Writing contests are fun. I love them, and I enter them often, although I’ve yet to make it past the “finalist” level. But I don’t care! During those weeks or months of waiting for the winners to be announced, it’s exciting thinking that one of the winning stories might be mine. I recently read an article encouraging writers to enter contests and listing all the reasons they should do so, with the premise that, “you have nothing to lose.” Yes, there are many reasons writers should be entering writing contests. But depending on the contest, writers may have something to lose.
I was sadly reminded of this recently. I’m a fiction editor for a literary journal, and I was working with an emerging author on a short story that I’d fallen in love with. They’d submitted it to our journal, we’d accepted it for publication, and I’d worked with the author on developmental edits. We’d just received copyedits back from the copyeditor and were going over a couple of final details prior to publication of the story. I was trying to help the author resolve an issue with the story’s title, and during my research that last morning, I came across the story published on a business’s website.
The author had entered a writing prompt contest offering a prize of $250. The author didn’t win, but what they didn’t realize or understand was that the business had published their story on its website anyway, under the terms and conditions of its contest, and so the story had already been published.
We had to decline the story, for several reasons:
- The journal I edit for only accepts submissions of “previously unpublished” work. This is the case for most journals.
- The journal takes “first publication rights,” which means the journal publishes the story and pays the author in return for the right to be the first to publish the story. Again, this is common. The author’s story had already been published online, so the journal had lost the chance to be the first to publish it.
- Even if we’d wanted to go ahead with publishing the story (which we strongly considered because it was a beautiful story by a talented writer), there was another problem. The business’s contest rules required that, if we were to publish the story, we had to (a) give the business credit for the writing prompt that had prompted the author’s story (the idea); (b) credit the business for being the first to publish the story; and (3) link to the business’s writing contest. These are things we couldn’t bring ourselves to do, for reasons I’ll discuss below.
I was devastated, but the author was even more devastated. This would have been their first short story publication in a literary journal, and their polished story would have appeared online and in print. They would have been paid for the publication of their work. The story needed work on things like structure, tense, and point of view, and we’d worked really hard together on those things and to make the story shine. Now, instead of being published in a quality literary journal, it’s out there on a business website with its early-draft flaws intact, and it will be forever, for all practical purposes.
Before you enter a writing contest, ask yourself these questions:
1. What will you get out of it? If you’re considering entering writing contests, think first about what you want to get out of entering a contest, and then make sure the writing contest you’re considering will give you that. For example, the author I mentioned would have won $250 had they won the business’s contest. If your goal is a cash prize, then this contest might be for you, but there are a lot of other contests out there that offer a cash prize and don’t take first publication rights to your story even if you don’t win. If your goal is to begin publishing stories and building your reputation as a short story writer, this contest is probably not a good stepping stone toward that goal.
I enter short story contests often. I’m looking for recognition for some of the stories in my book-length manuscript, which may help me find an agent. So I enter contests that are considered noteworthy by agents, or that will result in publication in a respected journal, or that may earn me a meeting with an agent. I consider contests that may result in my book being published by a respected indie press–for my book, which is a more difficult pitch to agents, this may be a good result. But I would not enter a contest that would result in an exploitative book contract, and there are many of those out there.
2. What will the contest organizers get out of it? As I mentioned above, the business running the writing prompt contest likely has other motives for running its weekly contests besides supporting emerging writers. The business is a service company–it matches writers with editors, copyeditors, book cover designers, etc., and earns a fee for doing so. Their weekly writing contest appears to me to be a brilliant piece of marketing. They get about 250 entries every week, all short stories of 1,000 to 3,000 words, and they publish all of the entries on their website. This means 250 new pages of content on their website every week, which is incredible for their website’s search-engine optimization. And they’re pulling writers into these contests–writers who may buy their services. In fact, if they choose any runners-up in their weekly contest, the runners-up receive coupons toward these services.
The best contests for emerging writers to enter are generally those contests that are organized for the purpose of discovering emerging writers and supporting writers. Their prizes and contest rules will reflect this.
3. Is the contest entry fee fair? Whether an entry fee is fair depends on the contest’s motivation, the prizes it offers, and the writer’s motivation for entering. The writing prompt contest charges a $5 entry fee, for example. It appears they get about 250 entries every week, so after paying one winner $250, they’re making about $4,500 a month from this contest, getting free content for their website, gathering the email addresses of aspiring writers, and likely adding them to an email list and marketing their services to them. In return, they’ll publish each entrant’s story, whether or not it’s ready for publication, will award one story $250, and may award gift certificates toward services. Normally, I’d say a $5 entry fee is fair, but in this case, I’d say it’s not. Naïve, hopeful writers are essentially paying $5 to have their stories published.
Another contest I’m aware of charges a high $25 entry fee and runs multiple contests year-round. The contests are organized by a nonprofit organization, and the publication is a quality one and well-known, which made the entry fee feel acceptable to me. Since the organization is a nonprofit, I assumed the money was going toward contest administration fees, marketing, prizes, etc. But after doing some research, I learned that the organization’s board members are paid exorbitant annual salaries. Although the organization isn’t technically making money from the contests, its board members are.
Some higher entry fees make sense. Literary journals will always be struggling. Most of them are staffed by volunteers and charge reasonable or no submission fees. When journals do charge entry fees for contests, the money goes toward prizes and costs and helps them meet their annual budgets. But something to keep in mind is that higher entry fees also contribute to keeping out marginalized writers. Look for contests that offer waivers of fees for writers who can’t afford the entry fee or that allow more privileged writers to pay extra so that others can enter, too.
4. What’s in the fine print? Before you enter a contest, read the rules, terms, and conditions carefully, word by word, and make sure you understand them. The young author I worked with didn’t understand that their story would be published on the business website and didn’t know anything about publication rights or what future publishers would be required to do in order to republish their story.
In a writing group I belong to, I’ve heard more than one writer complain that, after winning a certain organization’s contest and having their story published, they realized that the terms and conditions of the contest allowed the publisher the exclusive right to publish their story anytime, anywhere, forever, and also gave the publisher the right to option the story for film and reap most of the benefits of that, while giving the author no say and paying the author relatively little.
Know what you’re getting into.
5. Is your piece ready to publish? Writers want their work to be seen. We write for ourselves, but we write for our readers, too. It’s our way of connecting with other human beings. But our desire to have our work published can work against us–if we are too anxious and our work isn’t ready, then having it published can damage our reputations as writers early on in our careers. And in the modern era of internet technology, once something is published online, we have to assume it could be out there forever. So don’t enter a piece of writing in a contest that you may someday regret having published.
Fortunately, if your work isn’t ready, then your chances of winning a contest and having your story published in a quality literary journal are low. But your goal is to win, so make sure your story is polished, run it through spellcheck, and get notes from beta readers or a writing group. Don’t be in a rush–enter your very best work, so that whatever the results, you can be proud of your effort.