Contest or Con?

“There’s no cost or obligation of any kind, and you just might be our next big winner!” the latest piece of junk mail to land in my post office box claimed. $58,000 would be divided among 1175 winners. The top winner would take $10,000 to the bank. If I slipped a poem into the postage paid mailer I’d find out the secrets of being published, find out how to gain national exposure and discover how to immediately publish my poetry on the Internet. Better yet I could let the world hear my message.

I had nothing to lose…only several hundred dollars, if I submitted a poem and opened myself to one of the largest and most lucrative con games targeted at writers. Fortunately, I knew about the International Library of Poetry, a scam that has been investigated by ABC news, NBC’s 20/20 and Consumer Reports.

Unsuspecting poets who enter their work, receive letters announcing that they are semi-finalists and are congratulated on their “creative achievement.” Next they are told they can purchase a copy of the anthology in which their poem will appear for a mere $49.95 plus $7.00 postage. They are presented with the opportunity to have a brief biography printed with their poem for another $20 (typesetting). Should they want a plaque containing their poem, that’s $38.00.

They can purchase an audio tape version of their poem for $29.00 plus $4.00 postage. Laminated cards printed with their poem cost $19.95 plus $4.00 postage for 24. Since these winning authors are now “professional” poets, they are qualified to join the International Society of Poets. (Dues run from $95.00 to $125.00.) Postage and handling for joining costs $12.00. Figure in three or four extra copies of the anthology for the relatives and the grand total comes to over half a grand.

The International Poetry Society isn’t the only questionable contest. Others include the Poetry Guild, Poetry Press, the Amherst Society, Poetry Unlimited and the Poets’ Guild to name a few. Some of them publish as many as 50 anthologies a year. Each anthology is about 300 pages and each page contains four to five poems. If every semi-finalist buys just one anthology, the sponsoring company grosses $67,432.50 per anthology. Most semi-finalists spend much more. It’s clear who the real winner is here.

At least the published poets have accomplished something that will give them pride. Or have they? According to ABC’s 20/20 investigation, every single student from a second grade class that submitted poems received a letter notification letter saying he or she was a semi-finalist. In another instance a poem titled, “My Cat Has Fleas” was declared a semi-finalist. The first stanza of the poem reads, “My cat is chewing on her butt; It makes me think she is a nut.” As far as investigators can determine, every single entrant is a semi-finalist. Finding your prize work printed next to “My Cat Has Fleas” would be embarrassing, to say the least.

If you’ve been taken by the International Library of Poetry a.k.a. the National Library of Poetry and the International Poetry Hall of Fame, you’re not alone. The organization is running the Montel Williams MS Poetry Contest that offers winners a $1,000 prize and an expense paid trip to the show. Whether they’re running to the contest as a PR gimmick or are out to fleece people with MS remains to be seen.

How can you tell the contests from the cons? Real literary contests, the kind that are an honor to win, usually have entry fees that range from $10 to $35. That money goes to pay judges, if they are well known; for prize money and to help fund the sponsoring small press or writers’ organization, which operates on a shoestring. Literary contests are the equivalent of PBS telethons. Serious writers submit their work to these contests hoping to win, of course, but if that doesn’t happen, they consider their entry fee a donation to the literary cause.

To safeguard yourself against literary contest fraud, research the sponsoring organization, take a look at last year’s winning poems and check the judges’ credentials. Read the information provided about the contest carefully. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true. Go to your local library and try to check out a copy of one of the prizewinning anthologies. If your library doesn’t have a copy and can’t interlibrary loan it, chances are it’s a scam.

The best safeguard of all is to take a long, hard look at your motivations for entering the contest.

Creative Write:

Writing contest scams target our need to be recognized for our writing, to be paid money for it and to find an appreciative audience. These are worthy goals, but take time to accomplish. Because writing doesn’t provide immediate or sometimes even medium range gratification, we often crave an external pat on the back to keep us going. Contests seem like a shortcut to the top and a way to confirm that we are winners rather than losers.

Write about a childhood experience when you either won or lost in some sort of competition. Write about how this felt, both emotionally and physically. How did you come to be in this situation? What was going through your mind as you competed? Did the people around you cheer you on or did they criticize you? What were their ideas about competition? How has this experience colored your life today?

Writers’ Resources – A Scam Prevention Toolkit:

The Writers’ Center in Bethesda MD (www.writer.org) contains articles about contest scams in its articles section.

Writer Beware, a set of pages authored by Science Fiction and Fantasy writers of America (http://www.sfwa.org/beware/ ) contains caveats about shady book doctors, vanity presses, literary agents, print on demand and electronic publishing.

Wind Publications, a small independent press in KY has over 40 articles about poetry contest scams on its website. (http://windpub.org/literary.scams/)

WritingContests.Com’s Writer’s Warnings Page contains many links to articles about questionable literary agents and contests. (http://www.writingcontests.net/warnings.htm )