Writing Contests: 4 Questions to Ask Before Paying a Fee.

Written by Emily Harstone | January 2, 2014

Slide36As an author, editor, professional submitter, and poet, I end up talking about writing contests a great deal. A lot of writers enter contests, but as a general rule we do not review contests in Authors Publish, Magazine. Why? Because contests almost always have an entry fee attached

The first time I ever encountered a contest I was not entering it, instead I was an intern for a small press. This event took place a number of years ago and this press is no longer in business. My job as an unpaid intern was to read approximately 400 manuscripts. I had a little over two months to reduce these 400 manuscripts to 10.

I was the only one to read these 400 manuscripts even though on the official contest outlines (each person had to pay a considerable fee) it said that each manuscript would be reviewed by a group of qualified readers.

I handed the pile of 10 manuscripts over to my boss to read. He then whittled it down to the final three manuscripts, and handed them to a very famous writer who was the official judge. However, at the last moment my boss specified several things he wanted to make sure would be included in the chapbook. They were very specific details about the gender of the author and the topic of the poems.

One of the manuscripts I had discarded fell into this category exactly. So I removed one other manuscript from the pile of ten and included this one instead, even though it was not particularly good. This was the manuscript that ended up winning.

All contests are not like this. Many first book contests are highly regulated and have large teams of readers. These contests are usually very prestigious and highly competitive. I have entered a number of these contests, because I understand that for poets, the best way to land a good publisher for your first book is to win a contest.

Don’t assume the judge of the contest will ever see your work, most judges only read what the readers deem to be the top manuscripts or pieces, that means the readers have a great deal of control over who wins.

However, there are a number of scams out there for chapbook length manuscripts. Many presses will agree to publish your book even if it is not a winner, but only if you will pre-sell a large number of copies. Finishing Line Press is particularly notorious for this.

Many literary journal contests are expensive, but the competition is less steep. Sometimes they have so few entries in the contest that they struggle to find a winner they can print. However, when academic journals are involved, the roles of the readers get a little murkier. Often close friends of the editor end up winning, because theirs is the work that reaches the judge.

However you should not dismiss contests out of hand but you should take the following factors into consideration.

1. How prestigious is it?

Make sure the payoff is worth it. If it is run by a journal that publishes everyone and their mother, even if they have a well known judge, you don’t particularly want to be associated with that contest. Also contests from less established presses are not necessarily regulated in any way. The more famous the journal, the more they have to lose if their contest is discovered to be run incorrectly.

2. How expensive is it?

Short story and poem contests can cost up to 50 dollars to enter. Book contests can be over $100. The competition for contests this big are less steep, yet they also tend to be associated with less established organizations that know they will have few submitters. As a general rule I never spend over $35 to submit to a manuscript contest and never over $15 to submit to a short story or poetry contest.

3.  What is the Prize?

Make sure you really want to win the prize. It is even better if you would be happy with the second or third prize, or a  runner up status. If all those rewards look good to you, then it is probably worthwhile to submit.

4. Do You Get Anything For The Entry Fee?

Of course it would be nice to win, but you cannot assume that you will win. Therefore in the ideal world you will receive something for just entering the contest. Many literary journals that have contests will give you a subscription to their journal in exchange for your entry fee. In these cases, if you would subscribe anyways, you may as well pay the entry fee.