Poet or cash cow – why do writing competitions charge fees but not tell entrants the results?

2

November 18, 2015 by Tracey S. Rosenberg

Writing competitions are a well-established way for struggling journals and publishers to raise money. I expect the profit margins are often very small, since you have to pay out the prize money, and possibly pay the head judge as well. I’m certainly not condemning anyone for using this as a funding mechanism. (I haven’t dared to tot up the amount I’ve spent in entry fees versus the amount I’ve actually won, but let’s just say that considering it as a donation to the writing community is probably the healthiest approach I can take.)

What I find awful is when competitions take your money and cannot even be bothered to tell you the results.

You’d think it would be a no-brainer, right? You alert the winners first, of course, and then you regretfully inform the non-winners that you’re very sorry, but the competition was tougher than ever this year and the judges had many difficult decisions to make etc., etc. If you’ve been around this writing game for a while you know the drill.

Unfortunately, far too many competitions seem to feel that once the money’s in the Paypal account, they don’t have to show any respect to the entrants. Just send us the cash and the poems, dear, and maybe if you’re lucky we’ll post the winners’ names on the website, but we expect you to go look it up. We don’t owe you anything. If you’re very lucky, the only response you’ll get from us is being added to our mailing list without your permission, so you can find out about the next competition that we won’t tell you the results for.

Free-to-enter competitions get a bye on this, as far as I’m concerned. I mean, it’s still polite if they inform the non-winners and I appreciate when they do, but no filthy lucre is involved, and they’re even more likely to be volunteers doing this in their spare time, or raising the prize money through other means.

Here are some particularly egregious instances:

The Scottish Arts Club Short Story Competition. Entry fee: £10. The acknowledgement letter stated, “Unfortunately, because of high interest, we will not be able to contact you further unless you are a competition winner”, but although that level of high interest prevented them from compiling a mailing list to send a form rejection, it didn’t prevent them from compiling a mailing list to alert all of the entrants to the following year’s competition. The administrator’s excuse of “I’m just one person” was baffling – if one person handles one mailing list, they can handle a second list without much more effort.

Templar Poetry Pamphlet and Collection Award. Entry fee: £18. Over four months later there hadn’t even been an announcement of the winners on the website. Apparently the only way to learn the competition results was to stay on the mailing list after they added you to it – because I’d removed myself from the newsletter, I wasn’t sent the results. This certainly wasn’t mentioned in the “entry received” email, so how the entrants were supposed to know this process remains a mystery.

Primers (the Poetry School and Nine Arches Press. Entry fee: £14. This was an exciting joint venture to “provide an important platform for emerging poets”. Unfortunately, the shortlist went up online in early October, but not a word was spoken to the unsuccessful entrants – even though this was administrated through Submittable, which makes this sort of thing easy. No need to set up a mailing list yourself! Just set up a “polite rejection” template and everyone’s told. The submission is still technically “in-progress” even though the winners are on the verge of being announced. If I hadn’t gone looking, I’d still be thinking I had a chance. (ETA: The Poetry School has explained this in the comments.)

Other disappointments, according to my rejection file: the Guernsey International Poetry Competition (£10), the Magma Poetry Competition (£9), Poetry School/Pighog Poetry Pamphlet Competition (£15 – what is up with the Poetry School and Submittable? I had to withdraw my entry to get it off the active submissions page, since no one ever closed this one down either), Raynes Poetry Prize ($18), Poetry Wales/Purple Moose Poetry Prize (£25 – they claimed to have sent emails, but I never received one, nor did I ever receive the winning pamphlet I paid an extra £5 for), Bath Short Story Award (£16), Ware Poets Open Poetry Competition (£15), Fiction Desk ghost story competition (£7), The Bridport Prize (£15), Erewash Writers’ Competition (£5), West Sussex Writers National Short Story Competition (£5), Troubadour Poetry Prize (£10), Bristol Short Story Prize (£8), McLellan Poetry Prize (£9), the Yeovil Prize (I hate to list them because I like them and they’ve shortlisted me a couple of times, but otherwise there is no response), Battered Moons (£10.50), Bare Fiction Debut Poetry (£20)….

Wow, I honestly hadn’t expected so many.

That’s a lot of expensive silence.

The good news is that these are a handful of the submissions/competition entries I’ve made over the last several years, and the vast majority of places understand that even if you have high interest, it’s important to be respectful. Those are the competitions I’ll be continuing to enter.

My suggestions for behaving nicely to your competition entrants, instead of treating them like cash cows (whether you mean to or not – and I’m sure most places don’t mean to):

– TELL THEM THE RESULTS. It is neither difficult nor expensive to set up a one-time mailing list for your entrants, especially if they are submitting to you online. And if you are capable of adding them to your regular newsletter (though don’t; see below), then you are equally capable of setting up a one-shot list for this particular competition. If you’re charging money for competition entries, surely you can spend a little bit of that on politeness.

– Don’t sign them up to your mailing list unless they explicitly opt-in. If they don’t, you’re spamming them. The prize here goes to the aptly-named Unsolicited Press, who got extremely pissy when their mailing list provider suspended them for spamming (after they signed me up well over a year since I’d contacted them), used the “our website says we’ll sign you up so you agreed to this” excuse, and said snotty things like “We apologize for alerting you to our latest books and happenings.”

– Give entrants a free copy of one of your publications. Letter Machine editions recently did this, and it was a win-win situation – I got a book of poetry I never would have encountered otherwise, and they expanded their readership (and, possibly, reduced the backstock in the warehouse/under the bed). Even sending a PDF of a recent copy is a gesture that says, we appreciate receiving your work as well as your money, and we’d like to share some of ours in return. This is also about building relationships, which is far more important than just getting the money.

– Use Submittable. Please. It is brilliant, and you can reject everyone in one fell swoop with minimal administration.

– If you honestly cannot do any of the above, then make that clear in the entry rules.

– Competition judges: ask whether the entrants will all be notified, or only the shortlist/winners. If the latter, you could find out why not, and perhaps encourage a more open response.

How do you feel when paid competitions don’t notify you? On the flip side, are there competitions which deserve praise for the way they send rejections?

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2 thoughts on “Poet or cash cow – why do writing competitions charge fees but not tell entrants the results?

  1. Thanks for this Tracey – your points are well made, and we will certainly make sure that for future opportunities we send an email round to all applicants. We’re just getting to grips with Submittable – for our Pighog collaboration, Pighog were managing the submission process; but for our Nine Arches collaboration, it was our account. This year’s Primers portal has now been made ‘not live’ so thanks for the tip.

    • Tracey S. Rosenberg says:

      Thanks for your sensible response. Emails would definitely be appreciated! And kudos for using Submittable – it will definitely make everyone’s life easier. 🙂

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Tiny bio

I live, work, and write in Edinburgh. I travel to other places as much as I can. To contact me, email writingmostly at gmail dot com.

Books

CURRENTLY READING: The Ginseng Hunter by Jeff Talarigo.

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