Awards Profiteering: The Book Festival Empire of JM Northern Media

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

If you’re a writer, I’ll bet you’ve been spammed by JM Northern Media.

Don’t recognize the name? Maybe these will ring a bell. The Los Angeles Book Festival. The Hollywood Book Festival. The Paris Book Festival. The Beach Book Festival. The Halloween Book Festival. Animals, Animals, Animals Book Festival. And at least nine other annal festivals, all owned and operated by JM Northern Media (click the Properties tab).

Why, you might ask, would one company own so many book festivals? To make money, of course. JM Northern’s “festivals” aren’t really festivals at all, but textbook examples of a moneymaking awards program. Here’s the M.O.

– Solicitation. To maximize entries, moneymaking awards programs do email blasts. JM Northern is no exception–if you get on its list you’ll be relentlessly spammed with calls for entry to any or all of its fifteen “festivals.”

– High entry fees. For all but the Hollywood Book Festival, which charges $75, entrants must pay “a non-refundable entry fee of $50 in the form of a check, money order or PayPal online payment in U.S. dollars for each submission.”

– Lots of entry categories. To maximize income, moneymaking awards programs create as many entry categories as possible, and encourage multiple entries. JM Northern’s festivals all have 15 or more entry categories–actually rather modest for such programs, but that’s offset by how many of them there are. Plus, you can get 10% off by entering more than one festival at a time!

– Opportunities to spend more money. Moneymaking awards programs’ profits don’t just come from entry fees. They also hawk award stickers, certificates, critiques, and more.

On its festivals’ entry forms, JM Northern asks writers to indicate whether they’ll be willing to buy “promotional items” or critiques–to be provided, I’m guessing, by JM Northern’s own Modern Media Publicity, which sells said promotional items (“Nothing says free advertising like a quality t-shirt or coffee mug”) as well as “Regular” ($150) and “Deluxe” ($350) critiques by “by our staff of authors, publishers, festival judges, filmmakers and agents” (unnamed, of course). JM Northern also maintains a “book marketing portal” called Table of Honor, where festival winners and honorees can pay $75 per title to list their books.

Let’s do the math. According to this article, the Hollywood Book Festival received 2,740 entries in 2012. At $75 per entry, that’s a gross of $205,500. Let’s assume that the other 14 festivals, with a lower fee, also get a lower number of entries–say, 1,500 (I’m lowballing to demonstrate how insanely lucrative this scheme is). Altogether, that’s over $1.25 million just in entry fees. A year. When you add in revenue from the critiques, the merchandise, and the marketing, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that JM Northern’s annual festival gross is $2 million or more.

– Anonymous judging. JM Northern’s festivals promise judging by “a panel of industry experts,” but don’t reveal who those experts are. This is typical of moneymaking awards programs, where the judges are usually not the experienced professionals promised in the publicity material, but rather the program’s staff, who may simply pick winners out of a hat.

– Negligible prizes. To avoid cutting into their profits, moneymaking awards programs typically offer prizes that cost them little or nothing: press releases, media announcements, printed certificates, website listings, features on satellite websites they themselves own, donated items, and, of course, the supposed prestige that comes from being able to claim that you’re an “award-winning author.”

Here’s where JM Northern differs a little from the norm. Winners and placers in the various entry categories get (at least according to pictorial evidence) nothing but a framed certificate. But JM Northern does sponsor actual awards ceremonies, and the grand prize winner for each festival receives an “appearance fee”–between $500 and $1,500, depending on which festival–plus a plane ticket to whatever city is hosting the ceremony.

The festivals’ websites name winners, so I emailed several of the grand prize recipients to verify that they’d received their prizes. I heard back from three. All reported that they did receive a check (in one case, after a delay), along with a plaque. Only one accepted the plane ticket and attended the ceremony–a relatively bare-bones snack-and-cocktails affair at which he gave an acceptance speech and category winners and honorees received certificates. He also confirmed that there was no actual book festival, in the sense of an event with speakers, exhibitors, and a variety of events–just the ceremony, along with a display of the honorees’ books 

What about prestige? Moneymaking awards don’t typically command a lot of name recognition (two of the grand prize winners I spoke with told me that even their publishers, which had submitted their books, had never heard of the festivals before)–but if you win or place, you’ll be able to tag your book as an “award-winning book” and yourself as an “award-winning author.” How much readers care about such designations, though, is an open question. With all the fake review scandals, as well as readers’ increasing disillusion with authorial self-promotion, I think book buyers have become more cynical in general about what authors say about themselves.

Moneymaking awards, which overwhelmingly target and ensnare small press and self-published authors, are a cynical play on authors’ hunger for recognition and exposure in an increasingly crowded marketplace. JM Northern is by far the most prolific of these schemes, but there are many others. In my opinion, they are never a worthwhile use of writers’ (or publishers’) money.

JM Northern Media’s empire includes several other moneymaking properties, including the DIY Convention and the YPE International Summit. It’s run by journalist and author Bruce Haring.