Writing Competitions to Avoid: How to Spot Scams and Rip Offs

insidecomic016Writing Competitions to Avoid

Every year hundreds of writing competitions appear, but many of them are just not worth entering. There are many scams, luring writers into giving away credit card details and personal information, as well as others that may be legitimate, but are hardly worth entering. Some of the competitions offer terrible prizes, such as weekend breaks that you have to pay for extras, to ones where the odds of winning are miniscule, like winning a lottery.

Here are some categories to avoid:

Huge entry fee, but tiny prize.

The worst I’ve seen one offered $100 as the prize – but costing $25 to enter. That means they only need four entries to recoup the cost, while only paying out a tiny amount of the money brought in. You’d be better off gambling red or black on a roulette wheel. The ratio of prize to entry fee has to be better than that. Anything less than $1000 seems a little stingy to me. Avoid.

Huge entry fee, with promise of publication in an anthology/royalties.

This is the equivalent of the writer paying to submit a story for publication. That’s an absolute no-no for me. Writer’s don’t pay for publication. Ever. Avoid.

Flash fiction competitions with high fees.

Paying $10 for someone to read a 100-word flash story is ridiculous. Flash fiction is so easy to write in a short time that such a competition will probably receive thousands of entries. At least a short story competition with a higher word count requires some effort. Avoid.

Competitions with onerous terms and conditions.

Watch out for competitions asking for anything unusual, like your copyright, in exchange for submission. Avoid.

Restricting entries to a specific group.

Shouldn’t everyone be allowed to enter a competition? I’d like to think so. Limiting the type of person entering a competition seems unnecessary and mean-spirited. Avoid.

Competitions where the organisers are anonymous.

If you can’t find out who is running something, it is highly suspicious. Competitions should be run by people with some experience in the publishing business, with a good reputation. Avoid.

A great prize for first place – but poor ones for everyone else.

I once won a prize for being shortlisted that didn’t cover the cost of entry. I also lost the opportunity to have another market buy the first-publication rights because my story appeared in the prize-winning anthology, which was amateurishly produced. It felt like a pyrrhic victory. I would have been better off losing. Avoid.

Totally useless prizes.

I don’t want to win a plastic trophy, an award nobody has heard of, a day at a spa in Chernobyl, or a hike in a Siberian forest. Cash, please. Avoid.

First prize – a leading publisher will read your novel.

So, you pay to enter a slush pile? Avoid.

First prize – a famous writer will critique your work.

So, you pay to have someone read it? Avoid.

Competitions with a no theme or vague guidelines.

I hate “open” competitions. What do they want? You could write anything, but unless the judges like it, you’re wasting your time. You’d have to know what the judges like before entering. Very hard to figure out what will win. Avoid.

Competitions with frankly suspiciously good prizes.

Would you like to win a house, a plane, a sports car or a superyacht? Of course you would – but I’ve never heard of anyone winning one. Just a lottery in disguise with a higher than normal entry fee. Avoid.

Competitions with no website – just an email address.

I need to know more than that. The organisers names should be on a website – with a real world address, too. No social media presence before the competition? Suspicious. Avoid.

Competitions where winners are expected to buy the anthology to take part.

Vanity publishing under a different name. Winners should be given a physical copy for free. Avoid.

Free competitions where you give away your publishing rights.

These usually have something like “All entries permit the organisers to publish any submissions” in the terms and conditions. This is a way of getting material from writers without having to pay for it. The anthologies released are usually rubbish – because they’ve accepted every story submitted for the shortlist. They often ask “winners” to buy the anthology and promote it on their websites. It’s easy to fall for this trick. Don’t buy copies for your friends and family to impress them. These anthologies are just unedited drivel. Avoid.

And now for what would enter …

It might seem like I’m completely against entering all competitions, but I’m not. Really! I’m just wary of scams and badly designed ones. Most writers can’t afford to waste money on pointless competitions – so I think we should all be very careful before parting with our cash.

Luckily, there are plenty of competitions set up for good reasons, with good prizes and genuine judges actually interested in receiving great stories. The trouble is finding them among the dross.

I will enter competitions that have been running without complaints for a number of years. If the winners of a competition have gone on to have successful writing careers, then I’ll recognise it as worth entering.  

Free competitions sponsored by real companies and people are also great if they have a solid reputation, but I’ll always be careful to keep my personal information out of the hands of scammers and spammers.

Paying for entry is fraught with dangers. To pay for entry, PayPal is safer than money orders and direct bank transfers.

I’d generally avoid any writing competition with no search history. If a competition has been running for several years, they should have a record of previous winners and their stories on a website or in a library book where you can check them out. New ones must have serious backing from people in the publishing business before I will trust them. They are usually advertised in newspapers and in the Writers’ and Artists’ Handbook.

Personally, I’d never enter a competition with a high entry fee. My limit is only $5. It staggering how high fees have become in a few years. Ten years ago a $5 entry fee was considered high, but now some have $50 entry fees or more. That’s not inflation. That’s robbery. It’s money I can spend on something else, like a new book by one of my favourite authors.

I’d like to see all writing competitions adhere to some basic rules:

All of judges must be named and real people.

All of the prizes must be clearly stated.

All of the terms and conditions in plain English.

Fees must be appropriate, not excessive.

No exclusions based on gender, race etc.

The competition must have a contact address.

If I’m satisfied that a competition is fair and worthwhile, I might give it a go.

I always look forward to sending off my submissions to good competitions, because winning them means something.

I just hope I’m not competing with you!

Author: John Moralee

John Moralee writes crime, horror and science fiction.

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