Self-Published Book Awards

Nat RussoOpinion, Publishing 13 Comments

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.

Writer's Digest 23rd Annual Self-Published Book Awards

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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About Nat Russo

Nat Russo is the Amazon #1 Bestselling Fantasy author of Necromancer Awakening and Necromancer Falling. Nat was born in New York, raised in Arizona, and has lived just about everywhere in-between. He’s gone from pizza maker, to radio DJ, to Catholic seminarian (in a Benedictine monastery, of all places), to police officer, to software engineer. His career has taken him from central Texas to central Germany, where he worked as a defense contractor for Northrop Grumman. He's spent most of his adult life developing software, playing video games, running a Cub Scout den, gaining/losing weight, and listening to every kind of music under the sun. Along the way he managed to earn a degree in Philosophy and a black belt in Tang Soo Do. He currently makes his home in central Texas with his wife, teenager, mischievous beagle, and goofy boxador.

Comments 13

    1. Post
  1. Nat, I used to enter contests through Writer’s Digest, until I read that they are generated solely to churn up money (contest entry fees) and also to augment the magazine’s mailing list. Don’t know if that’s true or simply bitter grapes, but it seems to me that you got a lot less than what you paid for. It’s disappointing when a magazine published presumably to assist aspiring writers acts in ways that are contrary to its mission statement. Kind of like a fitness club with a cake bar at the entrance. I wonder if the judge who read your book merely looked at the CliffsNotes.

    1. Post

      It was extremely disappointing, and my experience with it seems to support what you’ve read. I feel as if I just “donated” $100 to some headless organization and received an invitation to send them more money in return.

  2. It still really makes me angry that the entry fee for the self-published contest is so much higher than the contest for unpublished manuscripts. That fact, combined with their inability to provide a worthwhile commentary on manuscripts, is why I will not be submitting to this contest.

    1. Post

      Based on my experience with the process, I could never recommend the contest to a writer. And the more I learn about the organization in general, the less I am to support them in any way.

      I had (mistakenly) believed the contest was an effort to recognize the legitimacy of independent authors. But the more I read their publications, the more I realize how far from the truth that is. They continue to be an organization created by and for traditional authors. And perhaps that’s generous, as they seem to help agents and publishers more.

    2. Hi Fiona. Thanks for your comment. Just to clarify, the entry fee for the self-published book competition is higher than it is for our other competitions for two reasons. One, the judges are reading entire books, rather than short stories, essays, and poems – which is what our other competitions focus on – so their reading fees are higher. Two, the prize packages for the self-published book competition are bigger than they are for the other competitions. Those are the main differences contributing to the expense.
      Phil Sexton
      Publisher, Writer’s Digest

  3. Great timing on this piece, Nat. I actually had gone to the WD website just moments ago to get the details, and when I discovered there was a $100 entry fee just for the chance to compete it made me skeptical.

    I decided to do a little further research by Googling the contest, and lo and behold, your article was near the top of the results.

    I’m glad I found your commentary. It echoes the vibe I had already gotten from the contest entry page. I think I’ll hold on to my $100 and use it towards promoting my novel in some other way.

    1. Post

      Hi Sara. Thanks for stopping by!

      I think there are things Writer’s Digest can do to make the $100 an investment in a writer’s career. As you’ve probably noticed from the comments this article has generated, Phil Sexton dropped by to offer some insight this morning. So I think the good news is that Writer’s Digest is listening.

      Since I published the article yesterday, I’ve received a handful of private messages from other writers with similar experiences. And we were all left with the same conclusion: if more can be done to ensure the critique offers value to the writer (e.g., by including specific, concrete advice for areas of the craft to concentrate on, perhaps with an example or two of an alternative method or path), the $100 could be a worthwhile investment.

      I’d consider entering again myself if the critique were expanded. At the very least, I think Writer’s Digest should post an example of what a writer can expect to receive, this way expectation levels will be set appropriately.

  4. Hi Nat
    Thanks for your post. I’m very sorry to hear that your feedback was disappointing. I can tell you that typically we get a positive response to the critiques. (We used to get criticized for not “proving” the judge had read the book, so they will often make reference to specific plot points in their critique – it sounds like this particular judge went too far in that direction). Also, the feedback is definitely not supposed to be written in such a way as to be unquotable. We want authors to use positive reviews to help promote their books – there’s no upside to being unquotable. I’d be happy to discuss further, as well as the other concerns you mention above. Our goal is to support all writers regardless of how they want to publish (all of the editors on staff are traditionally published, self published, or working at it), so if that’s not the perception, I’d like to rectify the situation. Should you be interested in talking, please feel free to email me at (Any of your followers are welcome to as well.)
    Thanks very much

    Phil Sexton
    Publisher, Writer’s Digest

    1. Post

      Hi Phil,

      Thank you so much for stopping by and taking the time to comment. And thank you very much for shedding some light on the pricing structure question that Fiona had above. If the perception writers have isn’t the perception Writer’s Digest is trying to foster, I’d be happy to do my part in turning that around by spreading the word to my audience here.

      As I mentioned in the article, the value proposition for me was the critique, which was ultimately disappointing. It wasn’t disappointing because the judge disliked the book. Truth be told, my writing is so niche that I typically expect that reaction. My default belief is that no one likes my writing, this way I’m pleasantly surprised when someone actually does. It was disappointing because it lacked the mentoring quality I was hoping it would have when I entered the contest. I saw this as a unique opportunity to receive professional advice early in my career, as I’m sure many entrants do. Granted, I may have read too much into what I’d be receiving.

      Thank you, also, for commenting on whether the critique is designed to be unquotable. It felt as if that was the purpose due a combination of two factors:
      1. The wording of the critique itself (very short, so it was necessary to skillfully interweave the positive and negative, making it difficult to extract marketing copy without misleading people, which is something I would never consciously do or condone).
      2. The language in the accompanying letter stressing the appropriate use for any extracted quotations, and the emphasis that quotes not be taken out of context.

      Taken independently of one another, both are understandable. When combined, however, I inferred quotability was a hot topic of sorts.

      Thanks again for stopping by our community, Phil! It’s heartening to see that Writer’s Digest is listening and interested in being a positive force in writers’ lives!


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