Among the most frequent questions Writer Beware receives are those involving writing contests. Is it legit? Is it prestigious? Is it worth it? How can I tell?
Today’s guest blog post from author and editor C. Hope Clark–who evaluates contests regularly for inclusion in her FundsForWriters newsletter–provides a helpful overview of some of the warning signs of a contest you might not want to enter.
The Red Flags of Writing Contests
Writers have a love-hate relationship with contests. Some people adore them, eager to submit regularly, and others back away, fearful of potential scams.
Don’t be so leery about writing competitions. Once you learn the red flags of trouble and understand the remarkable opportunities they offer, you’ll rank contests up there with the best magazine markets and publishers and look forward to their calls for submissions. You can learn how to maneuver amongst the good and the bad.
So what are the signs of a questionable competition?
While every contest has to start somewhere, still keep your eyes open with an inaugural launch. Even with the best of intentions, they may not have ironed out the wrinkles of managing such an event. Contests are time consuming, and if not handled properly, can be expensive nightmares for the sponsors.
If the organization or person running the award is reputable, then give it a go, but if you’ve never heard of them, move on. Yes, you might have a better chance of winning since fewer people will submit, but think twice before you do, ensuring that all else seems proper.
I immediately seek a contact person for contests before posting the calls in my FundsforWriters newsletters. If the email is generic, like info@contestABC.com, or the mailing address is only a PO Box, study harder. Read the About Us material on the website. No website? That’s reason enough to move on right there. You’re looking for a name, a recognized organization, a nonprofit, a reputable publisher, a solid piece of grounded reality to show that the backer is legitimate.
Still have questions? Email them. Their response, or lack of, can speak volumes.
High entry fee.
Entry fees can be relative. A $5 fee might sound fine, unless the first prize is a T-shirt or a $10 gift certificate. A $10 fee could be reasonable, unless the first prize is $25. Fees in themselves are not a negative–but the ratio of entry fee to prize money is the tell-tale sign.
FundsforWriters.com has listed contests for thirteen years, and we’ve reached a point where many sponsors send us contests. If the entry fee is over five percent of the first prize, I scrutinize the contest harder. If it’s over ten percent, I decline the request.
Some prizes consist of publication, a hard item to pin down to a dollar amount. In those cases, the publishing venue must have a proven reputation, one that empowers your own reputation if you win or place. But many young, obscure, small presses and indie publishing houses use contest entry fees to finance their operations. To be safe, seek financial compensation AND publication. FundsforWriters doesn’t list any contest offering publication only.
Pay attention to previous winners. If something niggles at you about the contest, you may even Google the winners’ names. Where have they published? Read their blogs. Study their careers. You can tell a lot about the quality of the contest by the quality of the winners. I once exposed a contest by researching the winners . . . of whom only one existed, and that lone writer had never received her winnings.
If a contest wants all rights for entering, run away. If a contest wants one-time or first rights to publish and publicize your award, then fine. Sometimes a contest is proud of its selections, and understandably, they don’t want to see them popping up across the Web on the heels of their announcement. However, if a publication wants all rights of the winners, make sure that all the other red flag issues are in order.
Identify from the outset what rights you sacrifice for entering or placing. I made semi-finalist in the 2009 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards, just as I signed with an agent for the manuscript. Unfortunately, we had to wait a couple of months before we could seriously shop the work because Amazon and Penguin had first rights to select it for publication. I’d have been happy if they did, but my agent had her hands temporarily tied.
Not all judges are identified, and the lack of identity doesn’t necessarily rule out a competition. You may not care, but prestige can come from being judged by someone known in his field. If you want to know the judges, email and ask. If the contest sponsors dodge you, reconsider.
After you become accustomed to contests, the red flags clearly reveal themselves. In a matter of seconds, I can judge a contest as good, iffy, or downright bad. A novice contest sponsor sooner or later flashes his unprofessionalism or naivete. If you study a contest and still aren’t sure, email them for explanation, then run your own search. Disgruntled writers are known for airing their unhappiness, and a decent contest will promptly email you back, eager to please.
C. Hope Clark is editor of FundsforWriters.com, a website and family of newsletters that reach 45,000 readers each week with calls for submissions from grants, contests, markets, publishers, agents and employers. FundsforWriter.com was chosen by Writer’s Digest Magazine for its annual 101 Best Websites for Writers from 2001 through 2012. Hope used her knowledge of contests to gain recognition for her manuscript and find an agent. Lowcountry Bribe was released by Bell Bridge Books in February 2012, the first in the Carolina Slade Mystery Series.
Writer's Digest is one of the WORST magazines I've ever had the displeasure of reading. It's SO out-of-date with today's times and every article in it reads as if written by some pretentious douchebag. I fell into believing Writer's Digest was something important to read when i was an amateur writer, but now after years of writing and publishing over 20 novels I immediately tell everyone i can to stay away from that horrible rag of a magazine that I wouldn't even bother wiping my @ss with. The saddest thing of all is that I'd have to use both of my hands to count the number of people I know who have been scammed out of their money from entering a WD writing contest-people whom have won then had to forfeit their winning to another because they couldn't meet some ridiculous stipulation they weren't even aware of until after they were notified of winning. Ironically I've found that only complete amateur writers who don't have the experience to know any better AND arrogant pricks who are constantly telling everyone they can that they are a writer are the only ones whom hold Writer's Digest in praise. And that's just sad :-/
TERRIFIC posting here. Valuable to me.
I've come from Dianne Gray's site – she's recommended you. I've bookmarked you. Valuable stuff. HUGE THANKS.
A conference contest is a lot different than a mail in contest where you send your story and your money. The conference contest is limited by the number of people involved in the contest at that time, who have also already paid money to come to the conference. I don't believe this is the kind of contest I was writing about when I said I didn't like contests. And anyone who runs a writing contest will never say they are doing it for money or profit. Just the way I feel about it.
I have to disagree with Dennis. As a conference director I will be running a small contest for attendees this year. I also enter contests for my own writing occasionally. Some of the hidden benefits might be exposure, motivation to write better, and sometimes you get good feedback on your manuscript. I don't plan to make a bunch of money off the contest at my conference, but it will help keep the registration costs down so more people can come. Not all contests can be lumped into a barrel of bad apples.
Great post and good information. Thank you!
Wonderful information, Hope, but then we've all come to know you only offer the best. 🙂 Your newsletters are the best, too.
Thank you for sharing these ideas! Each red flag is very useful. I have encountered several online writing competitions and a few, I can now tell, are not so good.
Thanks Victoria and Hope for a great article. Hope graciously allowed us to excerpt from it and link to it at our site, springfieldwritersguild.org/contests.
Everytime I try to enter a contest, I always back out because of the fee and the idea I have to pay to get someone to read my work and judge it accordingly. Some of these contests have fee that can be $25.00 or less but it just mess with my moral sense that a writer shouldn't have to pay to win a contest.
"Contests are an attempt to obtain access to good writers and spread the word about the sponsor and its products, with the award winners being part of that product."
I'm sorry I disagree with this. That's the Utopia version, but… Writer's Digest has been running profit contests for more years than I remember, and someone in every contest is using it to make a living, with the promotion being to other writers who will enter the next contest. (I've never heard of a reader or really any publishers looking for talent in a short story or novel writing contest. It's all hype.) I freelanced for Writer's Digest years and years ago. I learned early on how it works. The only difference now is that anyone can start a contest and possibly draw entry fees because of the internet. (Before you had to invest in direct mail. That cuts into profits.) A writing contest has never made anyone famous in the literary world. (I know someone will come up with an example. They always do.) But one person out of a zillion doesn't mean nothing in publishing today where midlist writers no longer can make any kind of living because the midlist is about gone. That's the way thing are. So, writing contests are for beginners to waste a few bucks and boost their egos winning, for the most part, some award. Many times the winner is the sponsor of the contest under a different name. Easy money if you can find enough people to shell out entry fees. There are, I'm sure, a few legit contests, but I guarantee you they are not run by non-profit organizations and their intentions are not to find talent. Very few people will ever get famous writing a short story, and writing a short story doesn't mean you can carry the same excitement to novel length.
I wouldn't necessarily worry about whether the judges are named.
I'm on the board of a charity that gives awards to young first nation artists. Each year, the winners are chosen by three older artists. We make a point of not naming the judges until the awards are announced, so there are no attempts to influence them while they are working.
Oh yeah, Evelyn. That's what I'm talking about. Thanks for chiming in!
Thanks to Hopes newsletters, I have been a winner in three writing contests that paid cash prizes.
Dennis, you said:
"If someone in charge wasn't making money from the contest, there wouldn't be a contest. Best to stay away from all of them."
Substitute "publishing" for "contest" and you have the same thing. Are you going to stay away from publishers?
Contests are an attempt to obtain access to good writers and spread the word about the sponsor and its products, with the award winners being part of that product.
Thanks for this, I'm going to your site to look and see if one contest I've been looking at is there. Thanks, I'll keep these tips in mind.
If someone in charge wasn't making money from the contest, there wouldn't be a contest. Best to stay away from all of them.
Hope — I think that instead I'll be happy I don't write literary fiction. [wry smile]
It takes less time to wait on a contest than the reply of many agents, publishers and magazine editors. You are right. But nothing says you cannot pitch to agents, publishers and editors AND contests, withdrawing from one if you land the other. I subbed to contests and agents, and did fine – winning some and landing an agent.
You are describing how a lot of literary reviews and journals exist. I'm not a fan of the method, but it's not crooked by any means. I'm not particularly fond of the "standard" contract method, either. All contracts should be negotiable, IMO. But in both cases you might want to weigh the reputation of the contest sponsor before tossing either option. Winning one can open big doors.
Possibly for young writers, but for older people like myself, contests are a waste of time. The work will sit in a submissions pile for a while, but that's what would happen if it had been to an agent or a publisher. So, submitting to a contest adds an extra waiting time until you get word one way or the other.
If a publisher runs a contest where they charge a fee and the prize is publication, they're trying to get writers to pay them to read their own slushpile. IMO that's a scam, period.
If winning obligates you to sign their "standard" contract with no negotiation (and especially if they refuse to let you read the contract before you decide whether to enter) then it's a particularly abusive scam.
Don't overlook international grants. I've known several FundsforWriters readers to win contests in other countries. We're becoming much more global these days.
Hope Clark always has good info, which is why I follow her as well as Writer Beware.
I'm not fond of contests, have entered a few, but found many are like deep dark holes. (However, I have two in mind for the future, both reputable.) There are few contests in Canada, and US contests aren't always open internationally.
It's smart to be informed.
Enjoyed this post, Victoria and Hope.