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Dear Editor, Should I Pay to Enter a Writing Contest?

Dear Editor | Should I Pay to Enter a Writing Contest?

Last week I discussed some of the perils of publishing: agents charging up-front fees, and publishers charging reading fees. I’ve also discussed vanity publishing in a previous post, and covered how writers earn money.

But what about writing contests?

Is it appropriate for a writing contest to charge an entry fee, or is that another dodgy practice?

It depends.

Most reputable writing contests do charge entry fees. Most also require entrants to forward several copies of their book to the contest coordinator (although an increasing number now permit or require ebook entries).

But there are some contests where the cost of entry outweighs the potential benefits, to the point where the contest looks and feels like an exercise in vanity.

Why do writers enter contests?

Unpublished and published writers have different reasons for entering contests.

Unpublished Writers

Unpublished writers usually enter for one of two reasons: feedback, and attention.

Feedback.

Most contests offer unpublished writers feedback on their entries—what’s good, and what needs work. The entry fee is a small price to pay for unbiased feedback from three to five other writers. It’s cheaper than paying an editor!

Attention.

Many reputable contests are judged by agents or publishers specialising in the genre. Finalling or winning such a contest can be a valuable stepping stone to a publishing contract.

Published Writers

Published authors enter because a prestigious contest final or win can help them move forward in their career e.g. get another publishing contract, get a large print contract, or get an audiobook contract.

Vanity Contests

Not all writing contests are legitimate. Many contests are run by writing organisations to celebrate the best of their member’s books, and to encourage and educate unpublished writers. But some contests have nothing more than a profit motive.

Vanity contests fall into two main categories:

  • Contests run by vanity presses.
  • Contests run for profit.

Contests Run by Vanity Presses

Writer Beware has reported contests run by vanity presses where the winner receives a publishing package “worth” $10,000 or more Of course, what that means is the publisher gives the winner a publishing package that usually sells for $10,000+, even if it only costs the publisher $3,000 to provide those services. Well, their profit has to come from somewhere.

Entering a contest that promises the winner a publishing contract is a tempting carrot. Some of these contests are free to enter, which is an added incentive for the unwitting entrant. But these contests don’t exist to find and promote unpublished writers They are a marketing tool: every entrant who doesn’t win is a sales prospect

Contests Run For Profit

A contest being run for profit isn’t necessarily a bad thing: a contest that continually runs at a loss is unsustainable.

What you need to watch for is contests with a high entry fee (e.g. over USD 50) and a large number of categories (e.g. over 15). Then the contest starts to look as though the purpose is to make money for the organisers, not to recognise and reward writers.

For example, one award I’ve looked at has 100 over categories (yes, I counted). Each category has between two and six finalists, but they don’t say how finalists are chosen, or how many people entered. If there are (say) 300 finalists across the 100 categories but only 300 people entered, then how “special” is it to be named a finalist?

Contrast that with the Romance Writers of America RITA Award. RWA cap RITA entries at 2,000 (and usually get that many entries within 24 hours of opening the contest). There are twelve genre categories, plus Best First Book, and only the top 4% of entries in each category are named finalists.

How do you tell whether a contest is legitimate?

I’d consider:

The Entry Fee

An entry fee for unpublished authors that judges the first five or fifteen pages will probably have a lower entry fee than a published contest that judges the whole book.

Fees go towards contest administration, such as:

  • Setting up the website
  • PayPal or other fees
  • Postage (for contests with print copies)
  • Prizes (sometimes cash, but more often trophies).

I don’t know of any contests which pay the judges or contest coordinators, although some may offer final round judges an honorarium. One contest I judge for sends me a packet of Tim Tams (chocolate is a great motivator).

Many writing organisations either restrict entries to members, or offer members a discounted rate. This is a not-so-subtle ploy to get entrants to join the organisation—and I don’t see anything wrong with that.

The Profit

What happens to the profit (if there is any)? Many contests and awards are run by writing organisations, so the profits will be used to further the objectives of the organisation. The Grace Awards state that any profit is used to fund scholarships to the Blue Ridge Christian Writers Conference.

But if a paid contest is run by something other than a writing organisation, it might be worth finding out what happens to the money.

The Number of Categories

Too many categories is a bad sign. The best contests operate in a niche e.g. romance, Christian fiction, science fiction and fantasy. This niche should also represent the area of expertise of the sponsoring organisation.

The Number of Finalists

Reputable contests state the number of finalists as a number of as a percentage of the number of entries, or state that a category will only go ahead if there is a minimum number of entries.

Who Runs the Contest?

Reputable contests are often run by writing organisations (e.g. American Christian Fiction Writers, Romance Writers of New Zealand, or Omega Writers). Others may be run in conjunction with reputable writing conferences (e.g. the organisers of the Blue Ridge Christian Writers Conference also run the Grace Awards).

The Judging Criteria

Some contests make the judging criteria public e.g. the score sheet is available on their website. This can help writers target their entry for the contest.

Length of Contest

How long has the contest been running? While new contest isn’t necessarily suspect, a longstanding contest is more likely to be reputable.

Rights Grab

Read the contest rules. Do they give the contest organiser any rights over your work beyond

Past Winners

Does the website include a list of past winners? Are the past winners books you’ve read and enjoyed, or authors you recognise? I followed the Christy Awards for years, and found the finalists and winners were typically a combination of books I’d read and enjoyed, or books I wanted to read.

Judges

First-round judging is usually anonymous, but many contests (especially for Unpublished writers) are judged by agents or editors working in the genre. This both adds to the authenticity of the contest, and provides an incentive for potential entrants: wouldn’t you want to enter a contest where the three finalists are judged by your dream agent or publisher?

Overall

Overall, a writing contest should exist for the benefit of the author, not the organiser. If you’re concerned about the legitimacy of a contest, ask in your writer’s group, or check out the list of Awards and Contests at the Alliance of Independent Authors. It doesn’t include many of the legitimate writing contests I know of, but it has a comprehensive list of contests to avoid!

What contests have you entered that you’d recommend? Or not?