Competitions are exciting. We all want to be recognised. We want our work to be lauded. We want that celebration to spread across the publishing industry and consumer market and let people know we (and our work) exist.
We want to mean something.
Then you have the practical output: competitions can lead to goodies, like publication (yay), prize money (yay), mentorships (yay), or even a combination of any or all those. Each one of those things is a boost to any writer’s career. Even the lower prizes can mean something. Being shortlisted and/or longlisted is recognition – encouragement that your work is thereabouts. You’re being told this by people in the industry that it means something.
So that’s all that’s good and wondrous. But competitions can have drawbacks, too.
There are a lot of bad competitions out there.
Shysters thrive in publishing. And why? Because many writers are inexperienced and trusting. Along comes Shyster X: Here’s an opportunity and it costs you this MUCH money. It’s the way this industry works! And does the poor unsuspecting writer know any better? No. So they buy in thinking this is the way things work. (This is why we run workshops on publishing – we want to educate authors.)
The same applies to competitions. It doesn’t take any merit to run a competition. I could start a competition tomorrow, call it The Super Awesome Marvellous Magnificent Book Competition, slap on an entry fee, promise a few prizes, and advertise it, and I’ll get entrants.
For some of these comps, they don’t care about the author. It’s about making money for themselves.
So how can you tell the shysters?
Look at the entry fee.
Is it big? Big entry fees don’t necessarily mean a competition is a scam. There are legitimate competitions that charge $100 per entry (although that’s the maximum I would pay, and these comps are for novel-length works). But keep in mind what you’re being charged, and then …
Look at the prize(s).
What are they offering? A certificate and announcement of your triumph in their media? Well, is that worth their entry fee? I would suggest not. They actually cost the competition zero dollars, zero resources, and very little time and effort to award. The only way I’d consider this meritorious is if the organisation running the competition had serious marquee.
The Text Prize (run by Text Publishing) charges $100 entry, but the winner is published, and gets $10,000 (against the royalties). Affirm Press run a competition in conjunction with Varuna; entry is $100, and the winner is mentored for a year with the hope that their manuscript will be brought to a publishable quality. They’re awesome prizes, and definitely worth their entry fee. Hachette’s Richell Prize (currently open) doesn’t even charge a fee, and yet the winner receives a year of mentoring with the possibility of publication at the end.
Seriously think about whether the prize is worth the entry fee.
Look at the judges.
Imagine submitting a horror novel to a competition that was being judged by Stephen King. Wow. That would be awesome. Competitions often boast about who their judge is because it usually is some acclaimed author. It’s a selling point. Also, you’d like to believe that having a credible author legitimises a competition. Certainly, name authors wouldn’t want to be associated with anything shonky.
But some competitions claim that they have esteemed judges but can’t reveal their identity, or just don’t mention who the judges are at all.
In the case of competitions like those already listed (above), it’s no big thing because the prizes are so great. Your work would no doubt be judged by staff within those publishers who have expertise in their field and are looking for manuscripts to publish and authors to make part of their stable.
If the prize isn’t publication or money or mentoring, if it’s only acclaim, then I’d want to know who was making those judgements. Is it somebody worthwhile (e.g. a well-known author, or some recognised publisher with twenty years’ experience), or some work experience kid? If I’m not told, why are those identities kept secret? Immediately, I’d think it’s because there’s no valid judging process.
Google the competition.
The internet is an amazing place. If you’ve ever had any sort of problem – personal, professional, technical – there’s a very good chance somebody else has encountered it before you and written about it on the internet, or filmed a video that’s up on YouTube.
Competitions are no different. Message boards exist where people talk about competitions. There are sites dedicated to listing credible competitions and those you should stay away from. It’s not hard to research pedigree and validity.
A Google search doesn’t take long, and can save you time, money, and energy in the long run.
It’s not just one thing.
Just one flag isn’t necessarily an issue. A competition might have a hefty entry fee, but offer great prizes. There’s your value. A competition might only offer a small financial prize, but also only have a small entry fee. That’s fair. A competition might have a reasonable entry fee, not much in the way of material prizes, but it’s being judged by an author you love, or a respected publisher. Well, that’s cool.
Look at what’s being offered and ask if you’re getting value for your entry fee, if the prize is worth it, and if the people involved legitimise the competition.
Don’t let your ego be your guide.