Assessing Contests

A Guide to Assessing Writing Contests

by Kerry Hanslits

Did you know that entering a writing competition is your best opportunity to achieve publication, payment and recognition for your work? Most writers don’t know this and many will only enter writing competitions that do not charge a fee, but following the majority in this instance means that you will miss out on opportunities to give your work an edge in the marketplace.

Whether you are a poet or a short story writer, there are hundreds of contests available to you that provide cash prizes and meaningful publication. And if you are a novelist, there are contests that open doors and make careers without you ever sending a query letter to an agent. Yet, everyday, writers ignore these opportunities because they believe in myths. The most common myth that writers embrace is “entry fee equals scam” when more often the opposite is true these days. Most bonafide organizations cannot afford to offer writing contests with cash prizes without charging an entry or reading fee. It simply isn’t within their budget to offer cash prizes, pay judges, buy advertising and provide funds for the various other overhead costs that are part and parcel of running a contest without subsidizing it with contest entry fees.

Organizations that do offer contests without entry fees should be scrutinized. The cost of running a contest doesn’t disappear simply because there is no entry fee. If the sponsor is footing the entire bill, then one must ask the question of why? Is the money coming from a philanthropist? Is there a specific mission associated with the contest that justifies the cost? Is the contest supported through the sale of services or products to entrants or winners? Does the entry fee include a subscription that will increase the magazine’s circulation numbers?

Every contest must be looked at carefully. You should ask why is it being offered? Who is offering it? What’s in it for you, and a bevy of other questions to ensure that it is indeed an opportunity for you and not a scam. There are contests that exist for no other reason than to relieve you of your money, but there are many that exist for more altruistic reasons. The contests that are most often overlooked by writers are those that exist as sort of a partnership between writer and sponsor. These are the contests that frequently result in the enhancement of a writer’s career, as well as increase the opportunity of publication available to the writer.

I call them a partnership because they are not entirely altruistic in nature, in that most benefit the sponsor in some way. This benefit usually comes by way of a reading or entry fee, which funds the contest or a portion of it. Some organizations even make a profit from the contest, but for most it isn’t much of a profit. It is never as simple as taking the number of entries times the entry fee minus the prizes equals profit. Although I have seen this calculation used as an argument against contest fees, it is naive at best. To avoid the connotations of this myth, some magazines ensure there is no profit by providing entrants with a year’s subscription in exchange for the entry fee. But this too, benefits the magazine in that they can claim larger circulation numbers to garner advertising or other funds that are influenced by a magazine’s popularity. And most hope that the subscription will encourage you to re-subscribe next year or give a gift subscription to someone else.

So it’s obvious that an entry or reading fee helps the sponsor, but what does it do for you? The first thing is does is scare away a lot of your competition. Contests with fees, offered by magazines, consistently attract fewer contest entries than over-the-transom submissions. This means that if you want to be published by The Missouri Review, for example, you have a much better chance of being chosen for publication through their annual Editor’s Prize than you do through an over-the-transom submission to them. Specifically, if you submit a manuscript to The Missouri Review over the transom, your manuscript will compete with approximately 3,600 other manuscripts for publication. If you submit to the Editor’s Prize your manuscript will compete with approximately 1,200 other manuscripts for publication. Consider also, that an over-the-transom submission will garner a maximum of $750 for prose and a maximum of $250 for poetry for publication, whereas the competitions lowest prize is $1,000.Add to this the fact that industry professionals pay particular attention to the winners of the Editor’s Prize and the $15 reading fee becomes insignificant, especially since it gives you a year’s subscription to the magazine.

The Editor’s Prize is not a unique situation, but the ratio of over-the-transom submissions versus contest submission varies by publication. How much attention is paid to the winner by industry professionals varies, prize amounts and pay for regular publication also varies by publication, as does whether or not your reading fee provides you with any bonuses. You also need to consider how many professionally published writers the contest will attract if they are allowed to participate. It is necessary to evaluate each contest for its particular merits and what it has to offer you. What cannot be denied is the added advantage that contest entrants have of being noticed when submitting to a magazine’s contest versus those who submit to the magazine over-the-transom. This consistently exists when writers have a choice of participating in a fee-based contest or submitting their work to the magazine for free over the transom.

There is also value in fee-based contests offered by sponsors who do not run a magazine. There are a multitude of contests offered for novelists where publication is offered as part of the prize-no agent needed. But many of the novel contests are overlooked because publication is not offered. The prize or part of the prize is a meeting with an industry professional or a critique. What authors seem to forget is that if your novel is good, the industry professional is not going to let you get away. And if it needs some work, who better to give you some pointers than someone who works in the industry every day. And the $15 to $50 you will invest to get this opportunity for feedback is a fraction of the cost that you would pay to hire these professionals for the same feedback.

The Paul Gillette Memorial Contest offered through the Pikes Peak Writers Conference, which is designed specifically for unpublished writers, is often overlooked. Yet, this same contest, with its lowly $100 prize and optional low-priced critique, was instrumental in starting the careers of Laura Hayden, Pam McCutcheon, Karen Fox, Leslie O’Kane and Kimberly Willis Holt. Their first published books were winning pieces in the Paul Gillette Memorial Contest, which provided them with feedback and contact with professionals in the industry. The Colorado Gold contest sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Writers Group is similar in nature and the path to success that it has provided to writers.

The opportunities available through contests are everywhere, and the majority of writers are ignoring them. Make that work to your advantage, but keep in mind that not all contests are paths to opportunity. Some are not a direct path to a successful career but may still offer something of value, such as a critique or cash. Others are a scam or a mere millimeter on the legal side of things and offer nothing valuable to the writers who enter or win their competitions even though they sound like they do. Then there are some that are so popular and hyped that they attract 5,000 entries or more. When considering whether or not to enter a contest, it is important to understand the industry in which you aspire to achieve success and your own skill level. This will improve your ability to identify worthwhile contests. Also, ask yourself the series of questions below before entering any contest. There are lots of contests. Find one that’s right for you.