Writing Contests - Do's and Don't's
About Writing Contests
There are large numbers of writing contests held every year. Most of them are fiction or poetry contests, whilst a few are for essays or creative non-fiction.
The majority of these contests charge an entry fee and offer some kind of prize. Others are free to enter and may have a prize in cash, in kind, or offer nothing more than bragging rights. Some contests and awards cannot be entered, but rather go through a nomination and award process which may or may not allow authors and publishers to nominate their own work.
Unfortunately, some of these contests are not legitimate. Scamming writers out of copyright or entry fees is a sadly common practice. Here, in detail, are some red flags and things to watch out for.
Some people would say that any contest that charges an entry fee is a scam. This is a long way from being true. Many of the best and most prestigious awards do charge entry fees.
The real key is whether the entry fee is appropriate given the prize offered. Contests with large prizes often charge entry fees in order to get the money together for the prize.
The ratio is the key thing. A $20 entry fee is entirely reasonable if the first prize is several thousand dollars. It is not reasonable if the prize runs into only hundreds or if the prize is in kind.
I have seen contests that ask for a $10 fee, but the prize is publication at 1 cent a word in Mr. Nobody's E-Zine. That is clearly not a good deal (and likely means that the contest is a way of getting money for the editor).
Another very common scam is for a 'publishing company' to charge an entry fee, which can be as high as $50, and the prize is that they'll publish your book... Legitimate companies seldom do this (although Penguin has sponsored the perfectly legitimate Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards for several years by offering a pretty decent contract to the winner...of course, this contest has no entry fee). The scammers are actually offering a vanity publishing package which is 'worth' what they say it is, often an inflated value. They pocket far more money than it costs them to provide these services at the best of times, without adding entry fees into the mix.
Before entering a contest with an entry fee, consider whether what you are getting for that fee is worth it. Is the prize high enough to warrant it? Another thing to consider is that some contests will offer all entries a professional critique. If the professional giving the critique is a reputable agent or editor, it might be worth paying the fee just for that.
Here is another question to ask yourself: Who are the judges?
Some contest administrators prefer not to name the judges for a perfectly legitimate reason - they do not want entrants contacting them. In that case, however, you should be able to find out who the judges were last year.
A prestigious writer, agent or editor as a judge makes the contest more legitimate (although there have been a few instances of scammers saying they have X as a judge when it's not actually true). On the other hand, if the judge is the editor of Mr. Nobody's E-Zine and the contest is a promotion for the magazine...then it probably is not worth paying an entry fee and you should consider other factors before entering.
Some contests are actually judged by the general public or peer-judged (judged by fellow entries). This can be a good way to work out if a story has legs, but again, not worth paying an entry fee for. Also, these contests can end up a test of your marketing ability (or how many friends you have) rather than your story. In some cases, peer-judged contests can damage your ability to sell first rights to that particular work.
There is another thing to watch for when entering contests. What are you agreeing to, legally?
Never, and I do mean never, enter a contest if the contest rules give the contest organizers rights to all of the entries. Yes, people pull this...newspapers are particularly bad for it. You should never sign your rights over for nothing and they often ask for full rights.
If the prize is a publishing contract and you agree to it by entering, read the contract carefully and work out whether it is a contract you feel comfortable agreeing to. Often, they will not negotiate. If there is a magazine offering to publish the winning story, find out their publishing terms and make sure you are willing to agree to them. There is no sense agreeing to a bad contract, ever.
A recent trend is for contests to offer a decent prize to the winner, usually a couple of hundred bucks. They then offer the consolation prize of publication to runners-up or honorable mentions.
The catch? It's publication without pay. Often the word "exposure." will be bandied about. In most cases you agree to the unpaid publication on entry. Suddenly, that prize (like in the rights grab) looks like a bargain for the contest organizers - they're getting five or six stories for that. Sometimes it's combined with an entry fee, but more often not.
The final thing to watch out for is the vanity anthology 'contest'. These contests, on investigation, turn out to give honorable mentions and offer publication to every entry. (They are particularly common in poetry).
They then put the 'winners' in a poorly edited anthology and market it to...you guessed it, the entrants and their friends and family. These books tend to be expensive, too. Many good writers have fallen for this kind of scam. They may give out a small prize to the 'best' entrants.
If the contest prize is publication in an anthology for no payment, then why bother entering?