Contests. They have become the bread and butter of the social media savvy writer-agent circle. Querying is still an important rite of passage, but increasingly contests are one of the best ways to get your work in front of an agent—and have a decently high chance of getting a request from them. I did really well in contests, with my agent request stats skewing heavily on the contest side (vs. queries). And I’ve noticed many “how I got my agent/book deal” posts echo similar stats—a lot of people are getting requests and finding their agents from contests.
But the truth of the thing is: contests are MADDENING. It is very easy to go crazy in the pursuit of them. When they work, they are a beautiful thing, but if one puts too much stock in them and things don’t work out… that way madness lies!
First off, Dahlia Adler wrote a great post on Cupid’s blog earlier this year that covers the big basics of contests. I recommend reading it.
Tip #1: Figure out how to market your book really well, and if you can’t crack it on your own, get help.
This means: pick a good title, figure out your genre (and make sure it’s accurate), use specific/descriptive words/phrases in your logline/pitch showing plot/character/conflict, make sure your first 250 is polished/eye-catching (and to get super micro: make sure your first line/paragraph is stellar), work on your query (for those that allow queries).
When I look at contests as an observer (as I did for a year+ before I finished my novel and started entering myself), the first and sometimes ONLY things I look at are the title & genre. Then maybe a first line if you’re lucky. While some slush readers/agents may be kind enough to read your entire entry, you may have already lost them if your title/genre/logline/first paragraph of your query (whatever) aren’t eye-catching.
Tip #2: If you don’t get in, it is not the end of the world
The thing about most of the contests out there: they are either HIGHLY subjective or completely a matter of chance. Focusing on the contests run by humans (instead of lottery bots), the tastes/opinions of the blog runner and/or slush readers and/or even the manuscript tastes of the participating agents will determine who gets in and who doesn’t. The criteria for contests vary, as well. In The Writer’s Voice, for example, many team captains are seeking queries and 250 that would benefit enormously from mentoring; others may choose based on hook/marketability. Not getting into a contest like this (Cupid, Pitch Madness & TWV spring to mind as examples of contests that have a vetting team) doesn’t mean your query is bad/your book is bad/everything is terrible. It means the vetters didn’t feel your entry was right for that particular contest, at that particular time.
Tip #3: If you don’t get in and/or your entry doesn’t do well if you do get into a contest, it doesn’t mean your book is terrible/no one will ever want it/everyone hates you.
Again, contests are highly subjective, and those making decisions (vetters or agents) may have a specific agenda for the contest. The vetters may be looking for books in hot genres; the agents may only be cruising for a specific kind of book that day or week. Don’t let what happens in a contest determine the fate of your book. Make sure you are actively querying your novel, in addition to contests.
Tip #4: Agents have all sorts of reasons for picking your entry–or not picking it.
I have actually talked to a few agents about their contest strategy, and some of the things I learned genuinely surprised me. Like most of us, I had approached the tacit “rejection” of an agent *not* voting for me in a contest as “sigh, they don’t want me; THEY HATE ME, I’M SO SAD; I CAN’T EVEN QUERY THEM NOWWWW.” This may be the case: an agent passing over you in a contest may mean they’re not interested. But it may not. I’ve spoken with agents that didn’t like the competitive element of contests. They didn’t want to fight with other agents to get partials and fulls, so their not entering the fray wasn’t always an indicator of lack of interest. One also told me that they didn’t want to commit to full manuscripts by adding their vote to an entry; they’d rather see a partial instead, so it was easier to not vote at all. (agents, after all, are crazy busy and most carefully choose which and how many fulls they request)
Tip #5: So just because an agent doesn’t pick you in a contest, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t query them.
Seriously! This logic surprised me too, but I had an agent ask me to query them… and this same agent had not picked me in a contest, so I assumed I’d lost my chance. The worst that could happen is you get a rejection, but in a best case scenario, you could get a request.
Tip #6: Be circumspect and smart about what contests you enter
Dahlia talks about this, but this one is a biggie for me, too. Vetters, agents and readers (such as myself) pay attention to who is in contests. If your entry pops up in every. single. contest, this says several things, whether it’s accurate or not: 1) you’ve been “on the market” for a while but don’t have an agent yet 2) if you did get requests in past contests but don’t have an agent, it might mean you’ve been rejected by those that read your book (and this can, whether accurate or not, call into question the quality of your manuscript) 3) And yet in all this time you’ve changed nothing about your entry (often the case), or even 4) You have some behind-the-scenes success (people are currently considering your ms), and yet you are continuing to take up spots in contests that could be taken by newbie entries that haven’t had a shot. Apparently #4 can be controversial, but it’s true: at a certain point, be gracious and bow out, query like the rest of us, and wait for all the agents that have your manuscript to respond. This is why I stopped entering contests after I’d done three.
So you need to be aware of the contest landscape–what’s coming up, who runs them, which agents are likely to participate (there are usual suspects in a few of them)–and then make a game plan. If the same group of agents is doing, say, Pitch Madness and Writer’s Voice and Query Kombat and Pitchmas in July–pick and choose which ones to do. I wasn’t going to even try for The Writer’s Voice until I saw the agent list was completely different than Pitch Madness. But I didn’t do Query Kombat because it shared several agents from both contests (and also I’d been successful and didn’t want to be That Guy). Don’t put your work in front of the same agents over and over again–it gets boring for everyone. Also consider who you’ve queried–if you’ve queried half the agents in a contest, I wouldn’t enter.
Tip #7: Not all feedback from contests is valid feedback; pick & choose and be thoughtful in terms of applying it.
Even when you don’t get agent requests, contests are a valuable arena for feedback & critique, particularly on queries and first pages. However, I am of the mind that not all feedback is created equal. Harsh truth time: a lot of the people critiquing your work have written lacklustre books/queries, etc. In general, you should always consider the source of editorial feedback, whether it’s from a CP or random commenters on a blog. There are plenty of thoughtful writers offering insightful critiques, but make sure the critique is actually that: thoughtful and insightful. Blog contests can be incredible pile-ons, where commenters nitpick and go out of their way to find “something to fix.” I’ve also seen a lot of group think — one person points out something and then everyone else does, too. While hearing the same feedback repeatedly can be a red flag, it also may not be.
Tip #8: At a certain point, give up and just query
Whether you are successful in contests or not, at a certain point, you need to just query. The online contest sphere involves intersecting groups of vetters and agents, and if you’re not querying, you are missing out on a LOT of agents. If you’ve been successful (requests), query widely using your successful query/opening pages. If you’ve not done well, whether not getting in at all or getting in but getting middling results, work your query (or rework it) and start querying in batches. See if your book/pitch/query is the problem or whether you just needed to widen the net.
Do any other contest vets have tips?