Contest Emptor

September 18th, 2006 · No Comments
by Booksquare

Let us all be honest for a moment: writing contests are often fundraisers. While you, the writer, might get a critique and maybe your work will make its way to an editor or agent’s desk, the contests are often a way for organizations to make money. No shame in that, by the way, but those who enter contests need to recall this.

They probably won’t, of course. Writers are notoriously willfully blind when it comes to the business of writing. One must have a certain level of hubris to submit work to agents and editors, it’s true, but one must also realize that all the people in the writing chain are feeding families and paying bills. If you’re going to enter a writing contest, it helps to have a reason why, not just dreams of landing a publishing contract.

It’s rare that you’ll win that prize, but, yes, it does happen. There’s a reason that Jill entered so many contests when she was starting out.

Let us use Jill as an example (not real Jill, fake Jill) as we examine the controversy surrounding the so-called Sobol Award. This is a new contest, running for a year (wow, a year?), targeting 50,000 submissions at $85 each. A little over four million bucks of revenue. First prize is $100,000, other prizes are $42,000. How and why that second number was determined is a mystery, but that’s not our problem.

The organizers say that the fees will help cover the costs of the contest judges…and there’s something important to consider. Who is judging this contest? Jill, let us recall, targeted contests with specific editors as final judges. She knew who would respond to her voice and style and worked hard to make sure they noticed her talent. In a contest with so many entrants, it’s important to find out who the judges are — they will, after all, be writing critiques of your work. What credentials do they have?

We’re not going to step into the controversy about agents charging reading fees, though many are suggesting that is what’s happening here. Okay, we are stepping. Sorry, inconsistency is a family tradition. Agents judge contests (where fees have been charged to entrants) all the time, usually in the capacity of final judges. They do not receive compensation for this, unless you consider finding great talent to be compensation.

If you’re paying for a first read from an agent, consider the fact that this violates the rules of the Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR). It’s unethical and it’s suspect. Paying someone to say nice things about your work is easy enough to do. If you’re an unpublished writer targeting this particular contest, recall that paying an agent to say nice things is not the same thing as hiring an agent to represent you with publishers.

If the goal here is merely to find an agent, that can be accomplished for far less than $85. In fact, querying an agent is inexpensive. Querying publishers is inexpensive. So why would you enter this contest? Well, your reasons are your own, but consider the goal before writing the check…especially if you’re only going be one in 50,000.

File Under: Square Pegs