Ask Tania: What's with these book awards that authors can buy? Are they worth it?

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Hi Tania,
I'm an emerging author, and I'm in the middle of self-publishing a little chapter book. I was wondering ... what's with these book awards that authors can buy? Are they worth it? I'm not sure how they work.

Hi, Caroline,

Oooh--the vanity book award. This is a tough one. About to get frank here!

You may have heard of the term 'vanity publishing', where authors pay to have their work published. Some vanity publishers prefer to call it 'joint venture' publishing, but it's still the same thing.

While this type of publishing may suit those who'd like to publish their memoirs for their family, it's not recommended* for anyone who wants to make a career out of writing books. There is no selection criteria with vanity publishers (even if they insist there is) and the outcome for your work is therefore nowhere near the professional level it would enjoy with a trade publisher (who makes financial, time and emotional investments in your work).

*Footnote: I think self-publishing is wonderful--I've done it and I'm a big supporter of it--but you can absolutely self-publish books well and with credibility, without having to use a vanity publisher (and you'll save yourself a tonne of money, too!). See my post on self-publishing for more.

Fundamentally, you should never have to pay to submit work to publishers, and you should never have to pay to have your work published. The reasons are far too many to go into here (you can google this topic for thousands of references), but suffice to say that 99.99 per cent of the time, using a vanity publisher is not only unprofitable (in fact--it can end up costing you a lot more money than you bargained for), it can be damaging to your career in terms of both the production quality of your book, and your credibility as a creator.

I know the pain from those achingly long years of writing, submitting and waiting waiting waiting, endlessly waiting. Nonetheless, it's good to remember that it takes an average of three years to be even noticed in the industry (and this is the kids' industry in Australia--adult and overseas markets would take a lot longer) and as many as ten years to have any book success that could lead to career success. New creators must 'earn their due', just as anyone in any career field must.

These 'overnight success' stories you hear about are rarely that. Many people work so hard, squirreling away behind the scenes, till one day, things finally click, and they experience publication or even publication success. It's virtually never an overnight thing, even if it appears that way to outside observers.

So, we must work hard and bide our time. Things WILL happen if we continue to hone our work and produce great manuscripts. But the bottom line is, we need to put that work in, and can't expect to jump the queue with minimal experience. The more experience we have, the better work we create.

We need to marinate!

It's the same with awards. We shouldn't be jumping the queue. It doesn't look good.

There are many and varied vanity awards that can be purchased (a great deal of them based in the States). Basically, you send in your book details, pay a fee, receive a shortlisting then a win, followed by an 'award' for your book ... for no reason whatsoever. Not for its narrative, not for its illustrations, not for its themes or content. You win because you paid to win. Every single entrant 'wins'. You even pay for the stickers and certificate. Oh--and no one reads these books. They just take your money and assign wins.

The biggest trouble with this type of award is that average or even substandard books can win.

I know this may sound harsh, but it's the truth: average or substandard books should not be winning awards. It's false advertising. It's illegitimate. It's dishonest and deceptive. And not only that, it takes away from the slew of truly deserving books and creators who DO put in the time and effort to create something that actually deserves accolades.

But what about profile-building? Can fake awards help?

In a nutshell, buying book awards does NOT boost your profile. It either has no effect or it actually damages your profile. Here's why ...

There are two groups of people you want to impress when you write books. Firstly, your audience. Secondly, your industry's gatekeepers.

In the children's book industry, your audience is children and the people who buy books for children. Honestly, your audience (most especially the children) doesn't care a whit about awards. Sure, the odd book-savvy/industry-involved librarian or parent might see a gold sticker and be more likely to reach for the book, but they won't be buying said book if it's a) not good, or b) isn't the right fit for their child. So, a sticker is almost worthless with this group.

The gatekeepers are booksellers, teachers, librarians, awards judges, publishers, editors, agents and other literary professionals. If you want to buy book awards to impress this group and perhaps gain contracts or credibility, think again.

Gatekeepers know their stuff. They know which awards are important and which ones absolutely ensure the book is actually good enough to be award-winning. They also know the fake awards--those that have been awarded without merit. And they'll give these books (and their creators) a wide berth because they'll know, almost without question, that a book with a fake accolade is very different to a book that has actually earned one. They'll also know that the creator lacks authenticity.

Books are part of a brand. Authors and illustrators absolutely do become a brand of sorts--a brand that continues to add to its product cache (books, illustrations, articles, short stories, etc) over time. You want that brand to be solid, respectable, reliable and high-end ... and all this takes time to build. So a book with a fake award sticker does reflect on its creators.

These vanity awards are also costly. You pay to enter, you pay for award stickers, you pay for your certificate, you pay for critiques, you pay to be listed in awards publications, and you will not receive any kind of prize (indeed, the prize would be your sticker ... which you pay for). These awards are 100 per cent about making the provider money--essentially, profiteering on aspiring creators--and have little to do with assessing, identifying and awarding great literature.

Do you really want to be associated with that? Would you want to be operated on by a surgeon who purchased their degree online?

Yes, many awards--even the credible, important ones--have entry fees, but this is to cover the cost of a reading and assessment team. Prizes are correspondingly decent, there are only a handful of categories (as opposed to scores with vanity awards) and--here's the biggest difference--only a small handful shortlist and win. This is what makes it prestigious. If everyone wins, how is that a prestigious thing, let alone a 'win'?

No, we're not all winners (alas!), so don't be tempted to market yourself as a faux winner, and so lose credibility with those who matter. Instead, spend time working towards the real deal. Hone those manuscripts and produce great, award-winning work. It will be so worth it in the end.

Happy writing!


PS: See this great article on Vanity Book Awards. And this one on writing contests that have a hidden agenda.

See all the questions so far


DimbutNice said...

As a fellow lover of slow maturation and marination, I whole heartedly concur! Great gardens take time, patience and dedicated tending to mature and flourish and eventually, astound. As Robin Williams once said: it took him 20 years to be an overnight success. You can't buy that kind of status. Sage direction, Tania.

jen storer said...

Wow! Gosh! I so did not know this. The things that go on, hey? Great post, Tania, really enjoyed it.
Still thinking about creating a gold sticker in Canva and putting it on my next book, though. Just sayin'... ;-)

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