The 2011 Indie Publishing Contest

I’ve been getting questions about a brand-new writers’ contest: the 2011 Indie Publishing Contest, sponsored by (among others) the San Francisco Writers Conference.

Write, Win AND Publish!

New ‘Indie Publishing Contest’ Revamps the Traditional Writing Contest with the Benefits of Indie Publishing.

Since when can a writing contest turn the winner into an author with a published book…and provide a staff of book marketing professionals to help get the book into bookstores and publicized? This is the new reality of combining a traditional writing contest with the myriad advantages of indie publishing.

By “indie publishing,” they don’t mean true self-publishing, or publishing with an independent publisher, but the kind of publishing provided by print-on-demand publishing services–in this case, Author Solutions, Inc., which is one of the contest sponsors. This is not, in fact, independent publishing–but since I’ve already done two blog posts on that subject, I’m not going to belabor the point.

According to the contest guidelines, writers can enter up to the first 5,000 words of a novel, nonfiction book, story, or poem, from which a grand prize winner, four category winners, and runners up in each category will be selected. The entry fee is $35 ($25 for poems). Category winners will receive either a one-hour consultation with a literary agent, or a free publishing package from ASI. Runners up get $50 plus a 50% discount coupon from ASI. The Grand Prize winner gets “an indie publishing contract” that includes:

* A print publishing package from Author Solutions

* eBook format conversion from Author Solutions

* 90 days of mentoring from a literary agent selected by SFWC

* 90 days of consulting and publicity from an AuthorHive publicist

* A high quality video book trailer from AuthorHive

* The scheduling of a blog tour and a video press release from AuthorHive

* Distribution of the book online and in bookstores from Author Solutions

* Book signing at a bookstore near the winner’s home (Continental US only) from Author Solutions

* Public announcement and promotion at the San Francisco Writers Conference

* ISBN number from Author Solutions

Now, I have some quibbles with this list. Two of the highlighted items–the ISBN number and the distribution–are a standard part of any print publishing package from Author Solutions, but are listed here as if they’re important extras (plus, the wording of the distribution item might lead inexperienced writers to assume that the winning book will actually appear on physical bookstore shelves, rather than merely being available for order). And I am skeptical of the value of the “consulting and publicity” from AuthorHive, which sells a la carte the mostly dubiously effective, and in many cases wildly overpriced, marketing services that ASI offers through its imprints.

There’s no doubt, however, that this prize would cost a bundle if you had to pay for it, and the literary agent mentoring is a nice perk that ASI authors wouldn’t normally get (I contacted Contest Director Laurie McLean, an agent with Larsen Pomada Literary Agents, to ask who the literary agents would be,and she says they will be chosen after the winners are selected, to ensure they’re a good match for the winners’ writing.) For anyone who was already planning on using a publishing service, it’s an attractive prize.

The problem is, the contest isn’t being pitched to those people. It’s being pitched to anyone and everyone who wants to be published. “While the Holy Grail remains a contract with one of the big six publishers in New York, that goal is getting more elusive than ever for writers,” says Ms. McLean on the main contest page. “We are offering the indie alternative to get to the big six–and hoping to establish the credibility for indie publishing that the indie film and music industries enjoy today.”

This characterization of ASI and services like it–which could come straight out of the ASI propaganda mill–not only partakes of the misconceptions and the misleading hype that surround so-called “indie publishing”, but helps to further them. Spin it how you will, at the end of the day (or in this case, at the end of 90 days), the winner will wind up with an unedited (unless they obtain editing themselves) book with limited distribution and major marketing challenges. Could they parlay their way to strong sales and mainstream notice? It’s possible. Motivated self-publishers have accomplished this, and self-publishing evangelists are only too happy to trot out these examples as “proof” that self-publishing can work for anyone. But there are good reasons why, as ASI’s CEO revealed in a January 2009 New York Times article, the average book from any of the ASI brands sells only around 150 copies. That, of course, is not mentioned in the contest material.

So if you’re already thinking of using a publishing service (and I’m optimistically assuming that if you are, you’ve done your research and are clear about your goals), the 2011 Indie Publishing Contest looks like a pretty decent deal. But if your goal is readership, wide exposure, professional credibility–in other words, a writing career–please do not mistake this contest for a step in that direction.


  1. You said "ISBN number."

    Since the N in ISBN stands for "number," to say "number" a second time is redundant.

    I know many people say "ISBN number," but I expect better from you, 🙂

  2. things bothering me about this story…
    Why would a Writers Conference sanction Vanity publishing and publishing without an advance to the Writer?
    Why would a legitamet Literary Agent support the same ( knowing full well they would never do this under any other circumstances, no money to the agent)
    Certainly Writers/Illustrator Conferences hold Contests (usually with an entry fee of some sort) but while a top prize may be monetary and/or a meeting with an Editor from a reputable publishing house, there is never a gaurantee of publication. In this case there IS because the entry fees of all the writers go to pay ASI.

  3. Wow. Got to hand it to them. They're really getting creative in trying to attract people to their "publishing" services. Thankful for Writer Beware. Thanks!

  4. Victoria, thank you for this reasoned and balanced opinion. But…

    unwary, desperate, questionable, scam…

    Some pretty cynical words among the comments.

    In my experience, the organizers of the San Francisco Writers Conference have done a good job of having speakers representing a broad diversity of positions on a wide range of publishing topics. They have had many sessions covering platform-building, marketing, promotion, self-publishing. They also have panels on every topic relating to traditional publishing. They create a friendly forum where aspiring authors can meet and talk casually and formally with agents, editors, and each other.

    I don't have any idea why they chose to change their conference contest from the more traditional version to this approach. I suspect they are (a) responding to the demand they're seeing from conference attendees, and (b) trying to differentiate their contest from the myriad others that, quite frankly, with a few exceptions, don't result in much exposure for the winner. Maybe they're just trying something new. Last year they started publishing the conference anthology as an e-book.

  5. McLean's comment holds water, "In this new era of digital publishing with eBooks, Print on Demand (POD) books and more, there are now many paths to publication." Although I think some would contest the statement that publishing with the Big 6 is the holy grail. Seth Godin's Domino Project announced today is a good example. Seth has been at this for nearly 2 decades.

    For those who are just getting started, full-service self-publishing can be a great option.

    Lots of submissions does = lots of email addresses. That is how Author Solutions operates. That model isn't necessarily 'bad,' but in this case, perhaps a bit misleading considering what they are promoting and they language they are using.

  6. Are they trying to build a mailing list?

    Lots of submissions = lots of addresses for people in their target market

  7. I think that any contest which charges a fee is a de facto scam. A writer who enters such a contest has no way of knowing whether or not the contest is biased for or against certain entrants. Even when the sponsors of these contests are legitimate literary journals or publishers, there have been instances of the judges knowing who they intend to choose as the winner even before the contest begins. That's not even to mention the fact of unconscious bias. Some judges will not choose the work of a person totally unknown to them for fear of being ridiculed by their colleagues for the choice that they made. Enter such contests and you're likely just throwing your money away.

  8. Hrm. Well, there's one agent definitely on the questionable list…why would a reputable literary agent involve herself in something like this?

  9. An obvious effort to generate submissions and future sales. One winner, many submissions. I'd try this one, but I have more pride than the company doing it…:)

  10. This contest contacted me for posting in FundsforWriters. I refused. I wasn't comfortable with them accepting funds (entry fee) and not offering prizes other than those in-kind and non-monetary. Since the FFW premise is compensation for writers, I declined to post them. The contact person said they were avoiding cash prizes. She didn't say why, and frankly, I didn't want to ask since I'd already passed on her request. It's definitely an odd critter, but then today's publishing arena is an odd environment.

  11. Very strange… did the contest director explain why she would get involved with something like this, when her job is to represent writers to get them *real* publishing deals?

  12. Here's the problem as I see it: the kinds of people who often best benefit from the kinds of things Author Solutions offers are not the sorts of people who would benefit from this contest. By this I mean those who want to publish memoirs for family or books for very narrow niches. The kinds of stuff offered to the winners here is the sort of stuff that implies a desire to sell to a large market, and for this, the Author Solutions name can be a liability. If the contest was for true self-published works, it might be worth the entry fee, but by the time someone has gone the route of true self-publishing, the last thing they're going to want is a contract with Author Solutions.

    Just my 0.02, anyway.

  13. Boy, I can sure see how this would seem attractive to the unwary and desperate. I've just had my first taste of publishing failure and it has already made this more palatable. I can't imagine what it would look like for authors who've struggled for years.

Leave a Reply

DECEMBER 2, 2010

Democratization or Disinformation?

DECEMBER 10, 2010

More Contest Alerts: Brit Writers’ Awards, Amazon Studios