Saturday, April 28, 2007

Writing contests, and the vagaries of setting them up

I try to hold a writing contest every so often through my ezine, Crime and Suspense. I've held two thus far this year, and plan on having at least one or two more. The prizes have been nice, but... I didn't feel the excitement from the entrants, you know?

So, I set up a survey to ask people who read the Crime and Suspense ezine what they would like to see in a contest... what would encourage them to enter, that sort of thing.

But why hold a survey? Why not just go ahead and hold a contest? Darn the torpedoes and full speed ahead!!

Last year, I set up a contest called the Publish Me! contest. The entrants would submit the first two chapters of their magnum opus and pay an entry fee of $30. Two judges (well-known published authors in the genre) would read and score the submissions. The winner would get his/her story published by my publishing company, cover designed, 100 marketing postcards and fifty copies of the book (up to 300 pages), and have their book set up for distribution through Ingram and Baker & Taylor. The second and third place winners could have their books, if they wanted, set up as ebooks and marketed on the Wolfmont Publishing web site.

If you've never run a contest similar to this, you may not understand the costs: the judges have to be paid SOMETHING. There's the cost of the cover design, the postcards, the book setup and printing, the catalog listing, etc., etc. People expressed interest and sounded excited... but when I started the contest, only five people entered. Since I needed at least fifteen people to break even, it simply wasn't financially feasible to finish the contest!

Thankfully, I had given that caveat to each entrant; to wit, if I didn't have fifteen entries by a certain date that I would refund their money to them. Even with that, however, it bothered me to have to start a contest and then disappoint the entrants like that. So, I'm doing a miniature "feasibility study" to see if it's worth it to try a contest with bigger prizes again.

I'm curious... why are people so averse to paying to enter a contest with a significant prize? I don't understand the logic that says, "Prizes must not cost anything because the contest holder is giving them away!" And I've had more than a couple of people say to me, "Oh, reputable contests don't charge fees!" Excuse me? Writer's Digest isn't reputable? Glimmer Train? The Writer magazine? Byline magazine?

It's a little amusing, if sad, to see a respondent say to me, "I don't enter contests with fees" or "Charge $5 for the entry fee," yet also say to me in response to what a judge should receive for judging the contest, "A fee of $150" or "A $100 honorarium." And from where should that fee or honorarium be derived?

I know... there ARE people who run so-called contests which are scams to take your money. Thing is, I have yet to make any money on a contest I have run. In fact, with the last three or four contests I've held, the awards have been least partially out of my pocket and without payment of entry fees. Warner Brothers was nice enough to contribute some t-shirts, hats and posters, but some people don't get very excited about prizes like that so I threw in some Amazon gift certificates of my own.

"But money must always flow TO the writer, not away!" Oh, Lord, would that it were so!! Let's see... editors' fees, promotional bookmarks and postcards, writing courses, signing trips where the cost of transportation and lodging is over $400 and the total profit from books sold is less than $50, the cost of mailing out review copies that may never get reviewed, trips to writer cons and fan cons, buying ink and toner cartridges and paper... it ALL Costs Money! It makes as much sense as saying "Money must always flow to the employee, not away!" What about cost of training for the job? Taxes? Paying for benefits? Paying for parking and/or commuting? There are costs associated with EVERY form of moneymaking, whether it is writing, being a nurse or working in a factory. To say that every attempt to make money with writing should be free of risk of my OWN money is foolish in the extreme, and limits me tremendously.

I'm not at all attacking anyone, and especially anyone who simply can't budget an entry fee. I've been where money was tight before, where I wondered where my next tank of gas would come from... so I understand that. But for those who think that no opportunity to make money or gain recognition should cost the author money... it simply isn't reality. The costs are there, whether we choose to acknowledge them or not.

Yes, there are free contests, and God bless the people who hold or sponsor them. I hold them myself pretty regularly, and God bless me, too! But when people are lackadaisical about entering because the prizes are small, token prizes, yet are not willing to put their money where their writing is to take a shot at a larger prize, I have no sympathy.

*** If you think your writing is good enough to win, then why is it a risk to spend $5 or $10?

*** If you don't think you have a good chance of winning, then why are you entering at all?

Have faith in your writing, and be willing to back up your beliefs with an entry fee once in a while.

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