Literary Contests --

Facts and Fakes

by Victoria Strauss

There are literally hundreds of literary contests. Most are real; some are prestigious. But some are fake. Whilefake contests don't make up a huge proportion of the total, there are enough of them to warrant caution. And evenif a contest is legitimate, winning may not do anything to further your literary ambitions.

Contest Fakes

Fake contests come in several different forms, but they all have a common goal--to take your money.

For instance, some fee-charging literary agencies conduct them as a way of finding clients. One agency advertisesa contest where the prize is agency representation; representation is indeed offered (to everyone who enters),but the catch is that it comes with a hefty editing fee attached. Another agency uses a false name to run its contest;entrants are told their work is "exceptional" and "referred" to the agency, which charges anup-front fee. I've also run across contests conducted by publishers where the prize was a book contract...for whichthe winners had to pay.

Other organizations use contests to make money on the front end, via entry fees. Certain writers' magazines conducta dozen or more contests a year, each with a $10 or $15 fee; there are also Internet-based contests that each advertiseunder several different names and URLs. Such contest mills may get hundreds or even thousands of entries, and canbe very profitable. Usually there really are winners, who really do receive prize money; even so, contests of thiskind can be considered fake, since they exist for no other purpose than to make a profit for the organizationsconducting them, and carry no professional prestige due to the lack of rigorous judging standards.

By far the most common of the fake contests are the ones conducted by the vanity anthology companies. These companiespublish collections of poems, short stories, or essays, which then are sold not to the public, but to the contributors.Sometimes publication is contingent on purchase of the anthology and sometimes it isn't, but in all cases the anthologycan't be obtained except by paying for it, and the contributors are then bombarded by further inducements to spendmoney: their entry made into an audiotape, membership in an authors' society run by the company, registration forpoetry camps and writers' conventions...the list goes on.

Vanity anthologizers draw contributors by advertising an open contest, often with thousands of dollars in prizes.People really do win these prizes; what makes the contests fake is that everyone who enters is declared a semi-finalist,no matter how terrible their entry is, and told they've been selected for publication.

How bad can semi-finalists' entries be? In the spirit of experimentation, I entered the contest conducted by theInternational Library of Poetry (a.k.a. Poetry.com). Here's my poem:


LUCY

My cat is nice
My cat is neat
My cat likes milk
And bugs to eat.
My cat has fur
My cat has paws
My cat has a tail
And big sharp claws.
My cat has a bib
And many stripes
She never complains
Or has any gripes.
I love my cat
And that is that.
If this poem wins a prize,
I'll eat my hat.


And what a yummy hat it was. Within a few weeks, I received a letter informing me that after "carefullyreading and discussing" my poem, the Selection Committee had certified it as a semi-finalist, which entitledme to be entered in the final competition for a Grand Prize of $1,000.

But wait...that wasn't all! "Victoria...Imagine your poem featured in a beautiful coffee-table edition!"All I had to do was proofread my poem, return it, and voila! I'd be a published author, showcased alongside "Today'sMost Talented Poets And Songwriters" in "a fully indexed sourcebook of poetic talent to be used by editorsand publishers". Poetry.com hastened to assure me I was under "NO OBLIGATION WHATSOEVER" to purchasethe anthology (though "many people do wish to own a copy of the anthology in which their artistry appears"),and that my poem had been selected on the basis of my "unique talent and artistic vision". I leave itto the readers of this article to judge how artistic my vision really is.

In one sense, Poetry.com and companies like it fulfill their promises. They do publish the anthologies, and doinclude writers who agree to publication. But the hopes they hold out to contributors, like the contests they run,are fake. The books never see the inside of a bookstore, and because publication is offered without regard to quality,inclusion isn't considered a legitimate literary credit.


Is It Worth It?

In addition to the legitimacy of a literary contest, there's another question you may want to consider: is itworth your while to enter?

Many writers think that entering and winning contests is a way to build a writing resume. And indeed this can betrue, if the contest is prestigious--the Malice Domestic contest run by St. Martin's Press, for instance, wherewinning includes a book contract, or the Golden Heart Award, a contest for unpublished book-length manuscriptsconducted by the Romance Writers of America.

But of the many, many contests out there, only a very few have this kind of clout. Winning contests run by an obscuremagazine or a local writers' group or one of the Internet contest mills won't cut any ice with agents and editors--notjust because the editors and agents won't have heard of these contests, but because they know small contests aremuch less likely to employ professional judging standards.

I'm not trying to be snobbish here. There's nothing wrong with entering contests for fun, or to challenge yourself,or to win prize money. Just be realistic about your expectations. Keep in mind that not all contests are createdequal, and that winning won't necessarily build your career.


Assessing Contests

Following are some tips to help you evaluate contests.
  • Who's conducting the contest? If it's an organization you don't recognize,be sure to verify its legitimacy. If you can't confirm this to your satisfaction, don't enter. Be especially waryof contests that are nothing but a webpage of contest rules, or are announced on Usenet with only a mailing address,or appear in the form of an ad in the back pages of writers' magazines (these are generally vanity anthology companies).

  • Is the contest free? If so, you probably have nothing to lose by entering(but read the fine print: see below).

  • Is there an entry fee? Contrary to popular belief, this is not an automaticsign of a questionable contest. Many legitimate contests charge a fee to cover processing expenses. However, entryfees should be appropriate. Between $5 and $15 is a good ballpark for smaller or amateur contests; larger onesmay charge as much as $20 or $30. Anything more should prompt you to do some careful checking.

  • How frequently does the organization conduct contests? If there's a contestevery month, or bunches of contests every quarter, this may just be a moneymaking scheme.

  • Are the contest guidelines clearly stated? A legitimate contest will provideclear rules, including information about contest categories, deadlines, eligibility, format, fees, prizes and thecircumstances in which they will or will not be awarded, judging, and rights you may be surrendering.

  • Is it clear who'll be doing the judging? A legitimate contest will alwaysprovide this information.

  • Who are the judges? If they're published writers or real editors, the contestis more likely to be reputable, or even prestigious.

  • Are there fringe benefits? Critiques or meetings with industry professionalsare often a feature of the more high-profile contests. Note, though, that you should never be asked to pay extrafor this perk--if you are, the contest may be fake. And be sure that the professionals really are professionals.A legitimate contest will clearly state their credentials.

  • Does winning include publication? If so, the contest is more likely tobe legitimate (though there are many legitimate contests that don't offer publication). Do check out where you'llbe published, though--sometimes prizewinners are published in a separate booklet available only by special order.If you're looking for exposure, this sort of publication isn't the way to get it. And remember, there should neverbe an extra cost associated with publication. If there is, it's almost certain the contest is a fake.

  • Have you read the fine print? Contests sometimes require entrants to giveup various rights even if they don't win, such as first publication or the right to sell the entry elsewhere. Somerequire you to give up copyright, which means the organization holding the contest can use your entry for any purposeit wishes (even without your name). And if you enter a contest online, you may be giving permission for your entryto be published at the company's website, whether it wins or not (a frequent complaint about Poetry.com).
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Victoria Strauss is the author of six fantasy novels, and a regular book reviewer for the online journal SF Site. Her articles on writing have appeared in Writer’s Digest and elsewhere. She’s an active member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, where she serves as vice-Chair of the Writing Scams Committee and maintains the Writer Beware literary scams warning website. She welcomes visitors to her own website: http://www.victoriastrauss.com.

Used with Permission Copyright 1999-2004 Victoria Strauss

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