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Queries, Pitches and Proposals

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Writing Contests: When Winners Are Losers

by Moira Allen

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 an annually updated print contest guide, Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests.

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.

When a Contest Isn't a Contest

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."

Warning Signs

Following are some indications that a contest is less than legitimate:

  1. Everyone wins. By definition, a contest isn't really a contest if every entry wins, regardless of quality. Make sure that entries are actually judged; be cautious if the sponsor won't provide information on who the judges are. If no one loses, winning means nothing.

  2. The entry fee is exorbitant. Fees for poetry, short fiction and nonfiction contests typically range from $5 to $15, while fees for novel and screenplay competitions range from $25 to $50. Be wary of contests that charge significantly higher fees. Also, check the ratio of the fee to the prize: Stay away from competitions that ask you to pay $20 for a prize of $50. (However, the lack of an entry fee is still no guarantee that a contest is legitimate!)

  3. All entries are considered for publication. Make sure that a contest's "entry fee" isn't actually a "reading fee" -- for example, when a book publisher hosts a contest in which the "prize" is a contract and an advance. Many publications also host "contests" in which all entries (not just the ones that win cash prizes) are "considered" for publication; this is just an easy way to get content without having to pay for it. Make sure that you'll receive some form of payment if your entry is "accepted" for publication, even if you're not actually a "winner."

  4. The contest claims rights to your entry. Stay away from any contest that claims any rights to entries -- whether those entries win or not. In particular, avoid contests that claim all rights. Again, these are generally mechanisms to gain free content. I also recommend avoiding competitions that claim all rights to winning entries, unless the publication is highly reputable.

  5. The prize is "publication" in a low-quality periodical. The appeal of "getting published" draws many writers to competitions, but there is no value in being published in a periodical that has no respect in the writing or literary community. Find out where and how winning entries will actually be published. Does the publication go out to paying subscribers? Is it available in libraries or bookstores? Or will your entry simply be published on an obscure web site?

  6. You have to pay for a copy of the publication. Most legitimate competitions will send you a copy of the publication in which your winning entry appears. If you have to pay to receive a copy, chances are that you're dealing with some type of vanity publisher. For example, one Australian publisher was criticized for offering a flat fee of $5 (Australian) for published entries. Since that fee was too small to be claimed by entrants outside of Australia because of exchange rates, "winners" were encouraged to apply it to the cost of buying the anthology.

  7. The prize depends on the number of entries. Some competitions offer extravagant prizes, but explain in the fine print that these awards depend on the number of entries. In reality, the total "purse" is usually far less than what has been promised. This type of competition is commonly offered by an individual or business that uses the contest as a means of attracting clients.

  8. The competition is run by a private individual. Most reputable competitions are run by organizations: literary groups, magazines, and publishers. Be wary of contests that are offered (and often judged) by a single individual. While such a competition isn't necessarily "illegitimate," neither is it likely to be a worthwhile writing credit, and it can be much more difficult to claim your prize if the individual decides not to pay up.

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."

Scam-Busting Sites

13 Warning Signs of a Bad Poetry Contest
What to watch out for before sending that poem -- or that check.
http://www.winningwriters.com/warningsigns.htm

Web Resources that Help You Identify Scams
http://www.winningwriters.com/scambustingsites.htm

International Library of Poetry Award Letter
Copy of the ILP's letter to semifinalists. This site also has a number of "winning" poems that the author wrote in a deliberate attempt to determine what, if anything, the ILP would reject.
http://wockyjivvy.com/poetry/shame/letter.html

Writer Beware: Contests and Vanity Anthologies
More information on what to watch out for in a competition.
http://www.sfwa.org/for-authors/writer-beware/anthologies/

"For Some Artists, Success Comes with a Price"
The Jacksonville Times-Union's investigation of the International Library of Poetry.
http://www.jacksonville.com/tu-online/stories/040301/met_5813722.html

Related Articles:

Contests: To Enter or Not to Enter? by Kathe Gogolewski
http://www.writing-world.com/contests/kathe.shtml

More Information:

Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests, by Moira Allen
2012 Print Edition
2012 Kindle Edition
Copyright © 2003 Moira Allen
Excerpted from Writing.com: Creative Internet Strategies to Advance Your Writing Career, Second Edition

This article may be reprinted provided that the author's byline, bio, and copyright notice are retained in their entirety. For complete details on reprinting articles by Moira Allen, please click HERE.


Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts Mostly-Victorian.com, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.

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Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests

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