June 3, 2014

New models for writing contest fees


Your entry fee. Image via Shutterstock.

Your entry fee, via Shutterstock.

Many writers, particularly those emerging or previously unpublished, have to play into the contest system. Fortunately or unfortunately, these contests often require writers to pay up. Last week, The Billfold’s Ester Bloom noticed a writing contest with “a twist on the pay-to-play structure”: Gigantic’s first-ever contest, called the “Penny-a-Word Flash Fiction Contest.” The terms, Gigantic explains, are as follows:

. . . we will be accepting submissions of one to 1,000 words with a submission fee of one penny per word (title included). For example, if the story is sixty-five words long (including the title), you pay sixty-five cents. If the story is 403 words, you pay $4.03.

The contest, which accepts stories up to 1,000 words, could cost $10 at most. (The least, thanks to PayPal’s terms, is 10 cents, so this may not be the place to economize on that four-word short short you’ve been saving.) The winner, though, receives $100, as well as past print issues.

Other magazines and foundations offer ways to enter contests without paying too much of a price. Ploughshares, for example, offered a one-year subscription with its $24 Emerging Writer’s Contest fee (or, for those already subscribed, free submission). For its recent women’s nonfiction contest, Vela required no entry fee, though it did suggest one:

There is no entry fee. We understand that times are tough and we want all women writers, regardless of financial circumstances, to be able to submit. We do suggest a donation of $10 to help cover the costs of running Vela and the contest.

Clearly, contest fees have their place in the writing world. These competitions are often put on by small literary outfits, some of whose employees (or, rather, volunteers) are not paid. The fees can cover the costs the contest itself incurs, as well as other incidentals that come with running a literary magazine or press. There is also the simple fact that, as Bloom pointed out in her Billfold post, contest fees “serve to keep the contest from getting inundated with inappropriate entries.” After all, if you’re paying $15 to enter your poem or story, you will most likely spend more time considering its relevance to the contest than you would if there were no entry fee.

In her post, Bloom also linked to GalleyCat’s coverage of a Reddit discussion on writing contests. The main concern for writers, according to the Redditors quoted, is whether or not the contest is “legit.” That is, if your money is going to paying a well-known judge, or also buying you a subscription, or resulting in generous prizes for the winning writer or writers, or giving you the possibility of publication in a well-regarded space, the contest may well be worth entering. There is no clear answer, though; it all depends on your willingness to ask yourself, as Bloom puts it, that too-familiar question:

. . . how much is too much to pay for the privilege of most likely getting a form letter rejection by email in two months? (I wonder this all the time.)


Emma Aylor is a former Melville House intern.