Writing Contests and Fees

I recently tweeted this: “PSA/Pro tip: Do not submit to writing contests that charge entry fees. No ifs, ands, or buts.”

Many folks agreed; others wanted to argue a bit. Let us remember here that I am speaking as someone representative of professional writers, and that I have some experience with selling short stories as well as editing and publishing them.

One thing that guides my thinking is this: There is a thing in science fiction circles known as Yog’s Law, which is that the money always flows towards the writer. (If you are self-publishing, that flow may get circuitous, but generally you should not be putting money into increasing the profits unless you are getting the lion’s share of them.)

Here are the arguments that have come my way, and my opinion on them. Some are reasonable; others seem less so for me.

Sometimes what you get in return for the fee is a good value. This is an argument I have some sympathy for, because I know getting professional critiques and acknowledgement is sometimes instructive and usually pleasant. I’ve submitted to a contest because the prize involved personal interaction with the judge and I figured it was pretty much the same as buying a raffle ticket for it. But such contests are the exception rather the norm. No matter what, think about the fee and weigh it carefully, as well as whether or not you are guaranteed to get it. I’ve seen some fees ranging a hundred dollars and up and that starts getting pretty iffy. If you’re paying that much for the same sort of brief editorial feedback you might see when submitting stories, why not just submit them?

Sometimes the fee supports a charity or writers organization. Again, some reason behind this argument, but it would be more efficient to give them the money directly. I have been working with a nonprofit for close to five years now, though, so I understand the fundraising woes. This is, though, an inefficient way of raising funds that depends on a great deal of volunteer time and energy and the ROI is iffy, depending on the skill of the people running things. Perhaps the organization might look into membership fees, pledge drives, bake sales, crowdfunding, or other alternate means of funding.

Charging a fee is a way for a magazine to support itself. There are other, better ways to make money than to monetize the writers, and it’s also a bit cynical not to believe in your product to the point where you think the main audience is the people who want to publish in its pages.

Charging a fee means better submissions. Great reason for editors and magazines; meaningless to writers and in fact, means people that self-reject will be even more likely to do so. It also ensures economically disadvantaged people don’t get to participate. The price of a latte for one person may be the next person’s daily food budget.

A fee contest is how a small press finds new manuscripts to publish. No. Plenty of small presses do not do this.

There are reputable contests out there charging fees. Sure! But if you have a story that you think is publishable, send it out to a magazine. Going the route of writing and submitting stories is a more efficient process of moving upward as a writer than submitting to contests.

Contests get the writerly juices flowing and encourage people to write. If that works for you, swell. Some people can only write in a particular kind of notebook; others only in a coffeeshop with a triple macchiato. Be aware not everyone can afford it, and that you’re tacitly encouraging the system, and then base your decision on how cool or not you are with that. Mileage will vary, but I personally like to know the basics of whichever route I’m taking.

Overall, my feeling is that a magazine that charges fees for contests views the people submitting stories as a source of income, not as partners in the publishing venture. Beyond that — and more importantly, to my mind — a publishing model that publishes only the people that can afford to submit means only the economically privileged can participate and therefore discourages economic diversity – which, in this intersectional world, affects some groups more than others.

That said, there are definitely some contests out there that are well-meaning while others are downright predatory. If you’ve got a question about one, you should check the Writer Beware website and contact them if you don’t see information about it there.

And if you find a contest that doesn’t charge a fee? Still read the rules carefully. A contest should not automatically give the runner publishing rights to the entries, for example, but many ask for that in the fine print. Got a question about a contract? The SFWA Contracts Committee may be able to assist.

Wondering how to get started sending stories out? Here’s a brief video with the basics:

Given that I sell classes to writers myself, is coming after contests capitalizing on people’s dreams of being writers a bit hypocritical of me? Mmm, maybe. I try to counteract things by offering a lot of free scholarships and providing what I think is pretty good value for my students, and I try to steer them away from scams and exorbitant prices.

Want more advice like this? Check out these resources for F&SF writers or sign up for my newsletter.

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About Cat

Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches by the shores of an eagle-haunted lake in the Pacific Northwest. Her 200+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov's, Clarkesworld Magazine, and the magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Her story, "Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain," from her collection Near + Far (Hydra House Books), was a 2012 Nebula nominee. Her editorship of Fantasy Magazine earned her a World Fantasy Award nomination in 2012. She is the current President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). She is currently working on Exiles of Tabat, the third book of the Tabat Quartet. A new story collection, Neither Here Nor There, appears from Hydra House this fall.
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