Archive for publicity

Writing contests: what to watch as you enter

Authors need validation from the outside. It can be as simple as getting a friend or a loved one to read and praise the early writing, or as complex as following a 2,700-word instruction manual for submitting a 7,500-word entry in a contest. Many steps lie between those extremes.

Above them all are the ultimate competitions: grants and prizes. A National Endowment for the Arts grant for creative writing isn’t a writing contest. NEA status and Pulitzer honors are the platinum standard for author validation. Publishers nominate their books for prizes in this category.

We can all dream of a Nobel Prize, or we did until Bob Dylan got his — somewhat earlier in his literature career than Ernest Hemingway did. Aim your book’s entries at prizes where you have a fair chance at winning.

Steer clear of this

There are contest awards that don’t need a $35-$95 entry fee; or insist on publication rights for an anthology for which the author is uncompensated; or demand that entries are never before seen on any Web site — even a personal blog. Some contests don’t suggest that you have “a disinterested party” review your grammar or spelling before you submit.

Some contests are not operated by a volunteer bookstore which hosts an annual event built around awarding nine prizes. Some contests don’t operate with four rounds of anonymous judging before agents decide who’s the winner. Nearly all contests do not require the winners to be present to win, like some kind of sweepstakes or bingo prize.

How do you avoid all of that mess, the spine of the Faulkner-Wisdom contest?  You commit to a handful of promises to yourself.

Keep your entry fees reasonable. As an author, you’re working with a limited budget, unless you’re already won a grant or have a book that’s earning well. Entry fees above $100 are outrageous and not common, but you can easily spend $75 getting a book that’s been published considered by commercial ventures. Magazine and journals like to run contests to raise their profile and raise funds. They also raise the experience level of their readers or judges, most of whom are uncompensated.

Two book contests for self-publishers, the IBPA awards called IPPYs, and the Indies, from Foreword magazine, seem to be open to first-time publishers. These contests require several printed copies to enter. The North Street Prizes are another contest for books from smaller to micro-publishers. North Street winners, in particular, are self-publishers. All three of these contests are under $100 to enter.

Few contests will take less than $35 for an entry. Automatic entry into contests by way of a purchase, like for review services or self-publishing work, might be worth whatever you pay extra for it.

Fees are like the grease around an auto motor: everywhere by now, and essential. Unlike fees to submit for publication, contest fees reward a small number of winners. Getting published in a journal is an opportunity that’s only limited by the appetites of editors. Only one half of one percent of entries at Faulkner-Wisdom earned a prize for unpublished manuscripts.

More than 400 entries poured in for the Faulkner-Wisdom contest — which by the way, is different from the PEN/Faulkner award. The contest reports that 158 made it to the second of four rounds. Nine got onto a short list. Short lists are worthwhile as validation and as a publication credential.

Keep an eye out for how the fee money relates to the prize. More than$12,000 dollars was collected in 2018 at the Faulkner-Wisdom contest for novel entries alone. It’s being spent to cover “some of the administrative costs of the competition, including deliveries to preliminary readers and judges; travel and housing expenses for out-of-town winners and judges; and gold medals awarded to winners.”

It looks like one author winning that award gets $500 in travel expenses, plus a gold medal. That’s a lot of money collected for the reading the novel entries, plus the administration, unless that’s a heavy gold medal. The real weight, of course, is for the nine writers who get to report they were shortlisted.

Watch out for the rigor of instructions. A vast set of forms and authentications lies in front of an NEA grant. A colleague with 50 years of poetry and advertising experience told me he earned one “by just keeping on filling out forms” and submitting his previously published prose. When you see warnings about not submitting by fax, or reducing a prize award for self-published books edited by professional freelancers, or explicit instructions on naming a file, consider how much time you should spend on the administrative creation process.

A modern contest should be able to take your book in a reasonable format, through a website or as an attachment, without cautions about submitting entries where any prior editing can be viewed on the pages. Yes, there are instructions at Faulkner-Wisdom like “don’t send your entries with the edits visible.”

Look for a competent round up. Free and paid contests are archived in several useful places. A searchable database of free contests is at the Winning Writers website. They want to collect an email address, to send an infrequent newsletter, to get access to a big, meaty list with commentary.

Reedsy, a publishing services company, also operates a database of contests. Again, it’s searchable with multiple categories, including a ranking of worthiness.

Many major book awards are announced in the final two months of each calendar year. Nearly all of them require a publication contract of some kind to be considered. The publicity department at your publisher should have a plan ready for submitting your book for major prizes. Booklist, the library industry publication that reviews books from traditional publishers, has a comprehensive list of the major awards on its website.

Image by klimkin from Pixabay

You can dream up a debut with a radio boost

Eric Gray’s new book is Bases to Bleachers, a collection of stories from fans about each one’s favorite baseball game. He reached out to the world for stories after his friends got him started. His book was on WBUR’s Here and Now radio show earlier today.

Radio is with us even today, just as baseball and the World Series will be tonight. The sounds of stories told, and the stories about the telling of them, can be a powerful boost for a new book. Gray’s book is self published, and he earned his way onto a radio show with nationwide distribution through NPR. Even though the book is only available through the wholesale distribution of Ingram Spark — meaning it’s a bookstore order if you want to purchase it in brick and mortar retail — he’s got sales being driven by the radio show.

Reach out to your local media, and you can get your book a big at-bat in the sales box.

How a proposal can get your book published

Every book needs a game plan to play its way into a publisher’s lineup. Things like comparable books and the heartbeat promise of a story are the same for fiction and nonfiction. Unlike what you might have heard, every publisher makes an investment and wants to earn it back when they buy a book from an author — whether that book is a true story or not.

The difference is that a nonfiction book doesn’t have to be finished before it sells. Some key parts of the book need to be finished and look very good, though. Otherwise, you’ll just hear crickets. What follows is a two-page summary of making the proposal, the first look at any book telling a true story. Think memoirs or yoga books, or that passionate story about living every day because you might die tomorrow.


In short, a proposal is finding books that are like yours but missing a key element. Plus, finding a gap in the market where nobody’s writing a book like yours and being able to name that gap. You also find a specific way to describe your readers and where you will find them. You will need ideas and promises about how you will help market and sell the book. Finally, you write: a table of contents, plus a summary into the inside flap or back cover copy. You create and polish a few sample chapters, and buff up an inspiring bio that shows you’re the best-qualified person to write your book.

Comparables and competition

We might as well start here, because it’s the point where the publisher’s sales and marketing team will decide to buy your book. You’re either filling a wide and well-identified gap — holy cow, no books about being a minister and working for gun safety — or you can add something captivating and essential to what’s already on the shelves of bookstores.

If you don’t know it already, you need to think in terms of bookstores while you create a proposal. A publisher will think of them first, since more books are bought in paper than any other medium. If you get the deal done, the audiobook opportunity for you to narrate will follow.

Where to look? I like the daily reports of Publisher’s Marketplace, the thorough reporting from Publisher’s Weekly, the grassroots bookselling stories in Shelf Awareness, and the fun of Edelweiss+ catalogs, and even Amazon’s Also Purchased books. Shelf Awareness has a nice element called Shelf Talker, which suggests what a bookseller might say to a customer about a book.

Dig in. Ask your author friends if they know of anything like your book. Come to this part of the proposal prepared and you will look more professional. Being perceived as professional is much more important for a nonfiction author.

Knowing your audience

Saying that a book is for mothers or dads just won’t do. Those are chunks of the world too big to target. If you say it’s for divorced dads with tough custody agreements, you’re much closer. (My memoir Stealing Home targets those readers among its audience. It also appeals to baseball fans who are fathers of Little Leaguers. “This book is for readers who enjoyed Dan Shaughnessy’s Senior Year.”)

If your book is “For everybody,” it’s really for nobody. That’s because it’s too difficult to discover a book to read while it campaigns alongside the bestsellers published by Bigger Companies Than Your Publisher. Who use Bigger Discovery Budgets: marketing.

Nothing helps you find readers for your book — and convince a publisher you can lead those readers to a purchase — better than specific descriptions tied to resources. For one memoirist I’ve coached, we tracked down associations covering counseling for suicide, another for legislative staffers working to get bills passed, plus associations of law enforcement. Putting membership numbers onto these helps a publisher visualize sales.

Everybody knows somebody. If you have a friend or an author acquaintance who is a police officer, or who works on a senator’s staff, or helps on a hotline, you find out where they gather and trade messages. Believe it or not, Facebook can be a great resource here, if you don’t know people like your prospective readers. And if you don’t know your prospective readers, well, that’s something to look at while you’re choosing a book to write.

The overview writing: table of contents and summary

This doesn’t work quite as well for memoirs, but a table of contents is an essential element in any nonfiction book proposal. (A memoir has episodes that it uses as its backbone.) As an author, you probably already have one of these lists which you call an outline. If you don’t have one, it’s time to go back and create it — as much for the book’s chances at being a good book as for your chances to get a publishing contract to finish it. Good books just sell better at every step, including the step where you sell your book to the publisher.

This is the spot where you look over your contents and then write that summary — the one that seems way too short and turns out to be the very thing you use to decide to buy a book yourself.

The sample writing: your best chapters

The beauty of proposing nonfiction is that your best foot forward does not have to be your first one. You can include a sample chapter from the middle of the book, or a rousing conclusion, and get just as far as submitting an introduction. The writing has to be stellar, which will usually involve an editor or a key reader who also is an author. You can’t see everything that your writing should be, as well as everything it can be.

If you have a couple of chapters, or three, that demonstrate varying styles of voice from the same book, that’s a good reason to include a smorgasbord of writing. For example, you might have case histories as well as an inspiring overview. The point of submitting a sample is to show you’re a good enough writer to invest in; be ready to be edited once your deal is closed. Your book will be different than your samples. Nobody can say for sure how different. Publishers prefer authors with experienced voices.

Bio, or why it’s gotta be you

Authors arrive at the bio with some trepidation, secretly knowing all of the things they haven’t done as well as someone else. This is something to cast aside when you tell a publisher who you are. There’s something personal about your life that made you want to write the book. There’s also something professional or accomplished about you that makes you an expert. Not the expert — that’s too much to ask. As just one expert, you will still know more than most readers. If you’re an expert at testifying before legislators’ staffs because you’ve done it for years, that counts. If you created a style of yoga that puts thousands of people onto mats, people who never thought they could do yoga, that’s expertise, too.

Don’t think this bio is going to be its best on your first draft. It can be a good strategy to have outside eyes help you with the bio. An interview conducted by somebody with journalism skills, just like the one you’d hope for at a resume service, is a grand tool to build a bio.

If you have recommendations or references you use to practice your life’s work, or your superior volunteering career, you can call on this to show who you are, too. LinkedIn offers a way to solicit recommendations. You can use this to fill up your testimonial cup.

Marketing and Selling: It’s kinda on you

Despite how it might seem, a publishing deal to create a book still falls back on you every day. Yes, your publisher has details and experience to guide you, as well as people who do the marketing and sales for a living. However, you are the only person who cares about your book every single day. Publishers recognize this and sign up the authors who know they are the starters in the publishing lineup.

Not only do you create the content, but you also find the readers and sometimes close the deal. Nobody will track down book clubs and blog communities and even TV-social media-Web like you will. If all of that is beyond your experience, you can fix that. Hire a publicist or a social media expert. Lots of big-time authors do this, because publishers have a finite bandwidth to help authors in the publishing stable.

You will need specifics to get a proposal accepted: I’ll approach these communities. I’ll write and submit for these blogs. I will stock a YouTube channel and connect with these existing contacts. I will approach these library systems. If you’ve been covered in the media, this is where you bring it up.

Get yourself out there

Be brave and have swagger. As Brenda Ueland said in If You Want to Write, “Be bold, free, and truthful.” She also says you should “Be careless, reckless — a lion and a pirate when you write.”

Get Brenda’s book. It will feed you like a lion tamer and fill your treasure chests with courage. Writing a proposal is brave, good work.

If you’d like help with your proposal process, I like working with authors who want to make bold strides toward publication. Publisher’s deals are a good thing to pursue, once you add up everything you must do to self-publish. Contact me so we can talk.