This week marks the anniversary of the founding of Paper Nautilus, a small press I started seven years ago. By the end of this Spring, we will have published a free digital anthology, six annual print issues, and 22 chapbooks. While Paper Nautilus has shifted its focus over the years from being primarily a literary journal to more of a chapbook press, both ventures can be difficult to manage and sustain, which is why we rely on running annual contests. Each year, we accept entries to the Vella Chapbook Prize and the Debut Series Chapbook Prize, open annually February 15 – May 15, and select a total of two to seven winners. Some of our practices are unique, but I try to uphold some key principles in an effort to make our operations as pro-writer as possible, or the way I would want to be treated as a writer. While contests are important to publishers, they can be highly valuable opportunities to writers, as well. Some key things I consider in running my chapbook press, but also when submitting my own work to contests, include:
Affordable: free submissions are obviously ideal, but I understand that entry fees are sometimes difficult to avoid, and most reputable outlets are rarely spending them on anything other than supporting the publication. At my own press, contest submission fees range from $5 to $15 – and that range includes the “up-charge” options for getting a book in addition to submitting a 24-page manuscript to the contest. While I’m not here to point fingers at any organization, I’ve seen fees as high as $38 just to submit three poems to a contest. I am comfortable saying that a contest with fees that high is out of my reach, so to speak, and I’m willing to bet that’s true for a number of people reading this.
The “Prize”: since we are talking about contests, that implies prizes are involved. This, I suspect, is a bit more individualized. Cash prizes are pretty hard to argue with, and what seems fair varies from person to person. If I’m looking specifically for a cash prize, I gravitate towards $500 and up, but you may feel differently. I have seen some contests that also offer trips to a specific writing retreat and/or workshops with famous authors, which is definitely valuable as far as prizes go, but sometimes harder for winners to juggle the logistics. A few contests offer more modest prizes: say, five copies of the winning book and $100. I personally am less drawn to these, because I’ll probably spend most of that $100 buying my own copies to try to sell at events or give to family. So at Paper Nautilus we pay with lots of copies: between 50 and 100, in addition to 10% royalties on any books we sell from our website. Which brings me to my next point…
Terms and Conditions: If the contest is for an individual work within a literary journal, this may be less applicable than with a manuscript contest, but still worth considering. What happens to the rights of your work upon publication, and do you have the freedom to republish the work later on? If it’s a manuscript contest, will you be paid royalties? Or held responsible for meeting “sales quotas” of your book before it’s released? For example, some presses offer fee-free submissions to contests, but then require the author to sell several dozen copies before the book is released. I have experienced this model as an author, and while it does ensure that no one has to pay to have their work considered, I’m not an especially aggressive salesperson when it comes to my own books, and found it draining. In short, I can appreciate the benefits of that model, but that arrangement is just not ideal for me; I’d rather have more freedom to sell my books on my own terms.
Artistic or Stylistic Range: As someone working in poetry and fiction (and maybe even some memoir thrown in the mix), sometimes I have manuscripts in different genres, or where those genres overlap. Not all contests are intended for variety – for example, contests for individual sonnets, or stories under 500 words to be included in a literary journal, which are a great way to celebrate specific kinds of writing. But in terms of manuscript contests, it does make me feel more enthusiastic sending my work to an outlet where I feel like they have published a variety of innovative styles, authors, and themes in their catalogue. Manuscript contests for works other than poetry are a lot harder to find, too, and I wish more existed, so I often jump at the chance to enter any (reasonable) contest that welcomes prose at all. At Paper Nautilus, whether they are poetry or prose, I try to consider if that manuscript offers something I’ve either never read or published before, and that’s something I try to look for in other places I send my own work. Sometimes checking out what has won a contest in past years is a good indicator if your work is a good fit for submitting this time around, especially if it’s the same editor selecting the winners annually and they don’t rely on different guest judges each year.
I hope some of my criteria on how I evaluate writing contests has been helpful. I hope this helps you find, evaluate, and submit to the contests that offer you the experience (and prizes!) that are the most appealing to you.
Do you have something say about poetry? An essay on being a poet, tips for poets, or poetry you love? TrishHopkinson.com is now accepting pitches for guest blog posts.