On the Poets & Writers website, there is an article (click here to read it in full) about a contest that has some writers that submitted to it up in arms. Supposedly the sponsor promised that each manuscript would receive an individual, personal critique from him. The entry fees for the contest were $35 for poetry and $45 for fiction. He would publish the winning manuscripts.
But instead of giving the authors personal reviews, he decided to create several different form letters that he felt would address issues in any work submitted. This plan backfired when writers received letters with different titles listed and when some that had entered decided to compare notes and realized that their “personal critiques” were identical except for the name of the work.
On top of that, he sent some of the entrants a request for $300 in exchange for more critiquing. Some were told that their submissions would be entered into the running for another prize and would automatically move ahead in the first round of judging, even though that particular contest is supposed to be judged blind.
This article interested me because the subject of contest worth came up today during a free critiquing session I attended. Before we started giving feedback on one another’s work, one of the other writer’s asked about a contest that he’s never heard of (prior to a few days ago) but offers several thousand dollars as the prize. He’s going to look into it, figure out whether or not the contest is worth his money before he enters–which is probably the best anyone can do.
I think that there are some contests out there that are valid and well worth the money to enter, within reason (or budget…), but the problem sometimes isn’t just the cost. Some competitions, not unlike the one mentioned in the Poets & Writers article, seem to be a gateway for the sponsors to ask the writers for even more money or even all of the rights to the submitted work.
Years ago I overheard a one-sided conversation on a bus. The man was talking on a cell phone and said: “Yeah, I know I should feel bad that I’m probably taking the girl’s life savings, but if she’s stupid enough to pay for it, I’m going to take her money.”
That seems to be the way some of these sponsors operate. Maybe they start out with good intentions, maybe they don’t and feel a little guilty about that fact, but is the guilt going to stop them?
Payment aside (because there are some legitimate reasons for fees, such as administrative costs), what about simply not giving guarantees that can’t be kept, or at least letting the entrants know immediately when things turn out differently than expected? Such simple notice can help, and it doesn’t take anything away from the legitimacy of the contest. But something as complicated as making up form letters and sending them out as personal reviews does.
I try to always look into any contest I’m paying to enter. How many years it’s been around, how many people have won, and whether or not there have been issues like the ones mentioned above. It may not be a flawless system, but if there have been a lot of substantial and negative issues surrounding the contest, I’m going to do my best to not be “stupid enough to pay for it.”