Saturday, July 4, 2009

Pay to Play

I'd dropped by the house of another poet the other week, and she had a copy of last month's Poets and Writers magazine. I skimmed through it, and flipped back through until I noticed that they had a list of various literary competitions. It wasn't an exhaustive list- P&W's listing only included contests and grants with prizes of over a thousand dollars, and that's barely the tip of the iceberg (for example, google gives me over a hundred thousand hits for "poetry contest" plus "prize.") But flipping through their list-- Fifteen dollar entry fee. Ten dollar entry fee. Twenty-five dollar entry fee. For my own edification, I added it all up. Fifty-eight contests were listed with a total of One thousand, one hundred and twelve dollars of entry fees. $1112.

I've posted about scam poetry contests before (see "the great Wergle Flomp"), but this wasn't a list of scam contests, this was a list of "respectable" competitions.

Personally, I have a rule: I don't enter writing contests with entry fees. Period. But yet, I know that other people do.

Is this really the way people gain respectability in the literary poetry community? Entering contests? Or is this an example of the literary establishment taking cynical advantage of vulnerable, hopeful writers?

Yes, I've talked to editors, and I've heard their side of the story. Even quite legitimate, respectable publishers tell me about how hard it is to find the money to keep alive, how desperate they are for even small amounts of funding-- for that matter, about how running a contest costs money, and that they aren't even covering their expenses.

Still. What they're telling me is that their readers aren't willing to pay for poetry, and so they have to subsidize their magazines (and contests) with money from the writers and the would-be writers. They are, essentially, feeding off of hope.

Now, this practice isn't going to go away just because I refuse to participate. People are willing to pay for their dreams.

Still, I'm wondering. If readers aren't willing to pay to read what their writers write, and a magazine can only survive by cadging money from writers (and would-be writers) to publish... I wonder if these are really contributing to the literary world. Maybe we might all do better if some of these just quietly folded, leaving, perhaps, the rest-- the ones people really do read-- just a little bit stronger.

How about you? Do you enter contests?


Runechris said...

Well this is how they subsidize these contests.. is by using the fees the contestants pay to field the prizes.

Sort of self -sustaining..

I'm afraid it is similar to reading poetry in some communities. Here in Detroit, many of the venues require a fee to read.. even for open mic...

Also if you are not one of the "students" of the promoter of the event you must pay to read.

It seems quite common to pay to publish and pay to read....

I don't like it.

Theresa Göttl Brightman said...

I admit, I've paid to enter contests before, although I try to be a bit more selective about which ones I enter. And I've been actively seeking out the free ones first, of course. Everything is a learning experience though...

And I understand the funding issue, but, Geoff, I think you may be right. If the market has no demand for the poetry these mags are printing, maybe they should just fold. As discussed on another entry on this blog, there is a lot of bad poetry out there...far outstripping readership, I'm sure...

But Chris brings up a REALLY good point, I think...cover charges for open mics.

Now, I've read somewhere that the reason some poetry open mics will charge a cover is because they are funding slam teams to go to competitions, and therefore, they need the money to do so. SOME of them, anyway.

I can almost go along with that.


I might even be willing to overlook it if it were only $1 or $2...

But I still find myself morally opposed to paying four or five bucks so that _I_ can perform somewhere for 30 seconds. If there is pay involved, isn't it supposed to be the other way around? Shouldn't the PERFORMERS be paid?

I realize that poets usually don't make money for performances. But to expect them to pay to read is an outrageous concept to me. Maybe I'm just too influenced by musicians I know who would balk at the idea of having to pay a cover charge to perform somewhere, even for an open mic. And while there are a few music open mics around that I've heard of that charge a cover, usually those who sign up do not have to pay to get in.

It's understood that the venue is making money off the gig via food, drink, or merchandise sales, and if we're only paying to support the emcee, then he or she needs to work that out with the venue.

That's my take, anyway...

Shelley Chernin said...

I only enter free contests, but I'm not ambitious about my poetic life. I've often wondered, when I see that one young poet or another has won this prize or that, whether participating in contests that charge fees is necessary in order to build a career as a poet, as least in the academic world. Maybe it's not so, but it's something I've wondered about.

I can't imagine paying to perform for any reason. I might pay a cover charge to get into a venue if everyone was required to pay, whether or not they read.

Anonymous said...

I don't enter many contests, but I don't feel I'm at that point with my writing that I'd have any real shot at winning contests. And I simply don't have the money to pay the 10 or 15 bucks over and over again. The contest branch of poetry definitely has some class exclusion with it, favoring poets with steady, surplus income.

I am, however, willing to pay reading fees when it comes to chapbook competitions, if only because of the amount of time invested in reading the stack of poems is much greater than reading 1-3 poems. Nearly all chapbook competitions include a cash prize for the winner, which I'm assuming is usually less than the amount they take in on reading fees.

So are reading fees "pay to publish?" I don't think so. But they do serve to keep poor and working class poets out of certain ranks.

John B. Burroughs said...

I've never entered a contest for pay. The couple of times I've entered a free contest, I had to be talked into it - and then I felt slightly dirty afterward. I don't begrudge those who put on and enter poetry contests. Such contests have their place and purpose - and can even be said to do some good for all poets, including those who don't participate. But I don't think they're right for me.

Whether he was right or wrong, everytime I think about entering a contest (and I am by nature very competitive) I hear in my head the immortal words of Bela Bartok: "Competitions are for horses, not artists." Then again, Ovid accurately observed that "A horse never runs so fast as when he has other horses to catch up and outpace."

I remain ambivalent, though I continue to lean a bit against contests. I'm not sure the best win most of the time anyway. Look at this year's American Idol. ;)

John B. Burroughs said...

By the way, I LOVE the graphic you chose to accompany this blog.

Geoffrey A. Landis said...

JC wrote: By the way, I LOVE the graphic you chose to accompany this blog.

Thanks! I grabbed that from . By the way, that blog, a cool friday, is a fun site to visit, if you have a bit of spare time.

Pressin On said...

most university presses including CSU and Kent State charge reading fees. and to win one of their first book contests, or annual chap contests is without a doubt a feather in the cap--a true achievement.

i think its gross to generalize in this fashion. is Mary Weems a wanna be because she paid Kent State to read her winning book of Wick poetry series poems?

come on. jeez.

sammy greenspan said...

Any submission for publication is a competition of sorts, unless the magazine publishes every single submission. Yes, sometimes the "best" don't win (or get accepted for regular publication). That's life. And "best," being subjective, is usually debatable. Competition is intrinsic to a life in the arts. Which painter gets the gallery show, which musician gets the gig, which poet or novelist gets into hard copy...

If you don't do your homework before forking over you fee, you might as well flush the money. But some contests are clearly legitimate and attentive, and yes, respectable "wins" make good resume copy (and can get your book in print).

From the publisher of Pudding House, the largest literary small press in the US, a perspective on reading fees:


Geoffrey A. Landis said...

Pressin On wrote: "i think its gross to generalize in this fashion. is Mary Weems a wanna be because she paid Kent State to read her winning book of Wick poetry series poems?"

Is blaming the victim something you do a lot?

Even if I think that charging reading fees is abusive, it's the people who charge the fees that I have a problem with, not the people who they are taking advantage of.

There's no connection between whether you pay a reading fee and the quality of your poetry. Paying a reading fee doesn't make good poetry bad, nor does it make bad poetry good.

Kent State may indeed run an upstanding contest. However, I personally do not like the way they choose to finance it.

PS to sammy: thanks for the link to Pudding House's discussion of the issue. An interesting view from the other side!

Pressin On said...

Landis-- don't know what yr driving at with the blame the victim comment, but i was responding to this you wrote:

"Is this really the way people gain respectability in the literary poetry community? Entering contests? Or is this an example of the literary establishment taking cynical advantage of vulnerable, hopeful writers?"

i guess i think yes, in many cases including Wick, entering contests can gain one respectability in the writing community. keeping on Wick, i also hail them for such affordable cover prices of the chaps--this way we all can support their contest which can catapult a career.

sammy greenspan said...

Most welcome for the link. But I'd beg to differ with your characterization of Jen Bosveld as "the other side." Publisher, yes. Editor, yes. But she is a poet like you, first and last.

Let's be gentle with the organizations which promote poetry and the arts in general. If you find them imperfect, you are free to create a better version.

If you uncover an outright fraud, nepotism or false advertising, by all means, widely post the specific culprit contest. Just be cautious with your broad brush. People who slave for practically no money and little recognition, reading, editing and publishing poetry because they love it, believe in it and feel strongly that it deserves a life in the world are only human. They can feel frustrated and demoralized when the very community they seek to serve has nothing but vitriol to offer in response--just as we can feel put off by the dizzying array of contests more than ready to empty our wallets on the promise of sudden recognition.

There are so many worthy targets for the energy of our anger, besides artists and arts organizations. Of course, my humble opinion only. Your mileage may vary.

Greg said...

i've entered many contests that charge fees, but only if i could afford it and i thought i had a reasonable chance at winning.

free contests are certainly better, but magazines need to make money too, and lately it seems a new one folds every week.

plus, many university mags that run contests include a year's subscription for the entry fee, and many chapbook competitions send copies of the winning book to all entrants.

to each his own. no one forces us to enter poetry contests, it's each poet's choice.


The poet doesn't invent. He listens. ~Jean Cocteau