On Pay-to-Submit Contests, Journals, and Anthologies

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I recently had a conversation with a friend who had been passed over for a job — leading a creative writing workshop — because she “hadn’t won enough contests.” Eventually, the decision was reversed and my friend, who is a very fine writer and charismatic teacher, got her chance to make a few bucks and gain some experience. But her story — i.e., the fact that she’d been judged on her success rate in the world of writing competitions — made me bristle.

I believe a great many writing competitions stand on very shaky ethical ground. When run by journals, most include a contest submission fee. By paying the submission fee, a writer gets a “free” subscription to the journal for a year. Obviously, what we have here is a veiled subscription drive.

Some time ago, I received a call for submissions that included a stipulation that a minimum “donation” (read: “fee”) had to accompany texts. IF enough money were raised, submissions MIGHT be published in an upcoming anthology (that the prospective writers themselves were funding). But if the writers were bad donors and didn’t give enough money to pay their own way to possible publication, they would be punished: no anthology.

Is it just me, or is there something wrong with this scenario?

Increasingly we hear about writers not being paid for their work. There are boycotts and open letters exposing the exploitative practices of big online publications. It’s bad enough not to be paid for the work you publish, but to pay for the privilege of MAYBE being published? Isn’t that even worse?

I will admit to publishing work for which I’ve been paid peanuts or nothing at all. I do this because I’m building a profile and because I want homes and a life for my work. I also believe in the idea of creating literary community and conversation. I won’t, however, pay for the possibility of publication. In other words, I won’t pay to submit a piece or publish a piece.

We’ve long been warned off agents who require fees to read our work. Shouldn’t the same principle apply for submissions to journals, anthologies, and perhaps even contests?

Tell me what you think. What do you make of fees to submit?

[Photo: rowan72]

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8 thoughts on “On Pay-to-Submit Contests, Journals, and Anthologies

  1. I think the reason that I also bristle at the *fee* is that you don’t get any feedback in return. If I pay $25 to have my work considered for publication and it is refused, perhaps the editor could send a few words to let me know why it was refused and how I could improve it?

    I feel as if the $25 disappears into the ether and that’s frustrates me, because as fellow writers and editors, they should recognize the value of what we’re submitting.

  2. I think we become so desperate to get published sometimes that we lower our self-respect. Some contests have an entry fee, which I find acceptable when the price is not half of what there is to win, but I would never pay to be published in an anthology. Most of these are scams.

  3. I say: Bravo, Julija.

    And then I think of how hard it is today to be a publisher of a magazine (never mind books). And I think if I don’t support their efforts at publishing, where will I be able to submit my work? So I am ambiguous about entry fees. I think of it this way. No publisher is living high off the hog. I give to organizations in my community why not support my writing community?

    That said, what I do find unacceptable is judging a writer’s ability by how many competitions they have won. I have been a a second or third round reader for TWUC competitions and found it damn hard at times to narrow the field in the top five.

    There are so many good writers who will never win a contest, and some may be very good teachers (although good teachers are not always good writers). Let us have some perspective about what is important.

  4. Yup, Gina, I completely understand and concur. Even while being critical of the fees charged to enter contests, I do recognize the need for writers’ organizations, journals, and so on to raise their profiles and boost submission numbers, not only subscription levels (contests are a way to do that). There’s also the fact that these contests hire judges and often pay them quite reasonably from entry fees. So, I’m conflicted about these sorts of contests, and think that writers need to draw their own lines in the sand: we each need to decide what we will take part in and what we won’t. I, for one, have taken part in very few contests (in part, because I never, ever win, and it feels like throwing away money; whereas I manage to find good homes for my texts outside the contest route). My line is drawn at paying for publication. For me that’s an absolute no.

  5. Adriana, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. I too have felt the frustration of throwing good money after bad. In my brief career as a participant in these events, I never won any prizes, nor did I get any feedback. It was bad for my wallet and for my self-esteem, so I stopped. Funnily enough, after having sworn off contests for several years, I was asked to judge a couple, and that gave me some insight.

    Now, having been on the other end, one thing I can attest to is the somewhat random quality of these competitions — in part because of the often mind-boggling numbers of submissions, but also because of major differences in terms of what different judges value. Yes, feedback would be great, but (as you know) it doesn’t happen in this revenue-generating process. There’s far too much to read. Frankly, much of it is terrible. And often submissions tend to resemble one another. It’s a weirdly cruel way to assess writing because it’s hard to see a text for what it is when it’s jostling for your attention.

    That said, I think that, as long as writers understand the process and go in to it with a kind of healthy gambler’s mentality (i.e., you probably won’t see those 25 bucks again) and in the spirit of fun, there’s no harm done. The contest will boost the careers of a couple writers, a few judges will get paid, a journal or media outlet will get some publications and publicity out of the process. The problem happens when a) writers are judged adversely on their lack of contest prowess & b) writers feel coerced into paying to submit their work, as in the anthology scenario described above.

    It also becomes a problem when starry-eyed writers start entering contests willy-nilly, and shell out huge sums of entrance fees, believing that a win would be their ticket somewhere. The fact is that good writing, persistence, and a solid publishing record is the only real ticket there is to be had (and the one sure-fire way to get valuable feedback), and there’s no shortcut to attaining it, at least not that I’ve found.

    Finally, one of the most important lessons I’ve learned over my short career is that rejection doesn’t necessarily mean that a book or essay is bad. Often an essay is rejected because it hasn’t found the right venue for publication or hasn’t landed in the hands of the right editor (on the right day). This is where persistence comes in. Writers often need to rewrite and resubmit their work many times before it sees the light of day. And if you have to pay 25 bucks each time you do this, you’ll be bankrupt in no time! Not to mention beaten down and disillusioned.

  6. I couldn’t agree more with all the points you’ve covered in your post and comments. Entering literary contests always feels like buying lottery tickets. I don’t enter many and haven’t won any (dare I say…yet?) Sometimes I don’t mind the veiled subscription drive, because it can be a good opportunity for a writer to get a close look at what a specific lit mag likes to publish, with an eye towards sending them something too. I think I saw that same anthology call you mention, or one very like it. I had the same reaction. Pay a fee to *maybe* get published? I don’t think so. But the biggest issue here, hands down, is the passing over of someone for a job because she “hadn’t won enough contests.” So glad to hear that this absurd decision was reversed. I wonder if the person in charge of hiring would have taken into consideration that not all literary contests are a good measure of writing abilities. But that’s another topic.

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