When You Can’t Win for Losing

Come on, admit it – you have award envy. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be able to describe him- or herself as an “award-winning author”? Why, it’s almost as good as “bestselling author,” and easier to achieve. All you have to do is win a contest. And there are a blue billion contests out there. One of those trophies must have your name on it already, right?

Not so fast. There are decent, well-run contests, and then there are people who want to part you from your hard-earned money without giving you much in return. Just like with everything else in this business, you should do your homework before you plunk down your money.

When you’re perusing a writing contest listing, examine these things to make sure you’re not getting fleeced:

1. The entry fee. Legitimate contests – i.e., the ones designed to help the winner, not just line the organizers’ pockets – keep their entry fees low. They know writers don’t make much money. If the fee is closer to $100 than to $10 or $20, steer clear.

2. The prize. Could be money, publication, or both. Sometimes it’s a stipend and a residency. If the prize is a certificate and recognition at a glittering gala dinner, for which you have to pony up all expenses (including your own plate of rubber chicken), skip it. And if winners have to pay for their own certificates, etc., you can bet the organizers are in it for the cash.

3. The organizers. Look for names you trust – a magazine you’ve heard of (bonus points if you’ve actually read it), a well-regarded membership organization, a university. If you’re not sure, google the name(s) of the organizer(s), coupled with the word “scam.”

4. The judges. A legitimate contest will tell you upfront who’s going to be judging your work. Sometimes it’s an author you’ve heard of. Sometimes it’s members of the organization. In the case of a literary magazine, usually the staff will judge the entries. If the organizers are calling for judges at the same time that they’re calling for entries, that’s a bad sign.

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5. What they want from you. Some contests want paper copies and some will take an electronic submission; either one is fine. But if they ask for multiple copies of a dead-tree version of your book, be sure to factor the cost of buying and shipping those books into the total cost of your entry.

6. The deadlines. A for-profit contest organizer will be more likely to extend a deadline in order to make more…ahem, in order to improve the competition by allowing more time for people to enter.

7. What you get back at the end of it. If you’re sending dead-tree materials, the rules ought to include information about what the organizers will do with your book after the contest is over. “Submissions will not be returned” is perfectly legitimate. But be sure to ask KS Brooks about the time she found her submission copies for sale at Amazon after one contest was over.

I know whereof I speak. In 2011, I entered my novel SwanSong in a contest which shall remain nameless. The entry fee was a steep $79. As the deadline approached, I was confident I would win – only three books were entered in my category and I was pretty sure mine was the best – but then the organizers extended the deadline by several months. I never learned who judged my book; I never received any feedback, other than being named a finalist. I didn’t pony up for the glittering gala dinner with the B-list celebrity guest of honor (which was held at a community college a continent away from me), so I didn’t receive a certificate; they would have been glad to send one to me afterward, but I’d have to pay for it. I also could have ordered “finalist” stickers for my books – or just lifted the graphic from their website and printed my own, I guess.

As you might have surmised by now, the experience left a bad taste in my mouth. I haven’t entered a contest since. But if I did, I’d pick from the ones we mention here at Indies Unlimited periodically, or look for one from this list I found online.

Good luck, and may the best book win.
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Author: Lynne Cantwell

Lynne Cantwell grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. She worked as a broadcast journalist for many years; she has written for CNN, the late lamented Mutual/NBC Radio News, and a bunch of radio and TV news outlets you have probably never heard of, including a defunct wire service called Zapnews. But she began as a fantasy writer (in the second grade), and is back at it today. She currently lives near Washington, DC. Learn more about Lynne at her blog and at her Amazon author page.

24 thoughts on “When You Can’t Win for Losing”

  1. Oh well– I try to keep my envy under control because I ran straight into a poetry contest scam when I first started publishing my poetry (a long, long time ago). Sounded very much like what you describe. Anyway, good post and good luck.

  2. Great post Lynne. Thank you. I’ve only entered 2 contests in my life but if I ever get up the courage to enter a third I’ll take your checklist along with me.

  3. Sounds like you entered the Dan Poynter Global eBook award! For some reason this guy is highly publicized as an indie writer guru, but his contest stunk of scam, for which I am sure a lot of us fell for it…

    1. Silvano, I’m not naming names, but if you click through the link in my article, you can see whether you were right. 😉

      My take on Poynter, since you asked 😉 , is that he seems to be in the mold of Dale Carnegie and Napoleon Hill (who wrote “Think and Grow Rich”). It appears that he came of age, publishing-wise, during the era when POD publishing was just getting up to speed and the reek of vanity publishing lingered around it. That gives him longevity in the business. But while his stated aim is to help other self-published writers, he’s definitely not doing it for free.

      The partnership between Smashwords and the Global Ebook Awards does more for the reputation of Poynter’s awards than it does for Smashwords, I think. But that’s all just my opinion.

    1. Welcome to capitalism, Lois. 🙁

      Disclaimer: I’m not a socialist, by any stretch of the imagination. But I don’t think anyone will disagree that one of capitalism’s flaws is the ability of hucksters to take advantage of the gullible.

  4. Do any of you know even ONE legitimate writing contest or award which charges entry fees? I do not. I honestly can’t think of one.

    All the legit contests (Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, Writers of the Future) that I can think of have no entry fee. None of the awards I can recall (the ones run by reputable writers’ or fan groups) charge fees.

    To me, that seems the most obvious way to avoid the scams: if a contest is charging a fee, avoid it.

    1. Kevin, thanks for your post. The list I link to at the bottom of the post features contests with, at most, a $5 or $10 entry fee. None went over $20 that I saw, although I confess that I didn’t go through the whole list.

      I don’t see a problem with a contest charging a minimal entry fee for covering expenses. But minimal, to me, would be less than $20. And free is my favorite price. 😉

    2. Exactly. Newberry and Pulitzer don’t charge entry fees, either.
      My “rule” on contests is, if it costs money, don’t bother with it.

      Thing is those little badges don’t really mean much to readers. Any more than “best-selling author” means, anymore, in these days of “Top 20 in Free Kindle/Fiction/Travel/Rwanda/Dining Guides/Kosher” being a “Best Seller”

      Maybe there are people out there who see winning some contest as a stamp of quality. I don’t know. I see it as the result of a vote, but not among all readers, or all subscribers to P&E, or something, but of a sample group of 1-6 people. Very often academicians, marketers, or somebody’s aunts.

      The only one of these I did in recent memory was sending “Mayan Calendar Girls” to a “DIY Book Competition” for $50. I figured it was in the bag. A completely hand-crafted ebook, based on online serial by several writers, most of them TV pros, a unique format that included videos and artwork and toolitips that would pop up text and pics on hover, flying tag cloud navigation, yada yada. It took top eBook, but the only cash prize was for best book over-all. Which was won by a barely literate VietNam memoir with blurred cover… published on xLibris.

      So. Fix was in? People were idiots? Picked at random?

      It’s not like the best book wins. Juried decisions like that are of much less use to readers than “social proof”, like best-sellers, review count, etc.

      And, I have to say, if you’re trying to get more “proof” by throwing money at it, aren’t you cheating?

      A lot of the contests essentially have no losers. Everybody gets a little medal. Everybody can come to their gala dinner. Is that better than paying for a review?

      Even in the screenplay world, where contests wins are more useful since your “readership” target is just a small number of agents or prodcos, not everybody in the world, it’s generally known that only three are worth entering. I would say, that only the Nicholl is worth entering and a lot of industry pros agree.
      But there are hundreds of other contests. Years ago I posted on Zoetrope that it would be easy to just start a contest for the entry money. And it turned out that’s what a lot of people did.

      Contests are generally a waste of time, money, and aspirations.
      This just amplifies what I said about anthologies being a more useful tool.

      Really good post.

      1. The odds of winning any pay to play contest are slim. You’re not getting anything from the contest unless you win. So…why play? I mean, if you want to send someone $20 and a copy of your work, find someone at least willing to give you a one page crit in return for the cash. 😉

        I won an award for writing once, and a contest. Neither had entry fees. I can now dutifully add “award winning short fiction writer” to my writer bios. It gives a tiny bit more credence to my writing, probably.

        But it really doesn’t matter very much. And it’s certainly not worth paying for.

  5. This is great information. I just entered a contest in national, regional and ebook and will let you know if I have the same experience. Should be interesting!

  6. Top post Lynne. I am one of those daft souls who entered a few contests believing it would give me more credibility as a writer. I won five awards (don’t go green just yet). I got stickers (twenty in total for each contest) and a whopping big medal for one win.
    I knew what I was doing when I entered but I thought I could use any wins I had to further promote my books. They were very useful for that and I grabbed some space in a few newspapers with my announcement.
    I agree that you should be very careful what you enter. There are some terrible scams out there. If you are careful and choose wisely ,you might win some money or even some shiny stickers to put on your books, but you probably won’t get too much more out of it.

  7. Excellent post, Lynne, thank you. I’ve fallen for a couple of those, convincing myself that the entry fees were part of my “promotional budget.” Great checklist for next time. If there is a next time…

  8. So right, Lynne. My hubby is a poet. He and another friend both got rooked.They were promised prizes but ended up being told they were going to be published, they were THAT good, but sorry, no prize and pay for your own copy of the book. Yeah, right. 🙁

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