CONTESTS AND AWARDS
Page updated/links checked 12/17/23
Predatory contests and awards come in many different guises, but they all have a common goal–to take your money.
Some are outright scams or ripoffs. A few examples, drawn from Writer Beware’s files:
- A prestigious organization contacts you to let you know you’ve been nominated for an award. All you need to do is become member of the organization…for $99. But wait! Turns out the organization doesn’t exist–it has been invented to trick writers into paying for a non-existent membership.
- An editing service uses a contest as a way to acquire pool of potential customers. The contest is genuine in that there are winners who get prizes, but everyone else is told that their work needs help, and receives a “special discount” offer to buy editing from the service.
- A contest is run by a company that provides coverage for screenplay authors. Guaranteed agency representation is promised for “exceptional” scripts. What’s not revealed: the agency is run under a different name by the same people who run the coverage service, and its track record is slim to none.
- An awards program touts its vision and independent spirit, and makes much of the benefits that prestigious awards can bring to your career. There’s even a handsome trophy. Just one catch: winners (who include just about everyone who enters) have to pay for it.
Other predatory contests are run by questionable or fee-charging publishers. Often the prize is a book contract, and winners don’t find out until afterward that the contract terms are abusive, or that they must pay a fee for publication, or agree to pre-purchase large numbers of books, or pay the publisher for a publicity campaign (a good reason never to enter a contest that doesn’t allow you to refuse a contract if it’s offered). Or the publisher may provide the entrants’ contact information to a vanity publishing service or a fee-charging literary agency, which then sends out solicitations and pays the first publisher a kickback if any of the entrants bite.
Some vanity publishers use contests to draw in paying customers. The contest prize is a free publishing contract–but if you don’t win, expect to be solicited to buy the publisher’s services.
Then there are the contest mills, which make money on the front end, via entry fees. Some advertise enormous prizes–$15,000 for the winner, $10,000 for second place, and so on–with correspondingly high entry fees–$25 or $30. But if you read the fine print, you’ll discover that the contest owner reserves the right to award prizes on a pro-rated basis–i.e., the prize amounts are determined by the number of entrants, thus guaranteeing a profit no matter what.
Other contest mills are run by writers’ magazines, which conduct a dozen or more contests a year, or by Internet-based groups that offer monthly contests and advertise under several different names and URLs to draw more entrants.
Yet another form of predatory contest is conducted by vanity anthology companies. These companies publish collections of poems, short stories, or essays, which 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 either way, writers are pressured to buy multiple copies.
Because inclusion in these anthologies is offered to almost everyone who enters, an anthology-published poem or story isn’t a legitimate literary credit. (For a detailed look at how vanity anthology companies work, see the Vanity Anthologies page.)
Finally, there are publishers that funnel submissions into a fee-charging contest. Entering the contest may be the only way you can submit. Or there may be a “free submission” period of a month during the year, or a few weeks every quarter, but the rest of the time contest entry is the only submission option.
Often (though not always) the entry fee will be small, so it’s easy enough to rationalize–but requiring authors to submit through a fee-charging contest is functionally no different from charging a reading fee. It’s not reputable practice, and you should be wary of any publisher that has this policy.
All predatory contests and awards are about generating profit for their sponsors, but the profiteers are especially blatant about it. Although they purport to be all about honoring writers and their achievements, their true (and only) purpose is to make a buck.
Fortunately, there’s a predictable cluster of warning signs that can help you identify them:
- Solicitation. To maximize entries, profiteering awards and contests solicit entries. An out-of-the-blue email inviting you to enter a contest or awards program should always be treated with caution.
- High entry fees. Profiteers charge $50, $75, $100, or even more. There may be “early bird specials” and multiple-entry discounts to tempt authors with the illusion of a bargain. And that’s not counting the books you may have to send for award consideration–a considerable expense, if the profiteer only accepts print.
- Dozens or scores of entry categories. To maximize income, profiteers create as many entry categories as possible, and encourage multiple entries. Some have over a hundred category options.
- Anonymous judging. Profiteers promise expert judging by people with real writing, publishing, and other credentials, but don’t reveal who those experts are. In fact, the judging may be done by the profiteer’s staff, who may simply pick winners out of a hat. One of the things that lends credibility to a contest or award is the prestige of its judges…which is why you always want to know who they are, and should always be wary if that information is not available.
- Non-prize prizes. To avoid cutting into their profits, profiteers offer prizes that cost them little or nothing: virtual certificates and badges, press releases, media announcements, database and website listings, features on satellite websites or in self-owned publications. Some offer little more than the supposed honor of winning the award.
- Opportunities to spend more money. Profiteers’ profits don’t just come from entry fees. They also hawk stickers, certificates, plaques, critiques, reviews, and more.
Profiteers may deviate from this template to some degree: some do provide money prizes, for example, and not all solicit. But if more than four of these red flags are present in a contest or awards program–and especially if there’s a big entry fee–you should think very carefully about entering.
What about prestige? Profiteer awards and contests don’t typically command a lot of name recognition, but if you win or place, you’ll be able to tag your book as an “award-winning book” and yourself as an “award-winning author.” How much readers care about such designations, though, is an open question. With all the fake review scandals, as well as readers’ increasing disillusion with authorial self-promotion, book buyers may be becoming more cynical about what authors say about themselves.
A few examples of contest/award profiteers:
– JM Northern Media runs more than 20 literary “festivals” and conventions. JM Northern isn’t [promoting itself as much as it used to, but it was once a ferocious spammer, if you were a writer, you could count on being solicited for one or another of its festivals.
Unlike many other profiteers, JM Northern offers actual money prizes. But with entry fees ranging from $50 to nearly $100, multiple festivals drawing hundreds or thousands of entries every year (in 2012, according to an article in Examiner.com that’s no longer available, the Hollywood Book Festival received 2,740 entries), and revenue from critiques and a “book marketing portal” called Table of Honor, it can afford to.
My 2013 blog post offers a more detailed look at JM Northern: Awards Profiteering: The Book Festival Empire Of JM Northern Media.
– The Jenkins Group, a costly self-publishing services provider, runs at least six awards programs, ranging from children’s books to ebooks. Entry fees range from $70 to $95, and there’s the usual raft of entry categories and non-prize prizes.
Even among profiteers, Jenkins is unusual in the amount of extra merchandise it hawks to winners. For instance, check out the options for Moonbeam Award winners–at least 30 items, ranging in price from $15 (for a Moonbeam Starburst Certificate) to $169 (for an acrylic award plaque).
– The National Association of Book Entrepreneurs (NABE), which claims to have been in business for 32 years, sponsors the Pinnacle Book Achievement Awards. The $90 entry fee includes NABE membership (the benefits of which are unclear), and there are more than 50 entry categories. The prizes–press releases, mentions on the NABE website and in its “bookselling magazine”–are a prime example of how profiteers maximize profit by offering prizes that cost them little or nothing to provide. There’s also the usual opportunity to order stickers and “beautiful Certificates”.
– Global Ebook Awards capitalizes on the name of Dan Poynter, one of the original pioneers of self-publishing. Entry costs $79, with over 100 entry categories. A whole section of the website discusses judging and judges–but (surprise!) provides no actual names or bona fides. As with so many other profiteers, the prize is “exposure” (here’s the “nominee publicity” page), via press releases and website features: cheap for the awards program, negligible for the winners. And of course, winners are “eligible to purchase Global Ebook Award certificates attesting to their honor” (just $25).
– American Book Fest (formerly known, at various times, as USA Book News, JPX Media, and i310 Media Group) sponsors the International Book Awards ($89 per entry, though if you enter by April 30 you can get a special early bird rate of $69). American Book Fest also runs the Best Book Awards, the Bookvana Awards, and the American Fiction Awards–all with the same hefty entry fees.
In addition to the legitimacy of a literary contest, there’s another question you may want to consider: is it worth entering?
Many writers see contests as a possible springboard to success–a way to accumulate writing credits and credibility, or gain exposure for a published book. This can work if the contest is sponsored by an organization with standing in the publishing industry–the competitions run by Macmillan, for instance, where winning includes a publishing contract. If you win or place in one of these contests, it’s definitely worth adding to your writing resume.
However, for novelists, poets, and short fiction writers, few of the hundreds of contests that exist have that kind of prestige. Winning a contest run by an obscure magazine or a local writers’ group or an internet contest mill won’t cut any ice with agents, editors, or readers–not just because they probably won’t have heard of the contest, but because they may be aware that small contests are much less likely to have professional judging standards.
Remember also that submitting an unpublished manuscript to a contest can take it off the market for weeks or months, if the contest demands exclusive submission. Also, for a high-profile contest where the prize is publication or agent representation, a huge submission pool may mean that your chances of success are actually slimmer than if you simply approached agents or publishers in the conventional way.
Finally, even your best efforts at due diligence may not keep you out of trouble. The problems with the contests run by small publisher Zoo Press occurred many years ago, but still provide a cautionary example.
Contests can be fun and challenging. If you win, the prizes are a great bonus. Just be sure to thoroughly research any contest you’re thinking of entering, and always read (and be sure you understand) what rights you may be granting by entering, or may be asked to grant if you win, as well as the fine print of the guidelines. And if you’re entering contests for unpublished work, consider whether your time and energy might not be better spent actually pursuing publication.
Following are some tips to help you evaluate the legitimacy of contests and awards programs you may be thinking of entering.
Who’s conducting the contest or award program?
If it’s an organization, magazine, or publisher you don’t recognize, be sure to verify its legitimacy. If you can’t confirm this to your satisfaction–or if the contest or award doesn’t name its staff or sponsors–don’t enter.
You may have to do some digging–for instance, this contest, which on the surface looked like a collaboration between a writers’ magazine and a publisher, turned out on closer inspection to be one writer attempting to promote his own publishing endeavor. Or this one, which was run by a fee-charging publisher–though you’d never have guessed that from the publisher’s website. Or this one, where the online magazine conducting the contest turned out to be withholding prize money and failed to publish the promised contest issues.
Be especially wary of contests that spam you, or are announced on Craigslist, or appear in the form of an ad in the back pages of writers’ magazines or an announcement in a national newspaper supplement (these are usually vanity anthology companies).
Be wary also of contests that are conducted by fee-charging publishers or self-publishing services. If you don’t win, odds are good you’ll be solicited to buy the publisher’s services. Here’s an example.
Is the contest or awards program free?
If so, you probably have nothing to lose by entering (though if you’re a poet, be aware that a “free” contest is one of the major warning signs of a poetry contest scam–see the Vanity Anthologies page).
Is there an entry fee?
Contrary to popular belief, an entry fee is not necessarily an indication of a questionable contest or awards program. Many legitimate contests and awards charge a fee to cover processing expenses (which sometimes include an honorarium to readers) and/or to fund the prize.
However, entry fees should be appropriate. Excessive entry fees can be a sign of an awards profiteer (see above). For book manuscripts, stories, or poems, between $5 and $25 is typical. Larger contests may charge a bit more, but anything over $30 should prompt you to do some careful checking, especially if you aren’t familiar with the contest organizer.
By entering, do you get the “opportunity” to spend more money?
If you’re encouraged to buy additional goods or services when you enter–critiques, marketability analyses, tickets for an awards banquet, even trophies if you win–it may be a sign that the contest or award is more about making money than honoring writers.
Some contests/awards are no more than fronts for selling services or merchandise. For instance, this one, where winners must buy their own trophies.
How frequently does the organization conduct contests?
Excessive frequency–running a contest every month, or bunches of contests every quarter–can also be a sign of a contest mill or an awards/contest profiteer.
How many categories are there?
Reputable contests and awards typically have a specific focus, and limit the number of categories under which you can submit. For instance, a contest may be limited to screenplays only or book manuscripts only. An award for fiction may have separate categories for novels, poetry, and short fiction, or be broken down by genre.
The point is that a reputable contest or award shouldn’t feel like the kitchen sink. Be careful of contests that call for any and all talent, especially if everything is lumped together under a single prize (how can a novel manuscript compete with a short story or a screenplay?). Watch out for contests or awards that have dozens or scores of separate categories. Again, the contest sponsor may be trying to maximize entries in order to make a profit from entry fees.
Are the rules and guidelines clearly stated?
A legitimate contest or awards program will provide clear rules and guidelines, including information about entry categories, deadlines, eligibility, format, fees, prizes and the circumstances in which they will or will not be awarded, judging, and (very important) any rights you may be surrendering by entering. If you can’t find these, don’t enter. Here’s one example of why.
Who’ll be doing the judging?
It’s in a contest’s or awards program’s interest to name its judges, since the caliber of the judges speaks directly to the contest’s or award’s prestige. This is important information for you as well, since a contest or award with a judging panel of successful writers and/or industry professionals is much more likely to be a good addition to your writing resume if you win.
Some contests/awards prefer to protect judges’ privacy, so not naming judges isn’t necessarily illegitimate–as long as you’re confident of the reputability of the sponsor. If you aren’t, be wary. No-name judges may be under-qualified, or the contest’s or awards’ own staff may be doing the judging–or, in the case of a contest/award profiteer, the judges may merely be a fiction.
For contests or awards that are wholly or partly judged by crowdsourcing (for instance, reader votes may advance entrants through initial rounds, with only the finalists actually considered by judges), be aware that this is a capricious process that can be vulnerable to cheating.
Are there fringe benefits?
Perks such as critiques and feedback or meetings with industry professionals can be a worthwhile feature of contests and awards. However, you should never be asked to pay extra for them. Also, be sure that the professionals really are professionals. Their names and credentials should be clearly stated.
What’s the prize?
There are many possibilities–money, goods, services, even publication. Prizes should be clearly described in the guidelines (watch out for contests that allow the sponsors to substitute prizes–you may not get what you expect), and they should be appropriate to the sponsor.
Unless you’re certain of the sponsor’s legitimacy, contests with very large prize amounts–$5,000 and up–should be treated with suspicion, since they may be moneymaking schemes. (Such contests, which tend to have higher-than-average entry fees, often have fine print that pro-rate the prize amount according to the number of entrants–i.e., as the number of entrants falls, so do the prize amounts, with the downsteps carefully calculated to preserve a profit for the contest sponsor.)
Contests or awards programs that offer representation, publication, or production as prizes are very appealing. Winning can be a genuine springboard for a writer’s career. Be sure, though, that it’s a prize you actually want to win. Always research the agency, publisher, magazine, or production company to make sure it’s reputable–and don’t enter a contest whose rules make it impossible for you to refuse the prize.
If publication is involved, be sure that you know exactly where and how you’ll be published. Magazine contest prizewinners are sometimes published in a separate booklet, not the magazine itself (if you’re looking for exposure, that’s not the way to get it). Be sure also that you can refuse publication if things don’t seem right or there are unfavorable clauses in the contract.
There should never be an extra cost associated with a prize. If there is, it’s almost certain the contest or award is a fake.
Have you read the fine print?
Always read the rules and guidelines carefully before you submit, and make sure you understand exactly what you’re getting into. Odd and unpleasant things may be lurking deep in the fine print. I can’t emphasize enough how important this is, yet it’s something that many writers skip.
For instance, you may be asked to provide inappropriate personal information. Or just by entering, you may be granting rights to the contest organization, such as first publication or the right to sell your entry elsewhere–or, as in this case, to unknown third parties. The contest may require you to waive your moral rights, which include the right to have your entry published with your name. Winning may impose obligations–for instance, you may be required to use the contest sponsor as your agent (beware of offers you can’t refuse, especially if you can’t view the contract beforehand). A condition of winning may be giving up copyright, which means the organization holding the contest could use your entry for any purpose it wishes (even without your name).
The sponsor may reserve the right to substitute prizes, or to reduce or eliminate prizes if certain conditions aren’t met. Watch out for language suggesting that the contest sponsor can use your entry for purposes other than publicity, and don’t assume, if the contest sponsor reserves the right to change the rules at any time, that they won’t do so (here’s one example of that: a mid-contest rules change that expanded a claim on entrants’ rights). And if you enter a contest online, be aware that you may be giving permission for your entry to be published on the company’s website, whether you win or not (a frequent complaint about the now-defunct vanity anthology company Poetry.com).
If the guidelines or the Terms and Conditions seem vague or confusing, ask for clarification. If you don’t receive a clear explanation, or if you’re refused an answer, walk away–no matter how tempting the contest is. Never, ever enter a contest whose provisions and guidelines you don’t fully understand.
- The Alliance of Independent Authors provides ratings of dozens of contests and awards, with cautions for those that profiteer or are otherwise questionable. A great place to check, if you’re thinking of entering something.
- From Poets & Writers, a contest and awards guide, with many contest and awards listings.
- From Poets & Writers, The Contest Blog, a blog devoted specifically to contests and awards announcements.
- C. Hope Clark’s Funds for Writers offers an excellent contest listing. Check out the other resources on this site as well.
- Winning Writers offers contest listings and resources for poets.
- From Writer Beware’s blog, a guest post from C. Hope Clark: The Red Flags of Writing Contests.
- From Salon, Laura Miller on vanity book awards.
- Author Jami Gold asks: are writing contests worth it? Her answer: It depends.
- From the Alliance of Independent Authors, 6 Great Reasons to Enter Writing Competitions.
- A contrary view, from author Oren Ashkenazi: Six Reasons You Shouldn’t Enter Writing Contests.
- Questionable contests and awards come in all shapes and sizes, and Writer Beware has written about a lot of them. You can see all our posts here.
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