Ideal Contest/Reading Fee Guidelines (A Work in Progress)

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As a public service, I am slowly building a Literary Contest/Reading Fee Guidelines document; I'm doing this because paying entrants ought to be well-informed about what a contest or reading fee offers, in terms of entry costs, transparency, fairness, and awards.

The first place to start: Foetry's archive, where you'll find accounts of literary magazine contest misbehavior and cronyism. If these accounts don't cause you to run in the other direction, then look at publisher guidelines themselves. If something about the guidelines isn't clear, then you should e-mail the people in charge of the contest. If they don't answer via e-mail, move on. If you are considering plunking down $20-$30 to enter a contest, you should not have to jump through the SASE hoop just for clear information. If enough people ask questions, perhaps contest organizers will offer better, fairer, and clearer guidelines.

If the answers are less than satisfactory, that in itself offers important information, and you might consider moving on.

In my opinion, fee-based literary contests should offer the following information (along with the usual deadlines, dollar amount of prizes, proper size of envelope, manuscript formatting, etc.):

  1. Name of judges, including their institution affiliations (current and past) and credentials or a link to the judges' websites with this information. Don't accept the argument that judges will be unduly harassed if their identities are known to contest entrants. This is why emails have delete buttons. Within the contest guidelines, it should be clear to entrants that if they initiate contact with the judges, they will be immediately eliminated from the contest and will not receive a refund of their fees.

  2. Explanation of the screening process; for example, how many of the manuscripts do the "big name" judges actually read? Many entrants enter contests because of a certain judge, but if the judge only reads 5% of the manuscripts, then you will have probably wasted your money. Your manuscript is likely to be screened by graduate students, faculty, and staff.

  3. A judging time line and when entrants may expect to hear the results.

  4. How the contest is funded (e.g., is the contest fee- or grant- driven, either private or government). Fee-driven contests can be dicey, especially if the number of entrants doesn't meet the magazine's financial expectations (see Zoo Press and more Zoo Press).

  5. If a university or college contest, whether students, faculty, and/or staff from the sponsoring institution are eligible (if they are, you might want to consider looking elsewhere because, no matter what anyone tells you, insiders almost always have an edge over outsiders).

  6. Whether or not manuscripts will be considered anonymously. You would do well to avoid publishers who pretend not to be running a writing contest--these publishers often refer to contest fee as "reading fees"--and do NOT read submissions anonymously. You should avoid contests and "reading fee" publishers that don't remove your identification before sending your manuscript off to screeners and the final judge. Note: most publishers do not charge "reading fees," and one should be wary of editors/publishers who charge to read your manuscript. Find an editor who will read and consider your work for free.

  7. What happens if the final judge recognizes a writer's work. Will that manuscript be automatically eliminated, or will it be business as usual?

  8. Will manuscripts that have not been specifically entered into the contest also be considered for awards in this particular contest? If, so, run like the wind (See a Chronicle of Higher Education article (May 20, 2005) on Jorie Graham and Peter Sacks).

  9. If, for your contest fee, you will receive something tangible in return, such as a book or subscription. Beware of intangible services, such as Tupelo's 2006 promise to comment on every poetry manuscript submitted to the contest. I recommend that you avoid contests that don't offer something tangible in return for the reading fee.

  10. If the selection of winners will be guaranteed. Only freebie contests should have the "We reserve the right not to award prizes" disclaimer. Otherwise, if judges cannot select a winner, the organizers ought to return contest fees to the entrants.

If I have forgotten something, let me know.

Until literary contests begin policing themselves, it will be up to YOU to do your research, and when you see less than stellar guidelines, hang onto your checkbook, AND let us know about slippery guidelines (along with a link). We WILL take them to task.

Best to all,


(Disclaimer: a version of this post originally appeared on Post Foetry on May 31, 2007. These guidelines are a work in progress; it is hoped that AWP, Poets & Writers, The Academy of American Poets, and CLMP will embrace tougher reading and contest fee standards and suspend member organizations that violate them. Meanwhile, will keep chipping away at po-biz "business as usual." If nothing else,we can do our part to educate potential contest entrants so that they can make informed decisions about literary contests before sending money.

As always, your views are welcome.)


  1. This is eye-opening.


  2. Here is a classic 'Foetry' case outlined in the "Chronicle of Higher Education' (which you'll find if you click on 'Jorie Graham and Peter Sacks')

    From the Chronicle of Higher Education:

    "Here's an example: In 2002 Brenda Hillman selected a manuscript by Aaron McCollough for the Sawtooth Poetry Prize. As part of that honor, Mr. McCollough's manuscript was published by Ahsahta Press at Boise State University.

    Foetry alleges that Ms. Hillman and Mr. McCollough knew each other and that she "helped him revise" his manuscript before the contest. Because of that connection, the argument goes, the contest was tainted.

    But while Mr. McCollough and Ms. Hillman acknowledge that they had met once before the contest, the meeting lasted "for about five minutes," according to Ms. Hillman, who has taught poetry at a number of colleges and is a professor and poet in residence at Saint Mary's College of California.

    Mr. McCollough, now a graduate student in English at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, calls Foetry's allegations "a bunch of crap." He says he was one of a dozen or so students who participated in a weekend seminar conducted by Ms. Hillman at the University of Iowa about two years before the contest. She did not, he insists, help him revise his manuscript at that time, although she did give him some suggestions after he won. Ms. Hillman backs up his account.

    Mr. Cordle won't reveal his source for this information, but he stands by it."

    Get a load of this.

    Here's the winner of a poetry contest AND the judge of that contest BOTH ADMITTING

    1) they participated in a creative writing seminar together


    1a) students--in this case, the WINNER of the contest--attempt to improve their poetry, guided by

    2a) creative writing teachers in poetry--in this case, the JUDGE of the contest which this student WON


    2) the WINNER of the contest calls this information "a bunch of crap."

    Is the information "a bunch of crap?" Or, not?

    If you were entering this contest, would you want your poems to go up against someone else's who was TAUGHT BY THE JUDGE in a seminar and, through this seminar, was an acquaintance of the judge?

    And wouldn't someone attempting to earn their living through teaching seminars be a little bit motivated to 'help out' their 'students?' Wouldn't that be natural?

    Of course it would.

    So, what do you think? What is really a "bunch of crap?"

    Those 'caught' are going to be angry and hurt, of course.

    But where lies the real "bunch of crap?"

    And, if we say, look, the poetry world is small; it's inevitable that judges of contests and those who submit to those same contests will have crossed paths...

    ...But then IF the poetry world is so small that contests inevitably consist of unknowing submitters paying submission fees and competing against others who have inevitably 'crossed paths' with the judges--teachers who quite naturally want to repay their students in some way--shouldn't something be done about it?

    Should we say this knowledge is nothing but "crap?"

    Or, is it informative, and should we wonder a little a bit about the ones who claim, in this case, that it's a "bunch of crap?"


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