Elizabeth: The Fate of the Golden Heart

RWA’s Golden Heart necklace, awarded to each Golden Heart winner.

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?

3 thoughts on “Elizabeth: The Fate of the Golden Heart

  1. Great post, Elizabeth! Jilly and I have had several discussions on this topic, Since the RWA board’s main concern appears to be the decline in entries, it seems changing some things to encourage broader participation makes sense.

    One of the big changes facing novice authors today is the increasingly high barrier to traditional publication. Although this is offset, to a certain extent, by the much lower barriers to self-publication, there’s a fair amount of expense associated with getting a book to market if you’re going to do it right, and not everyone can afford that..Also, publishing a book and selling one are two different propositions. I believe I read somewhere that the average number of copies sold for a self-published book is 11. (Disclaimer: that was a few years back and I won’t swear I’m remembering correctly.)

    Taking these two issues into account, Jilly and I thought that changing the entry qualification from “unpublished” to “not Pan-eligible” might work well. This would give writers who have tried their hand at self-pub without sufficient success make them eligible for RWA’s Published Author Network another shot at traditional publication. (Which is, after all, the real brass ring of this contest’s merry-go-round.)

    Again, great summary of this complex and (I think!) important issue.

  2. Thanks for posting this, Elizabeth! As Jeanne said, we’ve talked extensively about GH. I think that RWA is undoubtedly right to say that there is a problem with the contest and that corrective action is needed.

    The problem is that over the years GH has acted as a kind of talent discovery program for traditional publishing, but as that model has been disrupted by indie publishing, trad deals have become much harder to find. Some excellent unpublished authors are still determined to follow the trad route, and they continue to enter and final year after year, often with the same manuscripts, until they find their niche. Many other unpubbed authors who might have entered in previous years now opt to go indie, and since the GH is geared to traditional publishing, it has nothing to offer them. So the pool shrinks every year, and often the same manuscripts go round again (many of them very good).

    I don’t agree with RWA’s proposed solution (disband the contest)–unless they also propose to replace GH with some other mechanism to encourage, reward and recognise unpublished and non PAN-eligible authors (authors who are published but whose sales are too low to qualify for membership of the Published Author Network). If RWA is to survive as a trade organization, it has to continue to develop and support its grass roots membership, which increasingly means unpublished and indie published authors.

    I don’t agree that the benefits of GH are limited to the winners. I think many unpublished authors have been motivated and inspired by entering, and by improving their scores year on year, even if they have never finaled. (Speaking from experience, here).

    I’m a Chartered Accountant (CPA) by training, and I’m pretty sure I could drive a coach and horses through the financial arguments about GH not paying its way. I bet much of that number is overhead allocation for staff who will remain on staff whether attributed to GH or not, and costs of a lunch that will be held whether it’s a GH awards lunch or not. OTOH, if RWA makes membership less attractive to unpublished or indies, and/or conference attendance less attractive, RWA stands to lose a lot more money without even trying. With access to the accounts, I’m 99.9% sure I could make financial arguments to tip the scales the other way, and I could also come up with a few ideas to balance the books. I bet we could find sponsors, or crowdfund the contest. Just sayin’ 😉

    My belief is that GH is the canary in the coal mine for RWA as a whole. If RWA can repurpose GH to attract a wider range of entrants (open it to non-RWA members, allow non-PAN eligible members to enter, whatever) and make the rewards relevant to those entrants, then they will continue to retain and grow their base for the future, making the organization powerful and relevant in the brave new model of romance publishing. Canceling GH and not replacing it with a viable alternative will only hasten the decline of the organization.

    It’s not a big issue for me personally, as I’ve already decided to go indie. If the GH contest survives into 2019, I will definitely enter it one last time, for another unrecognized benefit: the friendship and support of each year’s GH finalist group, and even better, The Golden Network, an RWA chapter open only to GH finalists. I know a few members of TGN and I have to say, I’d love, love, love to join them. I would survive the loss of the contest, but it would really make me wonder whether RWA will be the best advocate for me as a beginning indie, or whether I should be looking to other writers’ organizations for support.

    Tl;dr. GH is indeed broken, but imo the answer is to fix it, not kill it 😉

  3. Pingback: Jeanne: The True Heart of the Golden Heart® – Eight Ladies Writing

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