Saturday, January 06, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Evaluating Literary Contests

I seem to be getting lot of inquiries about literary contests lately--and also to be running across a good number of suspect ones. So I thought it might be helpful to post some general guidelines for evaluating any contests you may be thinking of entering--some questions you may want to ask before filling out the entry form and sending off the check.

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, don't enter. Ditto for a contest that doesn't name its staff or sponsors, and for any contest where you see any of the warning signs listed below. Be especially wary of contests that are conducted by individuals, or are nothing but a webpage with an entry form (like this one), or are announced on Usenet with only a mailing address, or appear in the form of an ad in the back pages of writers' magazines (these are usually vanity anthology companies).

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--and be sure to read the fine print).

Is there an entry fee? Contrary to popular belief, an entry fee is not an automatic 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 profitmaking scheme. For book manuscripts, stories, or poems, between $5 and $15 is average for smaller or amateur contests. Larger ones may charge a bit more, but anything over $25 should prompt you to do some checking. Screenwriting contests can quite a bit more expensive; a few prestigious ones have entry fees as high as $75. More than that should make you wary, though, 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 services when you enter--critiques, marketability analyses, tickets for an awards banquet--it may be a sign that the contest is a moneymaking venture, rather than a real competition. Some contests are no more than fronts for critique and/or editing services. (Unfortunately, you sometimes have to enter before you find this out--as with the contest run by Eaton Literary Agency, in which entry results in an offer of a paid critique.)

How frequently does the organization conduct contests? Running a contest every month (like this writer's magazine, for instance), or bunches of contests every quarter, can also be a sign of a moneymaking scheme.

How many categories are there? Reputable contests usually 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. A contest for fiction may have separate categories for books, poetry, and short fiction, or be broken down by genre. 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). Again, the contest sponsor may be trying to make a profit from entry fees.

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

Who'll be doing the judging? It's in a contest's interest to name its judges, since this speaks directly to the contest's legitimacy. This is important information for you as well, since the prestige of a contest has a lot to do with the caliber of the judges, and 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 a contest that doesn't name its judges isn't necessarily illegitimate--as long as you're confident of the reputability of the contest sponsor. If you aren't, be wary. No-name judges may be underqualified, or the contest's staff may be doing the judging (a la the contests at Writer's Digest)--or, in the case of a contest that's a moneymaking scheme, there may not be any judges at all.

Are there fringe benefits? Critiques 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. A legitimate contest should clearly state their names and credentials.

What's the prize? There are many possibilities--money, goods, services, even publication. The prizes should be clearly described (watch out for contests that allow the contest sponsors to substitute prizes--you may not get what you expect), and they should be appropriate to the contest sponsor. Unless you're certain of the sponsor's legitimacy, contests with 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, often have fine print that pro-rate the prize amount according to the number of entrants--i.e., as the entrants fall the prize amounts do too, with the downsteps carefully calculated to preserve a profit for the contest sponsor. Legitimate contests may pro-rate prizes if the entry fee is the sole funding for the prizes, but in that case there won't be a profit margin. Always do the math.)

Contests that offer representation, publication, or production as prizes are very appealing. Winning can be a genuine springboard for a writer's career. Be careful, though, because these contests aren't always what they seem. For instance, the National Writing Competition from UndiscoveredAuthors.com offers publication as one of the prizes--but the contest sponsor is vanity publisher BookforceUK. Even if winners don't have to pay for publication, this prize is no bargain.

Always research the agency, publisher, magazine, or production company to make sure it's reputable and successful, 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 sort of publication isn't the way to get it.

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

Have you read the fine print? Always read the contest rules and guidelines carefully before you submit, so you can be sure exactly what you're getting into. Odd and unpleasant things are sometimes buried deep in the fine print.

For instance, you may have to agree to give up various rights even if you don't win, such as first publication or the right to sell your entry elsewhere. Or winning may impose obligations--for instance, you may be required to use the contest sponsor as your publisher or agent. Giving up copyright may be a condition of the contest, which means the organization holding the contest can 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 for the contest. 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 vanity anthology company Poetry.com).

Last but not least--is it worth it? Many writers see contests as a possible springboard to success--a way to add to their writing resumes, or get a toehold in the industry. However, for novelists, poets, and short fiction writers, few of the hundreds of contests out there have that kind of prestige. A contest will impress an agent or editor only if s/he recognizes it, and a string of obscure contest wins will not strengthen your query letter. Screenwriters have more options, but even so, the reputable contests are outnumbered by the pointless, useless, or deceptive ones. Remember also that submitting to a contest takes the work off the market, at least temporarily, since most contests don't want simultaneous submissions. And even your best efforts at due diligence may not keep you out of trouble. The problems with the contests run by small-press publisher Zoo Press provide a cautionary example.

Comments? Have I missed something? Please let me know.

12 comments:

B.E. Sanderson said...

Excellent post. The only addition I would make is: Poetry contests where you 'win' publication in their anthology, but then you have to purchase the anthology.

Jill Elaine Hughes said...

There are numerous playwriting contests, in which production and/or a staged reading is offered as a prize, that demand that all submitted plays be "free of copyright". This is becoming more common in playwriting contests, and is very alarming, especially considering that some of the contests that demand all its entrants (whether or not they win) to surrender their copyright are being administered by reputable theaters.

http://jillelainehughes.blogspot.com

Victoria Strauss said...

Jill, what exactly do they mean by "free of copyright?" A work can't be free of copyright. Someone has to own it, even if it's not the author.

What do you think about playwriting contests as a "way in" for new playwrights?

Jill Elaine Hughes said...

There are several theaters that explicitly state that "all submissions must be free of copyright" (i.e., public domain??!!!) for consideration in their contests. It's detracted me from submitting to several contests as a result. Other things that have been cropping up lately are theaters that demand exclusive rights to your play for a period of years, with no guarantee that they will ever produce it. Other contests offer a prize of only a production, with no pay. (you should still be paid for a production). Often, these contests are charging submission fees, too. I know that the Dramatists Guild is not necessarily against contest submission fees for playwriting contests, provided that the contest includes a cash prize that is at least 100X the fee amount, but that is becoming increasingly rare.

Many legitimate theaters are now using "contests" as fundraisers, with dubious results. Even very reputable theaters like the Goodman in Chicago have recently demanded that playwrights sign over all their rights in exchange for the Goodman to even _consider_ one-act plays it asked local Chicago playwrights to create for a David Mamet festival.

I do think that some playwriting contests are good for newer playwrights to get visibility, money, and productions. But be very, very wary and read the contest requirements carefully. Any contest that charges fees without having a large cash prize, requires you give up your copyright, ties up your play for a period of years with no guarantee it will be produce, or offers a "prize" of production with no compensation, is a contest to avoid. Reputability of the sponsoring theater is no longer a guarantee of the contest's legitimacy, either. (sadly)

Anonymous said...

Sobol Closed!!

Victoria Strauss said...

Thanks for that explanation, Jill. Very enlightening.

Anonymous said...

I think it's worth pointing out that Glimmer Train, which is thought to be "prestigious", matches at least two of your warning signs: it's run by individuals, and it has several contests each quarter. The more I look at markets for literary writing, the more troubled I am that they involve one or another type of reading fee or contest entry, and that they're often part of, or connected to, magazines that promote the conventionally bad approaches to writing, run ads for editing services or bogus agents, and sponsor, again, contests.

Despite what people tell me -- I heard from the guy who runs Preditors & Editors who basically exempted Glimmer Train from the warning signs -- I distrust what's going on here. If these publications or contests are surviving at all, it's by collecting entry fees, rather than by attracting an audience for good writing, and that bothers the heck out of me.

Victoria Strauss said...

Yeah. That's where the "is it worth it" question really comes in. Speaking just for myself, I've never been tempted to enter a contest. I'm now writing and trying to sell short fiction--for the first time ever--and I have noted the contests run by some of the markets I'm submitting to (including, yes, Glimmer Train). One possible reason to submit via a contest, rather than through the normal slush pile, is that there may be less competition. I'd imagine that the pool of contest entrants is smaller than the slush pile. Even so, I'm not tempted. It just seems like submission with a reading fee.

The thing about contest warning signs is that you have to balance them against all the information that's available. If a contest charges a high fee, for instance, but is run by a reputable organization, the reputability of the organization will probably trump the warning sign of the high fee. It's like the few successful agents who ask for money upfront, or charge a 20% commission to newbies--it's nonstandard practice, but it's trumped by the agent's track record. Of course, there are plenty of successful agents who don't have nonstandard practices, and plenty of good contests that don't charge excessive fees. The point is that nothing is black and white. Everything is case by case. You have to weigh all the factors together, including any warning signs, which in the overall context may turn out not to be warning signs at all, just things that make the contest less attractive.

Anonymous said...

I'm wondering, though: your blog has apparently had some influence in causing some bad actors to get their comeuppance or shut down, at least in the bogus agent field. But if it's appropriate to ask the bogus agents if they're earning their money from reading fees or referrals, rather than from selling MS to publishers, isn't it also appropriate to start asking if the "prestigious" journals that run contests are in fact earning their money from "entry" fees, rather than selling magazines? On one hand, you feel it's appropriate to take the initiative to expose the fraudsters -- on the other, you simply (as does P&E) sorta-kinda say make up your own mind. I'm not sure if this is consistent. You could just as easily use the arguments from scam agents that an up-front fee will ensure closer attention to your MS as you could say maybe the entry fee will reduce the field (we wish).

Among other things, we have no actual evidence, from Glimmer Train or any other contest I'm aware of, that the entry fees ensure that unpublished writers get any greater consideration. Nor do we have any sense of how the judging is conducted.

Your blog might be very helpful in making some progress in areas like this.

Laurie said...

Excellent post indeed. Last August I entered a contest that a friend brought to my attention - it was a murder mystery contest where the first chapter was written for you and you had to write the second chapter with the same "voice" and mentioning several mustards that the mustard museum/store carried (it was to be finished as a short novel by the museum owner who fancied himself a writer, and then sold in the gift shop). There was no entry fee, but the prize was $5000.00, with the condition that it would either be written by an author of his choice, or he and the winner would co-author it together. He already had one POD book published on Amazon. My friend and I decided to give it a try, after I called him and asked if Canadians could enter - it didn't say anything about that on the rules and they were in Wisconsin. We sent in a crack entry. On the appointed day the picture of the winner was put up on the website - a young male university student took the $5000.00 and another author was writing the book. I phoned the museum owner and demanded to know a) how many entries there were, and b) who were the judges? He remembered me specifically because he said "our" entry was in the final running, they had 300 entries with 3 from Canada, and the judges were himself, an unpublished mystery writer, and a university professor of English from the same university that this kid attended. So much for all our hard work! Then he has the gall to ask me if I thought he should charge an entry fee this year! Say, $10 or so, for their "processing". I said, "What processing? You mean reading the entries? You write that off as a business expense - that $5000 is a business expense for promotion of your museum. If you run such a shoddy contest that you're going to let a local university student walk off with that kind of money, because his proff is on the "panel" (I stressed panel) then you deserve to lose $5000. It was your own decision to put up that much money, and that's why you got 300 entries in the first place." It makes me wonder if our chapter will show up in another POD book somewhere. He suggested I try again this year because it's a romance novel. I/we won't be doing any such thing, and as my dh said, $5000 was too good to be true. At least I had the satisfaction of pinning him to the wall, so to speak, when I had him on the phone.
I've entered many RWA contests that were run properly and this is the first time I've been burned.

Victoria Strauss said...

Laurie, thanks for that contest horror story.

Anonymous said:

But if it's appropriate to ask the bogus agents if they're earning their money from reading fees or referrals, rather than from selling MS to publishers, isn't it also appropriate to start asking if the "prestigious" journals that run contests are in fact earning their money from "entry" fees, rather than selling magazines? On one hand, you feel it's appropriate to take the initiative to expose the fraudsters -- on the other, you simply (as does P&E) sorta-kinda say make up your own mind. I'm not sure if this is consistent.

But it's not the same issue. Agents who earn their income from fees rather than from selling manuscripts aren't doing their jobs. 99% of the time, an agent who charges fees is either fraudulent or inexpert. This isn't necessarily true of magazines that run fee-generating contests. Even if they're just trying to increase their income (or using the contest as a way to offset decreased circulation--a big problem for print magazines these days), it doesn't preclude the possibility that the magazine is a selective, high-quality paying market--like Glimmer Train.

Also, contests are optional. You don't have to enter them in order to establish or maintain a literary career. Agents, on the other hand, are pretty much a necessity, at least if you're a new fiction writer who wants publication through the big houses, and certainly after you secure a contract. If you enter a bad contest, you may be out a few bucks, but the odds are you won't be much worse off. Hooking up with a scam or marginal agent can seriously screw up your career. It's a much, much bigger deal.

Roomy Naqvy said...

I liked your blog post and the entire comment thread so much that I 'became' the first person to tweet it on my twitter feed @roomynaqvy

Excellent, thought-provoking ideas.

Roomy Naqvy
Assistant Professor, English, India
**wannabe novelist