It's that season again. The time of the year when writers and wannabee writers start receiving invitations in the mail or online to submit stories and poems to contests. I was reminded of this today when a kind writer named Laura wrote a post to a group I belong to, warning newbie writers away from a potential scam.
Scam contests can look legitimate and take several different forms including (1) Entry fee contests and (2) Free contests. Of course, legitimate contests can also request a fee or be free, but I'll talk about those in a minute.
In the scams that request an entry fee, the writer generally does not hear from the contest again until the following year when the new contest begins. The entry fee was all that the scam artists were looking for.
The no-entry or free scam contests are the ones that really hurt my heart. Time and time again, I've seen newbie writers excitedly post to a writers' loop or walk into a critique group clutching a letter advising her/him that s/he won a contest. Invariably, the sponsor of the contest sends a contract together with a bill for an author's special copy of the book-to-be-published. The excited contest winner mails a check and eventually receives a poorly edited, badly bound, cheap-looking book in return. A book that will never be marketed or sold anywhere--except to the authors of the stories and poems contained within its covers. In this scam, the sponsors make their profit off the purchase price of the book.
Please understand that I am not anti-contest. I entered several myself last year. Legitimate contests can provide feedback and opportunities to get your work in front of agents and editors. However, it is imperative that you know who is behind any contest before entering. There are dozens of legitimate contests around the country. Every genre has their own: Mystery Writers of America, RWA, Sci-Fi Reader.com. In addition, universities and foundations sponsor writer contests every year.
How to tell the scams from the legitimate contests: check the name online. You can check the "publisher" on Preditors and Editors. Unfortunately, P&E is less helpful when it comes to contests. They do not recommend ANY contest that charges fees.
Ask on the writers' loops or in the critique groups to which you belong. I guarantee someone will be able to recognize the names of the legitimate contests.
Legitimate contests don't need to take out huge ads. Writers flock to enter every year. Writers' loops provide information on deadlines and rules. If the contest contacts you directly and you have never entered it before, beware. Again, legitimate contests don't need to go looking for entrants.
Just avoid any contest that promises hundreds of thousands of dollars on principle. It is almost always a scam of some kind. Remember the old adage that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably isn't real. Even contests that *appear* to be sponsored by a legitimate source are suspect if they are promising huge monetary prizes. Feel free to e-mail me if you have a question. If I recognize the contest, I'll be happy to tell you what I know.
DO enter the legitimate contests. They can be good learning experiences in preparing a submission. Look for the ones that provide a written feedback form. The minimum you should get for your entry fee is a critique. Make sure that the prize is worth the entry fee. In some cases, the prize is a conference fee or an opportunity to have your submission read by an editor or agent. For heaven's sake, don't enter a contest just to get a certificate saying that you won. You want some value for your dollar.
Good luck and have fun.