Pay to Enter a Writing Contest?


There are some sneaky things going on in the writing world that you might not find sneaky. But I do. And I’m calling it out.

Writing contests. Mostly the kinds where you send in unpublished works.

It seems everyone and their mother, literally their mother, has some sort of reader’s or writer’s choice award. All you have to do is pay a small fee, say $19 to enter your manuscript or book into the contest. WHY ARE YOU PAYING MONEY TO ENTER A WRITING CONTEST? At least at the state fair you get a free fair pass in exchange for your peach pie entry fee. If it’s for charity, of course, yes yes pony up. But otherwise NO. As in NO.

What do you win? Let’s dissect a bit.

It might be bragging rights that you won a writing contest. That’s OK. It doesn’t have to be a trip to Sweden to accept the award.


Maybe it’s simple a ribbon or actual award/plaque. Fine. Still not a reason to cough up dough. Don’t tell me they are charging you to cover the cost of the actual award. Oh please.

Why would you pay money to say someone liked your unpublished story? Will it help you move forward, professionally, in some way? Really? Don’t fork over cash just to have your ego massaged. Volunteer somewhere if you feel the need for that kind of ego boost. Or I can tell you: You are a good person. You have value. Your writing is great. I think you’ll amount to something someday. Really. I believe in you. Please don’t waste your money.

Ask yourself these questions:

Are the judges experienced/qualified? Are they instantly recognizable in your field, someone you can quote in a cover letter as saying they awarded your manuscript first place, giving your manuscript instant credence?

For unpublished writers/illustrators: Are the judges available to you after the contest to bounce ideas off of, such as to ask where they suggest you go from there? Will they tell you if they think you are agent ready, if you should pursue a publishing house, and if so, which ones they think would be a good fit?

Will any sort of critique be offered in exchange for the entry fee?

Is there any reason for the entry fee, other than profit making? (I understand judges will work hard on the contest, but it’s not your job to pay them for something they agreed to do before you ever got involved.)

If the answer is no to any and especially to all of the above, really think through writing that check or hitting send on that PayPal payment.

Let’s say the prize is inclusion in a published book, or a published book. OK, the fee goes towards publishing costs. Let’s think that through a little bit too.

Will the winning piece(s) be edited? Please tell me yes. Even if the other works were from well know authors/illustrators, they should still have at least one level of edits. Personally, I wouldn’t have much pride in my work being included in a bunch of unedited entries from who knows where. Otherwise it’s like a sixth grade English project. I mean no disrespect to the other authors/illustrators at all. But to be professional, we all need a little help to be our best. A collection of works, even if published, doesn’t mean it’s professional. If it has your name on it, you want to be proud of it.

Who edits it? What is their experience? What kind of edits are they making, copy edits or formatting edits?

Who will publish the books? Where will books be sold? What is retail purchase price? How many copies are the “winners” bound to purchase? [Please note the “bound” pun. Ah, fun.]  What will the cover art look like, who format the final version, will winners get a chance to review before print, etc etc?

There are so many questions to ask!!

Sometimes smaller publishing houses charge a fee to keep entries to a minimum, so they aren’t overwhelmed with entries. Only those that are serious will apply. I get that. Why not make stricter submission rules, and those not following the right format, etc are disqualified? That way, those that do their homework (like you!) pass the first round, and those that blanket the world with any contest they see are immediately tossed in the circular file.

I think self published authors/illustrators and those from smaller presses are most “at risk” here, because they think they have the most to gain by entering contests. But PLEASE my friends, think it through. Make sure the end results will justify the upfront cost. Just because it’s under twenty bucks doesn’t make it right.

This is from a continued rant I’ve already made, where someone will contact you out of the blue about one of your books they’ve seen on your website. “You’ll have a good chance of winning,” the email will say, since they’ve seen your book and it has such promise. You should enter your books into their esteemed contest!  Then, once you’ve won the award, since you’re a shoo-in, you’ll have the grand opportunity of paying them about $250+ for the right to place their sticker on all your books and in all your marketing materials… So basically, you have financed your own award. A friend of mine “won” one of the supposed “awards” and had a link to the company website…where there were no less that SEVEN typos on their fancy announcement page. It made the award look bad, the company that created the award look bad; but it made the author look even worse. To me, useless awards pull down the writing industry as a whole. And we all deserve better.

Are we that desperate for recognition?


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I’d love to hear your thoughts!

4 thoughts on “Pay to Enter a Writing Contest?

  1. This is an insidious problem in the kid’s app world. I get emails inviting me to enter my book app for an award that cost upwards of … wait for it… $300! Yup! If I win, I get the privelege of displaying their badge on my website and listing it in the App Store. Totally bogus and a waste of money. Yes, financing your own award at a pretty steep price.

    Just say NO! Thanks for the reminder, Bitsy.

  2. Would love to know your thoughts on this, I’ve always heard that Writer’s Digest is a worthwhile publication. I’ve been to one of the NY conferences and participated in pitch sessions there. They have some main line agents and editors there. But, they charge for participating in their annual writing contests. What do you think?

    • Great question! WD is a reputable publication, with a very solid set of “payouts” for their winners– totalling over $8,000 in cash plus other stuff. Their website says the Grand Prize winner, for example, gets their name on the cover of their magazine, $5K in cash, an interview in their mag, one on one attention from four editors or agents, a paid trip to their Conference, a subscription to tutorials, and a 30-minute Platform Strategy Consultation. Take a look at the questions that I say to ask before writing a check. What’s funny is I hadn’t seen WD’s contest page before listing what to look for in benefits; and they fit the bill to a tee! So, yeah, I’d say that’s a good investment!!

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