Competitions can be a great boost to your writing career. Authors Adele Jones and Sandra Peut had their books Integrate and Blue Freedom published as a result of entering reputable contests for unpublished manuscripts.
However, for each success story, there are cases of unwary contestants who have had their fingers burned. Here are a few cautionary words to ponder before sending off your manuscript and cheque.
What are the financial costs?
It’s reasonable for a competition to have an entry fee to cover costs such as prizes, stationary, postage and honorariums to judges. However, fees should be proportional to the prize money being offered. I recently saw a competition advertised where the entry fee was $10, but the first prize was only $100. Either they were expecting very few entries, or the organisers were hoping for a windfall. I didn’t enter. Conversely, the $75 early bird fee for the Miles Franklin Literary Award is probably reasonable, as it’s the most prestigious writing award in Australia and several judges each have to evaluate complete novels.
Also beware of hidden costs. Katherine Lyall-Watson wrote an article for the Australian Writer's Marketplace in which she exposed a poetry organisation that published the poems of anyone who purchased an anthology for US$49.95. One editor estimated that the company was making US$10 million a year by publishing for cash rather than merit.
Is it transparent?
You should be able to find out information such as writer’s guidelines, judges, past winners, whether or not winning entries will be published, and how results will be made available. If information is not forthcoming, think twice about whether you want to trust the competition organiser/s with your entry.
What rights are you giving?
Be sure to read the fine print in the entry conditions to see what rights you are giving away. Ideally you would only have to sign over first rights, which means the competition organisers can publish it first, but then the rights return to you. Be wary of competitions that insist you give exclusive rights, as Charis Joy Jackson discovered. Click here to read a fascinating blog post where she describes her dilemma and the decision she reached.
I was also caught out recently when I entered a competition in which the top 100 poems were to be included in an anthology. I thought I had a strong poem, so I didn’t pay much attention to a clause that said all entries would later be offered to the National Library for their archives. When my poem didn’t make the cut for the anthology, I tried to enter it in another competition but was told it was ineligible because it was still technically on offer somewhere else.
For more information on scams and problems associated with competitions, you might like to check out the SFWA site. Have you ever had a problem with a competition? I’d be interested in hearing your stories.