Friday, March 26, 2010

You Tell Me: Fee-Based Contests

Photo from 2008 Faith & Family Writing Contest
(I think "write, pray" covers more than just religious contests!)

How do you decide when to pay a fee to enter a legitimate writing contest? And, how do you decide which contest(s) to enter? (Please note that I am only talking about legit contests here -- I recognize that there are many scams out there, but let's all assume we've done our basic homework.)

I've been mulling this over for a while, as I am very risk-adverse (lawyers often are), and I tend think of paying to enter a contest as throwing money away. Take, for example, the Writer's Digest Annual Writing Competition. This is clearly a legitimate enterprise, and the entry cost is not prohibitive ($20 for the first short story manuscript, $15 for all additional). But nearly 14,000 people entered last year. Let's do some math. Even if you're in the top 1% of all writers, that still leaves 140 people in that top 1% competing against you. The top 10 entries in each category get a minimum of $25 in prize money (grand prize is $3,000 plus other perks). There are 10 categories. So, only 100 people will make back their money from a single entry fee. How many top-one-percent entries were there again? Yup, 140. You like those odds? I don't.

Now, I like some competition quite a bit. I have recently discovered the joys of submitting short stories to certain very exclusive fiction markets -- one magazine recently wrote back to say "this one's not for us, but please send more", and the research I've done tells me that only 2% of all submissions are accepted, and only 10% get a request to resubmit, so I am thrilled to have found out that this magazine thinks I'm top 12%. But I didn't have to pay any money to find that out.

I can understand paying to enter a contest that guarantees some professional editorial feedback, because you'd usually have to pay for that anyway. But what else makes you decide to pay to enter a contest? Which contests, if any, have you entered, how did you choose, and what did you learn?

Don't forget to enter my contest!


  1. I entered a writers conference first chapter contest last year. It cost 15 bucks. You had to be unpublished, it had to be under 3K, and it absolutely had to be the first chapter.

    I was amazed at how many people had been booted because they hadn't followed the guidelines.

    There was to be professional critiques for everyone, regardless of winning, so I'm sure that had to be motivation for some people.

    Personally, I wanted validation from complete strangers about my own brand of specualtive fiction-I went in all Bi-Polar thinking they would either love me or hate me. I am full of that writers arrogant despair.

    My yarn was a weird western, complete with mysterious Indians, malevolent spirits, an ancient tomb and a hard-drinking gunfighter. It could have gone to the Speculative/Sci-Fi/Fantasy genre-but I knew a million people had entered = extreme competition. (was hundreds)

    I could have entered it in the Historical genre-but I had contemplated a second entry in that one and didn't want to double-book it. Never did submit that one.

    I was sneaky, I guessed general fiction would have the least competition (it did) and I liked thinking my piece was Cormac McCarthyish-so I subbed it to general fiction and I won first place.

    The critiques were alright, I will lessen the info dump at the end of that chapter.

  2. I've only entered a couple contests - I'm not hip on contests. But you're right - the Writer's Digest contest attracts such a huge amount of entries! I think the smaller ones would be a better option if one's goal is to place in the contest.
    I've entered the Writer's Digest contest for fiction books twice. The first time, I received a really in-depth and thoughtful critique. The second time, I could tell the person hadn't even read my book. That's frustrating.

  3. I wouldn't pay to enter a contest, but then I haven't entered a writing contest since elementary school. (Wait, that's not true. I did enter the Amazon Breakthrough Contest last year, but I had a novel ready and it had been rejected like 50 times. I had nothing else for it.)

    I forgot what my point was...

  4. I have never entered a contest, so BoS.

    I would not pay to enter a contest. Submitting to agent and publishers/magazines is free. And some give critique, which I would find out during research.

    If it was at a con, and it came with the package, and I had something I thought would fit, then I might submit. But I would not write something for the contest if I didn't already have something.

    Well, okay, I've entered some online forum poetry writing contests. Amd I won one or two But they had very low entry levels, had no prize, and no feedback unless you dumped the piece in the workshop afterwards--so I don't count them for the purposes of this response. I entered because I had several friends entering, and I also--like David--like a little validation now and then, even validation I know is limited in its applicability.

  5. Congrats on the win, David! And thanks to everyone for your experiences/insights. Keep 'em coming!

  6. I'm with you on this one Carrie. I've looked at that Writer's Digest contest but figured I could use my $20 for a better purpose. If you got a good professional critique guarenteed as part of the entry fee that might be a little better deal. But just submitting works to magaizines and such probably makes more sense.

    I haven't seen one in a long time, but a lot of companies used to sponsor essay contests with prizes. Too bad there's not more of those.


  7. Contest fees can certainly add up. I've entered a few and here are my reasons.

    The first contest I entered, I paid for extra critiques because I was starting out and wanted to know how my piece stands. It was for the first few chapters of my Middle grade novel. The critiques were quite helpful. But I got an unexpected boost, it came in as No. 2. Very encouraging.

    Thought maybe it was a fluke, entered another contest, without paying for extra critiques this time. Again # 2. AND the final judge, an editor, gave me specific comments and requested a re-submission if I chose to revise according to her suggestions.

    Those were very nice boosts for a new writer, I'll tell ya.

    With the added confidence, I took out some older writing, mainly short stories, and polished up one of them that I thought had the most potential and entered it in the first contest. I won this time, which paid for my conference registration fee. The opportunity to meet writers and other industry professionals: priceless.

    I then entered three other contests with my short stories, one of which was run by the prestigious Glimmer Train. I didn't place, but I had done something I am proud of: got my work out there with the big boys.

    While I understand that judging is subjective, I have gained some much needed confidence to keep plugging away.

    And thanks to your prodding, I am going to submit my shorts and see what happens. My novel is also out on submission.

    Would I have done this without the contest wins? Don't know. I just know that for me, these contests have paid off.

  8. If it's a legit contest, you can gain so much more than money. In fact, the contest I entered last year had NO monetary prizes. The real prize was the recognition. I gained my agent through it, and ultimately went on to get my book deal as a result. It cost me $30 per entry, and I didn't win any money back. But I did win national recognition and that is the ultimate prize for a writer!

  9. I entered the Genesis contest and paid $35. I did it mostly to obtain feedback. I'm not even sure my work is CBA material. We shall see. ;)

  10. I've entered fee-based contests that offer feedback, but these were for novel openings. As for short fiction, I'd rather approach publications where they pay me, not the other way around.

  11. I think it depends on the cash prize paid out, the legitimacy of the contest, and the amount required. You could quickly go broke if the cost is over $10, really.