On the Writing Contest and the Lottery

Come on! Play Powerball! You could be the next winner!

Winning a writing contest, especially a prestigious one, may be the foot in the door for an aspiring writer, that splash in the literary pond that may get the attention of agents and pubishing houses.  More likely it is a flash in the pan, considering the sheer number of such contests offered by small presses, universities and arts organizations.  A perusal of the contest and award section of Poets & Writers Magazine gives an inkling of the extent of this market. Contests are only one part of the burgeoning business to help the unpublished get published.  The lure of getting a book published even if it is less than a thousand copies induces many writers to fork over the cost of the entry fee.  It’s like playing the slot machines. Beware feeding the machine more than you can afford to lose. The odds of your winning are stacked against you.

When I was young and was a dreamer, I thought I could win too. I wrote more than one check for an entry fee.  I do not envy the task of the judge who selects the ostensible “winner” from the group of outstanding finalists, most likely all of equal merit.  When the choice has to be made, the judge will be the first to admit that it probably amounts to a taste for one theme over the others. The very idea of having to deem one the best manuscript is distasteful to me. Clearly, today with the number of creative writing programs and excellent writers trying to break into the publishing world, there is a super-abundance of work worthy of recognition. There just isn’t the publishing dollars or the reading public to support all of them, so to my mind writing contests primarily benefit the organizations sponsoring them. The entry fees fund their activities and do not necessarily promote the interests of the writers. They rely on a legion of gullible writers, many with unpolished manuscripts, whose work is immediately rejected and whose checks are just as speedily deposited into the organization’s bank account. The entry fees are used to cover the cost of printing the magazine and books of the contest’s sponsor. Income from subscriptions to literary magazines is not sufficient to pay for its publication nor do sales of works classified as literary keep a commercial publisher in business, and certainly not a small press. In addition to proceeds from contest fees, the small independent press may have to rely upon grants and gifts from generous donors.

Although I am dubious of contests both because of the odds against winning one and the principle of singling out one work for recognition in a plethora of deserving writing, others will see merit in the proliferation of such contests. The effort of submission to these contests, the time expended, and the money fruitlessly invested in my estimation are better spent in the writing of more stories, novels and poems, merely because the chances are slim of the aspiring writer ever gaining more fame or recognition in the literary world, even if he happens to win,  than the writer who does not spin the roulette wheel in a writing contest.

I wonder how many of those books that make the list of top hundred books of the last fifty years or the last 100 years ever won a pre-publication contest. These lists are interesting because there is quite a bit of congruence among the books chosen by different list-makers. I do see the value of publishers entering their best published works in a contest after the fact. The prize-winning books inevitably receive increased sales.  In any event, the unpublished author should venture into the land of competition with caution.  As anyone who habitually buys lottery tickets recites,”Someone has to win; it just as well could be me as anyone else.” I wish that person Bonne Chance!

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