“Award-Winning Author:” What Does It Mean—and Does It Matter?

From Writer Unboxed:

Who wouldn’t love to win a prestigious award? The National Book Award. The Booker Prize. The PEN/Faulkner. The Women’s Prize for Fiction. The Pulitzer and Nobel.

Few authors will achieve that level of recognition, but there are many “smaller” awards that are far more accessible. And if you win one of them, you still get to call yourself an “award-winning author,” right?

Hmm. Let’s talk about it.

First, some facts. These “facts” are not meant to imply that award contests are a scam or that one shouldn’t enter them. Rather, they’re meant to offer a realistic context in which each of us can make informed decisions that suit our individual goals, budget, and vision.

Fact #1. While the “big” awards may include a monetary prize for the winning author, the majority of smaller awards do not—instead, the author must spend money to enter. Entry fees range from $60-95 per title, although the actual cost can be much higher if you enter multiple categories, since each has a separate fee. More about that below.

It’s not unethical to charge a submission fee. There are overhead costs to the host organization, including the staff time it takes to process the thousands of entries that each program receives, but it’s good to be prepared. Some organizations offer an “early bird” discount. Others, like the Lambda Literary Award for LBGTQ authors, have different submission fees for authors with large publishers and those with small or independent publishers.

Fact #2. Awards operate in different ways, including who can apply. While some contests (like the National Book Award) are open to all authors, regardless of publishing path, others (like the Booker) will not allow authors to submit their own work; only publishers may submit, which means that self-published authors are excluded. There are also regional awards, limited by where you live, as well as awards for specific genres such as science fiction, romance novels, Christian fiction, and so on. In general, the wider the eligibility net, the more competition and the greater the prestige; thus, national and international awards tend to viewed as more significant than local or regional ones.

Many contests are specifically for “indie authors”—authors who have published with a small, university, or hybrid press, or have self-published. Titles from the large publishing houses are not eligible.  “Small press” usually means fewer than forty titles a year, no advance paid to the author, and possibly a print-on-demand arrangement. However, these distinctions vary. The Nautilus Awards, for instance, separates books by “large” and small” publisher, regardless of whether the press is independent or traditional. Thus, a Nautilus win by an indie author with a “large” publisher means that she has competed against authors from the Big Four.

Fact #3. Awards can be a big business. This is especially true for the independent book award programs, which also solicit winners with offers to purchase seals or stickers for their books, and to “take advantage” of special advertising opportunities to increase their visibility. These promotions can be aggressive and hard to resist.

Among the best-known of these independent awards are:

  • Best Indie Book Award
  • Eric Hoffer Award
  • Foreword INDIES Book of the Year
  • IBPA Ben Franklin Awards
  • Independent Publisher Book Awards, also known as the IPPYs
  • National Indie Excellence Awards
  • Next Generation Indie Book Awards.
  • Readers Favorite Awards

There are certainly others (such as the American Book Fest, Chanticleer, and International Book Awards); the list above is not meant to imply that all other awards are less legitimate.

For sure, there are a lot of awards aimed at independent authors. Having observed this phenomenon up-close—personally, and through conversations with other authors—I’d say that it’s because indie authors are a good fit for these contests. We’re used to taking book promotion into our own hands, since we don’t expect a big publishing house to do that for us. We’re also looking for ways to increase our status, and have accepted that we’ll have to spend our own money to do so.

The question is how to discriminate and spend that money wisely. We want to know:

  • Which awards are “worth” applying for?
  • How many award contests should I enter?
  • Should I focus on “high prestige” awards, or awards that I think I have a chance of winning?
  • Do these awards really matter?

Like nearly everything in the publishing business, the “answers” are subjective. It depends on the kind of book you’ve written, your goals, budget, and priorities.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed