I have a new found love for entering contests for unpublished authors. I couldn’t believe that there were so many contests available. The reason I would recommend contests are because this can add weight to query letters. You can also receive valuable feedback that will help you revise and learn to receive critiques in a helpful way. The drawbacks to entering are the fees, rules and if I must say the waiting time to find out who won! Some contests ask that you not shop your novel for a specified amount of time so make sure you read the fine print, and know the benefits and drawbacks to each contest you choose to enter. Here is a great table of contests created by author Stephie Smith. Also another list of contests can be found on the Funds for Writers website along with writing grant opportunities.
The following list of companies/websites is from my own experience entering their contests (except for the Leap Frog and Amazon):
Romance Writers of America (RWA) has a cool and long list of contests from all their chapters for unpublished and published writers where romance is a part of the story. Below are 4 of the contests I liked the best because of the value I got from entering them. First Kiss/The Smooch (New England & Yosemite Chapters) in which I missed the deadlines but so wanted to enter! Fool for Love Contest* (Virginia Chapter) in which I decided to revise my first edited draft of Destiny Chronicles based off of the fabulous critiques I received. And I also must mention the Great Beginnings Contest (Utah Chapter), Winter Rose Contest (Yellow Rose Chapter) and the Four Seasons Contest contests in which Golden Dreg Boy was a finalist in 2014.
Although these contests cost ($15-35 per entry) and for some you have to be a member of RWA, they are worth it. The RWA provides feedback from judges who are usually established authors, editors or agents. If an agent happens to read your work then you’ll get feedback from that agent (which is near impossible to get on your own) and in some cases they request partials or fulls of work they've read. Awards are usually contest winner logos, a gift card or a refund of contest fee.
Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award is an annual award that gives the biggest cash prizes for the winners. 50,000 advance and publishing contract for grand prize inner and 15,000 royalty advance for finalists. Open for entries from February to March each year or until 10,000 entries is received, the winners are announced in August. Benefit: Hugely recognized contest and great platform (Amazon) for selling books. Drawbacks: Your entry is subject to each judges standards and likes on a particular day which means one round you might get through because a judge favors vampires and YA while if your entry was given to another judge they could be sick of both and pass. The contract is "standard" and as far as I know non-negotiable - which never favors both parties. but 50,000 that is an unheard of advance for a new debut author.
Writer's Digest is a great too because they have various categories to enter (crime, horror, sci-fi, romance, thriller, self-published, poetry). Usually you have to enter at the end of previous year to be eligible for their contests. The winner announcements seem to fall in May/June. Again there are fees for these contests as well. There are many awards and perks for just entering contest.
The Great Novel Contest for unpublished authors by Columbus Creative Cooperative is a good contest to enter too for unpublished POLISHED novels. The prize is a contract or money (currently 1,000). The deadline is in the end of January for that year and there are fees as well. Winner receives choice of a Columbus Press publishing contract or a $1,000 cash prize and public recognition for their achievement
Leap Frog Press has a contest for unpublished authors for Adult Fiction and Children's Fiction (middle grade and YA only). They accept "any novella- or novel-length work of fiction, including short-story collections, not previously published". Currently the cost is $30 and contest is open from January 15 to May 1. Awards for finalists are money, critiques from contest judges; permanent listing on the Leapfrog Press contest page. Winner gets a publication offer from Leapfrog Press, with an advance payment, plus the finalist awards.
Maine Media Workshops & College is a contest that is based on "Portraits and Stories that Reveal the Human Condition where writers, photographers and videographers are invited to share prose, poetry, pictures or a moment on video that reveals the essence of someone's life." This contest has one of the shortest time frames from entry time to the time it takes for the winner announced. (2014, enter June-Sept and winners announced in October.) Grand price is $1,000 (2014)! Currently the cost is $20.
Chanticleer Book Review & Media has plenty of contests to offer. I was surprised because I only knew them as book reviewers. They even have an after NaNaWriMo writing competition. Currently the costs range from $15 - $45.
Writers Type has 3 contests (flash fiction, short story and first chapter) which are offered quarterly (Jan - March 2 --- Apr - June 3 --- July - Sept 4 and Oct - Dec) giving writers 4 times a year to enter vs. most contests that offer only annual entries. "The winning author names, websites, and the text of their submissions are published on website". A contests top 6 ranked winners are automatically entered into annual contest. The benefit of entering these contests is for exposure.Women on Writing (WOW) promotes the communications between women writers, authors, editors, agents, publishers and readers. They have a flash fiction contest which is offered quarterly (March-May, June-Aug, Sept-Nov, Dec-Feb). The prizes are pretty good and the fee is $10 ($20 if you buy a critique with it).
InkTears is a U.K. contest open to all. They hold 2 annual contests, one for flash fiction (runs until July 31) and one for short stories (opens Aug 1). There are six prizes awarded by the InkTears judging panel: Winner: £250, Runner-up: £50 and 4x Highly Commended: £25 and the stories (*in print) and BIOs (*online) are *published. The benefit of entering these contests is for exposure.