NOTE: Since this article was written, it appears that Poetry.com and the International Library of Poetry have ceased to exist. The website "Poetry.com" is now owned by Lulu.com, a publisher of print-on-demand books, which is using the site as its "poetry publishing arm." Lulu.com is still offering a monthly, reader-judged contest on the site, but is clear that all poems will be reviewed by Lulu staff to make sure that they are genuine and do not violate any copyrights. However, I am choosing to leave this article "as is" to help readers understand the types of scams that have occurred in the past and may occur in the future. -- Moira Allen
If you like entering contests, the Web offers a wealth of opportunities. You'll find hundreds of competitions posted online, offering prizes for books, short stories, poetry, screenplays, and nonfiction. Many writing e-zines offer information on upcoming contests, and several sites offer extensive contest listings. Writing-World.com offers a print contest guide, Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. [Last updated in 2012.]
Unfortunately, the Web also makes it easy for predators to take advantage of writers who yearn for prizes and recognition. While there have been few cases of outright "scams" (contests that take a writer's money and refuse to provide the promised prizes or publication), there are others that aren't quite what they claim to be. Fortunately, the Web also offers several excellent "warning" sites that can help alert you to potential problems.
Recognizing the difference between a legitimate contest and a more shady operation isn't always easy. For example, many writers are concerned about entry fees -- but the presence of a fee does not mean that a contest is a "rip-off", and the absence of a fee doesn't guarantee that a contest is legitimate. Many literary organizations, for example, support themselves in part through contest entries, while other competitions use entry fees to fund their prize purses.
A more important question to ask, therefore, is "what is the fundamental purpose of this contest?" Is it to recognize and reward literary merit, or is does the contest serve another function? For example, a number of publishers host "contests" for which the "award" is an advance and a publication contract. This type of contest is really just a thinly veiled means of getting writers to pay a "reading fee" to have their manuscript considered for publication. Other competitions are hosted by individuals (such as book doctors or writing "coaches") as a means of promoting their services.
One type of contest that has generated considerable controversy and criticism is the "vanity anthology" contest. These competitions generally charge no entry fees and offer extravagant prizes. Their primary purpose, however, is to persuade entrants to buy the anthology in which their "winning entry" appears.
Perhaps the best-known vanity anthology publisher is Watermark Press, which sponsors a variety of contests under the names "International Library of Poetry," "Poetry.com," "National Library of Poetry," "Birthwrites," and others. Watermark Press is listed by the Greater Maryland Better Business Bureau as "a publisher of hardbound anthologies which feature amateur poets." The company also offers a subsidy-publishing service for individual poets.
The controversy lies in the company's claim to select poems (and poets) on the basis of "literary merit." The company's standard acceptance letter, for example, states that poems selected as "semi-finalists" in the ongoing competition are chosen "solely on the basis of merit." The letter also states that "We receive thousands of poems each year, and we choose only a very few for publication."
A number of writing organizations, authors, and investigators dispute this claim. According to Victoria Strauss, vice-chair of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America's committee on writing scams (and host of the Writer Beware web site), "Everyone who submits is declared a semi-finalist, no matter how dreadful their poem." This contention has been tested by a number of writers and poets, who have submitted "bad" poetry to determine whether it would be rejected by the ILP. (You can read some of these "test" poems, all of which were declared semifinalists, on the sites listed below.)
Information on the Poetry.com site itself would also appear to contradict the claim that only "a few" semifinalists are chosen. The online contest entry page includes this line: "All poets who enter this contest will receive correspondence concerning their artistry within seven weeks including a copy of their poem for proofing purposes". Note that there is no statement here to the effect that one's poem will be prepared for publication only if it meets certain "literary standards;" this page specifically states that page-proofs will be sent to all entrants.
In 2001, the Jacksonville (Florida) Times-Union reported that the Greater Maryland BBB had received 390 complaints about Watermark Press over a three-year period. It also noted, however, that the Bureau regards Watermark as a "legitimate business" that is "in the business to sell books." That, perhaps, is the point would-be entrants should take to heart: The company has a specific purpose, and that purpose is not necessarily to recognize and reward "literary merit." There is no indication that the company does not, in fact, provide the prizes promised in its ads. As Strauss and others point out, there is nothing illegal about the operation. The problem, in their eyes (and in the eyes of many other writing organizations) is that this type of competition misleads hopeful writers into believing that their work has been "chosen" on the basis of merit -- when, in fact, no such selection has taken place. Strauss also points out "because of the poor quality of most of the poems, anthology credits are not respected by publishing professionals."
Following are some indications that a contest is less than legitimate:
The good news is that the vast majority of the hundreds of writing competitions listed online are legitimate -- and some can be an important boost to your career if you win. With a little common sense, you can easily filter out the contests that are "too good to be true."
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