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The Devil in Literary Contests Editorial Opinion

William H. Coles

Writers desperate for recognition need to face the reality of contests as an increasingly common source of income for magazine publishers. For an active writer, yearly costs to submit work to contests – rapidly becoming the main way for new writers to get published – can mount to hundreds of dollars. No writer knows the value of this expense:  there is a disturbing lack of transparent disclosure of contest motives that seem more profit oriented than a means to attract good authors. The contests have an aura of lotteries, and writers are forced to gamble with buried, fixed odds. There is no reliable way to determine the chances of winning or getting published. This will discourage writers, and threaten prose as an important, but beleaguered, resource of great fictional stories.


Profit is making more than you spend:  it has become the goal of the many of the literary magazines, who for years have been in decay and close to extinction. One can argue that, with all the traditional altruistic motives for literary publishing, creative ways to meet an operating budget are not offensive. But profit motive at the expense of starving artists is not fair by any rationalization, and it is offensive to make as much profit as the market will provide. Publishers must not attempt to replace dwindling income opportunities from subscriber fees and donors’ gifts with fees demanded of struggling writers trying to be recognized.

Chances of acceptance

Every writer submitting work needs to know:  what criteria must be met to be a winner, who will judge submissions, how many readers will review submissions, and what tastes and biases influence the reader's decision to exclude a manuscript. If a reader for a contest believes second-person POV sucks, then it is wrong to allow anyone who has written a story in second-person to submit and pay a fee.

It is also reasonable to ask how many new/established author publication slots are available and how many contests and standard submissions compete for these slots. These are examples of numerous factors that affect the chances of publication. Why won’t publishers reveal, in detail, how a contest is judged? Economically, nondisclosure promotes more submissions – more writers have no criteria to self-select and will submit, believing their writing is competitive. For more profit, publishers imagine new contests with focused topics – your family, writers under thirty, stories under five hundred words, stories about environmental issues – or war. Do these contests support the publication of great fiction in America? Not often, if at all!

Politics and nepotism

In publication, there is always the threat of editors choosing to publish the work of someone who will do something for them later, or whom they have taught, or who is their friend – or even family. This is impossible to prove and hard to detect. Not illegal. Not unjust. But in fee-based contests, if it occurs, it seems more than irritating.

Subscription required

For years, rumor suggests that magazines, especially small magazines, preferentially consider contest submissions from subscribers over manuscripts submitted by nonsubscribers. (This is almost always denied by publishers.) If this is in anyway true, even in the subconscious, it is another way to unfairly reject a fee-required “contest” submission.

Some contests give a limited subscription as “justification” for “reading fee.” Yet this is simply a demand that the writer buy, obliquely obscured by inserting contest fees and rewards, the magazine as a requirement to submit. This is devilish in its inappropriate demands, and simply is another way to increase revenues and inflate subscription statistics.

Quality of evaluation

Honest first readers admit they look for a reason to reject. It is certainly not true of most readers, but more than a few have admitted they know by page three whether they will reject or not. Sometimes rejection has nothing to do with story evaluation. Words misspelled, wrong font, a picture submitted, margins too small, etc. may trigger a throw out. These are justifications to stop reading (and save time). Is it right to have contestants submit $15.00 or more for a few-page evaluation that gets rejected for reasons unrelated to story value?

There is a new trend. Along with your reading fee for a contest, submit an additional sum (more than the reading fee itself, in one case) and you can have an evaluation of your manuscript as part of your rejection. Really. This is not a contest; it a fee-for-service workshop that gives a prize. It again reflects the pitiful state of publishers of literary fiction, and reveals the shifting of the financial burden of publishing from subscribers and advertisers to the writers seeking publication. It may not be illegal, it may not be avoidable, but it is not right.

Avoidance of truth

Most publishers now plead a fee-for-contest submission is justified, if not inadequate, to cover their traditional work of gathering writing for their magazines. Many publishers of literary fiction routinely claim more than 10,000 submissions a year, representing $150,000-$250,000 of contest revenue. In truth, a contest is a reading fee for a submission. Prize monies are never equal to the fees required, and always represent profit for the publisher. To continue to promote more contests diminishes the nobility of literary publishers.

Some online publishers claim charity, tax-free status, and may request donations for operating funds. However, they have multiple income sources that reflect for-profit business models – submission fees for contests, fees for most over-the-transom submissions, and fees for reading Internet content. Online sites that advertise free access to their “publications” may have irritating fees to access some, if not the majority, of content on the site. It is deceptive and wrong to claim free publication when only fragments of content are truly free, both to readers and writers who submit.


It is hard for writers – especially new, unpublished writers – to succumb to these increasingly costly schemes created by publishers. It is demeaning in ways, and forces an immediate feeling of worthlessness on the individual who submits. There is no clear way to protest for, or successfully demand, change, but there should be no admiration for these editors and publishers who seem to almost gleefully scam (and skim) those who can’t afford it, the very ones who need support for publication the most.

In reality, fewer publishing opportunities are available in today’s print and developing online environment, especially for new writers. Publishers struggling to survive have diminished the previously free submission process by promoting costly contests. This is unfair and brings an element of sleaze to the heretofore noble profession of publishing. But even more distressing, this behavior will eventually squash the probability that fictional story as an art form will survive.

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2 Responses to “The Devil in Literary Contests”

  1. Antonia Sarmiento Says:

    Its just sometimes people seem to get themselves tied up in unnecessary knots over something that?s very simple.

  2. William Coles Says:

    Simple? Only because it is probably a fait accompli. But the changing relationship between publishers and authors is complex and contributes to the demise of the story told with enjoyable literary fictional techniques and talents. WHC

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