by Anne R. Allen.
Recently I’ve been seeing a bunch of ads for writing contests in my Facebook feed. Plus I’ve been getting unsolicited mass emails advertising similar competitions. Some of them look pretty legit, but I couldn’t help asking myself why. If it’s such a great contest, why do they need to use spam to promote them? Why not contact me as an influencer and ask me to promote the contest here on the blog? (Many contest promoters do this and if the contest looks good, I add it to our “Opportunity Alerts” section at the bottom of each post. )
Then last week I saw a tweet from industry watchdog Victoria Strauss at Writer Beware saying much the same thing. She said she’d suddenly been hearing from a lot of writers who were getting direct solicitations from writing contests and she’s seeing the same stuff I am on Facebook. So I thought I should probably give our readers a heads-up.
Legit Writing Contests are Valuable.
First I want to say I encourage writers to enter legit writing contests. Contest wins have got me through some times of self-doubt as a writer, and they sometimes can pay better than actually selling a book or story to a publisher. Plus they raise your profile and attract new readers.
That’s why I always include a few contests in our “Opportunity Alerts” feature at the end of each blog post.
And few months ago we featured a post by C. Hope Clark here on the blog. Her Funds for Writers newsletter is a great source for announcements of vetted contests. She also has a fantastic new handbook of writing contests.
When choosing “Opportunities,” I search out contests that keep their fees reasonable and offer good prizes like prestigious publication, big money, or another valuable prize like a critique from a respected professional or a read from an agent.
Contests are especially good for short form writing: short stories, creative essays, and poems. Short form contests do have their share of scammers, like the venerable poetry anthology scam, but a good percentage of short form contests are likely to be legit.
On the other hand, the contests for book length fiction or memoir—especially self-published books that are already in print—present juicy opportunities for scams.
Victoria Strauss thinks you’re better off staying away from all novel contests. I’m not quite so negative about them, and I feel some can actually be prestigious, but she is absolutely right that you must be wary.
Here are some tip-offs that you’re probably dealing with a scammy contest:
A real contest doesn’t have to showcase a bunch of unknown writers telling you how happy they are they entered a contest.
If all those people had really won $10,000 and a major publishing contract you would have seen a big splash about it in the mainstream press.
Those “publishing contracts” these people were awarded are probably with a vanity press owned by the contest promoters. The money they “won” often doesn’t quite cover the cost of the ridiculously overpriced publishing package.
I can’t think of any legitimate reason a book contest would need testimonials.
If a contest is legit, they’ll say something like, “Last year’s winner is now represented by The Bigge Deele Literary Agency” or “The 2018 winner was the bestseller, Gone With the Tattooed Girl in the Train Window.”
If it’s a legit indie contest, they’ll show you the book cover and crow about sales. They won’t show you a photo of the author looking like one of those “I lost 50 lbs. in 3 days eating corn dogs and funnel cake” ads you see in the back of pulpy magazines.
2) High Fees
There are a whole lot of for-profit contests out there. Be wary of any contest that charges high fees (over $30).
If a contest is brand new, be especially careful. They may promise a big money prize, but you have no way of knowing if that prize will actually be awarded. The promoters often take the money and run.
Novel contests are more likely to be legit if they’re attached to a well-known book festival, writers conference, or well known organization–or if they’ve been around for a long time.
The most prestigious contests, like Minotaur’s Malice Domestic prize , the Bouchercon, Hugo or Edgar Awards do NOT charge fees, although you probably need to become a member or attend a conference to enter.
However do note that no-fee contests are not always benign. No-fee poetry contests are often simply solicitations for scammy anthologies. Everybody who enters “wins” the prize of being included in a super-expensive anthology. It’s free to enter, but you have to pay $50-$60 to see your “prize-winning” poem in print and you’ll be slammed with endless requests to buy more copies for your friends and relations. For more, here’s my blog post on scammy anthologies.
3) Iffy Sponsors
A few years ago, I got an email about a contest that sounded like a good addition to the “Opportunity Alerts.” No entry fee…prizes…and they said the winning piece would be submitted to big name literary agencies. But it sounded a little too good to be true.
So I checked out the sponsor of the contest and found this entry in agent Janet Reid’s blog and discovered the contest was sponsored by a query service. They were running the contest to collect email addresses of aspiring writers to target with their bogus services.
BTW, query services are pointless scams. A query letter is a job interview. You don’t want somebody to go on a job interview for you any more than you want Cyrano De Bergerac to woo the object of your affections. 🙂
Besides, agents can spot a phony in the first sentence.
And even if they couldn’t, imagine what would happen when the real you answered the phone if “the call” actually came. “Did I say I’m a major fan of your client Bess Selling? Then I guess I am. Do I consider my books to be in her genre? Um, what genre does she write….” Yeah. You don’t want to end up there.
(I’m not talking about legit, helpful agent databases like QueryTracker and AgentQuery, which I highly recommend.)
But it’s a bad idea to enter a contest that’s run by an iffy organization. You’re not just wasting your money. You could damage your reputation by associating your name with a shady outfit.
4) Rights Grabs
Always read the fine print. Some of these have got by me into the Opportunity Alerts, so do pay attention, even if you see the contest here. A legit contest never asks for exclusive, long term rights unless they’re giving you a whole lot of money for those rights. And even so, think long and hard about what you’re giving up and if it’s worth it to you.
Poetry and verse contests sometimes ask for all rights because they want to use them on greeting cards, posters, mouse pads, or whatever. If it’s $1000 for a few lines, that might be worthwhile for you.
But it might not. It’s up to you.
But journals should only ask for first publication rights for your region (say North America, or UK/Eire) and that’s all. Online journals and websites may ask for first international rights. They may ask for exclusivity for a certain amount of time, say six months to a year. That makes perfect sense. An online journal doesn’t want you to publish the story on your blog a week after it comes out in a journal they ask people to pay for.
But a contest that demands rights for “the life of the copyright” or anything more than a year is making a rights grab. Don’t do it unless you’re getting major bux and you’re not going to want to write about the characters or setting again
5) Small Prizes Compared with Fees
“Exposure” isn’t a prize. When a contest charges a fee, make sure the prize is appropriate—not just a tiny percentage of what they take in.
A few hundred dollars and a shiny sticker that says “Booky McBookface Award-Winner” isn’t worth that $95 entry fee.
Worse, if the only prize is publication with a vanity press, you’ve been had.
6) Hidden Judging Criteria and/or Unknown Judges.
Legit contests tell you the criteria they use for judging: originality, characters, pacing, plotting, setting, etc. Often they have high profile judges. Some writing contests, like the Women on Writing contests feature agents as judges. If you’re agent hunting, I don’t have to tell you why this is a good deal. I know of several successful authors who got their starts through a contest where an agent was the judge.
But if the judges aren’t named, there could be problems. If the judges are simply the staff of the contest, check for complaints. The awards may go to pre-chosen cronies.
7) Advertised via Unsolicited Emails or Social Media Spam
This is what prompted me to write this post. These days, my Facebook feed is filled with more and more ads, especially writer spam, and lots of it is for contests. Some seem legit, but others not so much.
Always Google an organization before entering their contest. Use keywords like “scam” and “complaints.” And check with the watchdog websites I list below.
8) Bad Marks from Writer Beware, Alli, and Other Watchdog Sites.
Victoria Strauss’s Writer Beware has been keeping writers safe from bogus agents, publishers and scammy contests for over a decade. If you haven’t heard of a contest, always check them out with Victoria.
You’ll also find up-to date warnings at the fantastic website of Alli, the Alliance for Independent Authors. You don’t have to be a member to access their data base which is a treasure trove for writers.
Absolute Write is another watchdog site. It is not entirely reliable, since it’s a forum and anybody can post. They tend to be dominated by a lot of anti-self publishing people who call anything self-publishing a scam, so take comments with a grain of salt. But it’s worth checking them to see if there are a large number of complaints.
To Find Good Writing Contests, Check with Ethical Sites.
So how to you find legit, solid contests to enter?
I find most of the contests I list here in the “Opportunity Alerts” at the Poets and Writers website. I also recommend Authors Publish magazine, C. Hope Clark’s Funds for Writers and also the wonderful blog “Publishing and Other Forms of Insanity” where Erica Verrillo lists great contests and calls for submissions every month.
Also The Alliance for Independent Authors, Alli, offers a vetted list of awards and contests on their site, a valuable resource for all authors.
You can find another couple of great lists at “30 Book Awards for Self-Published Authors” by Joel Freidlander and “32 Book Awards Authors Should Pursue” by Scott Lorenz.
I’ll leave you with some advice from Marcy Kennedy from Janice Hardy’s blog.
“Some of the best awards give the winners media exposure (leading to more book sales), cash prizes, and opportunities to speak with agents/editors from traditional publishing (if that’s a path the winner wants to consider). Beyond that, having an award win, or even an honorable mention, adds credibility to you and your book. But not all awards are created equal. Some are scams. Some won’t give a good enough return on investment for your time and entry fees.”
by Anne R. Allen (@annerallen) May 5, 2019
What about you, scriveners? Have you entered any book contests? Was there a fee over $30? Did you feel it was worthwhile? Did you win? Have you ever been scammed by a writing contest?
BOOK OF THE WEEK
HOW IT ALL BEGAN: This prequel to the Camilla mysteries romps through the glitzy 1980s, when 19-year-old debutante Camilla loses everything: her fortune, her gay best friend, and eventually her freedom.
When she’s falsely accused of a TV star’s murder, she discovers she’s made of sterner stuff than anyone imagined — herself included.
Snarky, delicious fun! The Camilla Randall mysteries are a laugh-out-loud mashup of romantic comedy, crime fiction, and satire.
Perennially down-and-out socialite Camilla Randall is a magnet for murder, mayhem and Mr. Wrong, but she always solves the mystery in her quirky, but oh-so-polite way. Usually with more than a little help from her gay best friend, Plantagenet Smith.
Ploughshares Emerging Writers Contest for unpublished writers. 3 prizes of $2,000 each and publication in Ploughshares and a consultation with the literary agency Aevitas. Poetry judge: Fatimah Asghar. Fiction judge: Ottessa Moshfegh, and nonfiction judge: Leslie Jamison. 3-5 pages of poetry or up to 6,000 words of fiction or nonfiction. $24 Entry Fee includes a subscription to Ploughshares. Deadline: May 15.
The Jeff Sharlet Memorial Award for Veterans. This creative writing contest for U.S. military veterans and active duty personnel is hosted by The Iowa Review and made possible by a gift from the family of Jeff Sharlet (1942–69), a Vietnam veteran and antiwar writer and activist. The contest is open to veterans and active duty personnel writing in any genre and about any subject matter. Prizes: First place: $1,000 plus publication in The Iowa Review. Second place: $750. Three runners-up: $500 each. NO FEE. Deadline: May 31, 2020.
BLACK ORCHID NOVELLA AWARD from the Nero Wolfe Pack. NO FEE. 15,000 to 20,000 words. Traditional mysteries only. No explicit sex or violence. Prize: $1,000 and publication in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Deadline May 31.
Katherine Anne Porter Prize for a collection of short fiction. $25 FEE. Prize is $1000 plus publication by the University of North Texas Press. 100-200 pages. Deadline June 30th.
The Moth Prize for short fiction. €3,000 (approximately $3,380) and publication in the Moth. 2nd prize: a weeklong retreat in Missé, France, and a €250 travel stipend; 3rd prize: €1,000 and publication. Kit de Waal will judge. Up to 5,000 words. €15 (approximately $17) FEE. Deadline June 30
IWSG Anthology Contest 2019. NO FEE! Middle Grade Fantasy stories 3000-5000 words. Theme: Voyagers. Judges include well-known authors including Elizabeth S. Craig. Payment in royalties for the anthology, published by Freedom Fox Press. Deadline September 4th.
7 PUBLISHERS FOR MEMOIRS! You don’t need an agent. From the good folks at Authors Publish
Featured image: Painting by Horace Vernet of the battle at Soufflot barricades at Rue Soufflot on June 24, 1848