Everybody knows that if there’s a way to make money off of something or someone, someone is going to come along and try to take advantage of it. Many people who do thusly are called “scam artists” or “con artists” (like doing lots of work for no money or having your money stolen from you is something beautiful that you’d pay even more money to watch. [gee, it was so beautiful how he tricked me into giving him all my dough. I’d actually pay money to see that except now I don’t have any money]).
The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Association (SFWA) runs a little side column on their site entitled “Writer Beware.” Much of what you’re going to read here comes from their site. Rather than quote them word for word, I’m going to give you links to each section of their site and just paraphrase what they wrote. Since their section on publishing scams is quite large, I’ll begin with their section on contest and award Scams and try to write about another section every day or so. (Again, all credit for creation of this information goes to the SFWA).
Anyway, here are some contest and award scams to look out for
- Some are outright scams, in which a contest is offered but either the winner or the losers or both must pay hefty amounts of money in order to have their work published or, in some cases, receive the prize. In some cases, the agency running the “contest” is legitimate. In other cases, they’re fake.
- Some are contests run by questionable or fee charging publishers. These are genuine contests in which the prize is usually a book contract. However, winners usually find out later that the contract they won has clauses in it that are less than agreeable, for example, a requirement that you buy a certain number of the published books (the contest usually includes a clause for entry that doesn’t allow you to refuse a contract). Then again, they may simply turn the list of entrants into a mailing list and give it out to vanity publishing services and/or fee-charging literary agencies who give kickbacks to the first publishing company if anyone falls for it.
- Then there are the contest mills. Some will offer large prizes but you have to pay a correspondingly large entry fee and the fine print usually says that the prize amounts are determined by the number of entrants, guaranteeing they make a profit. Others are run by writer’s magazines or internet-based groups. They run about a dozen contests or more per year and advertise under different names and URLs to draw more entrants.
- Similar to the contest mills are the awards mills. These also feature high entry fees and lots of entry categories. However, though there may be an actual prize, more often than not winners don’t get much more than an announcement on the contest’s website and an opportunity to buy “adjunct merchandise,” like a sticker that says “Award Winner.” These usually focus on small-time writers who are having difficulty getting published. Even if there is a prize, they usually only exist to make their company money.
- By far the most common of the fake contests are those conducted by the vanity anthology companies. These companies publish books of collected works that they sell, not to the general public, but to the contributors (hence the name “Vanity Anthology”). Sometimes, you actually have to agree to buy the book before you can be published. Either way, writers are usually pressured to buy multiple copies. Interesting fact, since every entrant to such a contest gets published in the anthology, it doesn’t count as a real literary credit.
Now, this isn’t to say that all writing contests are bogus. However, it doesn’t take a genius to be careful. Here are a list of questions the SFWA suggests asking yourself when considering writing for a contest.
- Is it worth entering? Lots of writers think of writing contests as a springboard to success. This can work if the contest is sponsored by an organization with standing in the publishing community. If you win or place in one of their contests it can add some nice literary credits to your cover letter. Unfortunately, only a few of the contests out there have that kind of prestige and few publishing houses or other publishing resources consider winning the writing contest of some obscure magazine as credential enough.
- Who’s conducting the contest or award program? If you don’t recognize the name of the organization, magazine or publisher, be sure to check if it’s legitimate. If you can’t confirm this well enough to make you comfortable, follow your instincts. Don’t enter.
- Is the contest or award program free? If so, you probably have nothing to lose. Just be wary of any Vanity Anthology scams.
- Is there an entry fee? If there is, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a scam. What you want to look for is exorbitant fees. $5 to $25 is typical. Larger, more reputable contests may charge more, but anything over $40 dollars should make you want to do some checking, particularly if you’re not familiar with the organizer.
- If you enter, are you given the “opportunity” to spend more money? If you are, it’s usually a pretty good sign that the contest is a money-making venture for the organizer instead of a real competition.
- How frequently does the organization conduct contests? Excessive contest frequency (like running a contest once a month or more) can also be a sign of a money-making scheme.
- How many categories are there? Reputable contests usually have a specific focus, like only screenplays or only poetry. Awards are typically limited, too. Be on the lookout for contests or awards that have lots of different categories.
- Are the rules and guidelines clearly stated? This part is important, so I quote, “A legitimate contest or awards program will provide clear rules, including information about entry categories, deadlines, eligibility, format, fees, prizes and the circumstances in which they will or will not be awarded, judging, and (very important) any rights you may be surrendering. If you can’t find these, don’t enter.”
- Who’ll be doing the judging? It’s in the organization’s interest to name it’s judges, since that will tell you how reputable they are. Some contests and awards programs prefer to protect their judges’ privacy, so failure to name judges doesn’t necessarily mean the contest is fake, so long as you’re sure the organizer is reputable. If you’re not, be suspicious. Sometimes a contest will be judged by “crowdsourcing.” These kinds of contests are fairly easy to cheat on.
- Are there fringe benefits? Sometimes, a number of perks will be offered for entry into a contest. You shouldn’t have to pay for any of these things. Also, the pros’ credentials should be clearly stated, to prove they really are pros.
- What’s the prize? There are lots of possible prizes. They should be clearly stated in the contest guidelines and they should be appropriate to the sponsor. Contests with large prize amounts, $5000 +, should make you suspicious, they could be a money-making scheme (these tend to be the ones with the larger than average entry fee and often have fine print that suggests the prize amount will be pro-rated depending on the number of contestants. Contests that have representation as a prize can be highly sought after. Just be sure it’s a prize you want to win and that there’s no clause stating you can’t refuse a contract if you do. Also, you shouldn’t ever have to pay out money to receive your prize.
- Have you read the fine print? The rules and guidelines of a contest are, in a sense, a contract. Read them carefully and be sure that there’s nothing in there that makes you uncomfortable or could conceivably remove any of your rights. Some of the funny language may suggest that the sponsor has the right to substitute prizes. You may be granting the sponsoring organization first publishing rights to your work. They may even be saying that they have a right to use your work for something other than publicity. Also, be aware that, if you’re entering a contest online, you might be giving permission for your work to be published on the sponsor’s website, whether you win or not.
All it takes is a little caution. Bear in mind, this section could last a long time. Check back real soon to learn about other ways that some people could try to scam you as a writer.