Avoiding Writing Contest Scams

Writing contests can offer great opportunities for published and unpublished authors alike. Good contests can provide valuable feedback and even a chance at publication. However, not all contests are created equal, and authors need to be on the lookout for some important traps and pitfalls when evaluating writing contests.

Fortunately, savvy writers can learn to identify–and avoid–the common contest traps. Let’s take a look at some of them today:

Legitimate writing contests don’t require entrants to transfer copyright ownership to the contest or its organizers. 

Here, as everywhere else in publishing (except for clearly identified work for hire situations), authors should retain full copyright ownership of their works. Transferring copyright in the submission to the contest organizers means the entrant no longer owns the short story–or longer work. That’s not appropriate.

Sometimes, writing contests require entrants to grant the organizers limited licenses to publish winning entries (or submissions). That’s not the same as a grant of copyright ownership. Read the contest terms of use carefully, and make sure you retain your copyright–if not, find a different contest to enter. No contest victory is worth the loss of copyright in your work.

Beware of “contest” prizes that cost you money or require purchases.

Winning a writing contest (or any contest, for that matter) shouldn’t come with a bill attached. Any contest which requires its “winners” to pay for anything–from copies of an anthology to editing services–is highly suspect. Making a contest winner pay suggests that the organizers care more about taking money from authors than promoting or helping them succeed.

One of the easiest ways for scammers to make money off of authors’ dreams is running a “contest” which requires entrants (or winners) to buy copies of a magazine or anthology. Legitimate contests may also result in publication, but the winner should have the choice whether or not to buy the work.

Beware of overly high contest entry or “critique” fees.

Legitimate publishing and writing contests have reasonable entry fees–usually under $35, unless there’s a personalized critique involved. Some contests offer cash prizes, and there the entry fee may be higher. Use business judgment to evaluate the entry fee and your chances of winning.

Critique fees vary; use business judgment to decide if the fee being charged is worth the price. Critiques from well-known or established authors and agents will often cost more than those where the judges or critiquers’ names are withheld.

Look closely at contest rules which give the organizers exclusive and/or perpetual rights to publication. This is a major red-flag.

Many contests offer publication as a prize, either for finalists or for winning entries. That alone is not a problem, as long as the terms are appropriate. Read the contest terms carefully, and make sure any grant of rights to publish is appropriately limited. “Appropriate” grants of publishing rights may vary from contest to contest; use business judgment to evaluate them individually.

Online publication rights without stated limitations or end dates can hurt a contest entrant more than winning would help.

Once an author’s work is published online, it becomes much harder to find a publisher willing to contract for the work’s publication (in any format). For this reason, authors should be wary of contests which publish entrants, finalists, or winners’ works online. Online publication should be strictly limited in scope and duration.

If the contest offers a publishing contract to winners, get a copy to review & make sure it’s offering industry-standard terms.

Scammers can trick unwary authors into bad publishing deals by offering a contract with undisclosed terms as a contest “prize.” Unless the contest is sponsored by a major publishing house (& preferably not even then)–be wary of contract prizes unless they’re negotiable. If the publishing contract prize can be negotiated, or offers industry-standard terms, then it’s not usually a problem.

Only enter writing contests sponsored by reputable sources.

Companies and publishing houses with strong industry reputations tend to run fair contests. These groups have reputations to protect, and generally care about the industry. National writers’ organizations like Mystery Writers of America and Romance Writers of America also tend to run legitimate writing contests. 

No matter who sponsors the contest, read the entry terms carefully and completely. Walk away from contests that require copyright grants, have red-flag publishing terms, or feel “off.” Trust your instincts. It’s better to forego the contest entirely than to discover that “winning” is a real-world lose for you and your work.

Have questions about this or other publishing legal and business issues? Please ask in the comments or email me–I take requests!


DISCLAIMER: This article is intended for informational purposes only, does not constitute legal advice to any person or entity, and does not create an attorney-client relationship with any person or entity. If you believe you have a legal claim or issue, or wish to know more about your individual rights, consult an experienced attorney without delay.