Tag Archives: technology

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 It’s unlikely we’ll see the end of the Golden Heart (the RWA’s premier award for an unpublished romance fiction manuscript) but chapter contests?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

Web Meets Books: Small Demons Brings Depth and Understanding to Reading

22 May

So much of the conversation about reading and technology is centered around the great ebooks versus print debate, and it’s easy to understand why that topic, with all it’s monetary repercussions for publishers and authors, has top billing. But there are other ways the web is impacting reading, lending depth of understanding for readers and Small Demons is one of them.

Let me start off by answering your obvious question. No, I do not understand why this site is called Small Demons, but I think the name is kind of edgy and cool! The name in the end doesn’t matter more than the mission of the company. In a nutshell, Small Demons seeks to help readers make the connections of understanding by mapping the web of knowledge and references contained in each work.

This is of vital importance. I’m sure I was not the only person who read The Da Vinci Code or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, with art books and computers open around them to examine a specific work or track obscure Swedish politics. Frustrating! What if there was a one stop place on the web that had already gathered all those references together for me to enhance my understanding? Thank you, Small Demons, for doing just that.

Take the above screen shot of the book The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown. The top of the page looks rather standard, doesn’t it? Your established book cover shot with the synopsis and a link to sources to buy it seems rather blah.  But wait! Look down a little. Here’s where the Small Demons magic begins.

Next we have a visual catalog of all the people and places listed in the book, which you may remember happens in Washington, D. C. Our pictures show all the references (and it’s Dan Brown’s intellectual professor as a mystery solving protagonist, so there are a LOT of people and ideas mentioned), from Albert Einstein to Mickey Mouse to Zeus. Just having the picture isn’t sufficient – if you hover over it you can see the identification of who you are looking at and if you click on the picture, you get taken to a separate page dedicated to that individual with all literary references to them as found in the Small Demons database. The map indicates the places mentioned and the specific pictures below the map are actual images of those places, with a similar rollover experience where you can click to find out more information. The pages dedicated to a person or place are really cool and worth exploring. Take a gander at Issac Newton:

Clicking on any one of the many books listed will give you the specific quote in the window above of the mention. Enabling the “Like” button with the heart by the person’s image links your interest in this person to your account so you can know when other books mention Newton. (Check out that hair! Doesn’t it remind you of some of the vampire hair descriptions in paranormal romance? Just sayin’.)

Back at the ranch the main book page of Brown’s novel, we can see that the buck doesn’t stop with the cool people/places references. Small Demons also links to music, movies, and other books mentioned in the text. In this screenshot from The Lost Symbol page, we see the link to the classical pieces Brown’s characters allude to, as well as the movies and books in the text.

Any reference or item I favorite, whether it be an author, a book, a person or movie (ANYTHING) gets added to my account’s Storyboard (see below) where it tracks my interests for me. Based on the company’s “What’s Coming Next?” page, you can see they’ll be moving in a direction where they will offer recommendations based on my interests. Other cool features in the works – besides the obvious additions of lots more books and references – center on pages devoted to specific subtopics (like vampires), the ability to preview or purchase music and movies, and more lists of bestsellers and awards.  They only have a romance list linked to the RITA for Young Adult Romance, so with any luck they will continue to work on all the other categories of romance fiction for us!

Right now they have an interesting smattering of the genre (there’s a genre drop down menu for easy browsing) with most of the books having some rather skimpy references, but the company seems to be working hard to keep adding to their offerings, so I check back weekly. Seeing what your friends are reading by linking social networks is an obvious next upgrade as well as the ability to have Small Demons as a mobile app on your phone or iPad.

Maybe because I’m a librarian, my first question always is “where does this information come from?” – after all, if it’s not from a reliable source, then it doesn’t help the reader in the end. Small Demons makes very clear that their information comes from Freebase, with some information from Wikipedia. I hadn’t heard of Freebase, but was really interested once I perused their wiki.

Freebase is a Creative Commons licensed database with over 22 million entries that charts entities (a person, place, thing, whatever), giving them unique identifiers but also tracking relationships and differences between them. The best example I can give is that of helpful metaengines, like yippy.com, which have taken your search terms and helped you figure out what you didn’t know. When someone searches on mercury, a search engine like yippy.com is able to separate out results into relationships, so it can have categories like Mercury (planet), mercury (element), Mercury (car), Mercury (god), etc. with the searcher able to click on whatever category fits their search.

The easiest way to get more content into Small Demons would be to let users help, but since I’m not a developer it’s hard to imagine how you could have account members access to the Freebase data in a user friendly manner. That said, I sent a note to them using their “Feedback and Suggestions” page with the thought of having a button next to each category on pages (whether or not there was any data there) that would allow readers to suggest material as they were reading. I got an incredibly prompt and friendly response saying they were already working on it, so I’m definitely feeling the warm fuzzies when it comes to the developers of this website.

Really, what I want are these features embedded in my ebook, so I could just hover over the reference and listen to the song or see a description of the book if I choose while reading, but with the proprietary nature of ebook formats, I can’t even begin to imagine how they could integrate this into the majority of readers’ experience.

A great way to keep up to date on books as they are added to the lexicon is to follow Small Demons on Twitter, where you can not only get a real-time update on items as they are added, but also enjoy the witty tone of the company as they promote new offerings and related material on the internet. Small Demons is a great website that has the potential to become as important to my reading experience as Goodreads, so I will eagerly await seeing how this great website grows and develops.

Technology Review: How ifttt Makes a Writer’s Life Easier

2 May

Since I teach technology all the time in my work as a librarian, I’m always thinking in the back of my mind how authors can use technology to make their lives easier. Especially after attending the last meeting of my fabulous Romance Writers of America chapter (shout out to fellow Pocono Lehigh Romance Writers!), it was especially interesting to hear the published authors in that group discuss how much of the marketing of their book falls on their shoulders. Particularly when you already have a full-time job, it’s hard to imagine putting in hours and hours being an active presence on multiple social networks, even though you know you have to be visible.

When I stumbled on a New York Times article about how to use a new program called ifttt to automate certain aspects of your life, I was intrigued and a little excited. Rhyming with “lift”, ifttt stands for “If This, Then That” and basically links your various social and online accounts using recipes to create tasks that it accomplishes for you.  With most of the major networks and platforms on there (I was happy to see Evernote, Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, Google Reader, Dropbox, the Weather Channel, Blogger, WordPress, Tumblr, your cell phone – but where is Goodreads, people? Pinterest?), and the ability to link to your phone via text or voicemail, you have a powerful tool at your fingertips.

Look at all the accounts you can link together with ifttt!

As described in their blog post discussing the origins of the idea of ifttt, the whole concept revolves around triggers and actions. While you can create your own, there are hundreds if not thousands of preconfigured “recipes” that can read a specific trigger and initiate an action for you.

Let me give you an example.  I try and keep Twitter on in the background during my day, but I’m working at my day job, so watching and responding to my Tori MacAllister account isn’t usually feasible. If I’m retweeted or add a follower, Twitter etiquette would have me thank that person for either action, preferably as soon as possible.  Enter ifttt.

Sample recipe for responding automatically to a retweet with a thank you

All I have to do is activate my Twitter account in my ifttt account and then customize the message to say whatever I want. Nice, yes? When I check my tweets, I can see the automatic ones generated by this recipe and I get a feeling of smug satisfaction.  I’m working even when I’m not working! And my high school etiquette teacher would be proud (yes, I had one of those).

For me, another detail I wanted taken care of was having my WordPress posts automatically placed on my Facebook page.  Wordpress has a social networking feature that automatically does this (under the “Sharing” menu) and while I’m often happy to use that with my Twitter account, I don’t like the format it comes out with for Facebook.  Ifttt can just suck my new WordPress posts and put them up on Facebook in the format I prefer, with no fuss or muss from me. Since I usually write my blog posts late at night after work, any extra couple of minutes I can gain are always much appreciated.  Take a look at how I can customize the post:

Sample of the action window for customization

Do you notice the “Addins” drop down menu? All that crazy punctuation and code isn’t anything I have to worry about – I just need to chose the placement and what I want from the Addins menu (you can see I wanted the default image for the post, the post title and of course, the url for it), hone the text (which is what is outside of the punctuation, in this case “new entry on the blog”) and then add it to my tasks. Done!

There are a ton of useful tasks that you can use to help yourself, managing your Facebook, Twitter and other social networking accounts among them. A great task that would help writers would be the voicemail to email feature. I don’t know if you have ever had (like I have) a great idea for a character or plot and you have nothing to write it down with.  You know that as soon as people begin hocking you to do things, you’re going to forget your brainwave, so you get cranky and irritable (okay, now I’m thinking this could just be me). Don’t fear, there is a ifttt recipe that links your cell phone and email!

I can leave ifttt a voicemail (when you link your phone number, they call to leave you a confirmation number to make the task effective – just add the caller to your contacts and you have the number you need), and it sends you a transcription of your voicemail!  How is that for a help? I’m assuming they use a similar kind of software to Dragon Dictation to use the transcription and even includes a link to the mp3 file of the actual recording.

In terms of other recipes that you might helpful (or just cool), how about sending your favorite tweets to your Evernote account for archiving (Twitter deletes the old ones regularly)? Or having ifttt text you if it’s going to rain that day? This fabulous tool could just make your writing life a little easier.

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