If you’re a writer, I’ll bet you’ve been spammed by JM Northern Media.
Don’t recognize the name? Maybe these will ring a bell. The Los Angeles Book Festival. The Hollywood Book Festival. The Halloween Book Festival. The Green Book Festival. The Paris Book Festival. The New York Book Festival. The San Francisco Book Festival. The Animals, Animals, Animals Book Festival. And at least nine other annual festivals, all owned and operated by JM Northern Media.
(UPDATE 12/12/19: Sometime after July 2019, JM Northern took its website offline (here’s the Wayback Machine’s most recent cache). Its only web presence now appears to be at BookFestivals.com, which seems to be trying to boost its credibility by also listing other book fairs. It mentions only four of JM Northern’s many properties, but more are included on the handy “multiple entry” form. Here’s the list as it appeared on the old website.)
Why, you might ask, would one company run so many book festivals? To make money, of course. JM Northern’s “festivals” aren’t really festivals at all, but textbook examples of a moneymaking awards program. Here’s the M.O.
– Solicitation. To maximize entries, moneymaking awards programs do email blasts. JM Northern is no exception–if you get on its list you’ll be relentlessly spammed with calls for entry to any or all of its fifteen “festivals.”
– High entry fees. For all but the Hollywood Book Festival, which charges $75, entrants must pay “a non-refundable entry fee of $50 in the form of a check, money order or PayPal online payment in U.S. dollars for each submission.”
– Lots of entry categories. To maximize income, moneymaking awards programs create as many entry categories as possible, and encourage multiple entries. JM Northern’s festivals all have 15 or more entry categories–actually rather modest for such programs, but that’s offset by how many of them there are. Plus, you can get 10% off by entering more than one festival at a time!
– Opportunities to spend more money. Moneymaking awards programs’ profits don’t just come from entry fees. They also hawk award stickers, certificates, critiques, and more.
On its festivals’ entry forms, JM Northern asks writers to indicate whether they’ll be willing to buy “promotional items” or critiques–to be provided, I’m guessing, by JM Northern’s own Modern Media Publicity, which sells said promotional items (“Nothing says free advertising like a quality t-shirt or coffee mug”) as well as “Regular” ($150) and “Deluxe” ($350) critiques by “by our staff of authors, publishers, festival judges, filmmakers and agents” (unnamed, of course). (UPDATE 12/12/19: Modern Media Publicity appears to be recently dead, but here’s how it looked in July.)
JM Northern also maintains a “book marketing portal” called Table of Honor, where festival winners and honorees can pay $75 per title to list their books. (UPDATE 12/19/19: Also dead, with the domain for sale, but here’s how it looked in May.)
Let’s do the math. According to this article, the Hollywood Book Festival received 2,740 entries in 2012. At $75 per entry, that’s a gross of $205,500. Let’s assume that the other 14 festivals, with a lower fee, also get a lower number of entries–say, 1,500 (I’m lowballing to demonstrate how insanely lucrative this scheme is). Altogether, that’s over $1.25 million just in entry fees. A year. When you add in revenue from the critiques, the merchandise, and the marketing, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that JM Northern’s annual festival gross is $2 million or more.
– Anonymous judging. JM Northern’s festivals promise judging by “a panel of industry experts,” but don’t reveal who those experts are. This is typical of moneymaking awards programs, where the judges are usually not the experienced professionals promised in the publicity material, but rather the program’s staff, who may simply pick winners out of a hat.
– Negligible prizes. To avoid cutting into their profits, moneymaking awards programs typically offer prizes that cost them little or nothing: press releases, media announcements, printed certificates, website listings, features on satellite websites they themselves own, donated items, and, of course, the supposed prestige that comes from being able to claim that you’re an “award-winning author.”
Here’s where JM Northern differs a little from the norm. Winners and placers in the various entry categories get (at least according to pictorial evidence) nothing but a framed certificate. But JM Northern does sponsor actual awards ceremonies, and the grand prize winner for each festival receives an “appearance fee”–between $500 and $1,500, depending on which festival–plus a plane ticket to whatever city is hosting the ceremony.
The festivals’ websites name winners, so I emailed several of the grand prize recipients to verify that they’d received their prizes. I heard back from three. All reported that they did receive a check (in one case, after a delay), along with a plaque (although see the update below). Only one accepted the plane ticket and attended the ceremony–a relatively bare-bones snack-and-cocktails affair at which the person gave an acceptance speech and category winners and honorees received certificates. The person also confirmed that there was no actual book festival, in the sense of an event with speakers, exhibitors, and a variety of events–just the ceremony, along with a display of the honorees’ books
What about prestige? Moneymaking awards don’t typically command a lot of name recognition (two of the grand prize winners I spoke with told me that their publishers, which had submitted their books at their request, had never heard of the festivals before)–but if you win or place, you’ll be able to tag your book as an “award-winning book” and yourself as an “award-winning author.” How much readers care about such designations is an open question. With all the fake review scandals, as well as readers’ increasing disillusion with authorial self-promotion, I think book buyers have become more cynical in general about what authors say about themselves.
Moneymaking awards, which overwhelmingly target and ensnare small press and self-published authors, are a cynical play on authors’ hunger for recognition and exposure in an increasingly crowded marketplace. JM Northern is by far the most prolific of these schemes, but there are many others. In my opinion, they are never a worthwhile use of writers’ (or publishers’) money.
UPDATE 3/30/19: From a recent comment on this post from a festival winner,
I entered the Great Midwest Book Festival and won Grand Prize of $1000 and transportation costs to the award dinner, held in Boston in this case. I met other authors there, including the grand prize winner of the New England Book Festival. We were served a good dinner, each of us had our 5 minutes at the mic, and I got a framed certificate and promise from the emcee that my check would be sent in 30 days.
No check arrived.
I inquired. Bruce Haring told me the emcee was mistaken, that checks were sent in 90 days.
I waited another 60 days. No check arrived.
And so it went through months and promises. The last promise was that I would be “made whole” on the matter, and that he would begin to send a little something regularly until the amount was paid in full. No little something arrived.
This author has sought help from the BBB, the Authors Guild, and the National Writers Union–all of which have attempted unsuccessfully to intervene–and has just filed a complaint with the California Attorney General. Well over a year after the festival dinner, the author still has not received their winnings (see the author’s followup comments on 8/25 and 9/20).
So be warned: if you beat the odds by winning a prize in one of JM Northern’s faux festivals, you can’t count on getting a check.
UPDATE 1/13/20: After a hiatus of quite a few months, JM Northern is soliciting again. I got this email this morning:
J.M. Northern now has an F rating with the Better Business Bureau, due to its failure to respond to complaints (two of the three complaints are from writers who say they never received their checks), and is the subject of a warning from the National Writers Union. The websites for most of its properties are dead; the only ones that seem to have active websites are the New York Book Festival, the Paris Book Festival, the Hollywood Book Festival, and the San Francisco Book Festival.