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Five expected and unexpected benefits from winning a literary award

By SR Staley

St. Nic, Inc. was awarded second place in the 2015 Royal Palm Literary Awards, and the win was a real confidence booster for me personally. This isn’t the first time I’ve won a book award–Renegade (Wheatmark) took home second place in the Seven Hills Literary Contest and Drug Policy and the Decline of American Cities (Transaction Books) earned 1st place in the Sir Antony Fisher Memorial Prize–but the RPLA award has elevated my fiction writing to a new level of respect among my fellow authors.

RPLA_2ndPl_BadgeWith a few more years of experience under my belt, however, I can reflect on the impact of the award and its meaning, personally and professionally. So I put together these thoughts on the expected and unexpected benefits of winning the award.

  1. Professional validation. Perhaps now more than at any other time, authors wonder if their writing is “good enough.” In part, this is due to the tremendous change in the publishing industry. As traditional legacy publishers with integrated national distribution networks consolidate, and smaller presses focus on niches, authors are finding the only practical pathway to publication is often through self-publishing or some form of subsidy publishing. While many excellent books are published through these sources–in fact, Renegade was published through Wheatmark, a very professional hybrid publisher–authors are often left wondering whether their writing is good enough to compete. Winning an award tells us that yes, we can write and we can achieve excellence, at least as measured by our peers.StNicInc,COVER
  2. Reader validation. I didn’t really think about this until I pondered the self-centered nature of a one-star review I received on amazon for, ironically, St. Nic, Inc. The reviewer trashed St. Nic, Inc.–and I mean trashed it–despite a slew of four- and five-star reviews that proceeded it. When our books win a literary contest, we validate our readers and all those who enjoyed our stories and characters. No one who left a good review on amazon.com will ever have to justify their positive review, and, just perhaps, we hold the book snobs and narcissists accountable for their bad behavior.
  3. Raising awareness. Winning an award, or even making it to the semifinals or finals, raises awareness about our work, giving us a needed boost to our marketing efforts. Sometimes, publishers and authors get caught in a cycle of simply generating content and posts on social media just to keep our name visible. But winning a literary award provides real content and is a win-win: Authors benefit because the quality of our work is validated through an external, third-party source and the book awards benefit by marketing their contest, raising the competitiveness and improving the validity of the contest in future years.
  4. Rekindling the joy of writing. Writing is a long, arduous process. As creative as the it can be, we face many periods of slogging through stages we would prefer off load to someone else. I remember when my first book was published–Drug Policy and the Decline of American Cities–its actual publication seemed anti-climatic. So much time had been spent finalizing the manuscript, monitoring the book through the production process, developing the marketing plan, and navigating dozens of other smaller administrative decision points that that joy and wonder of writing seemed completely displaced. Winning the Fisher Award goosed my creative energies (as have the Seven Hills and RPLA wins).Renegade,cover
  5. Validating my publisher(s). With nine published books under my belt, I think authors tend to forget the importance these wins have for our publishers. I have become more keenly aware of this since my venture with Wheatmark, a subsidy publisher (but not a true self-publishing company because they don’t take every project), I am more keenly aware of the time, effort, money and resources needed to bring a quality book to press. My publishers–subsidy, self, or traditional–deserve my best efforts to market and sell books for them. Otherwise, they go out of business and our careers stall. In years past, self-publishing was a dead-end for a career. Now, the game is completely different, and publisher like Wheatmark and my current (traditional) publisher, Southern Yellow Pine Publishing, are partners. Winning book awards validates their investment in me as an author.

Many authors are rightly proud of our work when we win an award. But I think the benefits are far broader than we often appreciate. So, this award is not just for me; it’s important for everyone who supports and invests in my career as an author.

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The long, hard road to overnight success

As writers, we are always hoping for literary and commercial success. And we dream of becoming an “overnight success.” Few of us realize how long and hard that road really is.

 

I was listening to a brief audio presentation sponsored by my publisher, Wheatmark, that featured social marketing guru Bernie Borges. Borges is CEO of Find and Convert and has written Marketing 2.0, which is basically a book designed to sharpen marketing strategies in the world increasingly dominated by social networking. At one point during the interview, the host asked him if he had any “shortcuts” to making the use of facebook, LinkedIn, blogs, and other interactive internet tools effective. The answer? An emphatic “no.” It took eights years, he observed, before one of the most influential bloggers today had his first 100 subscribers.

 

The analogy reminded of Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers where he profiled some of the most successful people in the world. One of the concepts he discusses is a general rule of thumb where a person needs to investment 10,000 hours in an activity or pursuit before they get to the point they can excel. (Among the examples he notes are the Beatles and Bill Gates.)

In short, rarely is there a true “overnight success.” Most successful people, including authors, toil away for years, honing their craft, before they achieve notable success.

In children’s writing, many could easily think J.K. Rowling is the counterfactual: She “shot” to superstardam with her first book: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or “Philosopher’s Stone” in the U.K.). But this is more myth than reality.

 

We tend to forget that Ms. Rowling labored long and hard over her story and manuscript, even spending time as a single mother on welfare, before she could even shop it around. She conceived the story in 1990 and didn’t get representation by an agent until 1995. The book appeared in the U.K. in 1996, and it wasn’t until 1997 that she earned $100,000 form an auction for the U.S. publishing rights.  The first book was rejected by 12 publishers before a small English press (Bloomsbury) to the risk and published it giving Ms. Rowling an advance equal to about $3,000. Their first print run was just 1,000 copies.

 

But the journey to overnight success wasn’t complete until her book took the U.S. by storm after the first book appeared in October 1998. Perhaps even more importantly, each of her subsequent volumes in the series has improved in writing and style. I have no doubt that the 10,000 hour rule applies to Rowling’s overnight success.

 

On the more earthly level of excellent writers who finally are (justifiably) earning an independent living as authors, Katrina Kittle’s experience provides both insight and encouragement. Her debut novel Traveling Light (first appearing in 2000) remains one of my all time favorite books, and it was commercially successful. Her second novel, Two Truths and a Lie, was published in 2001. Great start…but only a start.

 

Despite critical acclaim and modest commercial success, Katrina’s writing career really didn’t begin to take a financially sustainable turn until her third book, the penetrating and important The Kindness of Strangers found both critical and commercial success in 2007. The paperback printing allowed her to give up her “day job” and concentrate on her fourth wonderful novel, The Blessings of the Animals (2010), which appears to have given her the kind of platform we all want to continue our writing as a full time endeavor. Years from Katrina’s first book to the one that gave her a financially sustainable writing career? Nine. And that’s a pretty quick overnight success.

 

So, as A Warrior’s Soul, my second teen novel, is readied to be unleashed upon the reading public, I need to bridle my enthusiasm for my own work and realize that this is really just the beginning of my fiction writing journey. The best is yet to come as each book gives me critical experience in writing stories and characters and my marketing slowly builds my author’s platform.  I have faith that, after 20 years of hard work, diligence and perseverance, I will indeed become an overnight success.

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