Are Contests Worth the Fee?

Written by Emily Harstone

As an author, editor, professional submitter, and poet, I end up talking about contests a great deal. A lot of writers enter contests but as a general rule we do not review contests on Authors Publish, this is because there is an entry fee attached.

The first time I ever confronted a contest I was not entering it, instead I was an intern for a small press. This event took place a number of years ago and this press is not longer in business. My job as an unpaid intern was to read approximately 400 manuscripts. I had a little over two months to reduce these 400 manuscripts to 10.

I was the only one to read these 400 manuscripts even though on the official contest outlines (each person had to pay a considerable fee) it said that each manuscript would be reviewed by a group of qualified readers.

I handed this pile of 10 over to my boss to read in order to hand over the final three to the very famous judge. However at the last moment he specified several things he wanted to make sure would be included in the chapbook. They were very specific details about the gender of the author and the topic of the poems.

One of the manuscripts I had discarded fell into this category exactly. So I removed one other book from the pile of ten and put this one instead, even though it was not particularly good. This was the manuscript that ended up winning.

All contests are not like this. Many first book contests are highly regulated and have large teams of readers. These contests are usually very prestigious and highly competitive. I have entered a number of these contests, because I understand that as a poet the best way to land a good publisher for your first book is by winning a contest.

Don’t assume the judge of the contest will ever see your work, most judges only read what the readers deem to be the top manuscripts or pieces, that means the readers have a great deal of control over who wins.


However there are a number of scams out there for chapbook length manuscripts. Many presses will agree to publish your book even if it is not a winner, but only if you will pre-sell a large number of copies. Finishing Line Press is particularly notorious for this.

Many literary journal contests are expensive, but the competition is less steep. Sometimes they have so few entries in the contest that they struggle to find a winner they can print. However when academic journals are involved, student run journals particularly, the roles of the readers get a little murkier. Often close friends of the editor end up winning, because theirs is the work that reaches the judge.

However you should not dismiss contests out of hand but you should take the following factors into consideration.

1. How prestigious is it?

Make sure that if your willing to pay to enter the contest the payoff is worth it. If it is run by a journal that publishes everyone and their mother, even if they have a well known judge attached you don’t particularly want to be associated with the contest. Also contests from less established presses are not necessarily regulated in any way.

2. How expensive is it?

Short story and poem contests can cost up to 50 dollars to enter. Book contests can be over 100 dollars. The competition for contests this big are less steep, yet they also tend to be accosiated with less established organizations that know they will have fewer submitters




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