Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Paying to Win

Yesterday I jotted down a list of thirteen URLs I found in The Writer's Chronicle submit pages for what I thought were no-fee submission calls, which I thought would produce a solid list of ten sup ops. After checking each web site and reading the particulars, I had to cross off eight of them because turns out they did require an entry or reading fee.

I don't like recommending anything a writer has to pay for in order to have a chance at publication or winning an award because 1) I firmly believe you should never pay a dime to get published; 2) most writers can't afford it; 3) it's a subversive but very common way for obscure publications and presses to make money off other people's hopes and dreams; and 4) before I turned pro I was nearly a victim of a scam dressed up like a real sub op.

That said, you'll probably be surprised to hear that a month ago I paid a fee to enter a novel contest. I wasn't happy about forking over that money, but I did it for a couple of reasons: the genre isn't one I've published in yet, and winning virtually guarantees publication. This may result in a decent opportunity for me to try my luck in another corner of the market.

Will I win the contest? Honestly, I have no idea. What I most liked about this one is that the judging is blind (meaning the judges won't know who wrote the entries until after they pick their winner.) Everyone who enters will be evaluated solely on the quality of their work. Which means it's not a popularity contest, no one can campaign or schmooze their way to a win, and thus I have the same chance as everyone else. To me that's the only way it can be fair.

If you're contemplating any contest that requires an entry fee, you should first realistically evaluate your chances of winning. For example, if the contest is open to every writer on the planet, you're probably going to have considerable competition. If the contest is restricted solely to writers who live on top of mountains in Colorado, naturally the odds are better. Also look at what they want for entries. For novel competitions, most any writer can produce a partial; I have a filing cabinet full of them. Fewer writers will have completed manuscripts to enter, so a contest requiring finished books offers a better chance.

Some people say the amount of the entry fee determines what sort of writer enters, in that a high fee will discourage the untalented. I don't agree with this; plenty of terrible writers enter contests no matter what the fee is because they're convinced that they're great writers and it's just a matter of time before their genius is recognized and they go on to make millions. Most contest entities encourage and even bank on this kind of self-delusional mentality; it makes them a lot of money.

If you're a member of a writing organization, you have the chance to enter plenty of the fee-required contests they run. Some can be helpful as long as you're in a position to win. Are you a popular member, and does most everyone in the organization like you? Also, are you allowed to in some way campaign for the award? If yes, you've probably got a real shot. If no, don't waste money you could be using for office supplies and postage.

Finally, be prepared not to win. One of the reasons I've avoided contests is that early on in my career I saw what losing them did to other writers. Losing a contest can be worse than rejection, especially if the winner got their trophy for reasons other than the quality of their work.

What fee-required contests do you think are fair and/or offer decent awards? Please share them and any links you have in comments.

Added: I've also been pitching this particular novel for awhile, and just this morning I received word from my agent that an offer is in the works for it (ah, the irony.) But even if the interest does result in a contract, I don't have to pull the entry out of the contest. According to the rules, which I read carefully before I entered, I can still compete as long as the offer for the ms. comes in after the entry deadline.


  1. I avoided fee contests for a long time, but I do occasionally enter short story contests that require a fee. However, I look at a few things first before I decide:

    1) What am I getting for the fee? A lot of literary magazines will give you a year's subscription or a complimentary issue of their magazine for entering the contest. Getting a little something other than the hope of winning makes the contest fee more reasonable in my opinion.

    2) Is the fee a reasonable amount? I have never entered a short story contest that costs more than $15 because anything higher seems absurd for reading a short story. The lower the fee, the more tempting it is to enter for me.

    3) How well-known is the magazine? Obviously this is a double-edged sword since the more renowned the magazine is, the more competition I'll have, but I am wary of forking over money to a magazine that didn't seem to exist a month ago. Quality of what they publish plays a similar role in my decision process.

    4) How much could I win? Forking over $10 for a chance to win $50 doesn't seem like a good enough pay-out. I hold out for three figures or higher.

    While I am not at the point where I am entering novel contests yet, these guidelines are probably helpful for novel-length contests as well. For women who write flash fiction, I recommend checking out "WOW! Women on Writing" as they run several flash fiction contests a year. Entry is $10, but they limit the number of entries to 300 and give out a lot of honorable mention prizes in addition to the bigger prizes, so odds are better at winning a little something. You can also pay $20 to enter and get a critique of your story. (

    Hope this helps!


  2. You make some excellent points, Di, thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts.

    Obviously this is a double-edged sword since the more renowned the magazine is, the more competition I'll have, but I am wary of forking over money to a magazine that didn't seem to exist a month ago.

    I agree with this 100% -- you do need to do some checking and see if you're getting into a competition held by the real deal, not funding a startup.

  3. Digillette shared some interesting insights. I agree. Choosing the right contest is very challenging and I have been disappointed by the ways things are handled by some of the organizers.

  4. I'm wiggling in excitement.

    Ah... I enter the RWA contests. Don't smack me... :OP and hey, I actually won one.. IF YOU HEAR HER won the Romantic Suspense Award of Excellence Published Author Contest, and it's finaled in a couple of others. Wish me luck.

    maybe I should have thought about entering my UF thing I'm probably going to self publish in something. Gee, are there any open right now? LOL. I don't know jack about writing contests, especially outside of romance.

  5. I'm really curious about your entry now, and secretly hoping it's some kind of steampunk, lol.

    I used to enter contests back when I was a member of RWA. I entered because everyone kept telling me it was a great thing, worth the money, etc, but I found it disheartening. I don't think they were scams, but they cost a lot (to me, anyway) and I would have been better off using that money for toner cartridges and comments from a friend. I did get useful feedback once, but most of the time, I just got a simple 'you didn't win' form letter.