Running a writing contest may seem like a risky undertaking for a literary magazine. In order to get any interest at all, you have to put up some prize money. What happens if there aren’t enough entrants to cover your prize purse? How is a literary magazine supposed to come up with that cash? Well, if money’s the only thing you’re worried about, then you aren’t prepared to host a writing contest.
This year, we hosted the 6th Annual Dialogue Contest. The participation was unbelievable, and we were able to award over $2300 to our five finalists. That amount of prize money makes our Dialogue Contest one of the best-paying writing contests on the web. How does a contest sponsored by a small literary magazine get to be so big?
Minimizing the Risk
Before getting into the details about how to make your writing contest huge, let’s talk briefly about how to reduce the risk. There are several risks involved when hosting a contest. The two biggest are:
- Losing money
- Dealing with complaints (about judging, submission fees, etc.)
In order to minimize the money lost, I recommend using a formula similar to what we do at Bartleby Snopes. Start with a guaranteed amount that won’t break the bank (we originally started with $250 and now guarantee at least $500). Charge a modest submission fee (we have always charged $10). Add a little bit of money to the prize pot for each entry over a certain threshold. For example, once you get to 25 entries, add an extra $5-$6 for each new submission. Two warnings here:
- You will need more entries than you think to cover the prize money (if you have a $10 entry fee, you should only count on $9 per entry after processing fees).
- You’ll get the majority of entries near the deadline, so don’t panic if it seems like you’re behind.
Don’t promise an amount that you don’t feel comfortable losing. Always imagine the worst-case scenario. Can you afford to pay the entire prize money out of your pocket? If not, then lower your starting amount (or don’t have the contest at all).
The other major risk you run into when hosting a contest is backlash from the non-winning writers. If you aren’t careful, there may be cries of bias or unfair judging procedures. Writers may ask for their fees to be returned. You may hear complaints that the winning entries weren’t any good. You need to be sure your contest rules are clearly stated, including a bit of legalese. Don’t forget to include these statements:
- All decisions made by the judges regarding the winners are final
- No contest entry fees will be returned
- By submitting, you are agreeing to all contest rules
- Contest rules are subject to change
Additionally, it’s always a good idea to be specific regarding all the various components of the contest. Tell your submitters who the judges are, where the contest fees go, when the winning stories will be published, etc. By taking this proactive and transparent approach, we have been able to stay clear of complaints. None of the writers have asked for their fee to be returned (unless there was a glitch), and only one writer has complained about the results (it was a cry of sexism because one year all 5 winners in our BLIND contest were males).
Getting Enough Entries
Our Dialogue Contest wasn’t always a big deal. During our first year, we gave out just $450. While many writers would be thrilled to win a piece of that, we’re not exactly talking about big bucks. Five years later, our prize pot was over five times that. How were we able to grow so much during that time?
If you want to maximize the number of entries your writing contest gets, you need to do a few things:
- Make the prize worth it
- Establish credibility
- Be transparent
- Advertise and promote
- Do something unique
Make the Prize Worth It
A contest doesn’t have to award over two thousand dollars to be worth it. Of course, that all depends on what you are asking the writers to do. The higher the fee you are charging, the bigger the prize should be. I recommend a prize-to-fee ratio of at least 20 to 1 (that’s a $100 prize for a $5 entry fee). If the prize is only $25, you aren’t going to get people who are willing to pay $5 or $10 to enter. If your prize-to-fee ratio is on the lower end, be sure to throw in some extra incentive (such as a free issue or subscription). Never offer guaranteed publication to all entrants.
There are a couple other things to consider when making a prize that’s worth the entry fee:
- What are the odds of winning?
- How much work does the writer need to do to participate?
If you are getting thousands of entries, you need a huge prize. The lower the odds an individual writer has, the more you better hand out.
If you are asking for a very specific story, or if your contest requests a large volume of work, then you need to respect the effort a writer will have to put in to participate. Writers aren’t going to create a story just for your contest if they have only a small chance of winning a small prize.
This might sound like it’s impossible to achieve during the first year of your contest, but it definitely can be done. Here are a few suggestions:
- Get an endorsement from a respected figure in the writing community (this could be in the form of a guest judge)
- Get your contest listed by credible publications
- Establish yourself as a respected and professional publisher/editor prior to hosting a contest
- Make sure your contest details are thorough
I wouldn’t recommend launching a contest during the first few months your publication exists. Establish yourself first, then establish your contest.
In a world where privacy is becoming more and more of a commodity, people want to know more and more about what they are getting into. Don’t hide anything about your contest. Be forthcoming about everything, including:
- Who the judges are (provide names and links for guest judges)
- Where the money will go (especially if your contest will bring in more money than it awards)
- When and how the winners will be paid
- When and how entrants will be notified
- When the winning stories will be published
Additionally, if you’ve run the contest in the past, you need to make examples of past winners easily available. If the only way to see past winners is by paying money, then you aren’t being transparent. It’s also a good idea to write a blog post or article about the contest. For example, you could discuss the types of stories that generally don’t do well in your contest. Or you could give tips about preparing a contest entry. Naturally, this will also help to establish your credibility.
Advertise and Promote
Advertising your contest can add up quickly. An ad in Poets & Writers can run you $500 or more. Add in a few other ads and maybe some promoted posts on Facebook and Twitter, and you are easily looking at $800-$1000 just to advertise your contest (which is about what we spent to promote our contest this year).
If paying big bucks to promote your contest isn’t in the cards for you, then find as many free outlets as possible. Make sure you have a contest listing everywhere you can. There are dozens of lists that compile writing contests for free. Make sure you are on all of them (or at least all the ones you qualify for). Have a separate listing on Duotrope that’s just for your contest. Post about your contest in legitimate writing forums. Reach out to MFA programs and ask if they will spread the word. Be sure to put together a professional announcement regarding the contest. In many cases, your free promotion will bring in more entries than your paid ads (in the coming weeks, we will release data that supports this).
Of course, you should also use social media, but promoting your contest doesn’t just mean you Tweet about it every day. If you really want to promote a contest, you need to find a variety of outlets. The most valuable promotion is anywhere people are already looking for opportunities to make money as writers (online contest listings, Poets & Writers Contest Issue, social media groups dedicated to paying publications, etc.).
Do Something Unique
There are thousands of writing contests held every year. If you want people to enter yours, you need to do something different from everyone else. If your guidelines are “Write any story you want and we’ll pick the best one and give you a handful of money,” then no one is going to submit. When I created the Dialogue Only Contest, I was trying to do something I hadn’t seen done anywhere else before. My “great” ideas included:
- A rolling rejection process
- Unlimited entries for one price
- A growing prize purse
- A very specific format (stories had to be composed entirely of dialogue)
I can’t tell you how many writers have contacted us to say they really enjoyed participating in this contest. Every year, I’m surprised by how many entrants respond to rejection letters by thanking us for hosting the contest.
Hosting a writing contest is no easy task. There are plenty of obstacles you will deal with along the way, none more difficult than the colossal challenge of sorting through all the entries to pick a winner. If you run your contest the right way, you will find it a rewarding experience. Being able to award almost $2400 to writers is definitely worth the hard work.