Last November, readers of, among others, Parade Magazine and Cardmaker Magazine saw an announcement for a free "open amateur poetry contest". Poems of "24 lines or less" could be sent to a New York City address, and would then be eligible for $100,000 in prizes. A perk of entering: all poets would receive a "personal critique" of their poem.
There were warning signs. For one thing, the organization or company conducting the contest was not identified. Entering contests when you can't verify who's behind them is a major no-no, not just because you have no way to judge the contest's prestige, but because you can't assess its honesty. (Many people, unfortunately, seem to have assumed that because the publication where they found the contest announcement was reputable, the contest was reputable too.)
For another, short poems and big-money prizes are a hallmark of vanity anthology schemes. These schemes, which are legion, all work pretty much the same way: Ads announce a free poetry contest. Everyone who enters is "selected" as a semi-finalist, which qualifies them to be published in an anthology--and also to buy various of the company's products. Sometimes publication is contingent upon purchase, sometimes it's "optional"--but either way, author purchases are the main, if not the only, source of sales for these anthologies, which are neither marketed nor publicized, and never cast a shadow on a bookstore shelf. Because there's no editorial screening, publication in a vanity anthology is not a real writing credit--in fact, it can be a negative writing credit, since these schemes are widely known. If you list one on your writing resume, many people will conclude that you are, at best, gullible.
Last week, poets who entered the contest began hearing back, and surprise, surprise: it's definitely a vanity anthology scheme. Their responses came from Eber & Wein Publishing, located not in Manhattan, but in Shrewsbury, PA. I reproduce the letter in full, because it is such a classic piece of scheme-speak, complete with appeals to God:
Dear [name redacted],
Thank-you for sharing your poem with us. You've penned a wonderful verse, and I am excited to inform you that your poem has advanced to the semi-final round of the National Amateur Poetry Competition. Please take a few minutes to fill in the Official Contest Entry Form and return it in the enclosed self-addressed envelope. Within the next few months, we will award 126 cash and gift prizes; a list of prizes is included in the contest rules. We're looking forward to announcing the grand prize winner of $2,500.00 and feel there is a good chance it could be you.
As a semi-finalist, you've earned the honor of being published in a volume of contemporary poetry called Verses and Visions, and in a few weeks you will receive an Author's Proof. Please proofread it, make any corrections your poem, and return it to us if you wish to have your poem included in this collection. At this time, you will receive a brief critique of your poem from the editor who has been assigned to you.
Verses and Visions is a multi-volume collection of new and notable poets from around the world that will be available for sale on Amazon.com and the Barnes and Noble web site. This is a unique opportunity for you to receive a world-wide audience for your poetry. We've also included a form for you to tell us a little bit about yourself and your poetry; it is important to take this opportunity to tell the reader what inspired your writing. The statement will be printed directly below your poem. There is a small fee for this service; however, it is not necessary to have a statement included.
If you wish to purchase a copy of Verses and Visions now, we've included a pre-publication discount order form. By placing your order now you'll receive a $10.00 contributor's pre-publication discount. Please note we've selected your poem for publication because we feel it makes an important contribution to this volume. There is no need to make a purchase, and your poem may still be published even if you do not purchase a book. If you choose to own a copy of Verses and Visions and are not completely satisfied upon its arrival, then we will refund your purchase immediately.
Once again, congratulations, and may God bless your home and family. We hope you'll continue writing and reading poetry. Today there are many option for publishing your poetry, and we appreciate that your considering Eber & Wein.
John T. Eber Sr.
Cost for Verses and Visions: $49.95.
At least with the established vanity anthology companies, such as the gigantic Poetry.com, the prizes really are paid out, and you can be certain of receiving the anthology (or other products, such as a plaque with your poem mounted on it) if you order it. Poetry.com, Iliad Press, Sparrowgrass Poetry Forum, The Amherst Society, and many others have been around for decades, in part because they grasp the principle that so many purveyors of literary schemes fail to comprehend: you can sucker people out of their money, but if you want to stay in business, you've got to give them something in return.
Eber & Wein, on the other hand, does not appear to have been around for more than a millisecond in schemer time. This cached version (the original listing has expired) of its incorporation announcement reveals that it filed incorporation articles on January 20, 2009--nearly two months after the contest ad ran.
Of course, Eber & Wein may not be as new-minted as it seems. Existing vanity anthologizers sometimes expand or branch out out under new names, a la the endlessly-replicating Who's Who operations. Right now, though, there's no way to tell--and thus no way to judge Eber & Wein's track record of product delivery. Of the many reasons to avoid sending money to this company, that's one of the biggies, in my opinion.