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This Way Be Dragons: How to Evaluate a Publishing Contest


Contests can be a great way for authors to get professional critiques, or get published, but contests also offer scammers and vanity presses a chance to take advantage of unwary writers.

So … beware!

Before you enter a writing-related contest, consider the following:

Always read the fine print.

In this case, that means the contest terms – no matter how long (and boring) they are. In most cases, entering a contest means you agree to the terms as written – whether you actually read them or not – and those terms are a legally binding contract. Read the terms, and do not enter if you see anything that you consider unacceptable or inappropriate.

Beware of copyright grabs.

Unscrupulous contests try to take ownership of entrants’ copyrights via copyright grabs (or “assignments of rights”) in the entry terms. Don’t enter contests that require you to assign your copyright to the contest sponsors (even for a limited term). The copyright should always remain yours and yours alone.

“Winning” should not cost you money.

Some contests require “winners” to purchase something—most commonly, copies of an anthology or the winner’s published book. Generally, this is a sign of a scam, or at least a contest designed to take advantage of author-entrants. Winning should never, ever cost you money.

If the prize is a contract, ask to see it . . .

…Or at least make sure that the terms are reasonably negotiable. Don’t agree to contracts sight-unseen, in a contest or otherwise.

Consider entry fees carefully.

Contests should not be money-making endeavors for the organizers, though sponsors do have a right to cover costs. Slightly higher fees are reasonable when the contest includes a personalized critique, a copy of an anthology composed of winning entries, or something of similar value. Consider whether or not you feel the contest is worth the price of entry.

Evaluate the contest sponsor.

While not an absolute indicator of contest quality, the sponsor’s identity is an important factor. Contests sponsored by reputable publishing houses or professional writing organizations are often (but not always) more reliable than those by sponsors without significant publishing experience.

Look out for “perpetual online publishing.”

Sometimes, the contest rules allow the sponsor to publish the winners’ works (and sometimes, all of the entries) online, either temporarily or on a permanent basis. Once a work is published online, its marketability drops significantly—sometimes completely—especially if the work can remain on the sponsor’s website forever.

(Note: most contests do involve publication of work in one way or another – review the contest terms carefully, and use good judgment about the rights you license and the way you grant them.)

When in doubt, get a second opinion.

If you don’t understand a contest’s terms, or if anything about the entry process seems unusual, get a second opinion from a lawyer, a literary agent, or an experienced publishing professional before you enter. After you submit your entry, it may be too late to change the consent you’ve given.

Investigating contests before you enter can help avoid a host of problems and regrets. Although it’s always exciting to win—or even to have a chance at winning—something in the publishing world, it’s better to lose a reputable contest, or to walk away without entering, than to “win” at the cost of your wallet or your rights.

Have lessons to share from your own adventures–and misadventures–in publishing contests? The floor is yours.

About Susan Spann [2]

Susan Spann [3] writes the Hiro Hattori Novels (Shinobi Mysteries) featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo, who solve mysteries set in medieval Japan. Her first novel, Claws of the Cat [4]: A Shinobi Mystery (Minotaur, 2013) was a Library Journal mystery debut of the month and a finalist for the Silver Falchion Award for Best First Novel. Her fourth Hiro Hattori novel, The Ninja’s Daughter [5], releases August 2, 2016 from Seventh Street Books. Susan is the 2015 Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ Writer of the Year, and also a transactional attorney whose practice focuses on business and publishing law. She founded and curates the Twitter hashtag #PubLaw (for Writers), where she answers questions and provides information about publishing business and legal issues. When not writing or representing clients, Susan enjoys traditional archery, reading fiction and nonfiction, and raising seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium. She lives outside Sacramento, California, but you can find her online at http://www.SusanSpann.com [3], on Twitter (@SusanSpann [6]), or on Facebook/SusanSpannBooks [7].