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Page updated/Links checked 12/20/23

The Contest Scheme
“Contributor” Anthologies

A pay-to-play anthology is an anthology where the writer must hand over money in some form in order to be included–whether handing over a fee, buying copies, or purchasing some other good or service.

No reputable anthologist or publisher has such requirements. Because their profit comes from authors rather than from sales to the public, publishers of pay-to-play anthologies have little incentive to provide high-quality editing, production, marketing, or distribution–or to screen for quality, since the more authors they publish, the more money they make.

Below, you’ll find the two most common pay-to-play anthology schemes you’re likely to encounter.

The Contest Scheme

In this version of the pay-to-play anthology, writers are targeted via a writing contest. Contest announcements and submission calls may appear online, or in newspapers, writers’ magazines, and other publications. Cash prizes are promised for finalists and semi-finalists, as well as publication in an anthology. Typically, the contests are free: there are no entry fees. In many cases, writers can often submit as many poems, stories, or articles as they wish.

The contest isn’t a real contest, however. There may be some degree of selectivity, but if so, it’s minimal: the aim, after all, is to collect paying customers. Most of those who submit are told that they are semi-finalists and offered publication. The anthology publisher then asks for money, either by requiring purchase of the anthology as a condition of publication, or by offering what seem like perks as an incentive to buy: volume discounts, special rates for friends and family, extras like certificates. The publisher may also sell adjunct services or merchandise–critiques and editing, having a poem or story read onto audio tape, embossed mugs and plaques…the list goes on.

For the most part, pay-to-play anthologizers do publish the promised books, and writers who buy books or merchandise do get what they pay for. However, unlike true anthologies, which are sold to readers, pay-to-play anthologies are sold primarily to contributors. Deceptively, they portray anthology publication as a real literary credit that writers can be proud of; in reality, because of poor production values and the lack of gatekeeping, pay-to-play anthology publication is unlikely to count as a real writing credit.

Most pay-to-play anthologizers target poets, but there are also anthologies for short stories, nonfiction articles, and photography. Sadly, many creatives are taken in by this deception, which is aided by magazines and newspapers that report on local writers’ inclusion in vanity anthologies as if they were a genuine literary market. Elderly people are a particular target, as are teens–some anthologizers specialize in soliciting teachers, who don’t realize that the anthologies aren’t a legitimate venue and are very willing to recruit student participants.

Pay-to-play anthologies are much less common than they used to be–Iliad Press, Sparrowgrass Poetry Forum, The Amherst Society, The Poets’ Guild, Poetry Press, Poetry Unlimited, The National Archives, and MW Publishing are all names that have fallen by the wayside, along with Poetry.com (see below). But there are still a few that carry on the tradition, including Eber & Wein (which targets poets), Appelley Publishing (which targets students and teachers), and Z Publishing, which targets poets and prose writers.


The now-defunct International Library of Poetry, known online as Poetry.com (a.k.a. The International Society of Poets, The International Poetry Hall of Fame, and a number of others) was the Godzilla of the pay-to-play anthology world, and its methods were the model for dozens of other, less prolific anthology schemes.

The ILP put out two or three anthologies every year–big, thick hardbound books that contained thousands of poems crowded together on thin pages–and its contest ads were ubiquitous online and in writers’ magazines. Semi-finalists (just about everyone who submitted) were offered dozens of ways to spend money beyond the purchase of books, and the ILP was relentless in its solicitation of those who entered its contests, encouraging them to enter yet more contests, offering opportunities to join poets’ societies (which demanded $100 or more in annual dues) or attend poetry conferences (which cost as much as $600, travel and hotel not included). Often, celebrities and professional poets gave these events a false veneer of respectability.

In April 2009, the ILP went out of business. Its notorious Poetry.com domain, including all the poems published on the site, was acquired by self-publishing service Lulu.com, and later by a company called Newton Rhymes. For a while, the site continued to operate as a forum for amateur poets (without, thankfully, the anthologies). In 2018 all content vanished, but in the spring of 2021 the domain came to life again, owned this time by a company called STANDS4, which also owns a large number of reference and dictionary web sites. It invites submissions, but does not produce anthologies.

Writer Beware hears from many poets wanting to find the poems they posted on Poetry.com. The first thing to try is the new Poetry.com domain; your poem may be present there. If that doesn’t work, here’s another possible idea: using the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine to search archived versions of Poetry.com.

“Contributor” Anthologies

In this version of the pay-to-play anthology scheme, writers must pay to contribute work to the anthology, either with upfront fees, or by buying large numbers of finished books or other merchandise.

These “contributor” anthologies typically are nonfiction, usually on subjects of general or inspirational interest, and actively capitalize on their superficial similarity to successful series like the Chicken Soup books (which, by the way, not only don’t require author payments, but offer a small honorarium to contributors). Writers are often targeted by spamming, but also by legitimate-looking calls for submission. Solicitations often don’t mention that a cash outlay is involved–you usually have to dig pretty deep into the submission guidelines to find that out.

For instance, the Wake Up…Live the Life You Love series of anthologies required contributors to buy up to 500 books at a cost of several thousand dollars, and boasted that its anthologies included articles by such well-known figures as Dr. Wayne Dyer and Tony Robbins (likely, articles that the series owner had bought a license to re-use). The anthologies published by Inspired Living Publishing required contributors to pay thousands of dollars for “marketing packages” that included not just large numbers of books, but various promotional aids of dubious effectiveness.

The companies make a big point of emphasizing how much profit writers can realize if they sell the books, since they’re purchasing them for less than list price. But for someone who doesn’t already have a captive audience, it’s not so easy to flog several hundred books. It’s much more likely that contributors will never get their money back.

“Contributor” anthologies tout themselves as an opportunity for entrepreneurs and business owners to enhance their professional images by presenting themselves as published authors and using the anthology as a kind of business card. For someone with plenty of money to spare, might this be a reasonable form of publicity?

Possibly, given that the general public has no idea that these schemes exist and won’t know you bought your publishing credit–and assuming that the anthologies are professionally produced and edited (not a guarantee–this is definitely a case of try before you buy), and that the anthology company will actually send you the books you purchase.

But if you’re seriously considering paying for something like this, ask yourself whether it’s worth laying out several thousand dollars just to be able to say you got published in an anthology series no one ever heard of–and whether you really want several hundred books that will probably wind up occupying a dark corner of your basement.


  • Poet Beware, my own article on the many scams and pitfalls that lie in wait for poets (originally published in the 2004 Poet’s Market). It includes an explanation of why poets should not waste their time searching for a literary agent.

Publishing Poetry Legitimately

Links checked/Page updated: 4/9/20

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