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.