Want to Sell Your Books? Winning a Literary Prize Sure Can Help

literary prize money
literary prize money

Last Wednesday in a New York City ceremony, short story writer Anthony Doerr of Boise, Idaho, took the stage and accepted The Story Prize for his collection Memory Wall, a book of six stories set in locales across the globe and sharing memory as a key element. The $20,000 award Doerr received, in addition to an engraved silver bowl, is the largest first-prize amount of any annual U.S. book award for fiction. Runners up Yiyun Li of Oakland, Calif., and Suzanne Rivecca of Boston, each received $5,000.

That grabbed my attention. I happen to write literary fiction, and in this time when the publishing industry is changing quickly and it's harder than ever to be published by traditional publishers -- and easier than ever to self-publish -- it occurs to me that serious writers need a way to stand out from the nearly 400,000 new titles published each year. An award is one way to do that.

Many awards are out there, and any of them are helpful. Yes, the Story Prize, an Oscar for screenwriting and the Nobel or Pulitzer Prize for fiction may be at the top of the list, but literary awards of any sort make you stand out.

You Don't Have to Win

Back when I was in a graduate writing program, I happened to win the Donald Davis Dramatic Writing Award at the University of Southern California, and it came with a plaque and $1,000. With that thousand, I bought my first computer and wrote more and faster, giving away my typewriter. (Yes, I'm that old.)

Since then, I've won other awards or have come close, such as first place in a playwrights festival at USC, making three Top 10 Best Fiction lists in 2009 for The Brightest Moon of the Century, the long list for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award (with a $35,000 top prize) for Months and Seasons, and five Ovation nominations for my play Who Lives? about the first kidney dialysis machine and its test subjects.

Even if you don't win the top award, getting close counts because it still makes you stand out. As novelist Nell Gavin, author of Threads says, "I didn't win, but I was a finalist in the William Faulkner Creative Writing Competition for Threads. It absolutely helped because Threads is in a number of libraries all over the world, and I'm sure it's because of that. Even coming in as a finalist is gold because it gives credibility. A bronze medal is still a medal, you know?"

Several places list major writing awards, such as Wikipedia's list, WritersNet's list, and Bookspot's list. The last includes genre awards if you write mystery, romance, science fiction, poetry and more.

All for a Good Cause

Also, there are hundreds of contests among literary journals around the country. Most of those contests cost $5 or more to enter with a $15 entry fee common. The journals rely on people entering these contests to keep the magazine alive, so your money goes to a good cause. Yet you should consider each journal carefully to see if it matches the kind of writing you do. The magazine Poets and Writers maintains a great interactive list of over six dozen such contests.

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If you're a literary writer and feel the constant rejection of agents and publishers is getting you down, you can do a number of things to self-publish your book -- well and smartly.

Realize that many of these prizes are created by nonprofit organizations in order to promote literature and great new writing. They love finding new writers. Julie Lindsey, founder of The Story Prize, says she created the award eight years ago because, "The authors of short stories and their collections were being passed over by the major book awards. A major retrospective collection by Alice Munro in particular was passed over by the Booker Prize in favor of a young male author's novel.

"Something had to be done. I sought to establish a prize for authors of short stories to award their collections, to recognize the importance of the form and to financially reward the writers who choose the form." She brought in Larry Dark, who oversaw the O. Henry Awards, to direct this new prize.

Each year, The Story Prize gets between 60 and 85 submissions, versus the thousands that the Pulitzer gets. These are the kinds of odds that look great.

In short, research possible contests that you might enter, and go through the rules carefully to make sure your poem, story, manuscript or book qualifies. If you feel you're talented, then use your talent to win awards.

Christopher Meeks
Christopher Meeks

Christopher Meeks

' fiction has appeared in The Santa Barbara Review, The Southern California Anthology, The Clackamas Literary Review, Rosebud, and Writers' Forum. His short story collection,Months and Seasons, appeared on the long list for the Frank O'Connor Award, andThe Middle-Aged Man and the Seawas among the fifteen contenders (out of more than 1500 submissions) for the Needle Award in 2006. Read his blog on Red Room.