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It’s Time for Some Contest Changes

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My company has just about given up entering our books in publishing contests. We are tired of feedback that is irrelevant and sometimes even silly.No, it’s not sour grapes. Cottonwood Press books have received honorable mentions in the Benjamin Franklin Awards, Colorado Book Awards, and Colorado Independent Publishers Awards contests. Many remarks by contest judges have been quite illuminating and instructive. However, many of them have caused my staff members to laugh and roll their eyes. Here are just a few examples:

  • A judge criticized us for using the color “chocolate brown” on a book cover that pictured a bowl of ice cream dripping with hot fudge sauce.
  • A judge lowered our score in mechanics for capitalizing the word Is in a quotation from a line of poetry, even though we had quoted the poem accurately.
  • A judge took us to task for using actual student work in examples of actual student work by middle school students. He thought the student drawings should have been more “professionally done.”
  • We were told we should change the subtitle of a book from Teaching Students to Write Free Verse to Teach Your Students Poetry, even though that is not what the book is about. (To our market audience of English teachers, there is a big difference between the two. “Teaching poetry” is much more comprehensive and may not even include writing at all.)

Contest judges often criticize us for not following publishing “rules,” even if there are very good reasons for not following those rules. Case in point: We publish a book called Writing Your Life: An Easy-To Follow Guide to Writing an Autobiography, which won an honorable mention in the 1990 Benjamin Franklin Awards. The judges suggested that we eliminate the spiral binding and use perfect binding-comments echoed by judges in other contests. After several reprints, we finally decided to follow the advice.It was a mistake. Our customers are largely people taking autobiography writing classes around the country, through continuing education, churches, and senior centers. The teachers, who reorder the books with each new class, started complaining. They liked the spiral binding better, and so did their students. It was easier for them to use because the books would lie flat, allowing them to easily jot down notes in the margins.We listened to our customers. When we completely updated and revised the book in 1999, we went back to the spiral binding. We also entered the book in the 1999 “Most Improved Redesign” category of the Benjamin Franklin awards. We mentioned in our book summary that the book was spiral bound at customer request and not marketed to bookstores.No matter. The evaluation forms came back, marking us down: No spine. Wire binding not ideal for retail book sales. Spiral binding is a drawback to the ability to identify the book on a bookshelf in a store.Some Possible Contest Changes


There’s not much anyone can do about irrelevant remarks on contest evaluations, except to encourage contest sponsors to choose judges carefully and to train them well. However there are other changes that contest sponsors should consider.One is to recognize that there is a big difference between violating publishing standards out of ignorance and violating them for a good reason. A growing number of publishers are niche publishers marketing to specialized groups, perhaps through direct mail, gift store contacts, conferences, advertisements in journals, etc. Many of us survive because we know our customers very well and do what makes sense for our market. Contests shouldn’t penalize us for that.Here are two ideas for taking into account the special needs of publishers who don’t fit the mold:Add a “specialty market” category. This approach would add a category for books that are marketed, primarily, anywhere except bookstores. Part of the submission requirement would be a one-page description of the publisher’s audience, marketing methods, goals, and other relevant information. Judges would evaluate a book’s effectiveness, based on the special circumstances described.For example, a publisher doing a brisk business marketing a book exclusively through black-and-white ads in a journal would never be criticized for not printing a full color cover. Instead, she might actually receive recognition for choosing an excellent one-color design that reproduces well in a black-and-white ad.Add a “special circumstances” allowance to existing book categories. Another approach would be to keep existing categories but allow special consideration for special circumstances. Maximum points could be awarded in a category, even if the category criteria are not met, if the publisher makes a good case for choosing not to meet them. Entrants would be allowed a page of remarks to explain any special circumstances that are relevant, and judges could make allowances for sensible and effective approaches.For example, a publisher might design a book of reproducible awards for the classroom, to be marketed only through teacher supply catalogs, and use a spiral binding so that the book can be placed flat on a photocopy machine. With revised contest guidelines, judges could give full credit in a “proper information on the spine” category, even though the book would have no spine at all, by simply utilizing the “special circumstances” allowance.There are good reasons for the criteria on most contest evaluation sheets. However it is time that publishing contests, including the Benjamin Franklin Awards, take into account the growing numbers of publishers who are selling growing numbers of books-but not in bookstores. For some of us, some of the time, violating publishing standards is the smart thing to do.
Cheryl Miller Thurston is with Cottonwood Press, Inc., of Fort Collins, Colorado. You’ll find their Website at www.cottonwoodpress.com.
This article is from thePMA Newsletterfor March, 2000, and is reprinted with permission of Publishers Marketing Association.

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