How to Tell if a Writing Contest is Legit

By: Tammila Wright

            I have several short stories that would be perfect for entering into writing contests. The notoriety would be nice, and, of course, a cash award would great, too. Right? My quest started by diving into an internet search for writing contests. Wow, look, here is one that offers a prize of $10,000! Sign me up. The entry fee is $75.00, ouch. But wouldn’t that amount of a fee guarantee the contest is legitimate because why would anyone enter? But in my gut, something seems off.

A Writer's Guide to Entering Contests

WHO IS THE SPONSOR?

Something called “vanity publishers”, will use contests to attract paying customers. As a marketing tool, it doesn’t sound so bad if you win. Most of the time, the winner will receive free services, but if you’re an entrant, you will become the object of a persistent, relentless marketing drip. Ugh, don’t we get enough of that already?

Watch for literary agencies that may or may not charge a fee but are also trying to attract clients similar to vanity publishers. But with a twist, they will represent you, but YOU get to pay upfront, inflated editing fees. Oh, and there are the agencies that hide behind false names. The winner will be required to sign up with the actual agency for a steep fee. Another detail to watch is if the company is disclosing the exact amount of semi-finalist, meaning everyone that enters has won a prize.

If the contest is sponsored by a magazine, it must be reputable, right? Wrong. Similar to literary agencies, they will advertise disguised under several different names and URL’s to attract entrants. If a magazine offers monthly contests, it probably is running a contest mill and won’t be to your benefit and waste of your time.

WHAT ABOUT THE ENTRY FEES?

A high entry fee may be a clue to “scamville.” It appears to be a rule that high entry fees of $50 or more, must have a logical prize attached to it. Awarding an “honorable mention” on the sponsor’s website is sad without prize money, maybe in the form of a gift card, or the attention of a genuine literary agent. Where did all that entry fee money go? The standard fee to legitimate contests usually is between $0 and $25. Even at $25.00 Where is that money allocated? Certainly, you should NOT be required to pay more money AFTER submission. You should not have to purchase ANYTHING; critiques of your work, entry into some secret author society, credentials, or BUY your trophy, NOTHING.

HOW MUCH REVENUE CAN A CONTEST GENERATE?

Here is an example of how much revenue a contest can generate. One site explained that a media company runs dozens of conventions and “festivals.”  Here is the math for one festival in 2014: 2,832 entries, charging $75.00 per entry equaling $212,400. If the company is sponsoring 20 or more events, with only $50.00 per entry and a conservative estimate of 2,000 entrants, they are bringing in over $2 million in entry fees alone! Then, they bring in additional revenue from merchandise and professional services such as critiques, $2.5 million in business off of writers.  The Better Business Bureau is a great place to check for open claims by spurned entrants and winners. The allegations read like a horror show for a writer.

LOOKING CLOSER AT “PRIZES”

How about thinking you won a contest, but you find out your reward money is based on the number of entrants? That doesn’t sound that bad because the entry fees can be $25 to $50 or more, right? The thousands of dollars in prize money they advertise for top winners most times is an illusion. The funds are paid AFTER all the company’s expenses known as a “pro-rated basis.” Why gamble?

What other prizes can be a local benefit? Being published in an anthology sounds cool. Wouldn’t that give me bragging rights? Yes and no. Yes, there are companies publishing collections of works, poems, flash fiction, short stories, and essays, but your precious work is assembled into a compilation and sold back to the very writers that initially contributed to the issue for a required fee. Sounds a little communistic, don’t you think? “We love your work. You beat out thousands of other contestants. We want to publish it. Now, about our purchase price…” 

WHAT WILL A REPUTABLE SPONSOR’S CONTEST CONTAIN?

            A reputable writer’s contest will have a few categories directed at a specific genre or market classification — not a lump sum of short stories, poems, or novels. The rules and deadlines will be easy to understand. Your rights regarding copyrights are clear and contact information readily available on the entry site. The prizes are without substitutions, or if a replacement must occur, what is the reason? You need to know precisely the future of your submitted work. How will your name be used? Is the contest an annual event?

            Look at this example of a legit writing contest. The guidelines are easy to understand, with no entry fee, the prize of $10,000 awarded rewarded as an advance on sales of the manuscript, and the contest is offered once a year specifically for one genre at a time. The sponsor is a publisher operating internationally within eight divisions and been in business since 1813. Sounds good.

            Here is a quick checklist to scrutinize a contest. Also, there are many non-profit sites expressly set up to verify contests and grant programs available to writers. With these tools, I’m encouraged that I won’t fall prey to a scam.

A BEWARE CHECKLIST

  • Do an internet search on all sponsors and professionals attached to the contest.
  • An entry fee of over $25.00 needs an inquiry.
  • What is the winning prize? Can the sponsor substitute the prize for some reason? Is it on a “pro-rated” basis? How many winners?
  • What will happen to your rights regarding your submission copyright?
  • Will you be spammed following the contest?
  • Is the number of categories logical? Short stories not lumped with novels.
  • Research internet reviews on the contest. If there’s been a bad experience by an entrant, their review should be easy to find.
  • If the contest frequency occurs ten or more a year, RUN!
  • No additional fees following your submission.
  • A lack of a cash prize doesn’t mean scam, but the award should be worth your time in creating your masterpiece.

PPW’s Zebulon

Editor’s Note: Of course we couldn’t post about contests without including our own Zebulon. Although this contest is closed until 2021 it is certainly one of the “GOOD” ones. The Zebulon simulates the real process of submitting to an agent, serving as an excellent learning experience. Do you have what it takes to get published? The Zebulon will help you find out.


Tammila K. Wright

Tammila K. Wright is a fifth-generation Colorado Native and self-proclaimed history geek. She writes, talks, and even acts out her love of history. She is a commissioner for the Manitou Springs Historic Preservation Commission contributing articles for the Pikes Peak Bulletin Newspaper. Tammila has been involved in projects for Pilgrim Films & TV, Greystone Productions, Taurus Productions, Discovery Channel, Travel Channel, PBS and Animal Planet. Her first full novel, Mirror Memory, will be released in May 2020 and is a member of the Scriveners of Manitou Springs and Pikes Peak Writers.

Tammila resides in Manitou Springs with her husband of 31 years, an astonishing daughter, and runs The Feather W Bird Sanctuary.