Thursday 6 June 2013

Eyes on the Prize

Entering writing competitions can be good practice, good fun, and occasionally even good for the bank account.

There are quite a lot of free writing competition listings on the web. I've long been a subscriber to FirstWriter, where I found both of my publishers. 

They also run an extensive competitions list, which I'm going to use to illustrate my advice on entering competitions. I've seen people ask in writing forums, 'how do you pick which competitions to enter?' Well, here's my rationale.

Short of entering a competition because you adore the theme, it's best to consider the ratio: Effort v. Return. Especially the financial return.

Definitely Worth Entering

So, what makes this one so attractive? Four key points:

  • It's free to enter
  • There's a cash prize
  • The word length is comparatively short
  • You can enter online

Free to enter doesn't always mean good, as I'll go into further down. However, when there's a cash prize on offer and you can enter online, it's almost criminal not to. Yes, that's likely to increase the number of competitors, but that should push you to up your game and explore fresh ideas. It's a fairly narrow subject, which might put some people off, but it is open to both fiction and non-fiction, so mixed genre.

The effort required is moderate to low, the financial outlay is nothing, and the potential return is therefore pretty good. Perfect example of a competition I would enter.

Possibly Worth Entering

The second category of competition that is worth considering has some of the above features:

  • Sizable cash prize
  • Enter online

The above also has the advantage of:

  • National renown

But they are not free to enter. Entry prices may range from two or three pounds, up to twenty to thirty pounds. The first thing this does is cut out some of the competition. Many writers won't pay to enter a competition unless they know that what they're entering is good. So, less competition, but stiffer. These are generally competitions for more serious writers who are confident enough of their ability to bet on it.

The higher the entry fee, the higher the stakes should be. Look at the lowest runner-up prize and decide whether the entry fee is worth it, rather than the top prize. £1,000 return on £11 is very good, and £100 isn't bad, so the above one is worth entering. If it had been £25 for a £500 return or a £50 Amazon gift voucher as a runner-up prize, then possibly not. Especially if you need to produce 15,000 words of well-edited manuscript.

Generally, these competitions are worth entering if you happen to have a good short story or manuscript lying around in its pre-promotional state. This means before you start pushing it at agents and publishers, or self-publishing. Most competitions won't accept material once it's under consideration, so try to wring the most out of your work by entering it into competitions before putting it out there - provided you retain the rights. If it does win something, that should make it more attractive to agents and publishers.

Being able to enter online is always nice because it saves you time printing, and money posting. However, it is another factor that can increase the number of entries.

Probably Not Worth Entering

At first glance, this doesn't seem so bad:

  • Free to enter
  • Short word count
  • Publication

There are also competitions that are free to enter and offer publication of your book as a prize, rather than publication in an anthology or collaborative work. This was just the best example I could find on the system at the time.

It all boils down to the Effort/Return ratio again. You've got to write something fresh that fits their story (meaning you need to go and read their story) to have it voted on by readers, rather than literary judges, to be selected as one in a long line of submissions, to be published in a collection that few people who haven't already voted on are ever likely to read.

Doesn't do a lot for your own kudos, or your bank balance.

Something to do for the fun of it, perhaps, but not a smart selection for furthering your career in writing.

Many of these are also run by vanity press. Free competitions (especially poetry and short story collections) provide the publisher with enough donated material for an anthology. Free to enter, free to have your work published, but then you receive a letter trying to sell you the anthology for a 'knock down' offer of twenty quid, and a discount if you buy in bulk. They make money out of selling your work, and you have to pay to view it.

The other issue you face with competitions that offer to publish your book as their only prize, is that you have to be willing to accept their publishing terms. If you don't know the going rate on small press contracts, you could end up handing over a truly brilliant manuscript to a company who can't afford to promote you and offer you tuppence in royalties for your effort.

My advice would be to hold off using competitions as a way to publish your work, especially a manuscript, until you have exhausted every other method. Even consider self-publishing, which is likely to gain you a better financial return. The rare exception to this would be highly reputable publishing competitions, such as the Luke Bitmead Bursary.

Definitely Not Worth Entering 

Avoid these like the plague. 

Any competition that asks you to pay to enter, and offers only publishing, gift vouchers, or a non-cash prize that doesn't involve a trip to the Bahamas, is absolutely worth swerving.

Where does the money go, if not on the prize?

If it goes into publishing the winning book, then you have firstly paid towards publishing your own book (vanity press) and secondly, you've held yourself to ransom for whatever their publishing contract offers. Congratulations, you're published! But you have given up the publishing rights to your work, and probably for a very poor royalty rate. A reputable publisher is unlikely to run a competition on these terms.

Dubious in the extreme.

And these ones aren't even accepting your money on the basis of a manuscript - they only want to browse through a proposal. The shorter the sample the better, I'm sure. It's a complete reversal of what you should be looking for as a writer, because they are the ones gaining maximum return for minimum effort.

'Yes, but they welcome all genres!' - I'm sure they'll take money off anyone who is willing. Try writing it in crayon, they'll still cash your cheque.

Always weigh up the Effort/Return. There are a lot of examples of easy money schemes masquerading as publishing opportunities. Stay savvy.


Anyway, that's my little introduction to writing competitions.

There's also a useful guide at Winning Writers.

Keep your eye out for anything that's free to enter and offering a decent cash prize. Avoid, at all costs, the ones that ask you to pay to enter and offer... well, bugger all.

Have fun. Challenge yourself. Shout about your successes.

I leave you with a cautionary tale from writer Christopher Klein:

I enter [competitions], but I am highly selective. I do a full background check on the company first. This is because of such sites and companies as "" which are nothing but scams to sell massive books of everyone's work. I submitted: "I am a squirrel, where is my nut, I am a pork, where is my butt, I am just a bean named George and have no pants" and was told (by that it was insightful and will be published. I can buy the book that it is published in for 79.95 along with the professional works of about 3500 other "poets". For 29.95 more, I can put my 3 line BIO.

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