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.