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Great American Dumb Ideas: Writing Contests

 article about Great American Dumb Ideas: Writing Contests
2008-04-04 03:30:38

This article belongs to Great American Dumb Ideas column.


In the beginning


Publishers are swamped by submissions. Some publishers and literary agents get dozens of manuscripts and book proposals every day. Low level employees keep busy stuffing rejection slips into self-addressed return envelopes and shredding the submissions.


And then publishers found a way to promote their publications and get writers to send them money. They discovered the writing contest. Next, other organizations also decided that contests might be good money-raising events.


Most writing contests, unfortunately, are little more than lotteries. A lottery is a form of gambling on chance or random events, and that seems to describe the outcome of most contests. If they are, in fact, a form of gambling, then government regulation may be needed to make them both honest and transparent.


The appeal


Those few writers who achieve national prominence can earn large incomes and become stars on the lecture circuit. In the United States, however, there seem to be many more writers than people who buy printed books and magazines. So it is that accomplished writers produce far more than interested, paying readers will buy. Supply far exceeds demand.


If a book sells 30,000 copies or more it is called a best seller, a pitifully small number of sales for our population over 300,000,000. Some of the best books of poetry sell only a few thousand copies. Of course, a few novels sell hundreds of thousands of copies. However, almost all of what is offered to publishers goes nowhere but into the recycle bin..


Desperate to get into print, authors may resort to a flourishing vanity press industry where one can get a book printed for under $1,000. Marketing the book then becomes an expensive uphill battle.


In the face of all this, submitting a poem, book or story to a writing contest sounds good to many writers. Winning a well known national prize can, in fact, open the door to agents and publishers, but the odds seem to be stacked against the writer. And what, by the way, are the odds? They never tell us.


The price


Entry fees for writing contests that I've seen lately range from $3.00 up to $50.00 and more. You must add postage to mail the manuscript, although more contests now are accepting electronic submissions and allowing the author to charge the entrance fee to a credit card. A determined author could easily spend hundreds of dollars entering contests.


Authors deserve something more than blind chance if they are going to spend their money on contests.


Making money on it


Here on Whidbey Island in Puget Sound where I live, we have a yearly writing contest sponsored by the Whidbey Island Writers Association. For several years I submitted poems and stories, and I won a first and a few honorable mentions. Eventually, I was asked to act as a judge for one of the several genres they accept. There is no entry fee, judges are not paid or even announced, and every entrant gets back a written evaluation based on several dimensions of the writing. In another no-fee local contest, I won a T-shirt and some critical feedback. These are my kind of contests.


On the other hand, I regret spending money entering national writing contests. At times, I've been ranked as an also ran or honorable mention. The problem is, I don't get a kick out of gambling on what I think must be very close to a random outcome.


Is there a better idea?


As usual, consumer education and protection are the keys to a better way. Here's how to make writing contests open and honest:


1. The writers' identities must be unknown to the judges. This is true now in most contests.


2. There should be a panel of more than one judge, and each judge should not know the identity of the others or communicate with them.


3. The identities of the judges should never be announced because some who take on the judging job do so mostly because, in advertising for a contest, their names and books will appear in the ads; they come for the free publicity. In addition, when a contestant knows the names of the judges-to-be, he or she may game the system by spinning their entries in an effort to please the judges.


4. Judges should work with a rational, pre-announced set of specific literary standards and award a number of points based on these standards to each work reviewed. Best score total wins.


5. There should be full financial disclosure of how the entrance fees will be distributed: fees and expenses for judges, advertising costs, prize money, retained profit, etc.


6. Every entrant should be told the estimated odds of winning, information based on past or anticipated numbers of contestants.


Writing contests are bound to have long term effects on our literature. Thousands of writers without the financial resources to enter contests could be shut out of the literary marketplace since they cannot afford to use contests to leverage their careers. The writers market should not be limited to the well-to-do.


A writer, of course, has many choices on what to do with finished projects:


1. Try the very difficult task of contacting agents who might represent them. Doing this in person, if possible, will help.


2. Submit directly to book publishers, most of which won't even glance at the material unless it is invited. For short stories, essays and poetry, submit directly to literary journals that publish you genre and style.


3. Self-publish with one of the many pay-to-print publishers who use print-on-demand printers, and then learn how to market a book.


4. Hold out for contests that try to meet the conditions outlined above.


5. Enter only contests with no entry fee; there are many every year.


6. Get your name out there by giving your work away to the world on the Internet by way of blogs, your own web site, or to fine efforts such as www.thecheers.org.


7. Put your work in a time capsule for your descendants to enjoy.


Not all contests are equal, of course. Some contests support literary journals that cannot earn enough to keep going on subscriptions and advertisements alone. Some contests help charities and other worthy projects. Also, it's great when your entry fee buys you a subscription and/or some good critical feedback. Most writers, I think, should spend the money that might go to entry fees on subscriptions to literary journals. Read and study what they print. It will make you a better writer with better insight into the world of current literature, and you will have a much better idea of what material to send to which publication.


Good luck, and if you write, write because you love the act of writing. Anything you get beyond that is a bonus.





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