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Welcome to the Con. Some Ugly Truths About Writing Contests.

So you’ve written a novel and you’re submitting it to a writing contest.

The small press looks legitimate. They seem open to diverse “experimental” writing (or are focused on some specific genre – regardless, you check them out, do your due diligence and conclude they are legit) and have an established track record. There’s a modest entry fee of somewhere between $20 and $30ish bucks. There’s a promise to publish the winner and pay them $10,000. Not bad. In fact you might even say, pretty, pretty good.

Except for one problem. There are 3 judges. And nearly 1,500 people entering the contest. Or, in the case of a contest named in honor of a famous Nobel winner from the deep South, there’s still 3 judges and approximately 2,000 entrants. Or another where it’s, we have been told, “around 800+.” So, let’s consider the odds.

Let’s say 800 manuscripts at approximately 250-300 pages each, equals approximately 240,000 pages divided between 3 people who, are profiled on the contest’s web page as having previously published with the small press hosting the contest, work regular, full time (i.e. non writing) jobs and are pursuing their own writing. Which requires each “judge” to read approximately 80,000 words. Or, roughly 66 copies of War and Peace. In the space of 6 months.

Think about that. Then ask yourself how much of your novel is actually going to get read?

The answer – almost none. And that’s the scam. Technically they’re not telling a lie and it thus appears there’s no fraud involved. And keep in mind that plenty of these contests don’t tell you that there’s an initial “pre-selection” by people not listed as “judges” who winnow the total down to ease the burden on the official “judges.” And keep in mind that not mentioning these other “non-judges” is in fact fraud.* And then consider the contests where they tell you up front about this pre-judging process – as if that makes it any more likely your novel will be read. Think about it: It’s the same 1,000 or more, 300 page manuscripts, being “read” by some other impossibly small, overworked bleary-eyed coterie of “readers” who aren’t really reading your book at all before passing on it. And out of that wreckage emerges five or six manuscripts they pass on to the official “judges.”

So the ugly truth is, the people running the contest would have to be idiots (don’t rule that out) to believe they’re running an honest competition, or they are deliberately ignoring the math which is a kind of negligence which in turn is morally another type of fraud – not remarkably different from any other bait and switch con job.

It’s called the reasonable standard rule – that is, based on what are the established and known standards for a given industry (say for example, flying an airplane or performing surgery) there are reasonable expectations of performance. Surgeons have to go to an accredited medical school, have to pass rigorous tests, and then spend years as apprentices and take more tests and then after years of this they are granted a license by the state. And if a surgeon screws up, in theory, there are multiple bodies of enforcement available to deal with the results.

In the world of publishing things are far more lax and yet, certain truths are well established. For example, it is generally understood that asking 3 people to read War and Peace, or some other tome, 66 times in 6 months is a suicide mission. If they read it once you’d be lucky and they would be crazed having forsaken almost all other activity in order to accomplish the task.

And then consider the number of web pages devoted to exposing fraudulent or bogus contests. Just do a Google search for writing contest scams and you’ll find dozens if not hundreds of blogs and articles all telling you what to watch out for except for one thing that they all fail to mention: the ratio of submitted manuscripts to the number of “judges.”

In a sense these contests are like state lotteries except, at least the state lotto is upfront about your terrible odds of winning the whole thing.

And yet, competition after competition is selling the same huckster crap to the thousands upon thousands of fools who have doubled-down on the original foolishness of attending some MFA factory that’s bilked them out of 50 grand or more and sent them, utterly unprepared out into the world of corporate publishing.

And that’s where we begin to touch on the truth of the issue. Because it’s not just that these competitions are essentially scams, it’s that they are scams existing like toxic nesting dolls inside the wider scam that is contemporary American economics, with its cannibalistic rituals of survival of the fittest where fit is defined as the person with the biggest conch shell, screaming that they are the last cannibal standing and the rest of you bitches can all go suck a bag of donkey dicks and die. Does anyone not on the payroll or sucking the corporate tit actually believe the Harvey Weinstein saga is an anomaly and that it is not indicative of the entirety of the American system? And we don’t mean there are malignant trolls in publishing harassing women authors – though surely there are some – we mean that there is a violent money talks ruthlessness to the entire system, and it is full of these carnival sideshow con artists offering what amounts to swamp land bargain basement deals that are really just con jobs. And everyone is so desperate that they all keep their mouths shut. Because they hope they will be the winner.

No one is reading your novel. No one is checking up on the judges and exactly how would you, short of giving them a pop quiz? 3 judges cannot read that much material and they know it and the people paying them know it, and the magazines taking money to run ads for them and their contests know it, and the people writing reviews about them know it, and if they don’t then they are fucking morons because if some guy is selling you what he claims are clean needles in a dark alley, and you’re stupid enough to believe him then you’re a fucking moron as well.

What the fuck is going on here? How did we get here? The answer is capitalism is cannibalistic and it eats itself and it is not sustainable. Everything cannot be turned into a mass production template. And in that regard we recall a guest at an MFA program at a fancy (by which we mean expensive) East Coast university who proudly told the students, that they want to read one line and know instantly which program the writer came from – or should we say from which hive had they been hatched? In other words you should be as easily identifiable as any other brand name product – you know – GM! Cool Ironic Nike Bennington! Postmodern Yale! Coke! Gothic chick-lit Sarah Lawrence! Realistic Burger King Iowa!

That is not art but it is capitalism, and it is cultural suicide and it is a template and mass production and it is toxic. Having cash cows like MFA programs is a dead end, and we are witnessing the opening death spiral of the entire system, and these contests are one of the dozens of canaries in the mineshaft of the nation falling over from a lack of clean air.

Consider the following which we’ve mentioned previously:

The Ink is reminded of two stories relayed by writers who taught at a prestigious East Coast university writing program.

The first one was friendly with a famous Italian film maker and a National Book Award winner, and once turned down lunch with Kurt Vonnegut out of anxiety at the prospect of meeting him.

Their story was about receiving a phone call from a friend who was a famous writer, and who wanted to know if the anxious one would be interested in helping to judge a writing contest. A small but not inconsequential amount of remuneration was involved, and anxiety agreed.

The next day a box arrived at their apartment and in it was somewhere in the neighborhood of 50,000 pages of fiction.

Anxiety called their friend and protested – I can not possibly read that much in the time available. What do you want me to do?

Oh, said the famous writer, read the first page, the middle page and the last page of each manuscript and pick the one you don’t hate and send the title to me.

The second writer relayed the following: While working as a reader for a major publishing house they were confronted by a high ranking sub-editor who leaned over a partition at the writer’s cubicle and said: You’re taking too long on your recommendations. Well, said the writer, there’s a lot of material. Yes, said the sub, and the way we deal with that is you read the first line, a line from the middle and the last line of the manuscript and you tell me if it’s any good.

Now while surely there are editors who don’t do that, and publishers who don’t do that, and contests where that doesn’t happen, it is somewhere well beyond banal to suggest what clearly is obvious about publishing – namely this shit happens all the time and is widespread.

Now let’s be honest. Not every publishing situation is like that but so what? How many does it take before we say, we have a problem. And to be clear – every contest is like that because they have no alternative. 3 “judges” cannot read 1000+ manuscripts in the time allotted and the magazines and small presses can’t afford to hire more than 3 therefore they are not reading and therefore the “contests” are scams. And if that reminds you of stories about “cattle calls” where some actor shows up for an audition and finds a room packed with hundreds of people who all look the same and the one who gets the part has the “best” tits or looks like the director’s more handsome cousin, then you’re on to the truth. There’s a glut, a sclerosis of the system. The nation’s arteries are clogged and publishing does not exist in some alternate dimension beyond the ill effects of a stagnant economy. Every industry in this country is closing in on itself because we are closing in on ourselves.

We have here at The Ink, tried crunching the numbers but given the ratio of pages to be read, relative to the number of readers the situation is essentially hopeless. Even allowing for conservative, or generous estimates one still ends up with more than a dozen judges having to read well over 10,000 pages each in order to ensure that each manuscript actually is read. This of course is beyond the budget of the average small press or magazine and probably even beyond the means of a major press or magazine.

What we are really discussing then is the inevitable collapse of an industry. And we should not be surprised. It is clear that every facet of our society, and what we might charitably call our culture is in freefall. This is the end. This is how things end. This is what the end of an empire looks like. This is what all the other decadent and depraved fin de siecle moments looked like. Trumpism is a symptom but then so was the Bush Cheney Junta and the Hipster “rebellion” that brought you Obama and the “authenticity” of the “Black experience” for White people who, having voted for him could pretend that history was from then on, going to be on autopilot.

Surprise!

History has other ideas.

So, they’ve gone and torn down paradise and put up a parking lot.

Update” 11/2/17

The Ink has had a mostly sincere (by which we mean they expressed honest chicanery and we expressed our honest contempt) exchange with the editor of a small press that runs a contest like the one’s we described. In this case the small press charges about $25 per submission, receives nearly 1,000 manuscripts, and pays $10,000 to the winner and publishes the book. They also say on their web page that submissions will be evaluated “in-house” before 5 (!) are passed on to the judges.

They say this as if it absolves them from responsibility for the fact that instead of the 3 “judges” having to read War and Peace 66 times, it’s their “in-house” staff that has to do it. Of course they don’t receive all 1,000 on the same day. The contest is open for 5 months. So on average, 200, 300 page manuscripts, every month. Multiplied by x number of “in-house” readers. Who are also working on other things, eating lunch, having emergencies, are out sick, need to take the kids to the doctor or the dog to the vet, or whatever else people normally have to do.

So how does it work?

Well it goes something like this: “In-house” staff is comprised of what – 3 full time editors (perhaps 2) an assistant, and…3 interns? Or should we imagine a small press version of Santa’s workshop where an infinite army of magical elves are able to read 240,000 pages in five months and draw that number down to…5.

And to be fair let’s do the math: Let’s be generous and assume an “in-house” group of 6 readers. And 200, 300 page manuscripts. That’s 60,000 pages divided by 6. Or 10,000 pages per person and keep in mind if one of the readers recommends a manuscript another reader has to read it as well and surely each manuscript has to be read at least twice which now doubles the number to 20,000 per reader each month. Or to put it another way, that’s roughly 16 copies of War and Peace. Each month for 5 months.

No, we’re afraid that won’t do at all. It’s a scam and a mug’s game to try and score against those odds. At anything less than 50 readers the numbers still heave into view with all the subtlety of a bull elephant with a hard-on. And there’s no way they are employing 50 readers or any magic elves.

It’s a scam. Inside another scam which resides inside another…and so on like a corrupt financial mobius strip that is slowly choking itself to death.

Update: 11/2/17.

Regarding the small press with whom The Ink has been corresponding. As of August 7th, 2017, the small press has exactly, 4 employees.

4.

Reading 200 manuscripts a month.

Or, 12.5 copies of War and Peace, each. Every month, for 5 months.

And expects to be taken seriously as an honest outfit that’s not running a scam.

Update: 11/2/17

The Ink has read a note from a small press editor to a writer who submitted a novel to the press contest. In the course of the exchange the editor said: “I’m one of the people who read your novel.”

The clear implication being, that the editor did not read all of the other submissions.

As we said, this is a scam but not one where the editor and friends premeditated it but rather, in a kind of foggy moral malaise, devoid of the tension having a functioning conscience and a spine produces, they have wallowed into an intellectual stupor where they count the money, divy the paper and congratulate themselves for being small press hep kats, living the dream.

Like we said…it’s a con.

Don’t fall for it.

update: 11/3/17

Regarding our point above that we have no doubt that Weinstein-esque stories were occurring in publishing, see the story at the link below:

http://www.weeklystandard.com/the-sins-of-leon-wieseltier/article/2010308

Or consider the scandal involving Jorie Graham.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/jul/04/news.comment

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