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Criticism, Publishing, The Writer's Life

Making Writing Contests More Transparent

I received an email this week from a writer who had entered a contest conducted by my MFA’s alumni association. The Emerging Writers Getaway Contest was a little different from most writing contests in several respects, and the email writer thanked us for our efforts to communicate with all entrants, at every step of the way.

Since this was our first contest, and since there are hundreds of other, established events out there, we knew we had to find room for improvement so writers would enter. As a fledgling organization, though, we didn’t even have a cash stake to offer as a prize. Fortunately, our President, Kobbie Alamo (an excellent writer too, by the way), had a cabin in the Smoky Mountains she would offer for a week as first prize. We added some smaller cash awards, figuring the entries would cover them. And we were able to cajole Pulitzer Prize winning author Bill Dietrich to be final judge, and agent Andrea Hurst to look over the top three manuscripts.

But as writers ourselves, the contest committee members wanted more. We’d all entered contests ourselves, and experienced the same contest process, which goes something like this:

  1. Read boilerplate contest copy: The <name> contest for <genre> offers <money> and publication in <journal>. Judged by <judge>. Fee is <fee>. Optional: get subscription to <journal> with entry.
  2. Pay fee, get thank you email
  3. Hear nothing for 3-6 months
  4. Receive email saying you didn’t win, or receive no notification at all*
  5. Optional: receive copy of journal, but not always, even if they promised.

Essentially, it turns writing contests into a kind of literary lottery—you pay money, hear nothing and get nothing. We thought we could improve that process, and thanks to the technology behind Submittable, we did. Here’s our contest process:

  1. Announce contest. Our web page included photos of the cabin along with detailed rules.
  2. Pay fee, get thank you email that includes info on the rest of the judging process
  3. When semifinalists are chosen, get personalized email notifying semifinalists AND all others describing the process completed and the one to come
  4. Same process when finalists are chosen
  5. Ten finalists receive two detailed critiques each, prepared by judging panelists
  6. All finalists receive Final Judge Bill Dietrich’s comments, explaining his selections of the three winners.

Our first contest was a success, both in terms of entries and money for association programs, including my personal favorite, scholarships. Just as successful, in my opinion, were the responses as expressed in that email and several others we received during the contest. People—writers especially—love communication. They appreciate knowing what’s going on with their work and their money. They like knowing how their fees will be used.

I understand the thinking behind the lack of communication in contests (or the submission process): it’s a lot of work; we don’t have the time to do more; if we communicate too much info we will be inundated with responses from crazed, frustrated writers who will try to engage us in tedious email conversations. It’s not worth the trouble.

But I don’t fully appreciate that approach. Here’s what my committee members and I believe: Treat writers with respect, make the process as transparent as possible, and they will understand it, and the chance of unpleasant incidents goes way down. Although our next contest is months away, we are already at work trying to improve that process further.

* I was actually named a finalist in one contest in 2011, and they still didn’t bother to notify me. Guess who’ll never enter that one again.


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


30 thoughts on “Making Writing Contests More Transparent

  1. That is cool. Wish every competition communicated that well. I recently had a story I submitted for an anthology rejected, but the editors went to the unusual step of blogging about the total number of submissions, and the difficulty of selecting the stories they went with — after they had made all their selections.

    I appreciated that level of disclosure, but it was maddening to find out that the *vast* majority of subs they selected were from a) established authors, whom b) they had requested submissions from. I don’t remember off the top of my head, but I think only three of the stories were from non-pros. If I had known those odds at the beginning, I might have used my time for other writing projects.

    Posted by akhoffman | September 15, 2012, 1:26 PM
    • I had the same thing happen to me, Joe. Made the cut yet no reply. It turned me off to future contests in that publication as well. The best part is that you are giving critiques to ten finalists. I’ve never heard of that. Great idea. Here’s a contest worthy of an entry and a check. Hope other journal editors are listening out there. On a happy note, I have a piece coming out in VQR in October. Subscribe now. :-)

      Posted by Darrelyn Saloom | September 15, 2012, 1:52 PM
      • Congrats on VQR. That’s a great journal. Glad to hear writers like what we’re doing. I believe there’s a need for it.

        Posted by jpon | September 15, 2012, 2:21 PM
      • Congratulations on the VQR piece! One of my favorite journals, and one of the very best. I hope you’re celebrating.

        Posted by Teri | September 15, 2012, 8:31 PM
  2. Great point. Contests and general submissions would exhibit much more integrity if the editors behind them were up front about their policies–but of course they fear that writers like us would choose to look elsewhere for publication and drive down their numbers. Such clandestine incestuousness is the norm in literary journals. Yet those same journals continue to act as though they are fair to all writers and are doing nothing wrong.

    These practices need to be exposed. Sounds like another blog brewing…

    Posted by jpon | September 15, 2012, 1:41 PM
  3. Sounds like a great new system for doing things. One has to ask “Why didn’t anyone take the time and trouble to think from the writer’s point of view before?”

    Posted by shadowoperator | September 15, 2012, 1:57 PM
    • That’s the $64 question. I have my theories, which include too much work, coupled with an incredible sense of self importance. But can’t substantiate those, so I won’t list them here… oops.

      Posted by jpon | September 15, 2012, 2:25 PM
      • Yes, may our loads of extra work always keep us modest rather than the reverse! I think there’s a relationship between the two at a certain level of fame, i.e., “If I do all this extra work, and get the extra acclaim for it, I must be better than all the serfs who’re appealing to me for a modest leg up the ladder. Let me remind them of it by ignoring them a little better.” He-he! I hope you don’t object to the term “grass-roots” if I say that I think you and your cohorts are still kindly grass-roots enough not to take that attitude, and to return honest work in return for honest work. I really like the sound of your contest.

        Posted by shadowoperator | September 15, 2012, 7:38 PM
    • Your question could apply to many industries where the supply and demand are out of whack and the status quo is to oppress the customer (think healthcare, publishing). It takes innovators like Joe and his team to shake things up. If enough contests started using writer-friendly practices, the old school “incestuous”/secretive ones might start losing money and have to change their ways.

      Posted by akhoffman | September 15, 2012, 11:34 PM
      • Thanks for the props. I appreciate your compliment, but I suspect that as soon as I start believing I’m an innovator, I’ll stop being an innovator. This is all just common sense to me. It might even sound childish, but it comes down to treating others the way you’d like to be treated. Writers pay money, they deserve more than a rejection email (or no response at all).

        Posted by jpon | September 16, 2012, 11:50 AM
      • Then don’t think of yourself as an innovator. :)

        It’s funny to contrast this discussion about journal publishing with something I was reading about Jack Welch’s “Destroy Your Business” practices at GE (wherein a team of employees would try to figure out the best way for a competitor to destroy one of GE’s business lines, then innovate to prevent or co-opt such tactics). Some Welch’s ideas are reprehensible, but this one seemed like it could be useful. But with the aforementioned supply/demand imbalance, I doubt that many literary journals are worrying about how their direct competitors could destroy them.

        If they can get more paid submissions than they need while sticking with the status quo, why change?

        Serving the customer may sound like common sense, but until this discussion I had not discarded the mistaken impression that readers are part of the customer base for literary journals. Sounds more like writers are the primary customers (since they make more money off contests than subscriptions). Which puts literary journals in a similar state as poetry.

        Posted by akhoffman | September 16, 2012, 1:59 PM
      • I think you’ve nailed it. Most journals haven’t realized their customers are not just their readers, but their submitters. I will certainly keep that in mind as I help plan this year’s contest, as well as some other publishing ventures I am considering. Thanks so much for your comments.

        Posted by jpon | September 16, 2012, 2:04 PM
      • *Some of Welch’s

        Posted by akhoffman | September 16, 2012, 2:00 PM
  4. What a great idea this is. And what a joy, this kind of communication. We spend so much time by ourselves doing the work, and we usually have the same beta readers — how great to be acknowledged that you’re “out there” and get a little feedback.

    Posted by Teri | September 15, 2012, 8:43 PM
    • Thanks for the congrats, Teri. I agree with you that acknowledgement and feedback would be a boon for writers.

      Posted by Darrelyn Saloom | September 16, 2012, 12:00 AM
  5. Why do writers feel the need to compete against one another in such a manner? That’s an interesting question…

    Posted by darkeyesblueveil | September 16, 2012, 12:09 AM
    • It is an interesting question. And I think the answer is that they don’t feel that way. It’s the struggling journal and book publishers who have superimposed that belief on the writing community. They don’t appeal to the general population, cling to outdated publishing models and do little to expand the love of literature beyond the narrow world of literati. The result then, is that the only way they can survive is to put their financial burden on the backs of writers–the group perhaps least able to support the industry. A huge percentage of journals and book pubs now run contests. As BRE for LAR, I regularly visit book publisher web sites, and have noticed some pubs that run 2, 3 or more contests per year. One runs a contest every month. Some journals and publishers now just run contests and have abandoned regular submissions.

      I would venture to say most writers enter contests not to beat other writers, but to get noticed. A first place or finalist award looks great on a CV and may get an agent’s interest, more so than regular publishing credits.

      At the risk of sounding like a politician, the publishing industry is broken. The root cause, I believe, is the dominance of electronic media, coupled with the abysmal state of education in the US. So it’s not completely the publishing world’s fault. But they obviously don’t know how to fix the situation.

      Posted by jpon | September 16, 2012, 12:12 PM
      • On electronic media: The bright side of this issue is that people today consume more narrative than ever before in human history. The “problem” (for literary types) is that most of that narrative takes the form of TV, movies, video games, even adverts. Live theater and radio aren’t what they used to be, either.

        It seems that the primary challenge for writers, after writing the most compelling stories they can, is to attract the notice of tastemakers to said stories — people who can expand the mark for one’s work. These could be agents and editors, reviewers, or media figures who buy options for adaptation.

        After following this market for awhile, I am becoming convinced that it’s big enough for most stories (that aren’t entirely incomprehensible) to find a following (even if it’s tiny). The difficulty is getting a story in front of the people who will “click” with it.

        Posted by akhoffman | September 16, 2012, 2:08 PM
      • *expand the market for one’s work.

        [damn, need to spend a little more time proofing my “deep thoughts” before posting. :| love your insights on the industry.]

        Posted by akhoffman | September 16, 2012, 2:10 PM
  6. Thank you Joe. I agree completely. I’ve gotten so cynical about contests that I rarely enter, and I think that the status quo discourages people from even trying. Contest reform would go along way to making people feel better, feel more like participating, and — who knows — might even reward greater numbers of deserving writers!

    Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | September 16, 2012, 5:25 AM
    • And here’s something else I thought of while responding to these insightful comments–is there any way to insure the integrity of the contests? How can entrants be certain that contest procedures are conducted fairly, and that contest committees aren’t pushing through work by writers they know? A couple of comments above told of calls for submissions that ultimately turned out to be unfair, rejecting most writers while secretly soliciting “name” authors to submit. Maybe contests should be audited by third parties. It’s something I will look into for our alumni association contest.

      Posted by jpon | September 16, 2012, 12:19 PM
  7. sorry, i mean “a long way.” too much birthday cake. :-)

    Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | September 16, 2012, 5:26 AM
  8. I just came back to read through the comment chain, which got me trying to think from the magazine’s point of view. The journal I used to work on held their annual contest for one reason: to cover the cost of publishing the magazine. If not for that annual contest, there could be no print journal. I remember how worried we were that we might not have enough contest entries, plus the $1,000 for the winner. It worked out in the end — it always did — but it was a constant point of concern.

    It was interesting that , as we started to read through the contest submissions, we noted that they were no better, no worse, than the 800+ general fiction submissions we’d been making our way through. As you mentioned above, Joe, it was merely the people who could or would pay the fee. And there were general submissions that we WISHED had entered the contest because they were better than all of the contest entries.

    We had a team of 8 fiction readers on staff. Out of the 800+, we knew we could choose 6 or 8 stories, depending on length. I still remember how hard it was to say “no” to some stories. And of course we also needed to have room for the top 3 in the contest. Our process was that we tried to choose stories of differing styles and subject-matter. The more “different” and surprising the story, the better it would fare. And if it was funny, my gosh we about came out of our chairs, they were so different than most. And the fact is that, no matter how well-written or beautifully complex the stories might be, you can only publish so many mom-had-cancer or my-marriage-broke-up or boy-came-of-age stories without having a themed issue. I still remember our favorite pieces were about (1) an aging cowboy and his horse, (2) a Christmas piece about father’s love for Hank Williams, and (3) an elderly man and woman who travel to Thailand as life-long friends and come home married.

    Anyway … sorry to have gone off on this tangent. But your post and these comments got me to thinking back on how things worked and how damned tough it is to get a story published.

    Posted by Teri | September 16, 2012, 1:18 PM
    • I certainly understand the thinking behind most contests (and I didn’t mind the tangents at all). And I certainly empathize with wanting to ensure that a group’s passion for literature reaches fruition. We are essentially doing the same thing at our alumni assoc, by holding a contest to raise money for writing scholarships.

      But in the case of contests held to raise money for publication, I think a sobering, real-world, (and I hate to say it) business-oriented view must be added to the mix. If journals aren’t raising enough money from subscriptions and other sales, what justifies them to stay in publication? Addressing their financial shortcomings by taxing their contributors, to me, is clearly looking at the wrong issue, which of course is readership. It is a short-term fix that I believe will ultimately fail because writers cannot and will not continue to support it. This is bad from every aspect, because it means many journals will stop printing issues or go out of operation altogether, and there will be fewer outlets for writers, and fewer reasons for readers to care about good writing.

      As AK Hoffman pointed out in a very astute comment above, most journals fail to realize that their customers are not just readers, but the writers they demand payment from. And if they don’t deliver something back to those writers, their “customers” will go elsewhere, just like in business. Believe me, I will keep that at the forefront of my planning efforts for this year’s contest.

      Posted by jpon | September 16, 2012, 2:21 PM
      • Absolutely right, Joe. Journals should be supported by readers, and not the writers submitting to them. What a twisted business model this is.

        That said, unless it’s a well-known journal, there tend to be few subscribers, and even fewer who subscribe for more than one year.

        Posted by Teri | September 16, 2012, 2:34 PM
      • I certainly understand why journals lean on writers to pay the bills. And I know that to try to expand lit journals’ reach to the general public is an impossible dream. But some publications, including my LAR, are trying to combine good literature with more interactive or in-person experiences. It will be interesting to see how well it works.

        Posted by jpon | September 17, 2012, 1:42 AM
      • While we’re being business-oriented, I kept thinking about this in comparison to other periodical publications.

        Most commercial magazines make more from advertising than subscriptions. They use interesting content to build their subscriber list, then leverage that list to charge top dollar to advertisers. This model may not be practical for literary journals for a number of reasons (one of which being that advertising compromises your beautiful layout). [But you can’t even go to the opera without getting hit with adverts in the program these days.]

        I do wonder if short fiction periodicals could sell more advertising to the burgeoning ranks of self-published authors, who are clamoring for attention, and may find it easier to pay for a $*%(*#ing ad than to win a contest or have their submission accepted. I’ve noticed a lot of these ads popping up on goodreads, some from publishers, some from self-pubbers. (It seems a better place to market one’s book than on facebook.)

        Of course advertising also raises the specter of the long-standing art vs. media arguments.

        Academic journals charge exorbitant amounts for subscription, as well pay-per-read access fees to online archives. But they have a captive audience, because academics need to stay up on the latest research (unlike writers[?]). The $1,000+ subscription fees are paid by institutions, not individuals. I don’t foresee this happening with the literary journal market.

        Neither of these models address the competition from substitute forms of narrative — the electronic media mentioned above. I get the impression that there’s a vibrant community of would-be indie filmmakers. Could there be a way to connect them with stories from an aspiring “generation” of writers? What about game designers? Could we borrow some ideas from the hip hop playbook to do some cross promotion? (Not just product placement, although I guess that happens, too….) Just kind of thinking onscreen here.

        Posted by akhoffman | September 16, 2012, 3:31 PM
      • Along the lines of cross promotion, some of the more progressive journals (including LAR) are becoming somewhat diversified, offering online extras like interviews, podcasts, and other content, as well as live events. Those journals realize that just printing stories and poetry two or four times a year is not going to keep them in business. Where will it all end up? Perhaps literary journals that are on CDs or downloaded from the cloud, that include visual art and music to accompany authors reading their work. Of course some of us still prefer to relax in private with a good story, and hopefully that option will be included.

        Posted by jpon | September 17, 2012, 1:55 AM

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