Contests vs. general submissions for fiction, poetry, nonfiction: Economics & odds in publishing

Chicago World's Fair federal building (2) - clean copy

Vintage postcard: Federal building at night, Chicago World’s Fair 1933

I’ve rarely entered writing contests. At $20 to $30, most entry fees seem too high. Granted, some publications do ease the sting by sending you a copy of the issue containing the winning entries or a year’s subscription, but still…

When you could pay a $3 reading fee for 10 general submissions versus one $30 entry fee for a contest, the economics win. The return on investment for contest entries often seems too low.

Million-dollar contests

My view of contests was reinforced when I read about the Writer’s Digest contests in Jane Friedman’s book, The Business of Being a Writer. “When I worked for Writer’s Digest, the revenue from competition entry fees approached a million dollars a year,” writes Friedman. “The number of contests was a budgeted line item in the revenue forecast, and if the projected number was not achieved on time, the contest deadline was often extended to collect more entries.”

This gave me a new perspective on contests that announce they’ve extended their deadlines. Are they just trying to bring in a certain amount of money?

It also led me to do some math in my head—seldom a good thing—when an announcement for the Writer’s Digest Annual Writing Competition popped into my inbox.

For this contest the regular entry fee is $30. I figured that to generate $1 million, the contest would need more than 33,000 entries distributed over the nine categories. Yes, the contest offers a $5,000 grand prize and several other higher-dollar prizes, but when I recently saw this year’s short story winner my first thought was, So that’s what a hundred-thousand-dollar story looks like (at least in terms of entry fees).

Here’s what I was thinking (mistakenly):

$1,000,000             (approximate entry fees)
             ÷  9             (the number of categories)
$111,111             (entry fees per category)

NOTE: This assumed that all categories received a ninth of the entries, or about 3,703 entries, at $30 apiece.

Okay, upon further examination, my math was really wrong because the Writer’s Digest competitions website also lists separate competitions for self-published books, popular fiction, short short stories, self-published ebooks, and poetry. These other contests must be part of the organization’s revenue projections, and I’ve only been looking at the Annual Writing Competition.

The one number I may be close to right on is that $1 million in contest revenue would require more than 33,000 submissions at $30 apiece, not counting expenses for prizes, administration, honorariums for judges, and so on. Nonetheless, the odds of winning or placing among 33,000-plus submissions doesn’t give me any sense that the odds may ever be in my favor, no matter how good or bad my writing is.

I apologize for picking on Writer’s Digest, but their contest just happens to be the one I read about recently. I don’t think their contests are alone in being a “profit center,” to quote Friedman again. I also doubt their odds are unusual among big contests.

Better odds in local and regional contests

When considering contests, I look for better odds. I’ve found this in local and regional contests, especially those held by nonprofits. These contests may attract a few hundred entries instead of thousands.

For example, the annual Wisconsin People & Ideas contests for fiction and poetry received 69 fiction entries and 585 poems in 2014 (the most recent year that I could find reported entry numbers for). The odds were much better for fiction (1 winner in 23), whereas the poetry odds were much tougher (1 winner in 195).

The regular entry fee is $20, and cash prizes range from $500 to $100 for the first- through third-place, respectively. While both the odds and the potential ROI for this contest seem more attractive, entries are limited to Wisconsin writers.

NOTE: In addition to cash awards, the Writer’s Digest contest offers introductions to agents and other benefits that are difficult to place a cash value on. Similarly, Wisconsin People & Ideas, a publication of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences Arts & Letters, offers winners benefits such as a residency, publication in the journal, and a reading during the Wisconsin Book Festival.

Acceptance rates for general submissions

Acceptance rates of 1 to 2 percent seem common among many literary magazines, based on what I’ve read through the years.

In a 2016 Review Review article, “Is Duotrope Accurate? Ten Lit Mags Provide an Answer,” writer Jason Peck compared journal acceptance rates to what Duotrope users were reporting.

Here are a few of the acceptance rates literary magazines provided to Peck:

  • Colorado Review 1.06% acceptance rate
  • Flash Fiction Online 0.7% acceptance rate
  • Rattle 0.717% acceptance rate

Tahoma Literary Review regularly provides acceptance rates on a page titled “What We Pay (and how we do it).” For example, the fall/winter 2018 issue received 1,225 submissions, of which 25 were published, which is a 2% acceptance rate (if my math is correct). If you’re interested, the TLR website breaks the submissions down by category.

Final thoughts (for now)

In the end, contests may offer a bit more recognition, money, and perks, but their entry fees could quickly drain your budget for marketing your creative writing. On the plus side, contests offer a deadline, which may help push a project through to completion. Remember, however, that deadlines may be extended to attract more fee-paying competitors.

10 ways to access literary magazines before submitting: How to research markets for your writing

Race horses postcard2

Vintage postcard: On the turn at Gulfstream Park Race Course, Hallandale, Florida

The warp speed way to exit the slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts isn’t what you want, but writing that is poorly targeted may get just that treatment at literary magazines.

As a former fiction editor at Hayden’s Ferry Review, I remember the easiest (and most frustrating) rejections were the texts that weren’t in the universe of our submission guidelines: Literature written for very young children. No. Graphic sex and bestiality scenes with little story. No. Academic essays. No.

NOTE: See the Hayden’s Ferry Review website or Submittable portal for their guidelines. They’re currently seeking submissions for their “Magic” issue.  

While university literary magazines run by graduate or undergraduate students may demonstrate changing literary tastes or themes from year to year, they seldom make wide swings away from a core mission. Therefore, it’s easy for the editors at almost any publication to see who submitted works for consideration without researching guidelines or reading published issues first.

Ignore the oft-heard advice “read an issue before submitting” at your peril. Here are 10 ways to access current literary magazines. Many ways to do this market research are free.

Printed sources

Strategies for getting your hands on recent publications include:

  • Sample issues: Many literary magazines offer online pay portals.
  • Book fairs: Associated Writing Programs and other writing conferences and festivals.
  • Newsstands: College and commercial bookstores.
  • Libraries: Current periodicals sections, especially at college and university libraries. (free)
  • Literary magazine offices: Many magazines exchange copies with their peers, but you may need to know someone on staff to gain access. (free)

Electronic sources

Exploring a magazine’s content continues to get easier through online options:

  • Web excerpts: Content may include pieces from current or past print magazines. (free)
  • Web-only content: In addition to excerpts from print issues, some magazines offer web-only content. Note the submission process and guidelines may be separate from that of the print issues. (often free)
  • Publication newsletters: Magazines such as Kenyon Review offer weekly newsletters that link to content currently available online. (free)
  • E-magazines: Print magazines may offer pdf versions that can be downloaded immediately. Prices for these e-issues tend to be lower, possibly noting the absence of printing and shipping costs.
  • Databases: Some literary magazines are indexed by databases available through college and university libraries. While some entries list only bibliographic information, others offer full-text files of individual sources (short stories, poems, essays, and so on). (free)

While reading an issue before submitting may help you target your writing efforts to more receptive publishers, the process also makes for good literary citizens. As much as you work hard and want your work to be read, other writers and publishers want the same thing.