Guest Blog Post: The Red Flags of Writing Contests

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Among the most frequent questions Writer Beware receives are those involving writing contests. Is it legit? Is it prestigious? Is it worth it? How can I tell?

Today’s guest blog post from author and editor C. Hope Clark–who evaluates contests regularly for inclusion in her FundsForWriters newsletter–provides a helpful overview of some of the warning signs of a contest you might not want to enter.

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The Red Flags of Writing Contests

Writers have a love-hate relationship with contests. Some people adore them, eager to submit regularly, and others back away, fearful of potential scams.

Don’t be so leery about writing competitions. Once you learn the red flags of trouble and understand the remarkable opportunities they offer, you’ll rank contests up there with the best magazine markets and publishers and look forward to their calls for submissions. You can learn how to maneuver amongst the good and the bad.

So what are the signs of a questionable competition?


First timer.

While every contest has to start somewhere, still keep your eyes open with an inaugural launch. Even with the best of intentions, they may not have ironed out the wrinkles of managing such an event. Contests are time consuming, and if not handled properly, can be expensive nightmares for the sponsors.

If the organization or person running the award is reputable, then give it a go, but if you’ve never heard of them, move on. Yes, you might have a better chance of winning since fewer people will submit, but think twice before you do, ensuring that all else seems proper.

No humans.

I immediately seek a contact person for contests before posting the calls in my FundsforWriters newsletters. If the email is generic, like info@contestABC.com, or the mailing address is only a PO Box, study harder. Read the About Us material on the website. No website? That’s reason enough to move on right there. You’re looking for a name, a recognized organization, a nonprofit, a reputable publisher, a solid piece of grounded reality to show that the backer is legitimate.

Still have questions? Email them. Their response, or lack of, can speak volumes.

High entry fee.

Entry fees can be relative. A $5 fee might sound fine, unless the first prize is a T-shirt or a $10 gift certificate. A $10 fee could be reasonable, unless the first prize is $25. Fees in themselves are not a negative–but the ratio of entry fee to prize money is the tell-tale sign.

FundsforWriters.com has listed contests for thirteen years, and we’ve reached a point where many sponsors send us contests. If the entry fee is over five percent of the first prize, I scrutinize the contest harder. If it’s over ten percent, I decline the request.

Some prizes consist of publication, a hard item to pin down to a dollar amount. In those cases, the publishing venue must have a proven reputation, one that empowers your own reputation if you win or place. But many young, obscure, small presses and indie publishing houses use contest entry fees to finance their operations. To be safe, seek financial compensation AND publication. FundsforWriters doesn’t list any contest offering publication only.

Past winners.

Pay attention to previous winners. If something niggles at you about the contest, you may even Google the winners’ names. Where have they published? Read their blogs. Study their careers. You can tell a lot about the quality of the contest by the quality of the winners. I once exposed a contest by researching the winners . . . of whom only one existed, and that lone writer had never received her winnings.

Rights.

If a contest wants all rights for entering, run away. If a contest wants one-time or first rights to publish and publicize your award, then fine. Sometimes a contest is proud of its selections, and understandably, they don’t want to see them popping up across the Web on the heels of their announcement. However, if a publication wants all rights of the winners, make sure that all the other red flag issues are in order.

Identify from the outset what rights you sacrifice for entering or placing. I made semi-finalist in the 2009 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards, just as I signed with an agent for the manuscript. Unfortunately, we had to wait a couple of months before we could seriously shop the work because Amazon and Penguin had first rights to select it for publication. I’d have been happy if they did, but my agent had her hands temporarily tied.

Judges.

Not all judges are identified, and the lack of identity doesn’t necessarily rule out a competition. You may not care, but prestige can come from being judged by someone known in his field. If you want to know the judges, email and ask. If the contest sponsors dodge you, reconsider.

After you become accustomed to contests, the red flags clearly reveal themselves. In a matter of seconds, I can judge a contest as good, iffy, or downright bad. A novice contest sponsor sooner or later flashes his unprofessionalism or naivete. If you study a contest and still aren’t sure, email them for explanation, then run your own search. Disgruntled writers are known for airing their unhappiness, and a decent contest will promptly email you back, eager to please.

Good luck!

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C. Hope Clark is editor of FundsforWriters.com, a website and family of newsletters that reach 45,000 readers each week with calls for submissions from grants, contests, markets, publishers, agents and employers. FundsforWriter.com was chosen by Writer’s Digest Magazine for its annual 101 Best Websites for Writers from 2001 through 2012. Hope used her knowledge of contests to gain recognition for her manuscript and find an agent. Lowcountry Bribe was released by Bell Bridge Books in February 2012, the first in the Carolina Slade Mystery Series. 

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