Chip MacGregor

March 6, 2013

Are writing contests a good place to get noticed?


Someone wrote and said, “I noticed you mentioned an upcoming conference. Can you tell us which conferences you recommend for general writing? And for those of us who do inspirational writing?”

Writing conferences are a great way to meet editors, interview agents, get some speciality training in a genre, find what’s new in the world of publishing, and just get away from home and get motivated to write again by hanging out with other writers. There are dozens of good writing conferences, in every corner of the country. Many colleges and regional writing groups put on very professional conferences with strong faculty. Some organizations like the Romance Writers of America, Mystery Writers of America, and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators offer their own specialized conferences. And there are some very famous conferences you can explore — Antioch, Sewanee, Iowa Summer Writing Festival, Jackson Hole, Pennwriters. Go to Google and search both location and topic or specialty. The best way to evaluate a conference is to look at the faculty and see who’s coming. For any writer who touches on religious themes, I highly recommend the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing, which I think is the best book conference out there. For  Christian novelists, the best conference is put on by the American Christian Fiction Writers each September. I also like the Blue Ridge Christian Writers Conference, and Write to Publish, which takes place on the Wheaton College campus in Chicago.

One author sent this:  “I’ve noticed on agent and editor blogs there seems to be a discrepancy in opinions as to what’s selling and what’s not. I can understand a particular publisher explaining there are certain things they’ve zeroed in on (for example, Harvest seems to sell a lot of Amish novels), but how can one agent declare something is definitely ‘out’ when another professional insists they are looking for that very genre?”

Well, my guess is that an agent assumes the genres he’s selling are “hot” and the genres he’s not selling are “not.” Similarly, an editor probably assumes the types of books she can acquire and sell are “hot,” and anything else is “not.” So for some agents, “Amish fiction” is HOT right now; while others probably feel it’s passe and quickly turning cold. On this blog I try to take a look at the industry and see what I can discover about trends — what is selling, what is being acquired, what publishers are excited about. But some of that is certainly anecdotal, and like everyone else I doubtless have my biases. Each of us relies on our own judgment in making those types of proclamations.

One author I met at a conference wrote to say, “A friend of mine suggested I submit my novel to a writers’ conference contest. It’s as polished as I know how to make it, but it’s still unfinished. My friend thinks I’ll get good feedback, even if I don’t get far in the contest. Do you think that’s good advice to enter? Are contests a good pathway to get feedback or make relationships?”

I’ve never thought a writing contest is for everyone. They seem to work best for those who use contests as a motivator. For others, not winning the contest is “losing” and therefore can be a very deflating experience. As for how much feedback you get, that depends on the conference and faculty. Some conferences push reviewers to be thorough; others let judges slide by with a five-word response on a sheet of paper. In my view, planning your novel revisions based on the random notes of a contest judge (who may or may not be qualified to make suggestions) is probably not the best plan. However, they can be a great way to begin forging some relationships — you go to the conference, you talk to the judges, you meet other writers. I think there is benefit in that. Be aware that many publishing houses still like to know that a novel that’s been submitted has won a writing contest somewhere, so “winning” seems to still have value in the big picture. (You can probably tell from my words that I’m not a huge contest guy. I hate judging contests, so I always try to beg off if I can.)

This question came from a recent blog I posted: “You mentioned in your last blog that overall publishing numbers were only down 3% last year… so will we see more book deals and better prospects for unpublished authors in the near future?”

Not to be negative… but no, I don’t think so. While overall sales numbers were only down slightly, the publishing economy at large is still in a state of flux — and we’re not sure we’ve really turned the corner. (Things looked better a year after the Crash of ’29, then they really bottomed out.) Publishing houses are still worried about soft sales and changing distribution patterns (a big concern is the small money being made on low-priced e-books). So there are fewer debut books being introduced, fewer risks being taken, and smaller advances being offered (in my opinion, based on my research). On the other hand, can I offer a positive note? This is a GREAT time to be an author. We are producing and selling more books than ever before. Sure, we might be down a bit over the past few years, but we’re STILL seeing huge numbers of people buy books. Not only that, the growth of the internet has created more of a need for good writing than ever before. Not all of it is monetized yet, since it’s still a relatively new media and we’re still trying to figure out how to make money on some of the words being produced and read. But it’s a HUGE market, bigger than ever before because there are more readers and more of a need for content than ever before. So take heart. That doesn’t mean you’re going to get a traditional book deal this year, but I can tell you without hesitation that if you’re a good writer, there is doubtless a need for your skill. (And, um… I’m not usually the gushing type.)  

One writer asked, “You may laugh, but I’m wondering if there are many new first-time authors who are middle aged or older. I have always written nonfiction, but now at 56 I’m working on my first novel. I just wonder if there are others on a similar adventure.”

Truth? It’s certainly possible, but it’s not easy. Of course… WHEN was it ever easy to get a book published? (Answer? Never.) There are several writers who decided to try this out later in life — Tom Clancy was in his 40’s. Robert Frost was too. I know of a couple romance writers who were well past 50 when they got started. It’s certainly possible. Read what Malcolm Gladwell had to say about Ben Fountain in his fascinating article here.

A friend asked, “When will publishers get away from having their covers filled with young women looking forlorn, bereft, and staring off into the distance? Whenever I step into the inspy fiction aisle at my local bookstore, I have a sea of young women staring at me desperately.”

Covers are like women’s suits — one style will come in, gain popularity, and suddenly everybody wants to look that way. But in a while the whole “sameness” problem will make them seem passe’, and a new look will come along. You’re right — there are a lot of forlorn-looking young women gracing the covers of religious novels right now. That will pass. Of course, some of us wouldn’t mind having a sea of beautiful young women staring at us longingly…

Another sent this: “I just finished writing a manuscript set in 12th-century Europe, but my friends have told me it’s a waste of time. Are medieval books selling?”

You wouldn’t write a book just because somebody said it was a hot category, right? I mean, just because somebody said to you, “Amish books are hot, vampire books are selling like crazy, and sci-fi is growing, ” I doubt you’d race out of the room to create a novel about an Amish girl sent into space and attacked by vampires. You don’t spend a lot of time chasing the market. Instead, you write the story you’ve been given. So if you feel passionate about a medieval novel, then you should probably write the medieval novel. No, that’s not a particularly hot time period at the moment, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea. Perhaps, if your novel is very strong, you’ll stand out for being different. (And yes, there’s a limit to this advice. If all the publishers are saying, “Don’t send me western fiction,” then don’t expect to get a contract for your novel about Tex and His Missing Saddle. I think there’s a difference between “being true to your calling” and “banging your head against the wall.” I just don’t see publishers being adamant about hating all things medieval.) 

And an author from a conference sent me this: “I’m a novelist, trying to land my debut book. The first publisher I sent it to called me back to say they were interested. They are a small, independent house with a good track record in my genre. The editor said they were in the midst of producing several books, and that he’d call me in six weeks. It’s been about eight weeks and I haven’t heard from him. Would I seem too eager if I were to drop a note and ask for an update?”

Nothing wrong with that. Asking for an update after a couple months seems reasonable enough. I’d drop him a friendly email that says, “Well, it’s been a few weeks, so I just thought I’d check back to see if you need anything else from me.” Keep it friendly. Don’t whine. Things take time, especially in publishing. And don’t threaten (“I’m thinking of taking my book elsewhere”). That’s a sure way to turn off a publisher. 

Finally, a regular reader of this blog wrote to say, “I’ve heard about the importance of nonfiction authors developing media platforms to support their work. How does a novelist develop a platform?”

I used to never get publishers asking about novelist platforms. Now it happens frequently. Times are hard, and they’re looking for every angle they can get. I’d like to think a novelist will still be judged solely on his or her words, but the reality is that publishers want novelists who have a lot of touchpoints with potential readers. So if you speak to groups, or appear on TV, or host a radio show, or have a newspaper column, or write a popular blog, or regularly have a column on a website or e-zine — all those things put you in touch with potential readers. If you are part of a big organization, or have ties to celebrities, those relationships can help you get noticed. As a novelist, you have to think like a publisher, capture names and emails, be in touch with people, and engage your readers. That sort of thing is no longer limited to nonfiction writers. As a novelist, a long list of potential readers will move you ahead of other fiction writers who can’t demonstrate a platform.

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  • James says:

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  • Rick Barry says:

    Chip, just a brief note that I’m enjoying your quick & concise replies to multiple questions each day. It’s refreshing to pick up fast insights on several topics in one stop.

    Thanks to my read here today, I can quickly change my manuscript about an Amish girl sent into space and attacked by vampires to a QUAKER girl in space. 😉

    More seriously, thanks for your time in answering these. Blessings!

  • Robin Patchen says:

    I tend to enter contests that have judges I’d like to look at my novel. Then, I pray I final. It’s just a way to cull down the list, because there are a lot of contests out there.

    As usual, great advice, Chip. Thanks!

  • About book covers: Actually, Mr. MacGregor, I don’t think I want a bunch of beautiful young women looking at me longingly. But to each his own ;o). I actually like the covers that cut off the heads. Hmmm. Wonder what that says about me? Really, it’s just that I don’t want the artist telling me what the character looks like. I like my imagination to have more say.

  • This was a helpful post. Thanks for answering questions so many of us writers have. I appreciate your insights. Your thoughts on contests got me thinking, and the answers about bereft young women on books covers made me chuckle. I’m looking forward to stopping back here.

  • Iola Goulton says:

    I suspect the question about medieval book selling is related to the first question. Readers aren’t buying medieval because no one is publishing medieval because no one is writing medieval because no one is reading medieval.

    Most American Christian fiction is either set in America or about Americans (and has pretty girls on the cover), although there’s a bunch of readers who want something a bit different. Medieval does’t, by definition, have Americans (unless it’s a time travel), so that’s going to make it a harder sell.

    Tamara Leigh seems to be doing all right with her Age of Faith series (set in late 1100’s). But that’s self-published… I don’t know whether that was her choice, or if the publisher of her quirky contemporary romances wasnt’ interested in medieval.

    • Tim Osner says:

      I’ve got a writer friend who is middle age and has never been published and has just come with her debut novel about 11th Century England through Viking Penguin. It’s displayed on the front racks in Barnes and Noble . . . ‘Who would’ve thunk?’

    • chipmacgregor says:

      yeah, I’m with you, Iola. Sometimes people ask me what the secret of selling books is, and I always say, “People buy the books they want to read.” I figure that’s either great wisdom or total tripe. But yes — that’s pretty much why there’s so little medieval. If publishers thought they could make money on American Amish Medieval Vampires In Space, they’d acquire it.

    • About Medieval Books:
      According to the post Tamara Leigh published on my reader’s blog, she
      had to self-publish her medieval books because the traditional Christian
      publishers were wary of the time period due to the stigma of corruption in the
      church and the crusades. She wrote medieval before writing for the inspy
      audience, but had to turn to contemporary romance when she decided to write
      only Christian novels. However, she had the series written and is now
      self-publishing it. They are fantastic books and I hope she opens up the genre
      for the Christian market. No point in hiding the past. It needs to be
      remembered and learned from.

  • Richard Mabry says:

    To the questioner who asked if there many new first-time authors who are middle aged or older.

    Well, here’s one. I started writing fiction when I was old enough to draw Social Security, and my fifth novel comes out next month, with two more under contract. Don’t let age slow you down.
    Thanks, Chip, for a great blog.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks for sharing your story, Richard! That’s got to be a great encouragement to a lot of people. (And for those who don’t know, Richard is a successful novelist with Thomas Nelson.)

  • Clint Hall says:

    On contests, I had a good experience with the ACFW First Impressions contest, so much that entering their Genesis contest became a top priority for me. The feedback I received was both useful and encouraging, and ultimately a huge boost to my writing.

    At the same time, I’ve found several contests that seemed fairly suspect, so you’ll want to use your best judgment. Incidentally, if you’re looking for useful feedback, I have found the ACFW Critique Groups to be a good source of helpful criticism.

  • michelle grover says:

    Thanks for the list of conferences. 🙂

    • chipmacgregor says:

      You can find a bunch more if you just google “writers conference,” Michelle.

  • Ramona says:

    ” a novel about an Amish girl sent into space and attacked by vampires” – I think I had one of those submitted to me last week. Good advice, as usual, and as an editor who is MONTHS behind in reviewing submissions, I’m always OK with a follow-up.

  • Meghan Carver says:

    I enjoyed an entire cup of coffee while soaking in your wisdom, Chip. Thanks for the time you spend here. …And you should gush more often. It’s great encouragement for what can be a long and difficult journey.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks very much, Meghan. Nice of you say something. I realize I went a bit longish today…

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