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


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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.

With that in mind, let’s continue unpacking the subject.

How do these contests work?

Each contest has its protocols. Some require hard copies; others will accept digital versions or ARCs (pre-publication galleys). The most important thing to follow the instructions exactly. The postmark, the number of copies, the registration form. Failure to do so can be cause for elimination.

As noted above, some contests have only a few categories (like the Sarton Award for Women’s Fiction). Typically, however, there are many categories to choose from, and an author is free to enter her book into as many categories as she wishes. The IPPY Awards, for instance, have 90 categories, plus fiction and nonfiction awards in 12 regional categories, plus 10 categories specifically for e-books. The National Indie Excellence Awards have even more categories.

It’s rare to find a description of what these categories mean to the judges, however, or details about what they’re looking for. The Next Generation Indie Book Awards does provide a short description of each category, as well as links to “similar categories.” However, that’s still just a description and not a set of specific criteria. In general, authors are not given any details up-front, so it’s difficult to know how your book will be evaluated.

Without being able to target your submissions by matching book-to-criteria, some authors opt to “go wide” and enter a lot of categories.  Clearly, the more categories you enter, the more chances you have to win something—especially if some of the categories are very specific. It’s easier to be a gold medalist in Great Lakes Regional Fiction, for instance, than in a very broad category like “Popular fiction” or “Literary Fiction.” At the same time, the cost for entering multiple categories can escalate quickly.

The number of “winners” varies from program to program. Sometimes there is a gold, silver, and bronze medalist in each category. Sometimes there are “honorable mentions” or a “runner-up;” there may also be long and short lists of “finalists.”  The more “winners,” the greater the number of happy authors—who are likely to publicize the program through their own self-promotion.  After all, who can resist sharing the exciting news that one is now an “award-winning author?”

As with most contests, if you don’t win, you’re unlikely to know why. The only contest I’m aware of that shares its rubric (and your score) is the IBPA Ben Franklin, but that’s after-the-fact, to explain why you lost points and, as a result, did not receive an award—which can be for elements like the type font and the quality of the paper, even if you received perfect scores on plot, characterization, and writing.

How can I decide which contests to enter?

The answer depends on the relationship between the awards you would love to win, the awards you think you might win, how much you’re willing to spend, and your tolerance for (possibly) not-winning at all. Here are some questions that may help you work out that equation.

  • Fit. If there is a contest that interests you, look at the books that won in your category over the past few years. Are they “like” yours, in some way? Can you see your book next to them? Have you read (or heard of) any of them?  If not, look them up on Amazon. That may provide insight into what the judges like.
  • Categories. If your book doesn’t really fit into any of the categories, don’t try to make it fit. Better to pass on that award and try another.
  • The host website.  What is your impression of the sponsoring organization? Is the mission clear? Does the website make extravagant promises? How easy is it to navigate? Can you explore the categories before registering your book, or only after you’ve committed (and paid)?
  • Your budget.  How much/what proportion of all your overall marketing budget do you want to allocate for these award submissions? Would you rather spread that amount over several award programs, or focus on one or two that you really like (and, perhaps, apply in multiple categories)?
  • Your goals and expectations. How important is it to you, to win an award? How would you feel if you didn’t win anything?

Remember: The same book that was passed over in one contest may very well be a medalist in another.  There’s no way to know the reason— judges with different tastes or sensibilities, the competition for that particular award at that particular season, a close-call that you’ll never know about. If you don’t win, don’t take it personally. Move on.

Remember, too, that you don’t have to enter every contest at the same time. Many of the contests are open to books published over a three-year span. Thus, if your book is published in 2022, you can submit for a particular award in 2022, 2023, or 2024. You can even submit a second time, if it’s an award you’d really like to have. Some contests have very long lead times, while others close only weeks before the winners are announced.

Some people like to submit early, even with an uncorrected ARC, in the hope of being able to include the award in their launch material. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for waiting so you can (if you’re lucky) have fresh news to announce later. Winning an award, even a year or more after publication date, can give your book renewed visibility and spark a new burst of interest.  

And now for the big question: does it matter?

There’s no way to tease out the specific element that makes someone click on buy now. It could be the recommendation of a trusted friend. The cover, title, and/or similarity to other books they’ve enjoyed. “Seeing it everywhere.”  I did some research on this question a few years ago, and I’m guessing that things haven’t changed very much. My instinct is that an award in itself (unless it’s one of the awards noted in the first paragraph) won’t do the trick. More likely, it’s a combination of factors. Awards, trade reviews, and endorsements are all ways of establishing credibility. You might not need all of them. More may not be more, for a potential reader, especially when it comes to lesser-known awards.

The other question is whether these awards matter to you. Whether they do or don’t, whether you win or don’t win, it’s important to remember that these awards are not the final determinant of your worth as a human being or your talent as a writer. They are one thing. That’s all.

And yes, in the spirit of transparency, I do describe myself as an “award-winning author.” I’ve won medals in highly-competitive contests and categories, and I’m proud of that. But I consider it just one element among many, and will always believe that what really matters to me is whether my work touches and enhances the lives of actual readers.

What’s your experience?

When you decide to buy a book from an author whose work is new to you, does “award-winning” make a difference? Do you think the label “award-winning” is applied too loosely and should have stricter criteria?

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About Barbara Linn Probst

Barbara’s (she/her) debut novel QUEEN OF THE OWLS (April 2020) was a medalist in popular fiction from the Independent Publishers Association, first runner-up for the Eric Hoffer Award, and short-listed for the $2500 Grand Prize. Her second novel THE SOUND BETWEEN THE NOTES (April 2021) was the recipient of a Kirkus starred review, where it was lauded as "a tour de force" and selected as one of the Best Indie Books of 2021. It was also awarded the Sarton Gold Medal in Contemporary Fiction, as well as the Silver Medal in Fiction from the Nautilus Book Awards. Her third novel, THE COLOR OF ICE, will launch in October 2022. Barbara has a PhD in Clinical Social Work and has been a therapist, teacher, researcher, and advocate for out-of-the-box kids and their families. When not writing, she’s a serious amateur pianist. Learn more on her website.

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