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Contests and Awards Assessment

Contest and Award Fakes
Is It Worth It?
Assessing Contests and Awards

There are hundreds of literary contests and awards, online and off. Most are real; some are even prestigious. But many are either fake or pointless. And few are important enough to provide a meaningful addition to your writing resume.
Contest and Award Fakes

Fake contests and awards come in many different guises, but they all have a common goal–to take your money.
Some are outright scams. A few examples, drawn from Writer Beware’s files:

  • A fee-charging literary agency advertises a contest where the prize is agency representation. Representation is indeed offered (to everyone who enters), but the catch is that it comes with a hefty editing fee attached.
  • Another agency uses a false name to run its contest. Entrants are told that even though they didn’t win, their work is “exceptional”, and referred to the agency, which charges an up-front fee.
  • 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  offered the chance to buy editing at a “discount” from the service.
  • A similar contest is run by a company that provides coverage for screenplay authors. In addition, 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: the trophy isn’t free. Winners (who include just about everyone who enters) have to buy it.

Other 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 fee-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.

Similiar to the contest mills are the awards mills, which also feature high entry fees (anywhere from $60 to $80), and dozens of entry categories. Awards mills tend to focus on small press or self-published authors, who face major challenges in getting their work noticed, and hope that an award will help. Although there may be a real prize (money, gift certificates, consults with literary agents), winners just as often receive little more than an announcement on the awards organization’s website–thus enabling the awards organization to avoid cutting into the money it makes from entry fees–as well as the opportunity to enrich the organization further by buying adjunct merchandise, such as “Award Winner” stickers.

Contest and awards mills are not necessarily scams, since there usually are winners, who generally do receive the promised prizes. Even so, they exist primarily to make money for the organizations conducting them, and because of the probable lack of rigorous judging standards (judges are rarely identified, and in some cases may not exist at all), are unlikely to carry much, if any, professional prestige.

By far the most common of the fake contests are those conducted by the 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 considered a legitimate literary credit. (For a detailed look at how such vanity anthology companies work, see the Vanity Anthologies page.)

Is It Worth It?

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 add writing credits, or get closer to commercial publication, or promote a self-published book. This can work if the contest is sponsored by an organization with standing in the publishing industry–the First Crime Novel contest run by St. Martin’s Press, for instance, where winning includes a commercial publishing contract, or the Golden Heart Awards, a contest for unpublished book-length romance manuscripts conducted by Romance Writers of America, or the Writers of the Future Contest, which is judged by well-known writers and editors–or is conducted by a well-known company–such as Writer’s Digest’s Self-Published Book Awards. 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 out there 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.

In the film world, things are a bit different, with contests more widely accepted as a way into the industry. But although there are more contest options for screenwriters, reputable contests are still greatly outnumbered by the pointless, useless, or deceptive ones.

Remember also that submitting an unpublished manuscript to a contest can take it off the market for weeks or months, since many contests demand exclusive submission. Also, depending on the contest, your chances of success may actually be a good deal slimmer than if you simply approached agents or publishers in the conventional way (assuming your manuscript is marketable). The mammoth Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest, for instance, which offers publication as the prize, allows up to 10,000 entrants, of whom only two can win.

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 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 the fine print. And if you’re entering contests for unpublished work, consider whether your time and energy might not be better spent actually submitting for publication. That’s the real prize, after all.<

Assessing Contests and Awards

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 self-publishing endeavor. Or this one, which appeared to have several sponsors but was actually all the same (less than reputable) company.

Be especially wary of contests that spam you, or are nothing but a webpage with an entry form, 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. 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 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 to fund the prize.

However, entry fees should be appropriate. Excessive entry fees can be a sign of a profit-making scheme. For book manuscripts, stories, or poems, between $5 and $25 is typical. Larger contests may charge more–the IPPY Awards, for instance, charges $75–but anything over $40 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 a moneymaking venture, rather than a real competition.

Some contests/award are no more than fronts for selling services or merchandise. For instance, this one, which requires contestants to buy a coaching package. Or this one, which peddles paid critique services to entrants. Or 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 moneymaking scheme.

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 for screenplays only or for book manuscripts only. An award for fiction may have separate categories for books, 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 of separate categories (like this one, which has well over 100). Again, the contest sponsor may be trying to make a profit from entry fees.

Are the rules and guidelines clearly stated?

A legitimate contest or awards program will provide clear rules, 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. If you can’t find these, don’t enter.

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 (or lack of it). 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 that’s a moneymaking scheme, 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 is vulnerable to cheating.

Are there fringe benefits?

Critiques, general feedback on your entry, or meetings with industry professionals are often a worthwhile feature of the more high-profile contests and awards. However, you should never be asked to pay extra for this perk. 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 really 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 you win. 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 available only by special order. If you’re looking for exposure, that’s not the way to get it.

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. Winning may impose obligations–for instance, you may be required to use the contest sponsor as your agent, or agree to publication as a condition of winning (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 if you enter a contest online, be aware that you may be giving permission for your entry to be published at the company’s website, whether you win or not (a frequent complaint about the now-defunct vanity anthology company

If the guidelines or the Terms and Conditions seem vague or confusing, ask for clarification. If all you receive is obfuscation, 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.


Writer Beware

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