No Contest: How to Save RWA’s Writing Contest Circuit
Posted by Jamie Michele Apr 7 2017, 1:00 am in Contests, rwa
Ten years ago, every romance writer I knew entered writing contests. It was the way you lowered your wheels to the ground, tested out the road, and saw how far you could go.
There was a typical pattern:
- You’d polish three-chapters-and-a-synopsis and toss it into a couple of local chapter contests to see if it floated or sank. This was a decent way to judge your commercial appeal and get feedback (taken with a grain of salt). Finaling regularly meant you could achieve a certain venerability on the contest circuit (like our own Kelly Fitzpatrick, for example!).
- Once you owned the local circuit, you’d aim for a highly competitive contest with an associated multi-day conference, like the Golden Leaf, or with a glamorous awards ceremony at RWA Nationals, like the Daphne and the Royal Ascot. Attending one of these conferences or ceremonies as a finalist was a huge networking opportunity! (Still is, honestly).
- You’d shoot for the Golden Heart. Entering was expensive, but the rewards were automatic: agents would actually call you to see if you needed representation, you could attend
terrifying swanky parties with Rita finalists and industry pros at Nationals. Best of all, you could count on a solid six months of glory within the romance-writing community.
There used to be online leaderboards showing who’d earned the most finals and wins that year. Remember those? Heady days, my friends. Heady days!
Now? Just try to find a contest leaderboard.
Go ahead; look. I tried, I failed, and frankly, I doubt any exist, because I don’t think enough people care about contests these days to keep track of who’s finaling.
In fact, many contests have folded under the twin pressures of low entries and a lack of first-round judges. For example, the Golden Network’s Golden Pen, unique because it guaranteed detailed feedback from at least one Golden Heart finalist, hasn’t run since 2014. Plenty more are struggling to keep going.
Am I wrong? Do you know of any chapter contests that are thriving?
Part of me thinks let it go!, but once a contest folds, chapters lose a major income stream. Running a contest used to mean raking in thousands of dollars. A chapter operating a prestigious mid-level contest could net about $5,500 on 200 entries. Now, chapters without contests rely mostly on membership dues to fund operations. Chapter leaders are struggling to come up with alternate methods of making money for our membership and continue offering excellent low-cost benefits.
Also, as interest in local-chapter contests has declined, so have entries into the Golden Heart, which is RWA’s international contest for unpublished writers. This ought to matter to us. The Ruby Slippered Sisterhood wouldn’t exist without the Golden Heart.
Do we care if the contest folds?
I care! Contests develop communities and support chapters, and without chapters, membership in RWA will lose meaning. (See Liz Talley’s post from earlier this week for a discussion about why RWA and writing communities matter). I care about RWA. I care about my local and online chapters. I don’t want to see these things that helped me get to where I am just vanish!
How can we make chapter contests valuable again?
For some reason, contests aren’t as appealing to today’s unpublished romance writers. Heck, many writers are blowing right past the old gatekeepers that used to slow us down. No contests, no queries. Just straight to Amazon. The current benefits of feedback, community fame, and editor/agent networking aren’t attracting these writers. I think the benefits of contests are outweighed by the ease and excitement of self-publishing.
What contest benefits would appeal to someone thinking about self-publishing?
Let’s brainstorm! I’ll begin with a couple of ideas that may or may not be practical:
- cover design
- social media graphic design development (Facebook ads, Twitter banner, etc.)
- proofreading of first 50 pages by an editor within chapter
- high-profile social-media blitzing (linking & sharing by the chapter’s big-league authors)
- developmental edit from someone within chapter
- free massage from Nora Roberts
What do you think?
Do you care?
Do contests matter?
Should we save them?
If so, how?!