When I won in 2001.

What Toastmasters has taught me about book contests

If you published a book, you probably want to enter it in a book contest. If you win, you will get a nice sticker to put on your cover and ads. If you don’t, you still get something all authors need: Someone to read your writing.

I’ve been an entrant and a judge of book contests. The experience reminds me of something I did years ago, Toastmasters speech contests. Like book contests, speech contests have a number of categories, a set of rules to be followed, and guidelines to determine which works deserve to be recognized. Here are things I’ve learned from my Toastmasters contests that can help you in book contests.

Follow the rules

Toastmasters contests have a specific set of rules about time limits, content, and eligibility. Similarly, book contests have their own rules. For example, only books after a certain copyright year are eligible. Some contests take unpublished manuscripts, others don’t. There are also contests that cover specific genres and types of authors. Read the rules and make sure that you and your book are eligible. Also pay close attention to the deadline, whether they accept electronic submissions or require printed copies, and entry fees and other requirements.

Review past winners

It also helps to know what type of books win in that contest. You don’t want to go through the trouble and expense of entering a contest to find your book doesn’t have a chance.

In Toastmasters, we have an International Speech Contest. Although it can be on any subject, winning speakers usually give inspirational talks about a challenge they overcame. They also dress in business suits and are dynamic in vocal tone. They stay away from edgy humor and adult language. Nothing in the rules that mandates this. But when you attend a few contests and see which speakers win, the standards the judges use become clear.

I can already sense writers cringing at the thought of tailoring a book to win a contest. We don’t write books to win contests, but to connect with readers. You can think of contests like genres. You write the book you want and find the contest that would best fit it, just like finding the right genres for your work. The benefit of looking at contest winners is to see what types of books resonate most with readers and critics. You can use this information to improve your own style of writing.

Learn from the experience

At Toastmasters contests, we go out of our way to keep the judging confidential. We don’t tell anyone how we’ve scored or who we voted for. (We can’t even throw away our scoresheets at the contest venue. We shred them at home.) We don’t announce if any speakers went over time. We aren’t even introduced. If we are thanked at all, it isn’t until after the contest. All of this is to keep the contest fair and avoid any pressure on the judges. People only know if they won or loss when the results are read at the end.

So, don’t be surprised if you don’t get a personal response from the contest, win or lose. You might only find out the same way everyone else does, when the results are posted on the contest website or social media posts. And if you lose, don’t be angry or try to contact the judges for an explanation—even if you think the results are unfair. Contests are like everything else with writing, you put your words out there hoping to make a connection. Sometimes you do. Sometimes you don’t.

What do you learn from a contest when you don’t win or get an explanation why you lost? That’s when it helps to look at the winners.

When I’ve lost speech contests, I can look at the winning speech and see where I could develop. The winning speaker might have had better content, did better with using the microphone, or was more responsive to the audience. When I’ve lost book contests, I can look at my work and see where I could improve. I may need to work on my editing, tighten my pacing, or engage more with the reader. Every contest, whether I win or lose, I find ways to improve myself.

Look at book contests as opportunities to improve yourself as a writer. See what audiences are looking for and check out the books that are connecting with readers and critics. If you lose, take heart that you’ve put your work out there for someone else to read. And if that book doesn’t work, see how you can apply these lessons to make your next book better. And if you win, you’ll get something you can put on your cover and ads—and an experience that will help your grow as a writer.