This is Part One of a three-part series on getting an agent’s attention. There are many ways to do this, but there is no magical path leading to agent representation. No matter how or where a write piques an agent’s attention, she will always need to write a query letter and follow submission guidelines. This series is about helping a submission rise to the top of the slush pile.
Writing contests pop up almost weekly, it seems. A quick search online yields a dozen results, some sponsored by magazines and writers’ organizations, and some by authors looking to help their fellow writers grow. Some have entry fees (which vary but should be relative to the grand prize offering), and some are free. Some give the winner a prestigious title and/or sum of money, some promise publication (the terms of which should be scrutinized to ensure all rights to the work are not given away), some provide an opportunity to pitch to an agent (or several agents), and some offer feedback on a set number of pages (or an entire manuscript) by an industry professional.
If an author’s goal is to acquire agent representation (and ultimately sell their book to a publisher), contests can help. Many agents pay attention to RWA’s Golden Heart awards, for example, and un-agented winners have been known to receive offers of representation while at the convention. But these instances are few and far between. For the most part, contest winners have bragging rights they can add to their queries which may work to sway an undecided agent toward requesting a peek at the full manuscript.
When a contest provides a pitch session with an agent or panel of agents, it means the writer has an opportunity to talk about their hnovel and enthusiastically sell its concept. Agents can ask questions, and a writer can get a feel for the agent, specifically the kind of working relationship they might have. If all goes well, the interested agent will ask for specific materials and may provide a different set of submissions guidelines, but the manuscript itself would still need to shine.
Contests offering feedback from industry professionals are also beneficial to the querying (or pre-querying) writer. These are often opportunities for writers to test out their queries and first pages on published or agented authors to see if they pass muster. Just as important, though, are the relationships that can result from working closely with the authors providing feedback. In best-case scenarios, the agented author would refer the writer to their agent.
Writing contests are valuable and can help writers further their careers. But they should never be viewed as a shortcut to signing with an agent or getting a traditional publishing contract. They may help a querying writer’s submission stand out from the rest of the proposals in the slush pile, but ultimately, the completed novel still has to speak for itself.