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.):
- 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.
- 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.
- A judging time line and when entrants may expect to hear the results.
- 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).
- 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).
- 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.
- What happens if the final judge recognizes a writer's work. Will that manuscript be automatically eliminated, or will it be business as usual?
- 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).
- 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.
- 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, Poets.net 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.)