Writing

Six Reasons You Shouldn’t Enter Writing Contests

Writing contests seem so flashy and cool. They promise big prizes and publishing deals, and surely your story is good enough to win, right? Entering seems like a no-brainer! Except that it’s almost never a good idea to enter a prose writing contest.* For authors, writing contests are at best poorly thought out and at worst downright predatory. Here are the main reasons you should keep your stories away from them.

1. They Cost Money

Many writing contests have an entry fee. Sometimes signup forms will tell you this is to cover the prize money; other times it’s left unexplained. This is the first way writing contests get you. If the fee is within the $60-$80 dollar range, then it’s an obvious scam. The people running the contest collect all the fees, pay a small portion to the winner, and then keep the rest for themselves, earning a tidy profit for little effort on their part. And that’s assuming there’s a prize at all. Less-reputable contests can find ways to avoid doing even that much.

But even if the fee seems more reasonable, and if the contest runners show how all of it is going to fund the winner’s prize, this is still a sign to stay away. This sort of contest, for all practical purposes, is a form of gambling. Everyone puts in money, and only one person* walks away with any reward. Statistically, that person is unlikely to be you. You’re spending money on something with a very poor rate of return, and any financial planner will tell you that’s a bad idea.

Even if a contest isn’t deliberately trying to scam you, entree fees still represent an added cost the writer shouldn’t have to pay. You’ve already sunk many hours into writing the story. Perhaps you’ve paid to have it edited. Now, instead of being paid for your work, the contest runners want you to pay more for the small chance you might get a prize later. And of course, those same contest runners will probably use the contest as a marketing tool, assuming they aren’t just pocketing the entry fees. This means you’re paying for someone else’s marketing. Just say no.

2. You May Give Away the Rights to Your Story

If a writing contest doesn’t have an entry fee, chances are good it’ll get you another way: by taking rights to your story. In this scenario, you enter your story for free,* the winner gets a prize of some sort, but the contest runners get to publish all the entries they like and profit from them.

This is a popular method when someone is trying to start a publishing outfit but doesn’t want to properly pay authors. A new publisher tricks you into signing over your rights for a fancy contest, and then the publisher happily makes money off your story. Repeat after me: you should only ever give away rights to your story as part of a publishing contract where you are paid for your work or if you are deliberately giving your story to charity.

Stealing author rights is a particularly sneaky method because it’s not easy to spot. To be sure a contest isn’t doing this, you have to get into the weeds of fine print, and most of us writers aren’t lawyers. Trickery can be hard to spot, which is one reason I recommend you avoid writing contests completely.

3. You May Be Pressured to Buy Things

Some contests aren’t out to bilk you for entry fees or publish your story without paying you.* Instead, these contests push the services of whoever is running them. These contests exist on a spectrum of obvious scams to merely annoying.

At the extreme end, the contest runners will pay a little money to a “winner” and then try to market the other submitted works as an anthology. This kind of contest makes money by selling your own story back to you plus whoever else has been convinced to enter. This is a terrible deal for you not only because are you paying for your own work but also because the standards for these “anthologies” are ridiculously low. If you’re hurting for stories to read, look to the countless free publications all over the internet that actually pay their authors.

A less obvious sales tactic is for the writing contest to be little more than trawling for the contact information of potential customers. A company that provides services to writers, often editing or book production, will hold a writing contest. The company then has the contact information of everyone who enters, all of whom are the target audience for the company’s services. In this kind of contest, the prize will often be whatever service the company offers, with options to buy more of course.

Those who don’t win can expect their inboxes to soon be filled with “special offers” from the company, which is the worst consolation prize ever. Don’t be surprised if these sales pitches come in the form of flattery about how good your story was and you just need to spend a bunch of money to push it over the top!

4. Writing Contests Don’t Help Your Career

For writers, the path to success often seems arcane and unknowable. So when a writing contest tells you that winning will earn you the prestige needed to finally be recognized, it’s a tempting offer. The only problem is that it’s completely bogus.

The question of what will get a writer noticed is very difficult to answer, but we can be fairly sure it isn’t writing contests. So many writing contests have such extremely low standards, or are outright scams, that editors and publishers aren’t likely to be impressed by them. They might even hurt you by association.

What’s more, telling writers that winning a contest will get them noticed is nearly identical to telling writers to work for exposure. This is the sadly common idea in American society that artists, writers included, should be willing to work for free because maybe someone will notice their work and pay them later.

Unfortunately, this is a self-perpetuating cycle. We’d never tell plumbers to fix toilets for free in the hope that someone will pay them for it later, because no one would ever pay to get their toilets fixed if they could get it for free. While it’s possible that putting some of your work out there for free can get you attention, letting someone else profit off it in the form of a writing contest is doing yourself a disservice.

5. If Your Story Can Win a Contest, It Can Be Published

Perhaps the biggest draw that writing contests have is the large prizes they flash around for first place. Sometimes there’s a clause in the fine print that allows the prizes to be shrunk, but even so, it’s the lure of those big payouts that gets people to sign up. What’s an $80 entry fee if you win $1000?

Of course most entrants won’t win, but what if you’ve got a really good story this time? Your setting is fascinating, your action is exciting, and your protagonist’s emotional arc brings readers to tears. Surely you should enter this time, right?

Nope. For one thing, many contests don’t really care about the quality of your story because the contest runners are only in this to make a quick buck. But even if you do find a contest where quality matters, you still shouldn’t enter. You should submit the story for publication instead.

If your story is good enough to win a contest on merit, it’s good enough to be published. Being published at a reputable outlet is the one thing we can say for sure will help your career. This way you’ll know that if they use your work, you’ll get paid. Being published is also the only sure way to get your name out there as an author, and editors will pay far more attention to which other outfits have published you than any contests you’ve won.

6. The Exception: When a Contest Isn’t a Contest

As with all rules, there is an exception. Sometimes you find a writing contest from a reputable publisher that doesn’t charge an entry fee, publishes the winner at normal market rates, and only asks for the rights to your story in the event of publication.

This is actually a call for submissions that someone has mislabeled because they think “contest” sounds fancier. Go ahead and enter your story in one of these if you find it, but you should still check over the contract because even reputable publishers aren’t immune to trying a bit of legal trickery.

But outside of this unusual exception, you should stay as far from writing contests as you can. Trying to determine which ones are a scam and which ones are legit is exhausting, and even those that can be called “legit” are usually a waste of your time and your words. Writing is hard enough already. Don’t open yourself up to those who want to take advantage of you.

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Comments

  1. SunlessNick

    Thankyou for posting this.

  2. Sam Victors

    I don’t enter Writing Contests anyway. What I do like is to share some of my story ideas and snippets of them. Though I’m careful to give out a warning first if anyone plans to steal them (ala Taken style lol)

  3. Tyson Adams

    Good advice. I’ve entered contests in the past, mainly the ones that seem like a path to publication from big organisations or publishers.

    Interestingly your point on marketing services or other things appears to be happening with agents and publishers. Submissions seem to invite them to sign you up to their email lists. One major agency keeps sending me emails for their new service in “how to get published” since I sent them a submission query.

  4. Alverant

    My local con has an amateur writing contest limited to people who haven’t been paid professionally. The winner gets some cash and published in the program book. Since it’s not for professionals and you don’t have to buy anything, how does this apply to your warnings?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      It depends on a two factors.

      1. Do they maintain the rights to any of the stories that don’t win? I’m guessing no, but it’s something to be sure about. If they try to hold onto any of the losing stories, that’s a no no.

      2. Are they paying pro-rates to the winner? If they’re not, that’s pretty suspect. Just because a writer hasn’t been published before, it doesn’t make it okay to pay them sub-standard rates.

      If they’re paying pro rates then go for it. That’s just a publishing opportunity. If they’re not, then I’d be very hesitant. Chances are that if a story is good enough to win this contest, it’s good enough to be published.

      If you just want to support the con, that might make entering worth it, even at low rates. Just remember that publishing the story in their program is a benefit to them, not you.

  5. Melissa

    Great article with worthwhile advice. Two years ago I entered my novel in a contest run by Inkshares, sponsored by Nerdist. There was no entry fee, and they would publish the top 5 books. The top 2 winners would get the Nerdist Marketing and get to slap their logo on their book. I managed to do better than expected–something like 20th out of 500 entries–but I quickly found out that quantity over quality was the main goal here. They work like a kickstarter site, where the number of preorders is what propels you to the top. I doubt anyone actually read any of the entries. I was just a tool for the site to gain more visibility and registrants. I, and those of friends and family who signed up, were spammed almost continuously by other authors in the contest. For me it was a “I’ll buy yours if you buy mine free-for-all”. The content of the work themselves was more of an afterthought. I’m not saying the work was bad, but I doubt the majority of those who preordered knew one way or the other. It was an emotional roller coaster, that made me a bit disgruntled at Facebook friends, other authors making con-type promises, and with Inkshares for turning it into a popularity contest more than anything. It was quite the eye opener. The experience wasn’t all bad though, it forced me to find out what self-publishing is really like, how hard it is for a self-proclaimed introvert like me, and how to get over that hurdle of getting my work out there from personal to public. I also met a lot of other authors dealing with the same things, who have since become great friends. As for Inkshares, I called it quits when I found out they were running out of money, and they had made changes to their author contract without telling any of the authors. I’m friends with those who won the contest as well, their books are now available, but I doubt either of them can call it quits on their day jobs yet. So if anyone is thinking about entering an Inkshares Contest, or even a contest on Inkitt–another site with a similar business model–read through everything, and try talking to others about their experience (through either the forum on the site or the Goodreads Group) before deciding if that kind Contest is for you.

  6. Yolanda Parker

    I wondered about contests, which is why I queried this topic. I entered one residency last year that costs money to enter. I could not understand why I did not make the cut. Since then I have said no contests. Every book on Twitter seems to be an award winning book, I thought I was missing something.

    • JT

      The key phrase here is “Award” winning – not “contest” winning.

      All the famous literary “Awards” that people remotely care about – Newberry or Caldecott, Pulitzer, Nobel, Hugo Awards, Nebula Awards, you name it – are NOT “contests” in the sense listed here, where the authors themselves enter it; what they are, is a bunch of people in X group of people (in the case of the Hugos for example, it’s Worldcon attendees) choosing what their favorite works are and GIVING the Award out of their own accord, without compensation.

      I mean, granted, there was an attempt for a few years running to publish “Hugo and Nebula Award Winner” short stories, so one could get confused pretty easily on that front – but all of those stories had been professionally published elsewhere previously, usually in major markets (e.g. magazines like “Analog” or “Asimov’s Science Fiction”, “Fantasy & Science Fiction” etc), and basically the books were anthologies of reprints of popular stories, really, for which the authors would have gotten paid a SECOND time for works they had already sold to other markets anyway. So like, if anything, it was the opposite of what’s being described here – the works were so good, not only did people in the industry and SF/fantasy fandom independently vote them among the top works, more than one person was willing to PAY for the right to publish it.

      Independently-given “Awards” recognizing a work as good or well-liked are fine. Calls for submissions are (usually) fine. It’s scam “contests” that suck.

  7. Josiah Hampton

    Came across this article after receiving an email about an exciting new screenwriting contest, 1st prize $5000!

    Entry fee: $165

    They are nuts. You never win any of these contests anyway, and some person you never met and have no idea of their age, race, background, economic status and furthermore judges your work. “All work is not written for all people.”

    They are for people just starting out – people who are usually awful and have no idea that they’re awful. If they were good they’d get published, as you say. I’m convinced 95% of all writers are just completely self-deluded – me too! Except I sell my delusions for money – I don’t give others money to look at my stuff for 30 seconds before rejecting me.

    FEH!

  8. Dave L

    I’ve entered a few contests. Good contests, not problematical or scam. No entry fee; fairly decent prize; no poaching of rights; all entries, win or lose, are posted on their website so you can have the general public read your stuff

    That last one is the problem. Your story is posted along w/ dozens, maybe hundreds, of others. People are unlikely to read EVERY SINGLE STORY, especially since there is no guarantee of quality. Sometimes there isn’t even a description, just the title

    But you’ve given up First Publishing Rights of some sort or another. Even if the contest specifically says that all rights are yours, the fact that you put it up on a public website means many professional magazines, who want first rights, won’t touch it. Yes, there are still publishing options, reprint rights, but I’ve lost more than one story this way

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