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How Indie Authors Can Avoid Predatory Awards

Award and Contest Ratings

With hundreds of contests and awards open to indie authors, it’s hard to know which contests and awards can be trusted. To help separate the bad actors from the legitimate contests, the ALLi Watchdog Desk is pleased to introduce our new feature, Award and Contest Ratings.

The Award and Contest Ratings offer a convenient at-a-glance appraisal of these events. Each has been evaluated by our Watchdog Desk and assigned a rating: Recommended for the most trusted events, Caution for those events which don’t meet ALLi’s standards, and Mixed for events with minor areas of concern that preclude a Recommended rating.

We update our listings frequently, but with hundreds of these operations targeting indie authors (and more added every year), there will be some we haven’t evaluated yet. You can evaluate these awards on your own using the same guiding principles used by our Watchdog Desk.

Guiding Principles for Writing Contests and Awards

1. The event exists to recognize talent, not to enrich the organizers.

Award ceremonies present a lucrative opportunity for unscrupulous organizers and vanity presses. These companies extract millions of dollars from unwary authors every year through entry fees, merchandising, and ancillary services such as marketing and editing.

The most common method of separating authors from their money is a high entry fee (which ALLi defines as $50 and above) multiplied by a high number of categories (20 or more). This system is meant to encourage multiple entries and huge numbers of winners who can each be targeted for promotional products and add-on services.

Event organizers may try to justify excessive entry fees by pointing to their expenses. When you multiply the number of winners by the entry fee, however, you find that their revenue often exceeds their costs by a jaw-dropping amount.

Another common tactic is to sell stickers, certificates, trophies, and logo licensing to winners. A contest or award which profits from this merchandise has a vested interest in declaring as many winners as possible, and pushing that merchandise on the winners at every opportunity.

Beware of awards and contests which are driven by profit rather than a desire to celebrate great writing.

2. An award should be a significant achievement.

Consider one popular award that distributes 3 awards to entrants in over 100 categories: that’s 300 awards handed out for a single event. This organizer runs several of these events, dispensing more than 820 of these awards each year.

By way of comparison, this Watchdog handed out 35 pieces of candy for Halloween.

An event that hands out awards like candy dilutes the value of those awards, rendering them meaningless.

3. The judging process is transparent and clear.

Ideally, the identity and credentials of judges should be disclosed, but this isn’t always feasible; organizers must strike a balance between transparency and protecting judges from harassment.

Failing to disclose the judging criteria or process, however, invites suspicion. Is the award simply a popularity contest? A random lottery? A choice made at the whim of judges with no experience? A choice made on the basis of which author is most likely to pay for marketing services? Without clear disclosure of the judging criteria, there is no guarantee that entrants’ books will even be read.

Look for contests and awards which clearly outline how books will be judged.

4. Prizes are appropriate and commensurate with the entry fees collected.

If a prize is offered, it should align with the size of the entry fee. It’s reasonable to expect a contest or award to use entry fees to defray the expenses of an event, but the balance of that money should go to the winners, not into the organizers’ pockets.

Avoid competitions which are sponsored by vanity presses or questionable marketing services. These are seldom more than lead generators for those companies, and the contest’s willing association with them is a bright, red danger sign for any author.

“Exposure” is not an appropriate prize. Representation or a publishing contract may be acceptable as prizes, but only if offered by a reputable company without hidden fees or required purchases.

Don’t be fooled by worthless prizes such as a listing on a website (which few people will see) or a press release (which even fewer people will see). This kind of non-prize is not a suitable reward for your hard work.

5. Entrants are not required to forfeit key rights to their work.

Watch out for contests with onerous terms, especially those which require the forfeiture of publishing rights in perpetuity, or which have no termination clause. Contests for unpublished manuscripts may require you to give up first serial rights, which may cut off a number of publication options for you. Weigh the loss of those rights against the benefits of the contest or award.

Unfortunately, a predatory rights grab may not become apparent until the winner is approached with a contract. Read the fine print carefully, and when in doubt, have an independent professional review the terms.


Our listings are updated frequently. If you have questions about an event that doesn’t appear on our list, please use our contact form to let us know, and we’ll evaluate it for future inclusion in the Ratings.

OVER TO YOU
Have you seen exploitative contests and awards targeting indie authors? What tactics have you seen? Tell us in the comments below!

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5 Responses to How Indie Authors Can Avoid Predatory Awards

  1. Leslie Tall Manning December 14, 2016 at 2:48 pm #

    Great article, thanks so much!
    Also be aware that many contests do not allow authors who are represented by an agent. For example, I was all ready to submit a YA to the Bath Novel Award, and luckily I scrutinized the rules ahead of time. They do not allow agented authors, mainly because they are looking to match the winner with an agency. I am already represented, so this contest, although a reputable one, is not for me.
    Always read the little stuff. Don’t just hit SEND. Know ahead of time what each contests requires.
    Happy Writing!

  2. T. L. Criswell December 11, 2016 at 2:36 pm #

    Great article. As an indie author (2012) I’ve thrown so much money away on these contests.

    Now I’ve become more enlightened. Of course I’d like to win however my main purpose of entering these contests are for the “honest feedback”. If a contest doesn’t offer a critique then I won’t enter. Since I’m looking for growth I consider all reviews good reviews even if it’s bad.

    If you’re going to be an author, you must have tough thick skin. Btw Family and friends are our worst critics. They mean well however.. they stunt our growth

    “You can’t grow if you don’t want to know”

    Very helpful article

  3. Karl Drinkwater December 8, 2016 at 4:07 pm #

    I think there is one key criteria missing here: the award should be based on the quality of the work, not on the means of production. Many big prizes (such as the Wales Book of the Year) still restrict entries to “traditionally-published books”. The prizes are not open to all authors, only to those who handed over a chunk of their rights (and profit) to a third party. Particularly heinous when the prize is publicly funded (as some such as Wales Book of the Year are), from funds that are meant to support all writers in their region, yet the awards end up like a freebie hootenanny for trade publishers.

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