JM Williams

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Are Most Writing Competitions Just Money Grabs?


Sorry I haven’t posted in a while. I am away from home on temporary duty and didn’t have a workable internet connection. I finally just changed my cellular plan to unlimited data and am now using my phone as a wifi hotspot. Here’s a post on a topic that has been bothering me as of late.

I’ve been at this writing thing for going on a year, and I have learned a few things about publishing. One of these insights is that most writing competitions don’t give writers a fair deal. They seem to just be fundraisers for the publisher or simply cheats.

I see posts on blogs and Facebook quite often promoting writing competitions. Most of these require an entry fee, and most do not offer prizes and returns that reflect these fees.

I’d like to offer a bit of advice. Avoid these sorts of shady contests. Especially new, and yet unpublished writers. Why should you pay for the chance at publication when there are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of traditional magazines, ezines, anthologies and other publications that you can submit your work to for free? Same goes for magazines that charge reading fees to get work they’re going to sell and profit from anyways.

New writers need a chance to get kicked by an editor or two without risk of loss–well beside loss of ego, which is a good thing. New writers should start with non-paying publishers just to build their skills and confidence. Once you have that skill, there are more reading-fee-free publishers out there than you can imagine.

That’s not to say that all writing competitions are bogus or predatory. But you have to look closely at the details to know which ones are worthwhile. Let’s look at a couple examples.

The one that has irked me recently is Fiction War. They have been spamming their summer contest all over Facebook. Let’s check the details. Fiction War is running a contest for 15 pieces to be featured in a published issue of their magazine. It is essentially a call for stories that proper magazines run for free. But instead, Fiction War places a $30(US) entry price on submissions. AND they also charge a $2.64 fee that you don’t even see until you click to register! What the heck is the original $30, if not an entry fee?

Let’s do the math on this contest. They are pulling in roughly $33 on each entry. But what are they giving out? A total of $2400 in prizes. That means they only need 73 entries before they break even. After which, they sell the magazine for additional profit that the authors never see. Seems pretty shady to me, but let’s check out another contest to be sure.

I submitted a story to the Cincinnati Review and it seems I am now on their mailing list. I got an email from them about a summer writing competition called Robert and Adele Schiff Awards in Poetry and Prose. The entry fee for the contest is $20(US) and the prize money is two winners of $1000 each. If we do the math, that means they need 100 submissions to break even. There is definitely a better mathematical return for the authors with this one.

But the Cincinnati Review does something even better. They give every entrant a free year’s subscription, valued at $15. So in essence, you’re only losing $5 in real value when you enter this contest. There’s simply no comparison with the scam that is Fiction War.

The fundamental problem with these sorts of writing contests is that the more people that enter the contest, the worse the relative returns. It seems counterintuitive and illogical that the more popular a contest is, the worse it is for writers. But more entries mean more money for the publisher,  while the prizes remain the same. So more entries means winners get a lesser percentage of the total pot.

I think a proper writing contest should have relative prizes, like a gambling pool. Winners get a set percentage of the total, as do the publishers. That’s really the only fair way to run this sort of thing. It also takes away much of the publisher’s risk, too. Though I doubt any publishers will ever do it. The least they could do is offer the authors a share of the royalties on their published work.

But I say this knowing full well that there are better contests and publications out there. Perhaps the best contest for writers, at least for speculative fiction writers, is Writers of the Future which hands out $2250 in prizes during each quarterly contest. An yet the entries are completely free! You cannot beat that.

On a sad side note, my last entry for WotF was rejected…

The whole point here is that you should not, and do not, need to pay to submit and publish your work, or to make money off it.

That goes for magazines that charge reading fees. Most are probably cheating you. But not all are bad. I submitted to The Vestal Review which charges a $3 reading fee. But they give you a free copy of the issue you submitted for, even if your story is rejected! That’s the same value as the fee you paid, so you’re not losing value. It just means you need to look over the details careful before you hand over the cash.

So think twice before you pay to enter a writing contest. And please review the contest and check the math before recommending it to other authors. Don’t be the vampire’s patsy.

If you’ve got a story you are looking to publish, but don’t know where to send it, I can help. In the comments below, let me know the genre, theme and word count and I will try to recommend a publisher. Or if you like your privacy, message me on Facebook.

5 Responses to Are Most Writing Competitions Just Money Grabs?

  1. I never enter a comp that charges more than £5 for the entry fee – and you’re right, some are horrendously expensive. And some of the most prestigious are the most expensive. But to be fair there are plenty of free opportunities too, you just have to search them out. But you’re right, thinking twice is the key

    • I think that’s a good rate to use as a rule. But I think I’ve seen some that that only hand out a couple hundred in prizes. So you have to look at the whole picture–what’s the fee, what’s the return, and what’s the expected participation?

  2. An anonymous guest posted a comment here but didn’t give a proper name or email so it got spammed. I think they were worried about getting an angry response, as it was a bit hot. But the commented made some great points. Anyways, here is the whole, unedited comment:

    “Yes, they are money-grabs/fundraisers because the majority of these university presses, journals and small publishers do not really make any money. Many poetry books are published using grants from local government arts budgets because most of them make a loss. Literary journals are often subsidised too. They have very small staffs, around to 2-4 paid staff with 1-4 volunteers or interns. The $2-5 reading fees usually only go towards the costs involved in keeping an online submission manager up, and the price is similar to what it would previously have cost you to print and mail your submission with an SSAE. A lot of journals will still accept posted submissions if you prefer that to paying a $2-5 fee. Don’t pretend that you’re buying copies of every magazine or journal you’re submitting to. Not many people actually pay money for these. The majority of copies “sold” are the contributor’s copies. Having a small fee is a good way for writers who can’t afford whole subscriptions to still be able to support the arts that they are participating in. With the first competition you mentioned, the extra $2.64 is presumably going to whoever is processing the payment. With the second competition, given that what they are actually doing is selling subscriptions and increasing their reader base, with the competition fee being really $5 – they will need 400 subscriptions to break even, but probably more given that they still have to pay for the submission manager and that part of that money goes to the payment processor (e.g. PayPal), and if you consider that many entrants are actually based in other countries and international postage of books is expensive… for every international entrant, they will probably make a loss on that too.
    As for royalties! No one’s making a profit off your story or poem in a literary journal, and even if you have a book published, you may not get more than the price of a cup of coffee each year. The journals that charge reading fees are more likely to be able to pay something like an honorarium or gratuity, but again, this money often comes from an outside grant. Often you are given the option of choosing between a token payment and extra copies of the journal or a subscription. Choosing extra copies and subscriptions helps the journal out, making it more likely that they can keep running over the years to come and publish more books or include more pages in their journals or feature more online content. Another way to support small press publications and journals if you are an artist who is struggling financially is to request them for your local library, university or school. Disclaimer: I don’t work for a publishing company, I’m just a struggling artist who cares about arts funding…”

    Good points, though I don’t think a lot of these publishers are as destitute as this commenter suggests. Particularly any associated with universities have access to a good deal of support through student group funding and grants (at my alma mater this was thousands of dollars from a single source). And each one ends up selling copies at the end of the contest or submission period. It might seem harsh to say, but if the publisher fails to sell copies, that’s ultimately on them. The best option still is some sort of profit sharing with authors. Even a 1% royalty will encourage authors to use their networks to sell the anthology, rather than just post about their publication and forget about it. And the target of my ire here in this article was competitions charging enormous submission fees. Though I do criticize journals here, I find that journals that charge fees are much fairer than competitions. $2-5 for a reading fee is not bad, I was targeting competitions that charge $20 plus and include hidden fees. Yes, Fiction War’s fee might related to payment process fees, but to hide it as they did was sketch. And at $30, the entry fee more than covers administrative costs.

    Ultimately, though, I write these articles to help authors, not publishers. The harsh realities that some publishers have to face are sad, but do not change the fact that it is better for authors to submit to fairer contests and magazines that read for free. There’s no reason for an author to deal with reading fees or high contest entry fees since there are countless places you can submit for free and get paid. That is the intent of this article, to encourage authors to do what’s best for them.

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