Publisher Contests and Puffery – Do They Mean Anything?


An acquaintance excitedly told me about the publication of her book and urged me to rush over to her website and look at her cover art which, of course, I did. The little gold seal on the cover caught my eye, and I asked her about it. What’s with this “ABC Publisher Romance Winner”?

“Oh,” she said with no small measure of pride, “I won the contest and was awarded a publishing contract.”

Um. Oh. “Okay, but why is it on your cover?”

“I’m an award-winning author, and this will sell books!”

There were simply no words. It’s ludicrous to think this little gold seal is an amulet whose power will sell books because this is a no-name publisher with no marketing or promotion, no distribution, and no store placement. The only people who will see her book are those who have a book pressed into their hands by…the author.

Stuff like this make my teeth itch because it’s puffery and has zero meaning. Store-front publishers do this stuff to capitalize on the real award winning competitions, like PEN Award, Pulitzer, Man Booker, National Book Award, Edgar Awards, and to a smaller degree, Ben Franklin, and IPPYs, thinking having a little gold seal will sell books.

And it may. I mean, readers could see my acquaintance’s gold seal and believe her book is very important and buy several copies – and for her sake, I hope they do. But this will be limited to those who know her and attend the talks she’s planned around town. There is no grander reach to the reading market by the publisher.

Meanwhile, this acquaintance is calling herself an award-winning author, which I imagine makes her feel like a million bucks. But how does this translate to sales if her publisher sits on their hands and forces her to do all the marketing and promotion?

Authors tell me they’re award winners in their queries, and I check them out. First thing I look for is whether the contests are so obscure that they have no meaning. Can I see how many writers competed in each genre? It’s impossible to give credence to these contests. Now, if you won a Pushcart, then I know you have some writing chops.

My feeling is that these “award winners” by unknown publishers are meant to puff up the author’s ego and to attract more victims writers to their web. Without any marketplace presence, there really isn’t anything to crow about, right? We all love the feeling of being considered exceptional. When I was 10, I was voted “Smelliest Feet” at Y Camp. Now, one would think I’d be embarrassed, but oh nay nay. My distinction awarded me the top bunk, where there was a small rip in the tent at the foot of the bunk. Not only could my feet air out, but it was also the coolest place in the tent during a very hot summer in the mountains. And because it was such a goofy award, I made a lot of friends. Go figure.

But I digress…

My point is that if any of us are going to be awarded for being outstanding, shouldn’t it mean something? Shouldn’t we care about quality and depth, and not just the title? There are great publishers who hold contests from time to time and the winner receives a contract, so I’m not saying writing contests bite the big one. But talk is cheap, so stick with known publishers whose books grace the bookstore shelves.

Which would you rather have? A cover devoid of an Award Winner seal and widely distributed and promoted, or a pretty gold seal on a book that will end up sitting in your garage? …which is what I fear is the fate for this acquaintance of mine.

If you enter a publisher’s writing contest, please make sure that the publisher has the chops to  distribute, promote, and market their books. How can you figure that out? Simple. Go to a bookstore. If you see their books on the shelves, then you know they’re walking the walk. Don’t let anyone appeal to your ego, lest you become their victim.

7 Responses to Publisher Contests and Puffery – Do They Mean Anything?

  1. Pelotard says:

    I think I just thought of another scam. As Mrs. P. says, it’s lucky for the world that my parents brought me up to be honest. It’ll go into my file for Unused Ideas in the meanwhile – setting up scams seems like a lot of work, and I’d probably rather write a story about it.

  2. ericjbaker says:

    I wouldn’t be surprised if the publisher issues that award to every author who opts for the “Gold Package.”

  3. Actually, Pelo, the publisher in question isn’t a scam at all. Just horribly ignorant about how publishing really works. For example, they believe it’s the author’s responsibility to do all the marketing and promotion, and even give classes on how to achieve this. Meanwhile, the publisher sits back and lets the authors do all the work, while they reap the benefits. It’s disheartening.

  4. Pelotard says:

    Oh no, I just meant that this was inspiration for a scam. I register a publishing company or literary criticism company or literary magazine or some such, then announce an “Award” with an entry fee of about $100. They all win, even if I have to divide the categories up fairly small, like the one for “Best urban fantasy about werewolves in Rome written by a male author from Indiana, word count lower than 60,000”. Gold stickers to put on their covers then come at 5 cents each, 25 for $1. For an add’l $75, you also get to be in next week’s award.

  5. Yes, these dirtbags need to be exposed as well. And I thought about adding this particular group to this blog post, but decided to strictly focus on publisher because I think they do far more damage. An author may be out a couple hundred dollars in the case of the scams, but a book is lost almost forever through obscure publishers who pull this stuff to collect more writers for their stable.

  6. vera gibson says:

    Thank you for this article – very informative!

  7. D. D. Syrdal says:

    I see so much of this on Twitter among ‘independent’ authors. Along with ‘awards’ are claims of being ‘bestselling’ authors. You see it so often you know it means nothing. My guess is that the ‘bestseller’ status comes from somehow getting a bump in Amazon rankings for a 20th of a second. I understand people want to promote their books, but you see it so often it loses any meaning.

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