Google Hangout where they can not only chat with each other but look at one another’s screen to see specific comments made on their story by other members. Even editors have said that the electronic revolution has made it easier to find good writers with manuscript acceptances also much faster (sadly, the rejections are faster, too).
With blogs maintained by well-known editors and even publishing imprints (Harlequin is truly a coach to fledgling writers of category romance), authors are no longer writing blind, instead inundated by the crap-ton of information that exists. While this can certainly be overwhelming, none of us lack information from expert sources, which is more than could be said even a decade ago, when would-be authors clutched a copy of The Writer’s Market in one hand, and Stephen King’s On Writing (originally published in 2000) in the other. Both are still terrific, but check out all the other books that now exist – just for romance writers!! Note the majority of them are available in ebook format only. More on that later.
With contest fees ranging from $10 (often a member price) and up, entering a manuscript (or just the first few chapters of a hopefully completed manuscript) can get pricey.
It’s like the college application process – first the standardized testing scores, then the application fees, etc., and all sent to a person (the college admissions officer) whose job it is to tell people “no” and take only the best candidates. With most publishing houses in the “most selective” category – accepting only a tiny percentage of applicants from their slush piles or even agented manuscripts – this business of entering contests to garner attention or have a honor or two for the query letter can get expensive.
There is no writer out there not feeling the recession. Belts have been tightened and while RWA members are scrimping to pay their national dues and perhaps belong to a couple pertinent chapters, I doubt many people feel there is a lot of extra cash to spend on contest entries. The would-be or even published writer’s emphasis is instead on what can be done to bring in income while waiting on their first (or next) contract or working to add to the books or novellas they’ve put out that year. Conducting online workshops, self-publishing (see below), and adding new skills like copyediting, cover design, or helping authors with their WordPress site are frequently heard additions to many a writer’s arsenal. With an unemployment rate of 6.7% as of December 2013 in the United States (and that’s not including all the people who got kicked off the rolls because their benefits ran out – they still don’t have a job, FYI), the pressure is on to bring in income and contests are an outgoing expense with little future realization of funds. In short, they can be a bad investment.
But even with technology offering more options to writers for feedback and the recession putting the kibosh on non-essential expenses for would-be authors, the biggest factor in the demise of the chapter writing contest is undoubtedly self-publishing. The sole reason for entering contests has always been for professional feedback so you could get published. In the past you would hear the occasional NYT best-selling author discussing how they garnered the attention of an editor because of a couple of chapters that got in front of an editor judging a contest…and the next thing they knew they had a contract. *waving fairy godmother wand*
This is a story you rarely hear any longer, first and foremost because there are fewer editors in the world with the seemingly endless consolidation of traditional publishing houses. The ones left are also working their asses off to find fresh voices from the comfort of their offices, while their assistants read slush pile submissions and mine the web for prospects and everyone pulls a ten hour day while wearing the editor uniform of New York Black. But the real reason no one mentions contests as a stepping stone for publication is because authors can do it themselves.
We’ve all heard of the self-published writer who posted something to Amazon and ended up saving their house or the success of the outstanding hybrid author Bella Andre, who was dropped by her publisher, and decided to publish her own books (woo-hoo Sullivan series!) only to make an astronomical amount (in 2011, she reported to the Washington Post that she was topping $20,000 per month and the number was climbing). In an outstanding turn of events, she then was able to turn back around and re-sell those publishing rights to her self-pubbed work back to traditional publishing house Harlequin, who re-released them in paperback form for the readers without a Kindle or Nook on their bedside table.
The dilemma for the self-published always seems to come down to how to reach the target audience. Certainly these authors earn more per book (a LOT more) in terms of profit but move fewer books on average, so self-publishing has its pros and cons. Forbes magazine actually found the authors with the greatest income to be hybrid authors, ones who capitalize on the traditional publishing promotion yet add to their (and the publishing house’s) bottom line by keeping their audience interested with frequent novellas or short stories related to their series between full-length novels.
With authors becoming more comfortable either DIYing their own book covers or having some good friends in their chapter who are excellent copyeditors or website designers (see above recession skills section), authors are feeling like self-publishing is definitely within their grasp. I think most authors I speak to are leaving traditional publishing on the table and participating in online pitches (Twitter is a common space for this) or saving their pennies to attend RWA National or great state conferences (New Jersey’s Romance Writers conference, Put Your Heart in a Book, is popular among mid-Atlantic writers for the number of New York editors who hear pitches at it). Somehow having control over publishing a book or two, while perhaps also looking at going the traditional route, is seen as more attractive then submitting manuscripts to chapter contests, and I can understand why.
How Chapter Contests Could Evolve
Looking at the above pressures and taking a new approach to chapter contests is the answer to save the genre. The goal is to help writers get published, right? The foremost piece to consider is that there are chapter costs to pay judges (good ones) for their time. Why are we all so separate as chapters even though each of us belongs to RWA? If several chapters in my home state of Pennsylvania could band together with some New Jersey chapters and the awesome Maryland Romance Writers, think of how much money we could offer as a prize or to pay the fee of a big name judge!
This type of contest could also garner more media coverage, giving the contest more cachet in terms of the author actually being able to use the award in a query letter or to help sell a pitch. With videoconferencing available, there are no longer the same set of excuses to not do this kind of collaboration. Let’s wake up, people, and smell the 21st century coffee! My awesome chapter, Pocono-Lehigh Romance Writers, is already reaching out to local chapters to see what cooperation potential exists – let me know if you’re interested in getting on our outreach list.
So what are our possible options for the reinvented contest?
- Since increasing use of technology is vital for successful writers, what about a “best romance author website contest” with maybe unpublished, debut author and published author categories? The chapter can collate a rubric based on the many best practices articles out there by publishing house editors etc. and publish their criteria. Not only does this make what is being evaluated clear, but it can be used as a template for new authors when designing their site. The top 5 finalists could receive a critique and suggestions from the judge(s) with a cash prize or in kind design services (can you give a gift card for WordPress plug-ins?).
- American Idol and Dancing with the Stars know what they are doing in terms of crowdsourcing with polls. What about a contest for “best use of social media by a romance author”? This doesn’t even have to include a fee but could simply be utilized as a method for getting some media attention to romance fiction and/or the chapter.
- Best book cover design. There are some truly awful book covers and some that you would never know were not done by a Big Five publishing house. You could have individuals, small presses, ebooks only, and traditional publishing each have their own category in this kind of contest.
- With academic analysis of romance fiction a growing field, a contest could be built around “best literary, historical or popular culture nonfiction work (article or book) about romance fiction”. Promoting the contest to the universities with romance writing and popular culture programs would garner a slew of entries from students perhaps looking for extra credit and you might be able to convince author/academics like Jennifer Crusie or Eloisa James to be a judge. I bet websites like Popular Romance Project and Romance University would be great partners for a contest like this.
- Pitches are still something most writers need to do…and they are scary. What about a contest that is a “best pitch” contest with video, Twitter, and email categories? Getting name editors would be key here for cachet and for relevant feedback, but technology would make this straightforward to do.
Contests can be made relevant for the modern age, we may just have to rethink what the current demands are on writers and adjust accordingly.
Have your own thoughts on the romance writing contest? Please feel free to add to the conversation by leaving a comment. Let’s all figure out how best to help writers!