Shining a bright light into the dark corners of the shadow-world of literary scams, schemes, and pitfalls. Also providing advice for writers, industry news, and commentary. Writer Beware is sponsored by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Inc.

June 24, 2015

Almond Press Short Story Competition: Writing for "Exposure"

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

In my last blog post, I discussed how to recognize and avoid profitmaking writing awards--fake awards that exist not to honor writers, but to enrich sponsors. If you're looking to win writing awards and enter writing competitions, though, the profiteering fakers aren't the only risk you face.

For instance...the short story competitions run by Scotland's Almond Press.* Almond's output is tiny--founded in 2012, it has published just three anthologies of stories collected from its annual competitions--but it boasts some impressive sponsors, including Booktrust UK and the University of Stirling, as well as a nice website and attractively-designed book covers. Its contests have no entry fees, and there's a 100 GBP prize for the winner, who is also promised "Exposure and publicity via our online presence".

Its Terms and Conditions, however, stink.

Simply by submitting a story to the competition, writers grant "the following licences free of charge and irrevocably":
  • The right to translate an excerpt from the work submitted (no more than 15% of its total length)
  • The non-exclusive right to reproduce and publish the work submitted on the websites and platforms controlled or authorized by Almond Press, both in the original language and in translation
  • The non-exclusive right to reproduce and publish the work submitted in trade paperback format, both in the original language and in translation
  • The non-exclusive right to record by means of any existing or not-yet-invented technology, to distribute and broadcast readings of excerpts from the work in the original language or in translation, on Almond Press networks and websites/platforms controlled or authorized by Almond Press
For the winner, these licenses become exclusive for a year and non-exclusive thereafter. In addition, winners must grant Almond the right "to edit, abridge or excerpt the work for the purposes of publication or broadcast. The author will be consulted if significant edits are necessary." (My bolding. "Significant" is a pretty flexible standard.)

What this boils down to is a publisher that is obtaining nearly all of the material for its anthologies for free. The only possibility of compensation is the one-time fee paid to the single winner--and even that is not guaranteed, since "If a prize cannot be awarded as described in these rules Almond Press reserves the right to substitute one or more prizes or prize components with another of approximately equivalent value."

Almond does say that all anthology proceeds go toward running its competitions--presumably to fund the prize and possibly to pay honorariums to the judges (who aren't identified--according to the Terms and Conditions, this is "to ensure the judging process remains blind", even though a blind judging process usually involves keeping entries anonymous, not judges).

Even if Almond isn't reaping a secret profit from free stories, though, this is yet another example of the increasingly prevalent writing culture that urges authors to work for exposure, rather than for fair monetary compensation. Sometimes, exposure may be indeed be worth it--if Tor were to run a similar competition (not that it would), it might be worth entering. But where exposure is the main or only compensation for publication, you really need to parse its meaning. Does publication in an anthology from an obscure small press with Amazon sales rankings in the hundred thousands constitute "exposure?" If so, is it an equitable tradeoff for being paid for the exploitation of your intellectual property?

The writing world needs its own Taylor Swift. Until she comes along, think twice before buying into the promise of "exposure." (And be sure to read--and fully understand the implications of--the fine print of any writing competition you may be tempted to enter.)

* Thanks to the reader of this blog who contacted me about Almond Press.

June 9, 2015

Awards Profiteers: How Writers Can Recognize and Avoid Them

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

If you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you may have guessed that I'm not a big fan of writing contests and awards.

Partly this is because so many are a waste of time, with minimal prizes, negligible prestige, and zero cachet on your writing resume. Why not spend your energy on something that can get you closer to building a readership--submitting for publication, or publishing on your own?

There's also the risk of bad things in the entry guidelines--for instance, the Emerging Writer Awards, where simply submitting constituted a grant of publishing rights. Writers who don't read the fine print carefully enough may find themselves trapped by such provisions.

And then there are the contests/awards with a hidden agenda: making money for the sponsor. Such awards aren't really about honoring writers at all.

There's a complex of red flags that identifies profiteering contest and awards programs.

- Solicitation. To maximize entries, profiteering awards and contests solicit entries. An out-of-the-blue email urging you to enter a contest or awards program should always be treated with caution.

- High entry fees. Profiteers charge $50, $60, $75, or even more. There may be "early bird specials" and multiple-entry discounts to tempt authors with the illusion of a bargain.

- Dozens or scores of entry categories. To maximize income, profiteers create as many entry categories as possible, and encourage multiple entries.

- Anonymous judging. Profiteers promise expert judging by people with standing in the publishing field, but don't reveal who those experts are. In fact, the judging may be done by the profiteer's staff, who may simply pick winners out of a hat.

- Non-prize prizes. To avoid cutting into their profits, profiteers offer prizes that cost them little or nothing: press releases, media announcements, database and website listings, features on satellite websites or in self-owned publications. Some offer little more than the supposed honor of winning the award.

- Opportunities to spend more money. Profiteers' profits don't just come from entry fees. They also hawk stickers, certificates, critiques, and more.

Profiteers may deviate from this template to some degree: some do provide money prizes, for instance, and not all solicit. But if more than four of these red flags are present in a contest or awards program--especially if there's a big entry fee--you should think very carefully about entering.

What about prestige? Profiteer awards and contests don't typically command a lot of name recognition, but if you win or place, you'll be able to tag your book as an "award-winning book" and yourself as an "award-winning author." How much readers care about such designations, though, is an open question. With all the fake review scandals, as well as readers' increasing disillusion with authorial self-promotion, I think book buyers have become more cynical in general about what authors say about themselves.

Profiteer awards and contests, which overwhelmingly target and ensnare small press and self-published authors, are a cynical play on authors' hunger for recognition and exposure in an increasingly crowded marketplace. In my opinion, they are never a worthwhile use of writers' money.

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Some examples of awards/contest profiteers:

JM Northern Media runs more than 20 literary "festivals" and conventions. JM Northern is a ferocious spammer; if you're a writer, you've probably been solicited for one or another of its festivals.

Unlike many other profiteers, JM Northern offers actual money prizes. But it can afford to. According to an article in Examiner.com that's no longer accessible, its Hollywood Book Festival received 2,740 entries in 2012. At $75 per entry, that's a gross of $205,500. Let's assume that the other 20 festivals, most of which have a lower fee of $50, also get a lower number of entries--say, 1,500 (I'm lowballing to demonstrate how insanely lucrative this scheme is). Altogether, that's over $1.5 million just in entry fees. A year. When you add in revenue from the critiques and merchandise (likely provided by JM Northern's own Modern Media Publicity), it wouldn't surprise me to learn that JM Northern's annual festival gross is well over $2 million.

- i310 Media Group sponsors the Best Book Awards, the International Book Awards, the American Book Fest and the Bookvana Awards. Entry fees are $69-79, and each program has scores of categories (more than 100 for the International Book Awards), fancifully-described prizes that boil down to website features and press releases, and the "opportunity" to purchase award stickers and certificates.

The Jenkins Group, a costly self-publishing services provider, runs at least five awards programs: Moonbeam Awards, Axiom Awards, eLit Awards, Living Now Awards, and the IPPY Awards. Entry fees range from $60 to $95, and there's the usual raft of entry categories and non-prize prizes. Even among profiteers, however, Jenkins is unusual in the amount of extra merchandise it hawks to winners. Check out the options for Moonbeam Award winners--no fewer than 29 items, ranging in price from $7.50 (for a Moonbeam Certificate) to $130 (for a Moonbeam Gold Medal--not even a real medal, just an image).

- WILDsound, another prolific spammer, runs continuous monthly contests and "festival events" for screenplays, books, poetry, short stories, and more. Fees range from $20 ("$15 OFF regular submission") for a first scene to $170 for a full novel, but average around $45. Judging is done by the usual cadre of unnamed "Professional Writers and Writing Consultants"; prizes are readings by--it's claimed--professional actors. You can sample these poor-quality videos here.

- Other profiteers include Readers Favorite ($89 to $109, depending on when you register; over 70 categories; plenty of adjunct merchandise and services for sale); the Pinnacle Book Achievement Awards ($90, over 50 categories, stickers and certificates for sale); Literary Classics (relatively inexpensive at $45, but the usual unnamed judges and hawking of adjunct merchandise); eLit Book Awards ($70-90, 65 categories, prizes consisting of website listings and spam--excuse me, newsletter mentions); and the Global Ebook Awards ($79, over 100 categories, with winners"eligible to purchase Global Ebook Award certificates attesting to their honor").
 
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