Contests: A Non-Traditional Route to Publication

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Like most unpublished writers, I believed that there were only two paths to getting my words and thoughts before the world’s readers. I could go the traditional route of sending out query letters, and hope my brilliant writing would be plucked from the slush pile on a discerning agent’s desk. She would then successfully pitch it to an editor, and a lucrative contract would follow.

John Keyse-Walker author writer

Column by John Keyse-Walker, author of SUN, SAND MURDER
(Sept. 2016, Minotaur Books). John practiced law for thirty years
before retiring and commencing his writing career. He is an avid
salt- and freshwater angler, tennis player, kayaker, and an
accomplished cook. He has travelled extensively both inside and
outside the US. He and his wife, Irene, live part of the year in Ohio
and part in Florida. SUN, SAND MURDER, his first novel, is the
winner of the 2015 Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America
First Crime Novel Award. Connect with him on Facebook.

Or I could do it all myself—cut agent, editor, and publisher out of the process, cast my words on the electronic wind, and hope that my own editing and marketing efforts would cause readers to pick my work from the Amazon river of self-published authors.

(Hate writing queries? Here are 4 other ways you can reach out to agents.)

Neither course seemed particularly attractive, and I didn't feel like one was more likely to succeed than the other. But then I learned of another method available to land that publishing contract with one of the big traditional New York publishers—entering a writing contest. In the genre of mystery and crime fiction, the area I am most familiar with, it was the path to publication taken by authors Stefanie Pintoff, C. B. McKenzie, Les Roberts, Doug Corleone, Linda Rodriguez, Donna Andrews, Eleanor Kuhns, Mary Miley Theobald, Christine Barber, and Tricia Fields, to name a few.

It was also my route to publication. After a try using the time-honored agent-query-send-some-pages-not-for-me method, I entered the Mystery Writers of America/Minotaur Books First Crime Novel Competition and won the 2015 award. The prize was a $10,000 advance and a publishing contract with Minotaur Books, the U.S. mystery/crime imprint of international publishing giant Macmillan—my first book, SUN, SAND MURDER, released on September 13. The contest win opened a number of doors; I now have an agent, a second book written, and a third in process.

The MWA contest I won is not the only one available to the unpublished writer. Even considering only the mystery/crime fiction field, there are a fair number of contests that offer publication to the winner, including the Tony Hillerman Prize, Malice Domestic, and Private Eye Writers of America. There are also contests for romance, children’s, and literary fiction writers. Dig a little and you will probably find contests in your specific genre that have a publishing contract as the prize.

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I’ve heard some writers say contests are a waste of effort because the odds of success are too long, with thousands of entries in each. That is not the actual case. There are surprisingly modest numbers of entries in most contests. The MWA First Crime Novel contest usually receives just shy of four hundred entries. The Hillerman Prize usually sees around two hundred. Those odds are certainly no worse than the ones faced in most literary agent’s slush piles, and may be better. Also, keep in mind that contests are not about who can write the best query letter, the factor on which most opportunities with literary agents hinge. In contests, the judges, usually writers and editors, actually read your work, or at least some of it. If query letters are not your strong suit, a contest may be the way to go.

Perhaps the best kept secret about contests is that you don't need to win in order to receive a publishing contract. While most contests have only a single formal winner, and many do not name who the finalists are, those who make the final cut are read by editors/judges in the sponsoring publishing houses, and are sometimes offered contracts even if they don't win. I personally know of one author who followed this route to a first contract and who has gone on to multiple contracts since that time. And even if you don't get a contract the first time around, those who read your work may like what they see, and remember you the next time your name or your work is in front of them.

(4 ways besides query letters you can contact literary agents.)

So if you are trying to find your way through the crowds of writers to a publishing contract with a traditional publisher, consider taking the third path—enter a contest. The result may change your writing life.


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