How to Avoid Writing Contest Scams

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How to Avoid Writing Contest SCAMS!

By Charity Becker

Writing contests can be a lot of fun and an excellent way to teach you to write with a deadline. They’re great exposure, a fantastic opportunity to network, and a good way to hone your craft. Unfortunately, they’re also a perfect way for unscrupulous companies to screw authors over. This is a rather long read, but it’s important to protect yourself. Take the time to read and understand what to look for and what to avoid with writing contests.

Research the Writing Contest

The first rule of selecting a good writing contest is to do your research. Learn the contest’s rules and guidelines, and especially read that fine print. Research the people in charge of the contest, too. Talk to people who have worked with the company (past or current authors, editor, artists, past winners or contestants). These are the people who will have first-hand knowledge of the company and the people involved. Talk to the winners and those who didn’t place to get a full view of the situation.

Be Sure You Understand the Lingo

The second rule for choosing a writing contest is to fully understand the language used on the site and in any advertisements. Don’t be fooled by confusing lingo or promises that seem too good to be true. ASK the contest head directly. Ask for clarity. If they balk at your questions, turn and walk away. Simple as that. If they seem unable or unwilling to give a simple, straight answer, WALK AWAY.

Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover

Third, never judge a company or contest by just one aspect. Be sure to look at the contest as a whole. If there is more than one red flag, seriously consider walking away, but research to be sure you have the whole story. One misunderstanding or miscommunication might derail your confidence in the company, but it’s often an innocent mistake. Give the organizers an opportunity to clarify. Ask questions! It might just be a poorly worded sentence or a mistake by the web designer, artist, or someone not even responsible for the contest.

Writing Contest Red Flags and Things to Avoid

Contest scams have shocking hidden terms. We’ll help decipher them!

You can learn a lot about a company by reading their contest guidelines. Some common red flags in contest guidelines are below. We’ll show you the language often used by shady scam artists and how to decipher their true meaning.

1. “Shady Publisher has first right of publication of entries and has the right to edit entries  as needed”

Asking for first rights is fine. However, they don’t say ‘first rights on winning entries’. As written, Shady Publisher STILL has first rights of publication if you didn’t win. Enter your story here and, even if you don’t win, you can’t shop around to see if any other publishers want your story; you can’t even publish it yourself without Shady Publisher’s permission. Remember—they have first rights.

The second red flag in this example is that they have the right to ‘edit entries as needed’. That doesn’t just mean missing punctuation or misspelled words; that sentence grants Shady Publisher the right to change anything in your story. They can change names, genders, events, locations, everything—without your permission. Minor editing is always necessary, but this vague statement leaves too much wiggle room!

Asking for exclusive publication rights is not bad—nearly all publishers do this. However, the statement above, coupled with the one below, makes this a very bad situation for authors.

2. “Rights revert to original author (5) five years after publication.”

Remember that first red flag about first rights? Shady Publisher has first rights to ALL entries, which means they can hold them as long as they like. IF they choose to publish your work at some point, you have to wait five years to own it again. You have signed your rights away. What if they don’t print your story in the contest book? What if they wait 6 years then decide to publish it? As written, you still have to wait 5 more years after publication to get your rights back. That’s 11 YEARS!

3. “Top entries will receive an award.”

Great, but WHAT are the awards? Is it money? A flight to an awards ceremony? A trophy, sculpture, certificate? Recognition on the website? A moldy piece of cheese wrapped in dried chicken snot? This ambiguous promise of ‘an award’ leaves a lot of room for interpretation. While contest organizers don’t always know the exact amount of award money they’ll have by the end of the contest and may not have had a full list of prizes when they first announced the contest, they should provide some idea.

4. “Enter one of 100 categories! Enter your story in multiple categories to improve your chances of winning.”

Be leery of contests with tons of categories. Lots of categories mean lots of people entering and handing over the entry fee. If there is no entry fee, and the rules are similar to what is written above, that means Shady Publisher is just collecting filler for future publications—remember red flag number 1: they have first rights to ALL entries!

As for the multi-category entry for one story, think about it. Your story hasn’t changed at all, so why should entering it in multiple categories help you win? Basically, every person is a ‘winner’ at that point. Enjoy your moldy cheese and chicken snot.

Ambiguity is Your Enemy

Just as a good writer would never fill a novel with ambiguous, confusing sentences, a good contest organizer would never fill their contract with that slop. Beware ambiguous statements and vague promises. Contests should clearly state who to send entries to, the length expected, what the entry fee is, what the prizes are, and what happens to your entries should you win OR lose. Who has the rights, you or the publisher? Who are the judges? How is the contest judged? Is there a ceremony? Everyone wants to know what the prizes are, so be sure they’re listed. If the prizes are based on the number of entries, it should say that.

What are some good writing contest prizes?

  • A publishing offer would be one of the ultimate AWESOME prizes. Getting one of these from a reputable publisher means you’ve actually made it. You impressed the big guys! Good job! Now go write some more so we can see you in print.
  • Professional feedback from an editor is an impressive prize. This is feedback you’d expect to pay hundreds for if you approached a professional editor outside the contest. Useful feedback should be at least a page long, but the really good stuff is 2 or more. It should cover what you did well and what you need to work on. Think of this feedback as a personal lesson from someone who knows how to get books sold.
  • Publication in an anthology, magazine, or other publication showcasing the winning entries. That’s pretty darn cool right there, but it shouldn’t be the ONLY prize. With that, you should be offered copies of the publication AT COST and some guidance on how and where to sell your copies for a little profit. It’s common for the winner (or top three winners) to get a free copy of the book, but runners-up and honorable mentions often buy their own. Just be sure it’s AT COST and not “a reduced rate”. There’s a big difference between the two phrases!
  • Recognition on various websites is nice, but it shouldn’t be the only prize.
  • Recognition at an awards ceremony is pretty darn cool. It’s stressful, scary, and sometimes makes you want to vomit, but it’s an experience you’ll never forget—in a good way! You created something special, got yourself published, and now you’re standing in front of hundreds, maybe thousands of people who now know who YOU are. Cool, yes, but this shouldn’t be the only prize.
  • A trophy, certificate, or other nifty take-home items to show off will give you major bragging rights. It shouldn’t be the only prize, but it’s a neat addition to whatever else you get.
  • Money is always nice, but keep in mind these contests cost a lot of money to run. For larger presses, expect a sizable monetary prize, for small presses, indie publishers, and hybrids, hope for a small bit of cash and a few of the things listed above. Do try to be understanding of the small press’ small wallet though! Small presses don’t have the kind of money to throw around that the big presses do, and non-profit publishers pretty much have NO money—that means they’re footing the entire bill on their own. To put it in perspective, it costs around $300 to publish a book—not including ordering copies to sell or give away, or the cost of running the contest, editing the stories, typesetting, and any artwork.

Some Final Points on Writing Contests

Wow, you’ve made it all the way through this beast of an article? Good for you! That means you actually give a crap about avoiding contest scams. We have a few more tips to help you protect yourself, though, so don’t leave yet.

  • Do not judge a contest solely on the size of the company running it. Judge the company on its track record. Have they done contests before? What is the quality of the resulting publication? Is this company associated with another reputable, honest company?
  • Do not judge a contest based on the entry fee, or lack of entry fee. Having NO entry fee isn’t always a good thing, and a big entry fee isn’t good either. The fee should be reasonable, $5, $10, maybe even $25. Some excellent companies have fees up to $50. That’s a bit steep for the average writer, but if the company is reputable, and they don’t have any other red flags, it’s probably safe.
  • How often does the company run a writing contest? Yearly? Quarterly? Monthly? If they run a lot of contests, it’s very likely a scam set up to snatch money from authors just looking for their big break.
  • Is there an awards ceremony? Most good contests will have one. Many choose to host the contest at a bigger event. However, just because a contest has an awards ceremony at a bigger event doesn’t mean it’s legit. Many event coordinators don’t know anything about the literary world—they wouldn’t know a writing scam if it took a dump on their face.

There are some other things that mark a contest as a scam, of course, but this list should give you a pretty good understanding of how the contest scams work and what to look for. If in doubt, ASK! Go send an email to the people in charge and ask them to explain the things you don’t quite understand. If you get a fishy feeling, walk away.

Charity Becker–Author of the best-selling Presence series

**Charity Becker is the author of our top-selling supernatural series “Presence” as well as several kids and family books. In addition to writing, Charity is a professional editor. She writes for video game companies both in the US and internationally. She loves chatting with her fans and meeting new people, so find Charity on Facebook!

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