29 October 2012

creative writing submissions 101: avoiding writing contest scams

When you’ve been writing for a while, you’re sure to have come across at least one “sounds too good to be true” writing competition. I remember, several years ago (when I was still a relatively “green” poet), reading about a poetry contest and feeling extremely skeptical; it was free to enter, but the guidelines felt sketchy to me. To test the waters (it offered a $500 prize, so why not), I submitted what I considered to be the worst poem I’d ever written (something along the lines of “Roses are red, violets are blue, this is a poem, it’s nice to meet you”). Surprise, surprise … a few days later I received notice that my poem had been selected as one of the best entries, and for a mere $49.95 I could receive my full award package: an anthology of all the best poems, a mug, a certificate, and I think some kind of button. There was also an offer to join some kind of “famous poet” society or something, which of course was absurd … I hadn’t even won.

The point is, there are a lot of contests out there for writers, and not all of them are legitimate. It’s hard to know which ones to buy into (both figuratively and literally) and which ones are just a bunch of bologna. Generally, though, there are a few guidelines to follow to make sure you don’t fall into the trap of a contest scam.

The Cost
It used to be that the general rule was, “If it charges you to read your work, it’s probably a scam.” These days, it’s often the other way around! Most reputable contests will charge an entry fee (anything from a $2-5 reading fee to a $25-50 entry fee), but they will also offer a pretty substantial prize. The best contests, and the trustworthy ones, lay out the cost and prize details right away. In many cases, the entry fee goes toward funding the prize or a subscription to the journal or magazine; if you have to hunt for an explanation of the fee, you might not want to chance it! Also beware the “too good to be true” contest entries: i.e. it may sound great that a free contest offers a $500 or even $1,000 award, but make sure you do your research before sending in your best work to a contest that strikes you as in any way “off.”

The Prize
If you pay to enter a contest, you generally can expect some kind of payment in return. Again, look to see if the contest details where the money is going. In some cases, the entry fee goes toward paying a prize or advance to the winner. Some journals detail that the entry fee includes a reading fee and a subscription, win or lose. The prize may vary from money to publication to something else … but always make sure your money is well spent. If you’re entering a free contest, the chance of publication should probably be enough of a reward (though many journals still offer a small honorarium to winners as well). If you’re paying to enter, make sure the potential prize is equal to or greater than the value of what you shelled out. That’s not to say you should be stingy about it—but in general, a “get the most bang for your buck” mentality is a good rule of thumb!

The Host
If the contest is run by a reputable publisher or organization, it’s easy to judge it as legitimate. But when the name of the contest host is something like “Famous Poets Society” or anything that makes you raise your eyebrow even a little, it’s okay to be suspicious. The important thing I want to note here is the importance of knowing the names of reputable organizations and contest hosts, and checking details, websites, etc. There’s the Poetry Society of America, and then there’s The American Poets Society.

The Scoop
If you feel even a little suspicious of a contest or contest host, Google is only two seconds away. Always search for the names and organizations associated with a contest before entering. Be sure not to just search “So and So Press Contest” but “So and So Press Contest scam.” Searching the former might just give you tons of links from people who don’t know any more about the contest than you do (or might have been generated by the scammers themselves). Searching the latter will bring up a quick list of anybody else who either suspects or has verified the reliability and respectability of a contest in the past.

The bottom line is: Look before you leap. Do research. Ask around. Check sites that you know list reputable contests and use them as a guide. Avoid banner ads for contests (seriously). Check links. Weigh the cost-to-benefit ratio. (And a little caveated reminder: Just because you don’t win a contest doesn’t make it a scam!) Spending a little time checking a contest out now will save you from spending a lot of money on scams and disappointment later! 

BONUS!
A Writer's New Best Friend!

Worried about where you’re submitting your writing or who to trust? Never fear … "Writer Beware" is here! The "Writer Beware" blog is “the public face of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America’s Committee on Writing Scams.” The SFWA may be a genre-specific organization, but that doesn’t mean they don’t care about the well-being of all aspiring writers! "Writer Beware" keeps track of many less-than-reputable contests, schemes, scams, and more and works to raise awareness of and expose them to protect writers. The site includes advice for writers, updates and news from the writing industry, and detailed research into the problems facing writers. If you have questions about the trustworthiness of an offer, contest, resource, and more, "Writer Beware" is a great place to go to in order to get the most up-to-date research. Check them out at the SFWA website and the "Writer Beware" Blog!


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