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No Contest
by Brian Plante

A common way for beginning authors to get started is by entering writing contests. In fact, way back in the early years of my writing career (um, about six years ago) I won a nice sum of money in the Writers Of The Future contest, and it was a big boost to my confidence. But I have to tell you that some writing contests are really not a good idea.

First off, I don't want to say that all contests are bad. There are some very legitimate contests out there that are well respected and totally aboveboard. The thing that bothers me about the bad contests is entry fees.

If you've looked into the contests, you'll see that most of them have some kind of entry fee, usually from $5.00 to $15.00. And I would argue that just about every one of those contests is not worth your time and money.

Let's do the math. One typical contest, run annually by a sizeable and fairly well-respected group of genre writers I know awards prizes of $50.00, $25.00 and $15.00 for the winner and two runners-up. That's a total purse of $90.00. This contest has an entry fee of $10.00, so the group that runs the contest makes a profit on every entry after the ninth one. So what's in it for the writer?

Well, assuming it cost you, for example, $5 to print and mail the three copies of the story the contest demands, and the $10.00 you paid for the entry fee, the best you can net is $35.00 for first place, or $10.00 for second. You just break even if you win third place. Everyone else is a loser. But you're a really good writer, so let's assume you win the grand prize -- a whopping $35.00 after your expenses. Big effing deal.

Some contests also offer to print the prizewinning entries in a magazine, newsletter, con-program, or whatever. Usually they don't pay any additional money for this publication -- the prize money is the payment. Imagine your great luck if you're that third-place "winner" who loses the first serial publishing rights to your story and doesn't see a profit. Oh well, maybe they'll send you a contributor's copy.

Ah, but think about the prestige! Um, don't count on it, Chester. If you think your future submissions are going to stand a better chance in the marketplace because your cover letter trumpets the fact that you won second place in the Mutton Hollow Horror Writers Club's annual "Stories I Didn't Actually Fling Across The Room" contest, well, think again. The editors know which contests are really on the level.

Okay, I bill myself elsewhere on this website as a "prizewinning author." Let me say that I have never entered a contest that required an entry fee. Never . I won a prize in the Writers Of The Future contest. No entry fee there. I won a short-story contest at the local Borders bookstore where I live. Again no entry fee. I have entered only two other contests in my life, both of which had no fee. Got it?

Obviously, I don't enter a lot of contests. But in a way, I enter lots of contests. Every time I submit a story to a paying market, I am entering a contest. I am competing against every other contributor to that magazine or anthology. The editor is the judge. The market's pay rate is the prize. There is no entry fee. Sometimes I win, sometimes I lose.

If I win, the "prize" is usually a lot bigger than what those pay-to-enter contests give away. And publication is in a real magazine that lots of people read -- not the hundred or so people that may read a writing club's self-published magazine. Maybe there's even some prestige in my magazine sale.

If you read much about writing, you'll often come across the phrase, "Money flows to the writer." Remember it. They pay you, you don't pay them. Not to enter a contest. Not to have your work read. Not to be critiqued. Not to be represented by an agent. You don't agree to purchase a $50.00 book to get your 16-line poem printed in an anthology that nobody will read. You don't pay to have your book published, or a story posted on a website, or some listing in an e-publisher's catalog. If someone wants money to get your writing out there, run away. Money flows to the writer. Period.

Let the games begin.

Copyright © 2000 Brian Plante Count=5269


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