Indie Book Awards – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Indie Book Awards – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

I see posts that claim to list “great” award competitions for indie books. But they often contain mediocre contests, some of which I consider to be mostly profit-making ventures (and no, not for you) rather than serious award programs. I only respect and recommend a small number of indie book award contests. And I consciously avoid a batch of them.

It’s hard to say that any award is “bad.” We all like awards. We all like praise, whether from the New York Times or from your mother. Or from an eccentric lady down the street. But if that eccentric neighbor decides to charge you $50 and then awards you the Literary Some-Old-Lady-Liked-It Book Award, is that worthwhile? Maybe. Most authors are thrilled to win some recognition, even if it’s the Kitchen Sink Book Prize in the YA Steampunk Romance Fiction by a Left-Handed Author category.

I recommend you set your standards higher. One of my principles is that you are known by the company you keep. If the other “winners” of a given competition are authors of books of dubious quality, by unknown presses, with mediocre covers and lame concepts . . . I’d rather that you passed.

Some award competitions are best described as award factories, profit-making ventures for the award providers. They collect a lot of money for entries, and the resulting awards just aren’t much of a feather in anyone’s cap. Sure, they want to help authors get attention. But the good authors and good indie presses don’t submit. So your chances are better, sure, of beating of a bunch of ugly books. What is the benefit to you?

Just stop to think: anyone can create an award, set up a website, and start to collect money and select winners.

How do you weed out the pretenders? It’s simple.

  1. You haven’t heard of any of the indie presses when you look at lists of past winners.
  2. You’ve never heard of the sponsor organization, and they don’t seem to do much of anything except run a fee-based award contest.
  3. They don’t give much sense of the judges – who they are or how they are selected.

An Example of a Clearly Well-Run and Well-Respected Contest: The Cybils

Consider an award like the Cybils.

They describe their mission clearly: “The Cybils Awards aims to recognize the children’s and young adult authors and illustrators whose books combine the highest literary merit and popular appeal. If some la-di-dah awards can be compared to brussels sprouts, and other, more populist ones to gummy bears, we’re thinking more like organic chicken nuggets. We’re yummy and nutritious.”

Their annual process includes attention to the selection of judges: “August 18: Call for judges. Sept. 5: Deadline for judging application. Sept. 15: Judges announced.”

Criteria for judges: “We ask for volunteers every August from the book-blogging community. Generally, our judges must contribute at least monthly to a blog that’s primarily about children’s or young adult literature.”

That’s a clearly conceived award program. Entry fee: $0.

Where to Look for Contests

It is hard, I know, to gain credibility even for the best of indie work, so let’s look at places to gain some respect for your book. Here’s a quick set of suggestions for where to look for good contests.

Two of the Best National Indie Book Award Contents

The two I take seriously, as a director of an indie press, are IBPA’s Benjamin Franklin Awards and Foreword Magazine’s IndieFeb Awards. Both come from professional programs that are far more than award mills. IBPA stands for Independent Book Publishers Association. It offers many valuable services for book publishers, and is a membership organization for many tiny presses, but also for established, very successful indie publishers.

Foreword Magazine is a long-standing magazine covering the indie press scene. Its award program used to be called Book of the Year Awards (a name I far preferred, by the way; IndieFab is a little cute for my taste). The current IndieFab contest is a well-run program, and they do good PR for the winners, including helping to promote them to foreign rights agents, librarians, and such.

The key thing: the winners selected by these two contests represent a top-quality cross-section of the indie press world, including university presses, which reliably turn out excellent books. Each contest will set your publisher back around $100. It’s not cheap (I often enter a book in one or the other, not often in both), but this money goes to produce a well-judged contest.

Genre Writer Association Prizes

Most national and some regional writer associations run book award competitions. Genre fiction organizations in particular offer strong, well-regarded contests. The SFWA has the Nebula. The World Science Fiction Society has the Hugo. The Western Writers of America has the Spur. The Mystery Writers of America has the Edgar, and there’s the Agatha, Nero, Shamus, Anthony, Macavity, etc. (mystery writers love awards!).

Horror Writers Association has the Bram Stoker Award. The Romance Writers of America  has the RITA and many others. The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators has the Golden Kite. These are top quality prizes.

As someone pointed out to me, even the simple act of submission to these programs is a mark of caring what others in your field think about your work. You’ll get your work read by some excellent judges. The winning books are a good mix of successful works by well-known authors plus lesser-known literary gems brought to greater attention by these awards.

Regional Organization Awards

There are a good award programs run by regional associations of writers, booksellers, librarians, or publishers. Getting an award or mention earns you valuable recognition in the geographical region where you likely will have good sales potential. This can lead to local media coverage, regional bookstore sales, magazine features, and such.

For instance, here in the Midwest, I submit certain books to MIPA’s (Midwest Independent Publishers Association) annual contest. I also submit works by Wisconsin authors to an award program run by a Wisconsin-based writer’s organization, the Council for Wisconsin Writers.

Some of these groups are quite influential. For instance, the OWFI (Oklahoma Writers Federation, Inc.) sponsors a regular competition; its awards are likely to be noticed by a set of literary agents who are attending or have attended that conference at some point as speakers, and know the quality of the work honored by this large, long-standing organization.

Your state or regional literary associations might have such awards. Find out.

Literary Fiction Awards

There are a batch of contests for categories of fiction that are “literary” (not a favorite term of mine as a category, but there it is!) or have a strong ethnic or social justice bent. You can find a top-flight list here at the American Writers Museum website.

Examples includes awards like:
The Premio Aztlán Literary Prize is a literary award for emerging Chicana/o Chicano authors.

Lambda Literary Awards are awarded by the Lambda Literary Foundation to works which explore LGBT themes (in humor, romance and biography categories).

The Anisfield-Wolf Awards recognize books that have made important contributions to our understanding of racism and human diversity. Presented by the Cleveland Foundation, it focuses on works that address racism and diversity.

In Conclusion

(A quick note: there are also many prizes for unpublished book manuscripts, including poetry and short-story collections, which often offer both a cash prize and publication by the sponsoring organization.)

My closing message is simple. If you’re writing books of quality, submit your work to the best award programs.

And whether you are or aren’t writing great books, don’t waste your time (and money) submitting to contest mills.

If your writing isn’t yet up to the standards of the good contests, start thinking about how to write a better book next time. You will grow by learning to recognize quality, not by being given a mediocre award for run-of-the-mill writing. I’m here to encourage you to take your writing seriously. Literature is built on a culture of real quality, recognized by good, caring, supportive judges, who love to discover new talent . . . and who know what makes a good book worthy of an award of real merit. Let’s support those programs, and those books. And lift everyone up a little higher.

Philip Martin is an author, editor, and award-winning indie-book publisher with many years of experience in the book trade. Director of Great Lakes Literary (Milwaukee, Wisconsin), he creates and hosts WordPress-powered websites for book authors, along with providing editorial and marketing services to make book projects better.


  1. Dear Philip Martin,

    This is a helpful essay with good advice. I’m a little skeptical that bloggers about literature all have the knowledge and credentials to judge a writing contest. I think that judges need to be familiar with and to appreciate the many valid approaches to writing in 2015. Judges also have to avoid giving awards to people who are friends, students, relatives, etc. I think that judges should have advanced college degrees in literature and/or creative writing. Also, judges should have published outstanding books themselves.

    Best wishes!

    Janet Ruth Heller
    Author of the poetry books Exodus (WordTech Editions, 2014), Folk Concert: Changing Times (Anaphora Literary Press, 2012) and Traffic Stop (Finishing Line Press, 2011), the scholarly book Coleridge, Lamb, Hazlitt, and the Reader of Drama (University of Missouri Press, 1990), and the award-winning book for kids about bullying, How the Moon Regained Her Shape (Arbordale, 2006). Forthcoming middle-grade book for kids: The Passover Surprise (Fictive Press, 2015).
    My websites are and

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