Writing Contests: A Cautionary Tale

Warren Adler published the following article, extracted below, on the Huffington Post Books page in June of last year.  Until I read it, I hadn’t realised there was such explosive growth of on-line writing contests.

Warren Adler is best known for The War of the Roses, his masterpiece fictionalization of a macabre divorce turned into the Golden Globe and BAFTA nominated dark comedy hit starring Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner and Danny DeVito. Adler’s international hit stage adaptation of the novel will premiere on Broadway in 2016. Adler has also optioned and sold film rights for a number of his works including Random Hearts, The Sunset Gang, The War of the Roses – The Children,Target Churchill, Residue, Mourning Glory, and Capitol Crimes.

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Warren Adler

“When I started the Warren Adler Short Story Contest in 2006 I had rather lofty ideas about integrity and fidelity to the goal of resurrecting the popularity of the short story which was in decline. I appointed qualified people, meaning people who were either authors themselves or teachers of literature or creative writing with the taste and experience to judge the submissions honestly.

“It was a difficult chore at best and I wanted to guarantee that those who were the chosen winners were the very best of those who submitted their work. I offered cash prizes out of my own pocket. The first Prize Winner received $1000 and prizes were offered for our second and third choices. The submissions were free of charge.

“In addition to the cash prizes I promised that the prizewinning stories would be published as an e-book anthology on Amazon and offered for sale with royalties given to the authors of the stories. My hope, of course, was to give a boost not only to the short story format but also to the writing careers of the talented writers who participated. The book, as promised, is available on Amazon.

“The digital publishing revolution was in its infancy and I believe I was the first novelist to ever create such a contest on the Internet. As the cyber world grew so did the submissions. It became difficult and time consuming to read all of the offerings and finding enough quality judges to devote the time to honest assessment was becoming exceedingly burdensome to administer. The last thing I wanted to do was jeopardize the integrity of the contest.

“Eventually I had no choice but to begin charging a small submission fee designed to perhaps curb the number of submissions as well as to provide judges with a stipend that would make it worth their time. Above all, the goal was to maintain the integrity of the contest and further the original goals of the enterprise.

“After seven years of sponsoring the contest, I opted for a hiatus. It was a victim of its own success. To do it right required time, personnel and resources. I finally suspended the contest. I had no desire to create a startup and it was interfering with my own busy writing career.

“What I didn’t imagine was the tsunami of writing contests that it inspired. Worse, I never suspected that it would serve as a business model for entrepreneurs to get into the game just for profit.

“I am somewhat suspect of the value these contests hold for participants.

“Self-publishing requires self-promotion. It is an absolute necessity and comes with the territory, requiring time, effort and funding. The goal is “discoverability.” Most never achieve it, regardless of the quality of their work.

“The rise of self-published fiction authors has been spectacular. Unfortunately the glut has made it difficult for them to stand out from the crowd however excellent their writing is. Genre writers with promotional skills along with lots of money and time might find a niche, although the odds of making enough money to give up their day job is long.

“These writing contests, with their prestigious sounding names, offer the impression of quality promotion for the winners and, of course, bragging rights which can be dubious and of suspect value. One wonders who the judges are that are taking on such a massive amount of submissions. Few of these contest sponsors reveal their methods or the people who read this mass of material and make their judgments. It is often true of the most prestigious awards like the Pulitzer and the Nobel and I often wonder how some of the winners have reached the attention of the judges and who makes the screening decisions.

“By and large, internet-based contests tend to always charge a submission fee, which accounts for the sponsor’s profits as well as its proliferation. Considering that these contests are expanding they must be profitable for the sponsors and are inspiring others to create mirror image money-making opportunities using a similar business plan. Their targets are vulnerable, aspiring writers desperate for recognition and the realization of their dreams.

“Most of these contests are based upon dreams of literary glory, popularity, riches and movie adaptations on the part of authors. All truly believe that their work is deserving of recognition, popularity and prestige. Many probably fit that description. Indeed the sponsors know this and exploit it. It is the key to their monetary success.

“There is a great deal of literary talent out there who go unrecognized and do not attract the traditional publishers. Of course it works both ways. The traditional publishers sometimes gamble on first novels and often lose their bets in the sales arena. Such is the nature of the beast.

“This is not meant to be a blanket condemnation of writing contests. But since the Internet is a vast swamp of snake oil salesman hawking worthless schemes, products and ideas, consider this a cautionary tale.”

My experience of writing contests is very similar to the picture Mr Adler paints.  I have entered a number of contests with most of my books, and I have won some ‘awards’ – but no money.  Even winning first place in a genre did not merit a financial award.  So, I have a wall covered with award certificates.  Invariably, I had to pay an entry fee.  To me, this doesn’t seem unreasonable: there are administrative costs and (presumably) judges fees to be paid.  But, I have never learned how the judging would take place, let alone the identity of a single judge.  I attended one award ceremony in London, at which I expected a journalist or two to be present: there were none.  Attendees consisted of some of the authors who won awards and two low-ranking admin people representing the contest.

Having said this, I still try out new contests that appear to offer more value, particularly those that offer a critique of the work submitted.

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