Summer Scams, Part 2: Scams in Writing Contests

Today we’re continuing our summer series on writing-related scams and how to avoid them with another re-post from early 2012. Remember: a refresher course in scam avoidance keeps your instincts sharp and your writing secure!

Last week we talked about unscrupulous agents and publishers. Today we’ll discuss a scam that hides among legitimate opportunities, making itself more difficult to spot.

Scam #2: Overreaching in Writing and Poetry Contests.

Legitimate writing contests represent valuable opportunities for authors to obtain review and critique of their work. These contests are a real asset to the writing community, and in particular to pre-published authors. New authors often have difficulty obtaining feedback from industry professionals, and contests offer a rare chance for vital review and interaction, since many contests are judged by agents, editors, and other industry professionals. Many contests offer opportunities for authors to obtain a personal critique, regardless of whether the manuscript wins a prize (usually for an additional fee).

Unfortunately, authors’ desire for feedback and praise also provides an opportunity for scammers to offer unscrupulous imitations.

Wary authors can tell the difference by evaluating the contest characteristics:

1. Entry Fees. Legitimate contests charge entry fees (and usually separate fees for individual critiques) but the fees themselves are reasonable in nature. “Reasonable” entry and critique fees vary, but they tend to be in the $25-$50 range. If critique is offered, it should be either included in the entry fee or completely optional. No entrant should be forced to pay a second fee for a critique. All fees should be stated up front – legitimate contests never have hidden fees.

2. “Prizes” should never cost the author money. Beware any contest that requires you to purchase ANYTHING (aside from the entry fee). A popular contest scam includes “finalists” or “winners” in a published anthology, and then requires entrants to agree to purchase a certain number of copies of the work. The scammer thereby ensures a dual profit: once from your entry fees and once from the sales of the “published” work – though almost all of those sales will be to contest “winners.”

3. Copyright seizures. Contests should never require an author to surrender copyright on the submitted work. The contest sponsor has no right to claim copyright as a result of your submission, but many do – and the contest terms are a form of contract, so unwary authors may give away rights just by entering. Don’t surrender your rights accidentally!

4. Unreasonable Grants of Copyright. A variation on copyright seizures is contest terms which grant the sponsor unlimited (or unreasonable) rights to publish submitted work. Some legitimate contests offer publishing contracts as prizes. Many scam contests do too. Read the fine print. If you have any doubts, ask a lawyer to review any contest terms that reference publication before you enter.

5. Exclusivity. Beware any contest that bars you from submitting your work to agents, publishers or other contests during the contest period. This doesn’t necessarily indicate a scam, but it does place restrictions on your work and career.

Never enter a contest if you don’t thoroughly understand the entry terms, or if the entry terms seem to include a grant of copyright or perpetual rights to publication. Read all the rules, and read them carefully. Use common sense. If something seems too good to be true, it usually is.

For more excellent advice on avoiding scams and evaluating contests, I recommend Writer Beware!


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