Self Defense for Writers — Iffy Writing Contests

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Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Writing contests can be great opportunities. They can also be, well, bad news. Knowing whether to enter a contest can be a real challenge. Here are some things to consider:

Entry Fees

Entry fees in and of themselves don’t make a contest a scam. Many prestigious contests do charge fees. However, many smaller contests charge fees — as a way of making money. Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Is the fee proportionate to the prize? Some contests with large prizes charge fees to cover the prize pool. A $20 entry fee might seem a lot, but if there’s a $3,000 prize it might be worth it. If the entry fee is $10 and the prize is publication in their magazine at 1 cent a word for a 2–3k story (I’m not making this up) then it’s pretty obvious that the contest is actually a way to milk reading fees out of writers. There are also scammers who’s business model is to charge $50 or $100 in entry fees for novel competitions, where the prize is a badge for your website and cheap “Award winner” stickers to go on your books…
  2. Do you get any perks for entering? For example, if the entry fee includes a year’s digital subscription to the magazine, it might be worth it. You might also find it worth it if you will get a detailed critique/workshop of the story from somebody who knows what they’re talking about.

You have to make your own judgement as to whether an entry fee is, indeed, worth it.

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Photo by Ariel Besagar on Unsplash

What is the prize, anyway?

Another judgment you need to make is whether the prize is worth it, or even something you want. Not all contests have prizes in money. Baen Memorial, for example, includes conference admission and a nice stack of books in the prize.

If the prize is publication of a novel, then look at who will be publishing the novel. Try to resist the temptation to enter contests to win a vanity publishing package; that only encourages their business model. Some small presses run contests in lieu of slush; look at whether this is a publisher you want to be published by and what they can offer you.

Rights, Rights, Rights

Ridiculously high entry fees are only the second most common contest scam. The most common is the rights grab. Sadly, there’s a long tradition of rights grabs in newspaper contests that has spread over into publication. Read the terms and conditions of the contest very, very carefully, and watch for:

  1. Taking rights of entries that don’t win. Some contests will claim the rights to your story the moment you submit it. They can then publish your work without paying it. This is a way to get cheap content (or worse, pay people for the privilege of giving up their rights). Even if they give the rights back if you lose, think carefully about sending in a story to any contest that requests rights on submission; if you never hear from them again, this can be a problem.
  2. Taking unnecessarily broad rights to the winning story. Watch out for life-of-copyright exclusivity, rights that have nothing to do with the rights they need to exercise (first anthology rights are reasonable if they’re going to publish the story, movie rights are not).

One of the worst I saw claimed all rights to every single submission and had a rule that the story should never have been shown to anyone ever…I don’t know exactly what they were up to because I walked away fast from that one.

Who’s Judging the Contest?

Another thing to consider is who is judging the contest. Now, it’s fairly standard not to name judges; some writers will hassle or try to bribe the judge if they know who they are. But make sure that the judges are, at least, described as somebody worth listening to. A “local author” might be a self published friend of the contest administrators. A “local filmmaker” may not be the best person to judge prose (and I’ve seen it). If a contest has been running for several years, it’s likely that they will have released the names of past judges, which can give you a good idea.

For many very small contests, the judges are simply editors at the publishing house running the contest.

Be a little careful with publicly-judged contests; you may inadvertently end up exercising first rights to a story, making it hard for it to be sold elsewhere if you don’t win. Make sure that the participants have to make accounts and sign in, otherwise your first international rights are gone and you can’t get them back. Obviously this doesn’t apply to contests for published novels.

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Photo by Ben Wiens on Unsplash

What Other Red Flags Are There?

In my experience, the following are solid red flags that a writing contest is a problem:

  1. Prizes in stickers and badges. We aren’t in grade school. Badges as an adjunct to an actual prize are awesome. Stickers are a trap…when you run out, the administrators will cheerfully charge you a premium for a refill.
  2. A “prestigious” contest you have never heard of.
  3. Multiple categories, with encouragement to enter in more than one. This generally goes together with disproportionate entry fees.
  4. Contests which require you to purchase something to enter or if you win. (I’d make an exception for reader’s contests, which are open only to subscribers to the magazine. Those seem fair to me).
  5. Contests run by book doctors, editing services, or vanity publishers, especially if the prize is free services or “publication.”
  6. Contests that solicit you directly to enter. In my experience, these are always scams. Legitimate contests don’t need to solicit writers.
  7. Pretty testimonials from people who entered the contest in the past.
  8. First-year contests that charge fees of more than about $30. It might be a money grab.
  9. The requirement to buy the anthology if you win. This is particularly common in poetry “contests.” It’s just a way to sell the (expensive and poorly edited) book.

Basically, you should judge writing contests carefully. It’s worth googling the name of the contest followed by “scam” before entering. Always consider whether the entry fee is worth it, and remember that “exposure” is what you get after you ended up homeless because you spent too much time working for it.

Written by

Freelance writer, freelance editor, novelist and short story writer. Jack of many trades.

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