How to Avoid Writing Contest Scams

Writers seeking recognition, especially unpublished writers, often enter writing contests in hopes of winning both recognition and a cash prize. Unfortunately, not all writing contests are legitimate. The purpose of this article is not to discourage you from entering writing contests; rather it is intended to help you find legitimate contests that exist to showcase new talent. If you search for “writing contests” online, you will get thousands of listings. Many of those are perfectly legitimate, but it’s important for every writer to learn how to detect and avoid entering the many writing contests advertised that are nothing more than scams.


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    Think twice before sending money. If the terms of a contest demand a fee to enter, read the fine print and investigate the contest sponsor. Most often, not always, but often enough to raise red flags, paying money to submit your work involves a scam. There are many people in the literary world who believe no writer should ever pay a fee when submitting work for consideration. A healthy publishing environment seeks new, talented writers and pays them for their work; the writer is not asked to pay for the privilege of someone reading his or her work. Here are some common reasons contest sponsors give for charging an entry fee:
    • A “reader’s fee” is required to compensate the “editors” who will be reading your work. Some contests have a tier of “reader’s fee” prices; one price for having your entry read, one price for a cursory feedback on your writing, whether it wins or not, and a still higher fee for a “comprehensive review and feedback of your contest entry.”
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    • A fee is required so that the contest sponsor can pay for the production of an anthology of the winning stories or poems. That is a scam, no matter who is sponsoring the contest, and here’s why: legitimate publishers do not finance their publications with contest entry fees.
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    Determine the legitimacy of entry fees. The requirement of a fee to enter your work into a contest doesn’t automatically disqualify the contest as bogus. Sometimes, a literary organization simply has to support itself with contest entry fees. Read the contest rules and then ask yourself if you can define the purpose of the contest:
    • Is the primary objective of the contest to reward literary merit?
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    • Is the fee modest? Are the reasons given for the fee requirement reasonable?
    • Does the sponsor put forward vague promises of eventual publication of your manuscript, whether you win the contest or not?
    • Is the sponsor really trying to solicit money from you for the editing of your manuscript?
    • Do you have to become a member of the organization, and pay a membership fee, in order for your writing to be eligible for submission?
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    Examine contest rules to determine if the sponsor is really a vanity publisher in disguise. The end goal of vanity publishers is to charge you for publishing your work. Most entries “win,” but the sponsor demands a fee in order to publish your “winning” entry. Publication in these types of anthologies may even diminish your standing as a legitimate author in the eyes of professional publishers.
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    Avoid entering a writing contest if the prize consists of “winning” a place in a writing seminar or writing conference, especially if you will ultimately be required to pay a fee to attend.
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    Look for the red flags that tell you a contest is a scam:
    • Does the sponsor publish the names and works of previous winners?
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    • Is the quality of writing of previous winning entries low or mediocre?
    • Are the names of the judges listed? If so, don’t just take the contest sponsor’s word for it; Google the names of the contest judges and read about their backgrounds, education and accomplishments in the publishing world. If the staff member’s names are listed, investigate their literary credentials as well. If the site does not list the names of the judges, contact the sponsor and ask for the information.
    • Does everyone win? If the sponsor states that every entry wins, then it really isn’t a contest.
    • Does the contest have any other web presence? Does a search about the contest or the sponsor turn up any other links? The lack of any other information doesn’t necessarily mean the contest is a scam, but proceed with caution.
    • Is the entry fee exorbitant? It’s rare for an entry fee to exceed $20. You should also look at the ratio of the fee to the prize. Are you being asked to pay a fee of $25 for a top prize of $50?
    • Does the amount of the prize depend on the number of entries? If so, it’s best to skip it. You have no idea how many people will pay the entry fee. If you and only 3 other people pay $20 each, your top prize will be $60, or less if the entry pool funds are used to pay stipends to judges.
    • How frequently is the contest offered? Most legitimate literary organizations don’t sponsor more than 4 contests a year.
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    Make sure all prizes are awarded. Language to look out for:
    • In the event that there is an insufficient number of entries received that meet the minimum standards determined by the judges, all prizes will not be awarded.
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    • By entering, entrants (YOU) release judges and Sponsor(s), and its parent company, subsidiaries, production, and promotion agencies from any and all liability for any loss, harm, damages, costs, or expenses, including without limitation properly damages, personal injury, and/or death arising out of participation in this contest, the acceptance, possession, use or misuse of any prize, claims based on publicity rights, defamation or invasion of privacy, merchandise delivery, or the violation of any intellectual property rights, including but not limited to copyright infringement and/or trademark infringement.
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    Never sign away the rights to your work. Be on the lookout for disclaimers with any of the following clauses:
    • All submissions become sole property of Sponsor and will not be acknowledged or returned. If you agree to this, you have relinquished acknowledgment and control of your submission.
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    • By submitting an entry, all entrants grant Sponsor the absolute and unconditional right and authority to copy, edit, publish, promote, broadcast, or otherwise use, in whole or in part, their entries, in perpetuity, in any manner without further permission, notice or compensation. Entries that contain copyrighted material must include a release from the copyright holder. If you agree to this, you are signing away all the rights to your writing entry forever, including movie and broadcast rights.


  • Get familiar with how each publishing genre operates. For example, a contest site offering a prize of an agency representing your poetry is probably not legitimate. Reputable poetry publishing houses rarely use agents.
  • If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Always carefully investigate every aspect of a contest’s rules.


  • Beware of any contest that promises to publish all entries. It will most likely be a vanity contest, and you will be asked to pay for your submission to be included in an anthology.
  • Legitimate contest sponsors will never ask for additional fees once you have submitted an entry.

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Categories: Official Writing and Complaints