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How to Tell if a Poetry Contest Is Legit or a Scam

Author and creative writing tutor, Beth loves helping her students improve their technique.

Anyone can be a victim of a fraudulent or scam contest.

Anyone can be a victim of a fraudulent or scam contest.

Poetry Scams: Don't Pay to See Your Work in Print

There's no hard and fast way to tell if a contest is fake. Some writing competition organizers are very clever at promoting their lie. Make sure you fully understand a competition’s terms and conditions before entering it. Here are some common warning flags that a contest is a scam.

  1. You lose ownership of your work by entering. Some contests steal all future publishing rights from you even if you do not win.
  2. There's no prize apart from a free copy of a “special” anthology. Being published in this way will not give you prestige in the eyes of genuine publishers.
  3. The competition judges are anonymous. The winners could be chosen at random. Genuine contests will name their judges.
  4. You are pressurized to buy multiple copies of the anthology containing your published “prize-winning” poem. These books are a form of vanity publishing.

How to Find Genuine Literary Contests

New poetry contests and writing competitions may be advertised in traditional ways or via social media. Before parting with any money, read the tips given in this article on how to spot a scam, and check them out using a reliable source like The Big Book of Small Presses and Independent Publishers. This book lists small publishers that run poetry competitions, and also offers helpful advice on how to find a genuine market for your poems.

Winning a Poetry Competition Is Easier Than You Think

One of the most common scams is a poetry competition where the fee is either zero or just a couple of dollars. The prize may not be huge (say US$100) but if it has free (or almost free) entry, so why not enter? You have nothing to lose (or so you think), so you send in your entry and wait with bated breath until the result is announced.

Exciting news! Although you've not won the US$100 prize, your poem is good enough to be included in an anthology of the best entries. The price of this quality volume is just US$20 and if you buy multiple copies (for your friends and family to share in your success) there's a 10% discount. The bad news is that everyone who enters the competition is told their poem is included in the anthology. You're not so exceptional after all. Most people are gullible enough to fork out for at least one copy of the book. The real winner of the competition is the con-artiste who organized the fake contest.

How to Win a Scam Poetry Contest

To prove my point about these being fake contests I entered a pretend poem in one of them. Sure enough, my effort was selected for publication in the anthology. I took a paragraph from The Highway Code, a booklet studied by every UK learner driver. I copied the section word-for-word, but broke the prose into uneven lines so it looked like a poem. Here it is.

"Rule 117"

The safest way to brake
is to do so early
and lightly.

Brake more firmly
as you begin
to stop.

Ease the pressure off
just before the
vehicle comes to rest

to avoid
a jerky

Having a poem published is a dream come true for many poets.

Having a poem published is a dream come true for many poets.

Bogus Contests: When Winners Are Losers

I entered the fake poetry contest with my eyes wide open. I had guessed my poem would be a “winning entry” and included in the “special anthology” and so I was able to resist buying a copy. My wallet stayed firmly shut, but most entrants are not so strong-willed.

Your poem may be a winner, but you are the loser. The only real winner in these competitions is the promoter. If they sell each copy of the anthology for $30, with maybe half that sum as profit, sales of just 100 will result in them earning a nice profit of $1,500. These conmen use flattery to get you to hand over your money. After all, we all want to be a winner and brag about our talent to our friends. So you eagerly lap up the praise and buy the anthology.

I am not a lawyer, and the opinions expressed here are my own. They do not replace qualified legal advice. If you require clarification on the law you should consult an attorney. In my view, these fake contests are just about on the right side of legality, but they are on the wrong side of being ethical. Like any good hustle, these scams rely on people’s naïveté and their hunger for success. When the con is exposed people are too embarrassed to admit their gullibility. Their dreams have been crushed and they feel stupid at having been duped. The wily promoters can just sit back and wait for their next mark.

Is the Prize Worth Winning?

Before you start writing your potentially prize-winning poem, consider this. Why do you want to enter a writing competition? Is the prize really something you want to win? I want either a monetary prize or else the opportunity to gain public recognition of my work. The only exception to this is that I sometimes support a charity’s writing contest because my entry fee is the equivalent to donating to their cause.

If you're interested in a cash prize, is there anything in the small print that limits the payout? Hidden in the small print there may be a clause that says ,prizes are only awarded if x thousand entries are received (where x is a large number). This indicates the contest is more about making a profit for the organizers than to recognize genuine talent.

How about your desire to be recognized as a writing genius? If this is your goal you need to review the judging panel. Are there well-known authors, poets and celebrities in the team? Are they writers you recognize and want to emulate? It's easy to check out their professional standing by doing a search on the internet. Some writing competitions don't name their judges. Be suspicious. Maybe there are no famous names on the list. Instead the judge may be an inexperienced intern who has been told to sort through the slush-pile of entries. Win that kind of contest and you could damage instead of enhance your writing reputation.

Poetry Contest Scams and Fraud

I wanted to post a list of poetry and writing competitions that are a con. However, I have no wish to be sued for libel, so I suggest you do an online search for terms such as vanity publishers and fake poetry contests. N.B. Vanity in this context means that you pay for the privilege of seeing your work in print. This type of contest is a scam in my view. The Mumsnet website frequently has discussions about fake writing contests in schools. Do some research online and talk to other writers before getting your kids hopes up. Make sure a competition is legit before allowing them to enter their poems. If you are in the US, Better Business Bureau (BBB) have details of companies involved in scam competitions. However, the list may not be completely up-to-date, so do your own research too before deciding to enter any literary contest.

How to Avoid Vanity Presses and Author Cons

Why Aren't There More Free-to-Enter Poetry Competitions?

There are very few genuine free entry competitions, because they take a lot of effort to run. Free-to-enter contests are either run by local groups just for the love of it, or they are run by scammers who get money later by selling you the anthology of the entries. A well-run writing competition needs publicity to attract lots of entries. The right judges may require a fee for their time. Then there are the overheads such as phone and internet costs. And the prize money, of course. All of these are reasons why almost all good poetry writing contests decide to charge an upfront entry fee.

"The typical goal of a bad literary contest is to extract money from authors rather than honor excellence. Other questionable contests seem to be an attempt to hoover up a large amount of content on the cheap. Bad contests typically show several of these warning signs. When in doubt, check with your local poetry society."

Warning Signs of a Bad Literary Contest on Winning Writers website.

Is the Frontier Poetry Contest a Scam?

Frontier Poetry is an American online publisher than focuses on new and emerging poets. It holds regular poetry competitions and accepts unsolicited submissions too. However, for both of these there is an entry or reading fee. So, is it a scam? If your work has never been published anywhere at all, you can submit your poem free to the New Voices category. However, if you'd like feedback on your submission, Frontier Poetry charges an upfront reading fee of US $59. This is more than you would receive in payment if your poem was good enough to be accepted for publication ($50.)

Is SweetyCat Press a Vanity Publisher?

SweetyCat Press began as a Facebook group for writers. A supportive community of authors was formed, and the group's founder set up the SweetyCatPress website as a result. He asks for submissions for anthologies of new poetry by beginner and emerging poets. Should you enter your poems, or is this just another vanity publisher? Using the guidelines given earlier in this article, it meets some, but not all the criteria for scam contests.

On the plus side, you retain copyright of your work, and you are not asked for an entry fee. On the minus side, there is no prize, and if you want to see your work in print you must buy a copy from Amazon.

The profits from the anthologies pay for the running of the website, which is not a charity. In addition, if your work is any good, a reputable publisher will want first rights. By allowing your work to be published in a SweetyCat Press anthology you no longer have these; first rights mean the first time your work is published anywhere.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.