The Contest Conundrum

The world of submissions is pretty disorienting at first.

The information revolution has a lot to do with it. Back in the day, you wrote a story or a poem, shoved it in a manila envelope (with a Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope, AKA SASE), sent it off to the literary magazine of your choice, and waited for a yes or no.

Now there are electronic submissions (email and submission client-based), as well as the old-fashioned paper submissions. There are new journals being started every day because anyone can buy a domain name and set up shop. It’s hard to know what’s what in this brave new world of writing — and that’s without thinking about contests.

It’s common, especially among university-housed lit mags, to host contests with entrance fees ranging generally from $10-$25. The fees go to fund the prize purse and administrative costs and, in my experience, generally help keep the magazine running in what’s honestly a pretty bleak market. It’s not a new practice and it can bring prestige and attention to emerging writers. On the other hand, the ubiquity of literary magazines and contests begs the questions: is it worth it? And how much is too much?

Say, for example, you pay $20 for a contest with a $1000 prize. If you win — awesome. You get $980 in returns. If you lose, you’re out $20. And you’re a short fiction writer or a poet, so unless your day job makes bank, money is probably tight. For some folks, even the opportunity to be considered for the prize money is sufficient motivation.  For others, the fact that the magazine is asking for money to consider your work is straight-up sleazy.

Personally, I’m in the middle here. I think it can be well worth it to submit to contests, if you have the funds to do soEspecially when, regardless of the outcome, the fee also pays for a one-year subscription. In general, lit mags aren’t trying to rip you off (although it always pays to do your research). And it’s often their one opportunity to pay writers with, you know, actual currency.

But I do think it’s important to set a writing budget. First, decide how much money you have to devote to your writing habit. Are you submitting to a mail-only journal (i.e. not electronic submissions)? Set aside money for postage and printing costs. How many literary magazines do you subscribe to? (I hope more than three.) Include that cost, too. Going to a conference or workshop this year? Add that in. Once you’ve figured out (1) how much you have to spend and (2) how much you’re already spending, the difference should be what you spend on contest fees.

Things to consider when choosing contests: do you know the magazine well? (If not, get some back issues.) If you’re already a subscriber, can you get a renewal from the entry fee? Do you have a story or set of poems that fits their guidelines? How much is the fee compared to contests with similar prize monies and reputations? How much of your contest budget will the fee use? E.g., if your annual contest budget is $100 and an entry fee is $30, that’s a third of your budget. Is it worth it?

It helps, too, not to think about odds or, really, the money at all after you’ve decided to submit. All you can do for any submission is send in your best (edited! revised!) work. And keep in mind, not every entry is a contender. As an editor, I read for a contest. Yes, we got hundreds of submissions. But many were clearly first drafts, with grammatical and structural issues. Out of our hundreds, we had about 50 solid submissions, which we whittled down to a top 20. If you’ve put the work in, you’ve got a shot at that top 20. And 1:20 odds aren’t so bad.

Moreover, even being a finalist can be a nice note in your bio.

Do you submit to contests? Ever won? What are your feelings on entry fees?

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