Based on the email I received this morning from Writer’s Digest, it’s that time of year again.
No, I’m not talking about Christmas! I’m talking about the time of year to decide whether you’re entering the annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards.
I want to offer my perspective, since I participated in the 2014 award cycle.
Frankly, I was rather disappointed with the result last year, and it wound up being a $100 (USD) experiment I won’t repeat. Full disclosure: I was not a finalist. However, that’s not my concern, and that’s not what’s driving me to share my experience.
I assure you, the content of this article would be no different if I’d won the contest. All I want to do is examine the value proposition, using my experience as a basis. For those not up on Marketing-speak, “value proposition” is that special something that makes a product or service offering attractive to customers. (As an aside: I hope all of you who read my blog regularly are spinning up on some basic marketing. You don’t need a degree, but a little knowledge will do wonders for your publishing business.)
Independent authors typically have limited resources, and I’m concerned that the advertised value proposition doesn’t accurately reflect $100 expectations.
What You’re Promised
There were two primary reasons I entered the contest:
1. All entrants are promised a “brief commentary from one of the judges.” Since I had never received “professional” commentary up to that point, I thought that alone would be worth the price of admission. You never know…a professional judge might offer advice I could use to improve my craft. And if the judge liked the book, the commentary might provide me with a bonus “blurb” I could use for marketing purposes. This was the primary value proposition for me (not the “blurb”, but the commentary). This is what distinguished Writer’s Digest and convinced me to spend my money here rather than elsewhere.
2. It gave me a chance at winning a high-visibility award, or at least becoming a finalist. Why not roll the dice if I had $100 sitting around, right? My thinking was Necromancer Awakening was very well-received, so maybe Writer’s Digest would like it too.
#2 was a minor point for me and not really my focus, so I’ll keep this part short. The judge praised certain aspects of the book and criticized others. As Raymond E. Feist is often heard to say, “That’s why they make different flavors of ice cream.” I’m perfectly fine with people not liking my writing or my stories. Lord knows there are a lot of stories/writers I don’t care for, including some that are almost universally loved!
It’s #1 that disappointed me, because it was #1 that convinced me to shell out $100. So let’s dig into that a little further.
What You Get
1. The “Brief Commentary”.
The “brief commentary” on Necromancer Awakening was exactly two sentences. Ok, I take that back…it was a paragraph roughly the size of this paragraph. However, the first several sentences did nothing more than regurgitate the plot back to me, as if to prove the judge read the book. The two sentences that amounted to critique were ultimately at odds with the reviews Necromancer Awakening has received (both the positive and negative reviews). And they weren’t specific enough to be helpful. So, rather than being a tool to improve my craft, the critique was confusing and really didn’t help at all. (The advice was generic enough that, in hind sight, I can see why the bulk of the “critique” was spent summarizing the plot. Without it, I may have actually been tempted to think the judge didn’t read the book at all.)
Also, they were very careful in the wording of their commentary. They make it difficult to find a quotable passage, so I just gave up on the effort entirely.
2. An invitation to subscribe to Writer’s Digest magazine. Granted, this didn’t appear in the same mailing, but they didn’t let any grass grow under their feet sending it out to me now that they have my mailing address.
What Needs To Change
I would enter the contest again if the following things changed:
1. Don’t regurgitate my plot. Writer’s Digest is a professional organization. I trust your professionalism. If you’re only going to write a single paragraph, don’t waste that precious space telling me my own story. Believe me, I know the story better than you do. I can recite it to myself forward and backward. I didn’t send you the manuscript to write a sixth-grade book report. I sent it so you could help me improve my craft.
2. Spend more time crafting a commentary that is of value to the writer, rather than (seemingly) spending the lion’s share of the time making sure it’s not “blurbable”. I don’t care about the “blurbability”. I do care about the quality of the critique, regardless of whether you liked the book. Give us enough detail to improve our craft. That’s one of the missions of Writer’s Digest, isn’t it? When I hear the words “brief commentary”, the image that comes to mind is something more than a couple of sentences. This article is a “brief commentary” on the 2014 Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards.
While I don’t expect Writer’s Digest to write a commentary as long as this article, I do expect them to give me something that will improve my craft as a writer.
I’m not trying to discourage anyone from entering! After all, the value proposition may be different for you. You might be far more interested in the chance to win a contest than you are in the commentary. I just want to shed some light on my experience in case your expectations are similar to mine.
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