Looking to the Literary World

Writers and Publishers: A Two-Sided Look at the World of Contests

By Kathy M. Bates

Writers love to showcase their work, and contests, just like regular journal submissions, are another way to potentially get their work seen with maybe a few perks to the winners. So, what the writer wants, publishers and third-parties are ready to provide. Writers are hungry to be noticed, and literary magazines and journals carry the weight of maintaining reader and writer engagement, often relying on contests and continued interest to keep their publications in business.

But what’s really in it for each side?

Whether it be a seasoned writing professional or an up-and-coming writer, in the world of contests, one thing we know for sure is that competition is fierce! We all know the possible benefits for writers. Many contests offer cash prizes, big-named judges, editorial commentary, and most importantly to many—publication. 

Some of the pitfalls, however, include stiff competition and potentially large entrance fees. The number of contest entrants may range in the hundreds, even thousands, with only one or two lucky few rising to the top. Then, after paying the big bucks, contest submissions come with an added worry that the work may or may not be given the attention the writer feels it deserves. There is no sure-fire way to predict who will read it or how they will respond to it. The mystery is part of the excitement or the anxiety.

So, what about the industry side of contests? 

It might surprise many writers to know that on average, hosts are losing money with each contest they hold. Between the cost of advertisements, submission readers, payouts, and other related expenses, many contest hosts are barely making ends meet. But with that being said, they still rely on contests to provide a level of reader and writer engagement and loyalty and open new avenues for readership. Often, if a writer enters a contest for a literary magazine, they are also a reader of that journal and want to continue to read and support their efforts.

Even though it is costing both sides money, contests are still in the spotlight and don’t seem to be going away any time soon. Each year Poets & Writers devotes an entire issue to contests and a special section in each monthly classifieds section. Likewise, Writer’s Digest features regular articles on the subject and hosts annual contests in multiple genres to keep writers writing and submitting. Both of these journals offer similar information on their websites for easy access and up-to-date information.

Maybe submitting to contests motivates writers to keep producing the work and seeing where that work can take them. Maybe it’s about the deadline or the curiosity of comparing their work amongst peers. Maybe it’s about the win or a line on their CV. Whether it’s personal or professional, each writer (publisher) has their own needs when it comes to submitting contests. So what’s some advice?

Publishers: Make sure you are putting forth the effort to maintain ethical standards of contest operations. Don’t be shady. Make sure contest intentions and rules are clear and no confusion over such issues will impede either side from having a trustworthy contest experience. If you make a promise, keep it.

Writers: Make sure your work is the best it can be. Do your research and find reputable contests. Follow all the contest guidelines, don’t give them a reason to say no for formatting or other silly reasons. When you’re ready, hit that submit button!

For more about contest awareness, please see Writer Beware and Funds For Writers.

Kathy M. Bates studies multigenre creative writing at the University of Central Arkansas’s MFA Workshop. Her work has appeared in NECESSARY FICTION, ARKANA, and elsewhere. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @hellokmbates or her website.


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