Are Poetry Competitions a Scam? (Don't Pay to See Your Work in Print)
Avoid Fake Writing Contests
Millions of people write stories and poems. Their work is read by friends and family, but some hope to gain a wider audience and make money in the process. They say the one thing holding them back from a successful writing career is the difficulty of getting published. If only they could win a writing competition, their work would be snapped up by a publishing house.
These wannabe professional authors convince themselves winning a competition would be the answer to their prayers. But would it? Enter stage left a motley crew of possibly legal, but morally dubious fake poetry and fiction writing competitions to lure gullible writers.
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 baited breath until the result is announced.
Exciting news! Although you have not won the US$100 prize, your poem has been judged 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 is a 10% discount.
The bad news is that everyone who enters the competition will be told their poem has been accepted for the anthology. Your talent is 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-artistes who organized the fake contest.
My Experimental Poem
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.
The safest way to brake
is to do so early
Brake more firmly
as you begin
Ease the pressure off
just before the
vehicle comes to rest
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. At US$20 a copy, even if only half of that is profit, sales of just 100 poetry anthologies will result in a net profit of at least US$1,000.
This type of competition misleads hopeful writers into believing that their work has been "chosen" on the basis of merit - when, in fact, no such selection has taken place.
… because of the poor quality of most of the poems, anthology credits are not respected by publishing professionals.— Writing-world.com
Are These Contests Legal?
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.
How to Tell if a Writing Competition is Genuine
There are no hard and fast ways to tell if a contest is fake. Some competition organizers are very clever at promoting their lie. Make sure you read and fully understand a competition’s terms and conditions before entering. Some of the more common indicators that the contest is a scam are given below.
1. You lose ownership of your work by entering. Some contests claim all future publishing rights even if your entry is not a winner.
2. There is no prize other than a free copy of a “special” anthology. Being published in an unrecognized book 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. It could cost you less to self-publish your own.
Entering writing contests is a waste of time. Even if you win, will a New York publisher sit up and take notice? Doubtful ... (You) should spend the entry fees on something more important, like, say, Snickers bars.— New York Times best-selling author and ghostwriter, Michael Levin
Contests and Writing Services to Avoid
I wanted to post a list of competitions that are a con. However, I have no wish to be sued for libel, so I am limiting my comments to general advice on where you can find further information.
The website Winning Writers has a list of vanity publishers who also run writing competitions.
Mums Net frequently has discussions about fake writing contests in schools. Ensure a poetry competition is legit before allowing your kids to enter their poems.
Better Business Bureau (BBB) have details of companies involved in scam competitions.
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 do not forget the prize monies. All of these are reasons why almost all good poetry writing contests charge an entry fee.