Thursday, March 17, 2016

Do contests prey on the vulnerable?

            I despise submission fees, and I’m fully in favor of journals finding other ways to support their activities.
            But writing contests, another go-to means of raising funds, have their own problems. While they can be a fun approach to submitting, I suggest that writers approach them with caution.
            In general, I don’t submit to contests for individual pieces of work. However, this isn’t because I’m opposed to them in principle; I just can’t afford fees, which are usually in the $15 to $25 range. Paying this fee typically allows a writer to send a certain number of poems—usually three—or a single prose entry, and it makes the writer eligible for a prize.
            The prize, too, can range rather widely. Poets & Writers will print free announcements of contests that have at least a $1,000 prize, and looking down the list, I see prizes of $1,000 for fees of $5, $15, $20, $22, $25 …  there is little consistency.
            And isn’t there a big difference between paying $5 and $25 for a chance at $1,000 and publication? The journal needs forty entrants to earn back the prize amount with the $25 fee, versus two hundred entrants at the $5 fee level—and that’s just to cover the prize, not the judging or promotion. It’s worth noting that covering the prize does not make for a successful fundraiser.
            But it has been my observation that fees are rising and prizes are remaining stagnant. That journal that offered a $1,000 prize ten years ago is still giving away the same pot, but its entry fee has crept upwards, from $10 to $20 or more. One would hope that a higher fee would result in a bigger prize, but that’s not how it seems to work. Few contests offer a greater prize than $1,000.
            I’m heartened by the fact that most reputable journals have adopted the Contest Code of Ethics put forth by the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, a terrific organization that serves literary publishers with information and support. Here is the code in its entirety: 

CLMP’s community of independent literary publishers believes that ethical contests serve our shared goal: to connect writers and readers by publishing exceptional writing. We believe that intent to act ethically, clarity of guidelines, and transparency of process form the foundation of an ethical contest. To that end, we agree to 1) conduct our contests as ethically as possible and to address any unethical behavior on the part of our readers, judges, or editors; 2) to provide clear and specific contest guidelines—defining conflict of interest for all parties involved; and 3) to make the mechanics of our selection process available to the public. This Code recognizes that different contest models produce different results, but that each model can be run ethically. We have adopted this Code to reinforce our integrity and dedication as a publishing community and to ensure that our contests contribute to a vibrant literary heritage.

This sounds good to me—a promise of ethical behavior, clear guidelines, transparency surrounding the evaluation process. If a journal demonstrates that it is following this code, one can feel fairly secure in sending work there.
            I’m not sure that the entirety of the ethical issue of contests goes away with adherence to the code, though—even if a journal’s staff follows it sincerely and to the letter.
            For a long time, I administered a set of contests. My publication was open about the process—we screened all submissions as a staff and sent the finalists to the named judge. For those submissions considered by the judge, all identifying information was removed.
            The staff and I read all of the work carefully. I perhaps took even more care than usual with contest submissions, since the writer had paid a fee. Whereas I might skip a page on a hopeless regular submission—no harm, no foul—I read every word of all contest submissions as an act of good faith.
            It was also an act of necessity, because the contest submissions were remarkably poor, on average, compared to regular submissions—and this is where things become problematic from an ethical perspective in a way that the CLMP code doesn’t quite touch.
            The problem is that submitters to contests are, to an overwhelming extent, novice writers. Maybe beginners think this is a good way to get their foot in the door, or maybe they come across contest advertisements without realizing that most magazines consider regular submissions, too, often without any fee at all.
            In a pile of contest submissions, I often found it difficult to find those five or six finalist pieces to send to a judge. Inevitably, I would have to send a handful of strong pieces and one or two pieces that were merely competent. Because anything the judge reads could potentially win the contest, there were years I really worried until I received the winning piece.
            By contrast, when I read regular submissions, I am consistently struck by the quality of the work there. Most of it merits a full reading; much of it merits discussion. There is plenty of interesting, competent, worthy work to fill each issue, and the challenge becomes looking for a diverse mix to please the journal’s readers. It’s a true luxury to be able to shift pieces in and out to see what works best together. A few pieces are must-haves—they’re passionate favorites of a staff member. But other than these make-or-break poems, stories, and essays, it’s a matter of putting together literature that works nicely in conversation together and that represents diverse thinking, styles, and voices. Sometimes I like to include work that isn’t commonly found in litmags—like very long poems or formal pieces. It’s all about building an intriguing journal that rewards the effort of reading it.
            But not with contests. With contest work, it’s about finding five or six pieces that aren’t too bad to consider—that wouldn’t reflect poorly on the journal and all of its writers if chosen. There are always a couple of pieces that are quite good, but there are years when the finalist pieces as a whole are not up to the quality of the rest of the journal.
            And that’s worrisome. Writers, many of them novices, pay fees so that they can try to be published, perhaps because they don’t know how submissions are usually done. If they do earn publication via a contest, chances are they would not have done so in the regular submission pool. And to be quite honest, the top three or four pieces are generally far above the rest of the contest submissions in their quality.
            Do contests, even ethically run contests, prey on the most vulnerable among our numbers? I worry that they might. For a strong writer, contests are a chance at a thousand bucks or so, as well as some bragging rights. For a winning fiction piece, the rewards might be even greater; agents often contact winners of fiction contests with a desire to see more work.

            But what seems to be happening is that the least capable writers are bankrolling the publications that benefit the rest of us. And something about that has never sat quite right with me.


  1. A few thoughts-- When I first started writing, I'd heard that although even most big journals accepted slush submissions, most of their published pieces were agented or solicited, meaning unknowns had a better chance breaking into the journal via the contest route.

    At the time, journal contests were a relatively new thing and slush submission fees were absolutely unheard of, so it was easier to budget a little extra money to enter 5 or 6 contests each year. Now though, there are just so many contests! And so many places charging submission fees, that it makes entering more than a couple of the contests financially unfeasible.

    Which is why contest fees seem to be going up. I wouldn't be surprised if the overall number of contest entries each journal is receiving is going down down down each year. So the journals are making up for it by raising the rates. And also, have you noticed how many places always seem to be extending their contest deadlines an extra couple weeks? What's that about? Is it because they need to drum up more submissions because what they've received just isn't very good? Or is it because they need more people to enter so they can cover their contest costs?

    1. These are excellent points. And those extensions, I think, are orchestrated -- and not necessarily linked to quality concerns. Announce an extension and you get a second wave of submissions. Extensions are the difference between a successful contest and an unsuccessful one. I suppose there is an ethical issue here, too, although I hate to say it.

  2. When each new issue of Poets & Writers arrives in my mailbox, the first page I turn to is "Recent Winners." I look at the pictures and say out loud, "I hate you . . . and I hate you . . . and I hate you . . ."