One of the clearest memories I have about the very first RWA conference I went to was the Golden Heart award ceremony. I hadn’t known what the contest was all about before I attended the conference, but afterwards, entering the contest (and winning, of course!) went on the writing project plan, somewhere between “finish the manuscript” and “find an agent” – and seemed a sure stepping-stone to “see my book on the shelf at the local bookstore.”
The woman I sat next to in several workshop sessions, as well as at the awards dinner, turned out to be the winner in one of the contemporary categories. When she accepted her award, she confidentially ended her thanks with, “all you agents out there, have I got a book for you.” I was sure that, had I remembered her name, I’d have found her book out in the bookstore in short-order after her win.
Oh, for those wide-eyed innocent days.
Of course that’s not quite how the process works, and recently RWA has been taking a close look at the value that the Golden Heart brings to its membership. A short while ago they raised the issue in their newsletter. They started out by noting that romance writers today face a significantly different landscape than they did in the past and stating the importance of examining all aspects of the RWA programming to determine whether the costs outweigh the benefits.
That seems reasonable.
According to the RWA website, the stated purpose of the contest is:
“The Golden Heart Contest seeks to showcase the next great generation of romance writers by recognizing outstanding manuscripts from never-before-published Romance Writers of America members.”
Citing a decreasing number of entries – 490 judged entries in 2018, down from a high of 1,130 in 2010 – and the cost to run the contest, RWA questioned whether there was value in continuing the contest in its current state. Other concerns about the viability of the contest included:
- The difficulty finding judges (in 2018, there were apparently 350 judges for those 490 judged entries) (I’m happy to say that I’ve been one of those judges for years.)
- Only finalists (typically 40-45 entrants) receive feedback (considered a career benefit) on their entries. (I’m sad to say that neither of my two entries made it to the feedback stage.)
- Many of the same individuals advance to the finals each year, thus providing career benefit to a relatively small number of members. (I’ll be happily routing for one of those individuals in just a few weeks.)
- The contest is expensive to run. (In 2018, it cost $32,837 to run the contest (not including the luncheon cost), twice as much as the entry fees brought in. (I’ll admit to being baffled by this since judges aren’t paid for their efforts and entries are electronic.)
RWA requested member feedback on the contest and they got an earful. Along with a basic consensus that members didn’t want the contest to go away, here is some of the feedback provided to RWA:
- Separating the unpublished Golden Heart ceremony from the published RITA ceremony took away from the importance of the Golden Heart
- If finding judges is a problem, then all who enter should be required to judge (not their own category, of course)
- Since non-finalists don’t receive feedback on their entries (other than just their score), there is not a lot of return on their entry fees, which could explain the reduced entries. Providing even brief feedback would involve little effort but would provide real value to the entrants.
- If the contest is intended to help new authors become published, then it doesn’t seem to be working, since very few winners seem to go on to publication. (The next comment I saw said the opposite, saying that the contest worked great and citing a number of winners that had been known to go on to be published.)
- An actual advertising campaign about the contest could increase entries and keep it in the public eye.
- Networking is the real bonus of the Golden Heart contest for finalists
- Dropping the contest would send the message that RWA doesn’t care about unpublished authors or nurturing their careers. This particular comment lead to a discussion about the purpose of the RWA in terms of training and encouraging new authors, which led to the comment that nurturing unpublished writers was the role of the chapters, not of the national organization. Wait, what?
One of the best suggestions I saw was that RWA members should be polled to find out what would make them submit an unpublished entry to the contest – what they would be willing to pay and what they would expect to get out of the experience.
That seems like a great starting point.
It will be interesting to see if there is any discussion of the subject at the upcoming RWA conference, since I haven’t seen much on this topic since the discussion on the fate of the conference was first raised.
In the meantime, I’ll be over here, optimistically working away on my current manuscript, which I hope to have ready for the next Golden Heart submission period, and cheering for this year’s Golden Heart finalists.
So, what are your thoughts on the state (and the future) of the Golden Heart?