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Why Are Romance Writing Contests Becoming Less Popular and Can We Save Them?

27 Jan
Awards and contests have historically played a part in helping authors get noticed (and get a contract). (Image purchased with web license via Shutterstock)

Awards and contests have historically played a part in helping authors get noticed (and get a contract). (Image purchased with web license via Shutterstock)

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 It’s unlikely we’ll see the end of the Golden Heart (the RWA’s premier award for an unpublished romance fiction manuscript) but chapter contests?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.

Will chapter romance writing contests go the way of the dodo bird? (Public domain image via Wikipedia)

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

Older technology made collaboration and feedback harder. (Public domain image via Pixabay)

Older technology made collaboration and feedback harder. (Public domain image via Pixabay)

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.

The Recession

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.

We all need a little help getting published. But with so much technology at our fingertips, are contests the answer? (Public domain image via Pixabay)

We all need a little help getting published. But with so much technology at our fingertips, are contests the answer? (Public domain image via Pixabay)

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.

Self-Publishing

With any luck, this fairy godmother has got a publishing contract under that cloak! (Image by Kerri Polizzi via Flickr, labeled for reuse with attribution)

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

Awesome chapters like mine (I had to show our killer logo designed by the ever-so-talented Vikki Jankowski, our president) are eager to combine our efforts with other chapters. Who is with us? What would that look like?

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!

Pets Make Authors Human: A Pictorial Reflection on Animals, Romance, and Writing

28 Nov

Dean Koontz with his golden retriever – yes, I’m going to admit that I bought my first Koontz book because he always has his golden in the author photo!

It’s Thanksgiving, and if there’s one part of my life I give tremendous thanks for beyond the human members of my family, it’s the four-legged creatures who fill my life with joy and laughter. Following so many author blogs and the Facebook pages of writers I admire, I can’t help but notice just how many people post regular photos and updates of their pets…and how many comments and likes they get when they do.

My Romance Writers of America chapter (go Pocono-Lehigh Romance Writers!!!) recently had the fabulous Caridad Pinerio give an incredibly informative workshop on social media for authors. One point she mentioned was that recipes and pets (with accompanying photos) are pure gold when it comes to social media. Considering what I stop to read I completely believe her, but it made me wonder, what is it about authors and their pets that we find so appealing?

Ernest Hemingway and one of his many cats

I imagine that it’s a combination of shared experience and humanization. We have something in common with even a famous writer like Lord Byron (who wrote the most heartfelt poem to his Newfoundland Dog Boatswain who he buried with a headstone that exceeds Byron’s in size) or Mark Twain. Ernest Hemingway may have been a misogynist, but I bet he had to clean up something heinous his six-toed cats horked up around his house at some point, right? So he and I would theoretically have a conversation starter if we ever met on a distant plain (and I could steer away from the fact that I’m not the biggest fan of his writing).

It’s very easy for me to believe Janet Evanovich invented the successful Stephanie Plum series when I see this shot. Anyone with such a smiley St. Bernard has to have a terrific sense of humor!

There is also the nature of writing – it’s lonely. You usually do it all by yourself, in some cramped, cluttered corner of your house while the humans around you steer clear because you are a) overcaffeinated, b) talking to people who don’t exist (i.e., your characters) and/or c) haven’t bothered to shower because you are headed to a deadline. You know who doesn’t care? Your pet. Your cat selfishly feels you are a terrific source of heat and food as you snack at your desk and your dog simply loves you so much that he or she is willing to drape themselves on your feet and let their bladder the size of Montana fill until you realize it’s been 11 hours since you’ve taken them outside to pee. You do not get that kind of devotion from a person (okay, rarely you do), which could explain writers’ propensity for animal fandom.

Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice Toklas with their poodle. Every pet owner looking at this photo just exclaimed, "A white carpet! Seriously?!"

Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice B. Toklas with their poodle. Every pet owner looking at this photo just exclaimed, “A white carpet! Seriously?!”

I definitely think that authors like Dean Koontz (who actually has given his late golden Trixie her own webpage while celebrating his current golden, Anna) and Janet Evanovich are onto something when it comes time for the author photo. Having a pet in the shot not only differentiates you from the pack, but instantly sends the message, “Oh, wow, this person is an approachable, nice human being” because let’s face it, animals usually only like nice people and are able to detect when some bitchy person carries a whiff of sulphur still lingering from their portal to hell transportation. In Midge Raymond’s “Tips for the Author Photo” article, Raymond emphasizes the importance of maintaining a natural look and that includes your facial expression. It’s virtually impossible to have a pet in the shot with you and not look natural, because you are busy worrying that your dog or cat is going to pee on a light or start barking at a shadow and embarrass you, rather than about how fat your upper arms might look or if you are getting a weird shadow that’s going to make you resemble Winston Churchill when you want the cool J. R. Ward badass vibe (which you probably won’t get unless you have a cool cat in the shot, like a panther).

Don’t let the gigantic dog in the center have you ignore the little King Charles spaniel in the right hand corner – both dogs carry the symbolism of wealth and protection in Anthony Van Dyck‘s Five Children of King Charles I (1637) in the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Let’s not forget that the presence of animals in a portrait has always meant something (other than announcing you carry a powerful lint brush in your purse everywhere you go). In the 17th to 19th centuries, animals in a portrait, usually dogs, often indicated that the person or persons in the portrait were worthy of admiration and loyalty, or the breed of animal hinted at the intellectual refinement or wealth of the subject. One of my favorite portraits involving a dog is Anthony Van Dyck’s portrait, Five Children of King Charles I which you can visit in all its splendor in the National Portrait Gallery in London. The gigantic dog being used as an armrest by the future Charles II of England is probably an early variety of Mastiff and the bitty poindexter in the lower right hand corner looking at the chubby (and seriously underdressed) Princess Anne is an early King Charles Spaniel. Mastiffs were frequently owned by the aristocracy for protection, and the King Charles Spaniel was actually named for the young Charles pictured here since he loved toy spaniels, including the one that would eventually carry his name.

Love Bites anthology with stories by Lori Foster, Brenda Jackson, Virna DePaul, Catherine Mann and Jules Bennett (Harlequin, February 2013)

Luckily for us, we no longer look for the deep symbolism when someone takes either a formal portrait immortalizing their puppy or a selfie with their ginormous cat, but readers are still fascinated by the relationship of pets and authors. In the world of romance, we are fortunate to not just have authors who write in terrific animal characters into their books (Laura Kaye’s fabulous three-legged puppy in Hard As It Gets comes to mind, as well as all the animal characters of Jill Shalvis’ Animal Magnetism series), but who actually advocate for them. Lori Foster, Vicki Lewis Thompson, Brenda Jackson, Catherine Mann, Virna DePaulJill Shalvis, Kate Angell, Jacquelyn Frank, and Lisa Jackson are just a few of the authors who come to mind to heighten awareness of animal causes and who even create anthologies where the proceeds go to animal charities.

I’ll leave you with the poem Lord Byron wrote for his Newfoundland’s gravestone since it summarizes a lot of the relationship we have with our pets. Maybe you’d even consider making a donation to your local animal shelter in honor of your favorite romance author – I’m sure they’d be thrilled to hear about that kind of fan appreciation! Whatever your thoughts on how to honor the animals who inspire you – whether they live in your home or are online – let’s all consider ourselves fortunate to have these wonderful giving creatures in our lives and in our imaginations.

Epitaph to A Dog

Near this Spot
are deposited the Remains of one
who possessed Beauty without Vanity,
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferosity,
and all the virtues of Man without his Vices.
This praise, which would be unmeaning Flattery
if inscribed over human Ashes,
is but a just tribute to the Memory of
BOATSWAIN, a DOG,
who was born in Newfoundland May 1803
and died at Newstead Nov. 18, 1808.

For more great pictures of writers and their pets I’d recommend the following articles:

“Animal Muses: The Pets Of Famous Writers And Artists” by Alice E. Vincent from The Huffington Post UK (June 25, 2012)

“Portraits of Writers With Pets: The Humanizing Animal Connection” by Emily Temple from The Atlantic (November 28, 2012)

“Literary Pets: The Cats, Dogs, and Birds Famous Authors Loved” by Maria Popova from Brain Pickings (April 29, 2013)

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