Are Contests Worth It?

We all know there’s more than one way to put yourself in front of an agent. Queries, conferences, and referrals are all possible doors to representation. And then there’s the c-word.


Contests with agent participants vying for queries, partials and fulls from the entrants are sexier than the tried and true methods. I think it’s our form of reality television, with high stakes and even higher refresh rates. Bloggers that host contests featuring high quality agents can expect a traffic boost, and a bevy of writers grateful to them for the chance to put themselves in front of an agent… but the rest of the world is watching too.

So is it worth it?

Personally, I think you have to have even thicker skin than the average querier to throw yourself into this particular ring. Some contests have anonymous entries, but if you’ve been around publishing long enough you know exactly how insular this community is. Writing communities are vital to most writer’s success, but that also means that your anonymous entry in Contest #342 isn’t so anonymous. After all, you’ve been flogging that book around for the last six months.

I think that’s the kicker for a lot of people – public humiliation. A few years ago I had an “I Will If You Will” agreement with a CP and we both tossed our hats into the ring of a highly trafficked, much-anticipated annual contest. I walked away with eight total requests, two of them being fulls. My CP… had zero. The experience not only soured her on contests, but was a pretty rough kick in the self-confidence for her as well.

Now, I want to follow this up by saying that my apparent victories amounted to nothing. My partial requests fizzled into passes, and my fulls fell into a hole. All the requesting agents were very nice, professional people, but I ended up having to nudge them when I received an offer of representation… on a different project six months later. I don’t want this to be perceived as a criticism of agents, because it’s not. I have one, and I love her. However, I think we’re all human, and sometimes we get caught up in a moment where excitement gets the better of us. Ask anyone who ever overpaid for something on eBay as the auction closed.

And my CP?

I gave her a bit of a prod and a pep-talk and would have resorted to flat goading and bullying if she hadn’t pulled herself up off the ground and entered a contest yet again. Which she did. With a bright new ms to bolster her confidence, she threw herself headlong into the melee of the very same contest that had punched her in the brain the year before and… zero requests.

She wasn’t anxious to enter another contest anytime soon, but a year after that she had a new ms with an amazing hook. Another big contest was on the horizon and she knew her concept was strong, her writing solid, and her hook… well her hook was contest fodder like manure is a fertilizer. She somewhat reluctantly entered and was accepted. Her entry was posted and shortly thereafter she received a request for a full from an agent not even participating in the contest who had been cruising the entries. She received seven full requests from participating agents, which turned into five offers of representation. Ahem. Yes, you read that right.

She’s represented by Jennifer Laughran now.

My other CP is one that needs no prodding to enter a contest. She’s a veritable encyclopedia of contest names, hosts, and timeframes. She’s the first to tell anyone that contests are definitely worth it, and that putting yourself out there can turn into a fantastic experience. She’s played the contest game to the max, receiving fourteen requests for one manuscript over the course of a few different contests, three of whom were cruising agents who contacted her through her website after seeing her entry.

Those numbers definitely sound good, but that particular ms wasn’t the one that landed her in the sweet spot. She ended up shelving it and entering something new and fresh in a highly-trafficked contest from which she garnered eight full requests, two from agents who were cruising the entries and not officially involved in the contest. She was offered representation by three of these agents.

She’s represented by Suzie Townsend now.

And me? I landed Adriann Ranta through the good old-fashioned query path, but I admit that contests do make my tin-can heart rattle a little faster. So I decided to host one. The PAPfest (yes, it says that) had its first run this past February, and there may be another PAP in your future (they are annual, you know). Two of our participants secured representation, one from a participating agent and one through a cruiser.

In the end, I think the question isn’t “Are Contests Worth It?” but, “Are Contests Right For Me?” Contests can be nerve-wracking and downright embarrassing, but they can also bring elation, and a boost of self-confidence, even if you don’t secure representation at the end of the day. If you think this sounds like your kind of pony ride, check out some the contests linked below. Most of them aren’t active at the moment, but you can learn about them now and have something ready when the time comes.

An Agent’s Inbox
Baker’s Dozen
Christmas in July
Get Your Pitch On
Secret Agent
The Writer’s Voice


13 thoughts on “Are Contests Worth It?

  1. I agree that the contests can be a mixed bag. I think it depends on your project and whether you can create a killer one line hook for it. For my first manuscript, I'm planning to query the old fashioned way like you, once I feel I have the time for more deadlines if I succeed. My new project could be a better one for a contest. I'll see how I feel and how thick my skin is.


  2. I don't think contests can hurt–unless your skin is too thin, in which case writing may not be for you to begin with. The best response I got from an agent was a tepid, “I guess I'd look if you sent me the query” to a first 250 contest. He never responded at all.


  3. It's either really impressive or really sad that I know exactly which CPs you're talking about, which contests they were in, and which manuscripts got them those requests:)

    Thanks for this levelheaded look at contests, Mindy. As you might have guessed, I'm a fan, but they definitely require an even thicker skin.


  4. Well, I got agent and small publisher interest from PitchMadness and PitchMAS — that directly led to my wonderful agent (and publishing co.) so I guess I'm biased! But I was doing the regular query route and getting requests too, so it just depends. I think using any arrow in your quiver in this business can't hurt!


  5. I've entered contests and gotten requests, and I've entered them and garnered none.

    (I THREW PitchMAS with my CP, the first before either of us had an agent. It actually led me to my agent!)

    I think the best part of contests was the other entrants I met. Even if I got NO requests, I found manuscripts I HAD to read, people I HAD to follow, and some people who ended up becoming my CP's. The writing community is an amazing one, and contests are a great matchmaker – not just for writers and agents, but for writers and other writers. 🙂


  6. I have entered contests, been rejected from contests, gotten great feedback from contests, and even been given a offer of representation from a contest. And even now that I have an agent, I still follow writers' progress in contests. I think it's a great way to keep abreast of emerging talent and I really feel like PAPfest started me on my way. Also, the writers who organize and participate in these contests are the very best ambassadors of the always-encouraging YA/MG world.


  7. Thank you everyone, for weighing in. Even though my own experience with contests didn't really lead me anywhere, I had a fantastic time doing it. Obviously I liked it enough to consider hosting my own.

    Krista – HA! Yeah, INSULAR?? RIGHT???

    Alison – You're a great example of a contest success story, not only b/c it led you to an agent in a round-about way, but also b/c you had a FAN IN ME the second I read your entry!


  8. Alison and Mindy, I love how you two pointed out that contests are a great way to meet other writers and find projects you love. I discovered Tara Dairman's ALL FOUR STARS (though it had another name at the time) when she entered it in a round of “An Agent's Inbox” a while back and immediately fell in love. I've been a Tara fan/stalker ever since:)


  9. Absolutely, I think that contests help build the sense of community in this niche of the world, and weaves us even tighter.

    Robb – I think it's exactly those relationships that make me (and I'm sure, others) want to host contests. It's a chance to give back… and also to watch the excitement from the other side!


  10. I think participating in a contest can be worth it. The reason is that the experience itself exposes the writer to the different possibilities for their writing career. One way or another, a contest is still a contest. There could only be one who can, and is able to make it to the top among the others. So, it’s better for every contestant to give it their best shot, not only to win the competition, but to make something worthwhile, and hopefully get them the attention they deserve.

    Lucius Cambell @ Skild


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