Writing Contests: Facts and Fakes...And How to Tell the Difference

There are hundreds of writing contests. Most are real; some are prestigious. But some are fake. While fake contests don’t make up a huge proportion of the total, there are enough of them to warrant caution. And even if a contest is legitimate, winning may not do anything to build your writing resume.

Contest Fakes

Fake contests come in several different forms, but they all have a common goal–to take your money.

For instance, some fee-charging literary agencies conduct them as a way of finding clients. One agency advertises a contest where the prize is agency representation; representation is indeed offered (to everyone who enters), but the catch is that it comes with a hefty editing fee attached. Another agency uses a false name to run its contest; entrants are told their work is “exceptional” and “referred” to the agency, which charges an up-front fee.

Vanity publishers may also use contests to draw in paying customers. The contest prize is a fee-free publishing contract–but if you don’t win, expect to be solicited to buy the publisher’s services.

Then there are the contest mills, which make money on the front end, via entry fees. Some advertise enormous prizes–$15,000 for the winner, $10,000 for second place, and so on–with correspondingly high entry fees–$25 or $30. But if you read the fine print, you’ll discover that the contest owner reserves the right to award prizes on a pro-rated basis–i.e., the prize amounts are determined by the number of entrants, thus guaranteeing a profit no matter what.

Other contest mills are run by writers’ magazines, which conduct a dozen or more contests a year, or by Internet-based groups that offer monthly contests, and advertise under several different names and URLs to draw more entrants.

Similar to the contest mills are the awards mills, which also feature high entry fees (anywhere from $60 to $80), and dozens or even scores of entry categories. Awards mills tend to focus on small press or self-published authors, who face major challenges in getting their work noticed, and hope that an award will help. Although there may be a real prize (money, gift certificates, consults with literary agents), winners just as often receive little more than an announcement on the awards organization’s website–thus enabling the awards organization to avoid cutting into the money it makes from entry fees–as well as the opportunity to enrich the organization further by buying adjunct merchandise, such as “Award Winner” stickers.

Contest and awards mills are not necessarily scams, since there usually are winners, who generally do receive the promised prizes. Even so, they exist primarily to make money for the organizations conducting them, and because of the probable lack of rigorous judging standards (judges are rarely identified, and in some cases may not exist at all), are unlikely to carry much, if any, professional prestige.

Vanity, Vanity

By far the most common fake contests are those conducted by vanity anthology companies. These companies publish collections of poems, short stories, or essays, which then are sold not to the public, but to contributors. Sometimes publication is contingent on purchase of the anthology and sometimes it isn’t, but in all cases the anthology can’t be obtained except by paying for it, and the contributors may then be bombarded with further inducements to spend money: their entry made into an audiotape, membership in an authors’ society run by the company, registration for poetry camps and writers’ conventions…the list goes on.

Vanity anthologizers draw contributors by advertising an open contest, often with thousands of dollars in prizes. People really do win these prizes; what makes the contests fake is that nearly everyone who enters is declared a semi-finalist, no matter how terrible their entry is, and told they’ve been selected for publication.

How bad can semi-finalists’ entries be? A number of years ago, in the spirit of experimentation, I entered the contest conducted by the International Library of Poetry, a.k.a. Poetry.com–one of the worst of the vanity anthologizers, now thankfully defunct. Here’s my poem:


My cat is nice
My cat is neat
My cat likes milk
And bugs to eat.
My cat has fur
My cat has paws
My cat has a tail
And big sharp claws.
My cat has a bib
And many stripes
She never complains
Or has any gripes.
I love my cat
And that is that.
If this poem wins a prize,
I’ll eat my hat.

And what a yummy hat it was. Within a few weeks, I received a letter informing me that after “carefully reading and discussing” my poem, the Selection Committee had certified it as a semi-finalist, which entitled me to be entered in the final competition for a Grand Prize of $1,000.

But wait…that wasn’t all! “Victoria…Imagine your poem featured in a beautiful coffee-table edition!” All I had to do was proofread my poem, return it, and voila! I’d be a published author, showcased alongside “Today’s Most Talented Poets And Songwriters” in “a fully indexed sourcebook of poetic talent to be used by editors and publishers”. Poetry.com hastened to assure me I was under “NO OBLIGATION WHATSOEVER” to purchase the anthology (though “many people do wish to own a copy of the anthology in which their artistry appears”), and that my poem had been selected on the basis of my “unique talent and artistic vision”. I leave it to the readers of this article to judge how artistic my vision really is.

In one sense, Poetry.com and companies like it fulfill their promises. They do publish the anthologies, and do include writers who agree to publication. But the hopes they hold out to contributors are as fake as the contests. The books never see the inside of a bookstore, and because publication is offered without regard to quality, inclusion isn’t considered a legitimate literary credit.

Is It Worth It?

In addition to the legitimacy of a literary contest, there’s another question you may want to consider: is it worth your while to enter?

Many writers think that entering and winning contests is a way to build a writing resume. And indeed this can be true, if the contest is prestigious–the First Crime Novel contest run by St. Martin’s Press, for instance, where winning includes a book contract, or the Golden Heart Awards, a contest for unpublished book-length manuscripts conducted by the Romance Writers of America.

However, for novelists, poets, and short fiction writers, few of the hundreds of contests out there have that kind of prestige. Winning a contest run by an obscure magazine or a local writers’ group or an Internet contest mill won’t cut any ice with agents, editors, or readers–not just because they probably won’t have heard of the contest, but because they may be aware that small contests are much less likely to have professional judging standards.

In the film world, things are a bit different, with contests more widely accepted as a way into the industry. But although there are more contest options for screenwriters, reputable contests are still greatly outnumbered by the pointless, useless, or deceptive ones.

Contests can be fun and challenging. If you win, the prizes are a great bonus. Just be sure to thoroughly research any contest you’re thinking of entering, and always read the fine print. And if you’re entering contests for unpublished work, consider whether your time and energy might not be better spent actually submitting for publication. That’s the real prize, after all.

Assessing Contests

Following are some tips to help you evaluate contests.

- Who’s conducting the contest? If it’s an organization, magazine, or publisher you don’t recognize, be sure to verify its legitimacy. If you can’t confirm this to your satisfaction–or if the contest doesn’t name its staff or sponsors–don’t enter.

You may have to do some digging–for instance, this contest, which on the surface looked like a collaboration between a writers’ magazine and a publisher, turned out on closer inspection to be one writer attempting to promote his self-publishing endeavor. Or this one, which appeared to have several sponsors but was actually all the same (less than reputable) company.

Be especially wary of contests that spam you, or are nothing but a webpage with an entry form, or are announced on Craigslist, or appear in the form of an ad in the back pages of writers’ magazines or an announcement in a national newspaper supplement (these are usually vanity anthology companies).

Be wary also of contests that are conducted by fee-charging publishers. If you don’t win, odds are good you’ll be solicited to buy the publisher’s services. Here’s an example.

- Is the contest free? If so, you probably have nothing to lose by entering (though if you’re a poet, be aware that a “free” contest is one of the major warning signs of a poetry contest scam–see the Vanity Anthologies page of the Writer Beware website).

- Is there an entry fee? Contrary to popular belief, an entry fee is not an indication of a questionable contest. Many legitimate contests charge a fee to cover processing expenses (which sometimes include an honorarium to readers) and to fund the prize.

However, entry fees should be appropriate. Excessive entry fees can be a sign of a profit-making scheme. For book manuscripts, stories, or poems, between $5 and $25 is typical. Larger contests may charge more–the IPPY Awards, for instance, charges $75–but anything over $40 should prompt you to do some careful checking, especially if you aren’t familiar with the contest organizer.

- By entering, do you get the “opportunity” to spend more money? If you’re encouraged to buy additional goods or services when you enter–critiques, marketability analyses, tickets for an awards banquet, even trophies if you win–it may be a sign that the contest is a moneymaking venture, rather than a real competition. Some contests and awards programs are no more than fronts for selling services or merchandise. For instance, this one, which requires contestants to buy a coaching package. Or this one, which peddles paid critique services to entrants. Or this one, where winners must buy their own trophies.

- How frequently does the organization conduct contests? Excessive frequency–running a contest every month (as this writers’ magazine does), or bunches of contests every quarter–can also be a sign of a moneymaking scheme.

- How many categories are there? Reputable contests and awards typically have a specific focus, and limit the number of categories under which you can submit. For instance, a contest may be for screenplays only or for book manuscripts only, or may be broken down by market (fiction, nonfiction) or genre (mystery, fantasy, romance, etc.).

The point is that a reputable contest shouldn’t feel like the kitchen sink. Be careful of contests that call for any and all talent, especially if everything is lumped together under a single prize (how can a novel manuscript compete with a short story or a screenplay?). Watch out for contests that have dozens of separate categories (like this one, which has well over 100). Again, the sponsor may be trying to make a profit from entry fees.

- Are the rules and guidelines clearly stated? A legitimate contest will provide clear rules, including information about entry categories, deadlines, eligibility, format, fees, prizes and the circumstances in which they will or will not be awarded, judging, and (very important) any rights you may be surrendering. If you can’t find these, don’t enter.

- Who’ll be doing the judging? It’s in a contest’s  interest to name its judges, since the caliber of the judges speaks directly to the contest’s prestige (or lack of it). This is important information for you as well, since a contest with a judging panel of successful writers and/or industry professionals is much more likely to be a good addition to your writing resume if you win.

Some contests prefer to protect judges’ privacy, so not naming judges isn’t necessarily illegitimate–as long as you’re confident of the reputability of the sponsor. If you aren’t, be wary. No-name judges may be under-qualified, or the contest sponsor’s own staff may be doing the judging. In the case of a contest that’s a moneymaking scheme, the judges may merely be a fiction.

For contests that are wholly or partly judged by crowd-sourcing (for instance, reader votes may advance entrants through initial rounds, with only the finalists actually considered by judges), be aware that this is a capricious process that is vulnerable to cheating.

- Are there fringe benefits? Critiques, general feedback on your entry, or meetings with industry professionals are often a worthwhile feature of the more high-profile contests. However, you should never be asked to pay extra for this perk. Also, be sure that the professionals really are professionals. Their names and credentials should be clearly stated.

- What’s the prize?There are many possibilities–money, goods, services, even publication. Prizes should be clearly described in the guidelines (watch out for contests that allow the sponsors to substitute prizes–you may not get what you expect), and they should be appropriate to the sponsor. Unless you’re certain of the sponsor’s legitimacy, contests with very large prize amounts–$5,000 and up–should be treated with suspicion, since they may be moneymaking schemes. (Such contests, which tend to have higher-than-average entry fees, sometimes have fine print that pro-rate the prize amount according to the number of entrants–i.e., as the number of entrants falls, so do the prize amounts, with the downsteps carefully calculated to preserve a profit for the contest sponsor.)

Contests that offer representation, publication, or production as prizes are very appealing. Winning can be a genuine springboard for a writer’s career–as with the Delacorte Press Contest for a First Young Adult Novel. Be sure, though, that it’s a prize you really want to win. Always research the agency, publisher, magazine, or production company to make sure it’s reputable–and don’t enter a contest whose rules make it impossible for you to refuse the prize if you win. If publication is involved, be sure that you know exactly where and how you’ll be published–magazine contest prizewinners are sometimes published in a separate booklet available only by special order. If you’re looking for exposure, that’s not the way to get it.

There should never be an extra cost associated with a prize. If there is, it’s almost certain the contest is a fake.

- Have you read the fine print?Always read the rules and guidelines carefully before you submit, so you can be sure exactly what you’re getting into. Odd and unpleasant things may be lurking deep in the fine print. I can’t emphasize enough how important this is–yet it’s something that many writers skip.

For instance, you may be asked to provide inappropriate personal information. Or just by entering, you may be granting rights to the contest organization, such as first publication or the right to sell your entry elsewhere. Winning may impose obligations–for instance, you may be required to use the contest sponsor as your agent, or agree to publication as a condition of winning (beware of offers you can’t refuse, especially if you can’t view the contract beforehand). A condition of winning may be giving up copyright, which means the organization holding the contest could use your entry for any purpose it wishes (even without your name).

The sponsor may reserve the right to substitute prizes, or to reduce or eliminate prizes if certain conditions aren’t met. Watch out for language suggesting that the contest sponsor can use your entry for purposes other than publicity. And if you enter a contest online, be aware that you may be giving permission for your entry to be published at the company’s website, whether you win or not (a frequent complaint about Poetry.com).

First published in Writer Online, 2000

Updated version copyright © 2012 Victoria Strauss. MAY NOT BE REPRODUCED WITHOUT PERMISSION.

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