How a Contest Judge Views a Book

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releaseyourwritingby Helen Gallagher

Literary merit is a core requirement for any prize-winning book.

After succeeding as an author, book reviewer, and publishing consultant, I was pleased to be asked to participate as a judge in a book contest for the Colorado Independent Publishers Association (CIPA: www.cipacatalog.com).

If you are or have been given this honor, it is a big responsibility and a whole lot of fun. Each judge must critique the contest entries on a long list of factors, not limited to content, accuracy, editing, and design.

In order to avoid being overwhelmed, I agreed to judge only the three genres I know best. I would not feel comfortable judging categories where I don’t have an informed opinion of quality, such as mystery, sci-fi, or romance.

Unlike book reviewing, in which I evaluate the writing style and content and consider the value of the book’s theme or message, judging goes further. Reviewers often discuss the author’s point of view, while letting the reader of the review know pertinent details of the book. That’s why people read book reviews—to determine if they want to invest time in reading the book.

In judging a book contest, the parameters are set by the organization or committee running the contest. They set criteria for entries and sort through all submissions to be sure each entry that is judged fits the standards for quality writing in the category. The biggest job for a judge is remaining objective in order to judge fairly. In fact, for CIPA, each book is sent on to a second judge, who performs the same task: analyzing the book’s worthiness on all the variables, and the scores are averaged.

Most contests have very specific categories. As an author it is important to make sure your book is in the best category, or choose multiple categories, such as “Motivational” and “Self-help,” to give your book a better chance against steep competition. Most contests charge an incremental fee for multiple categories, so be clear about the best fit for your book.

What I found most interesting as an author and SPAWN member is the importance of every detail. That’s right—you don’t want to have a perfect book design but fall short on other elements or overlook errors. The lesson here is that when you are finalizing your book for publication, nothing is unimportant. Don’t overlook errors in the Table of Contents, pagination, page layout, or chapter headings, and re-check every word and every reference, from cover to cover.

Every SPAWN member knows the importance of good cover design and quality printing. Whether you use a traditional publisher, print-on-demand, or a local printing firm, your book must look as good as any other mass-market book to be worthy of an award. This includes cover artwork, fonts, design, placement of the ISBN and barcode, and error-free layout of both the front and back covers.

You may have a great story, but if you failed to do that last round of proofreading or checking the layout, another contest entrant may outshine your book by a few points.

Your chances of winning a book award are increased if you work to get every element perfect. Here are some tips to consider, not just when you prepare to enter your completed book in a contest, but before you publish.

  • Is your title/subtitle appropriate and does it generate interest?
  • Does the title truly reflect the content of the book? Don’t fall in love with a quirky title that would disappoint or mislead the reader.
  • Is your book price appropriate for the target audience? Have you done research to determine this?
  • Do your book layout, editing, and design meet the highest standards?

These four sample factors are just the first steps in passing through to the award level in your book’s category. The CIPA contest has thirty categories by which each book is measured. If any of these initial factors is adequate but not truly professional, entering an important book contest might be a waste of money.

Before you run back to your manuscript to polish it up, keep in mind that literary merit is a core requirement for any prize-winning book. Books up for award are of course evaluated on the writing, not just the spelling and punctuation, but quality of language, comprehension, and the ability to present material in an interesting way, authored by a person with the qualifications to write on the topic.

Remember that your confidence in your book when presenting it for any award consideration requires all the up-front effort and attention to detail well before you even dream of winning First Prize in a book contest. The reward, though, when your book is chosen, is increased publicity and increased sales, because of the distinguished honor in winning a book award.


 

Helen Gallagher, SPAWN membership chair, is the author of Release Your Writing: Book Publishing Your Way. Email: Helen@releaseyourwriting.com

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