Fantasy author Jim C. Hines recently posted the results of a survey he did in which he assessed what authors did to get a novel published, looking at things like publishing short stories, having connections in the industry, going to conventions, etc. It's a wonderful survey (and a great example of how writers help other writers), but it makes only a passing reference of contests as a path to publication.
I think that's because for most folks, contest aren't really a path to selling the book. Sure, in the ABNA, one winner is guaranteed a contract, but thousands of people enter so the odds (especially for genre works) aren't especially good. But contests can be a tool to improve your writing; for me, what entering contests did was to help me learn a few things. For one thing, almost every conference looks at the first chunk of the novel, either by page count or by word count. That forced me to learn to structure the beginning of the book so that the hook was well set by the time the cut-off was reached. It drove the final nail in the coffin of my tendency to wordy writing.
Second, contests offer offer more feedback than submissions to an agent or editor. Admittedly, most contest judges aren't pros, but still, you can get specific feedback based on a partial entry, which is a useful thing. I entered the Pikes Peak Writer's Conference (PPWC) contest several times and the Golden Heart contest once. In both cases, the feedback provided was specific and helpful.
If you're thinking of entering a contest, consider what they offer in terms of feedback. The years I entered, PPWC charged extra for a full critique, as opposed to just seeing your score sheets. I don't know if they still do; they're always tinkering with the rules. But assess the cost of entering (your time as well as your money) against what you get if you don't win as well as if you do happen to win, or at least place. One thing PPWC does is to get editors and agents to judge the top three entries in each category, so that's a plus. The year I got third in science fiction and fantasy and the year I placed second in YA, I went to the conference. Hearing applause for my work at the awards banquet provided a tremendous sense of gratification, even though I knew most of the audience hadn't actually read the entry. Likewise, the feedback from the romance contest told me I wasn't writing what those folks were looking for, so I learned something.
Another things to assess is the judging method. The more judges the better. Most contests have a correction for personal opinion. At PPWC, you get two judges but if their scores are radically different, a third judge will rate the entry and the low score is tossed out. That's a critical feature. In the ABNA where I made the quarterfinal everything looked rosy until I was stopped dead at the point that it was one reviewer's opinion.
Has anyone got any contest experience they'd like to report, good or bad?