Wednesday, June 12, 2013

7 sexy moves to try on your poetry contest tonight! (is not the way to sell mags, I say in an open letter to Poets and Writers Magazine)

Here's another mag that promises to give you
 what you really, really want...
Photo by Flickr user Fonzie's cousin.
I read Poets and Writer's Magazine like many writers.

And because I mouthed off on Twitter recently about yet another ridiculously overpriced contest fee (ICYMI, I hate fees), I decided to click on a PW link promising "more efficient and effective" contest submissions.

Well, that's a click and five minutes of my life I won't get back.

"The Smart Approach to Contest Submissions" isn't super smart.

Go ahead, read it, I'll wait.

Conceptually, the "approach" is a little Cosmopolitan, right? A little "I know what you want, giiiirl, and I'm gonna tell you how to get and keep a man NOW," right? Except what do you really get, besides a magazine?

At the very absolute least, if you've sent even one submission before in your life, these tips are beyond duh.

Think I'm being harsh? The first tip is to, um, finish my work before sending it out.

Disclaimer, before we go any further: I have not won contests. Is that because my poetry sucks, or because I rarely submit to them? Could be the former, but is definitely the latter. Still, if I adore the press and am getting a copy of the winning book, I'll consider sending to contests, hence why I clicked on the link to this article. If you sense bitterness, it's not about not having won, it's about not being able to afford to try.

There, that's out of the way.

The second tip's only flaw is that it's a submission cliche at this point: Know your sponsoring organization. Okaaaay. But then: Have you read all the books published in the past year by the press that's running the contest?

Are you expletiving kidding me? Do they all cost $20? Do I get a copy of one of them in exchange for my submission fee? Do libraries in my east coast town carry all the small press titles published on the west coast? Is the editor the same this year as last year, because if not, I can pretty much have read every book published in that press's state and it won't matter one tiny bit.

Third tip: Judge your judge. I'm all over this one. Except: Try to figure out not only how she writes, but how she reads, how she thinks. This is a poetry contest, not effing NCIS. I'm truly disturbed by that sentence. Moving on.

Follow the rules? Buckets of duh.

Don't use script fonts? Buckets of duh.

Keep track of your submissions? If you can afford multiple $25 contest submissions, sure. Not only will you have a better sense of how much you are investing in writing contests -- do you really wanna know? -- you may also allay some anxiety about when you'll get that phone call or email of congratulations. No, you won't. If you're neurotic enough to create "some sort of spreadsheet" (Full disclosure: I am. It's very prettily color-coded.), then you're neurotic enough to check that spreadsheet several times a week, compare it to the promised response times on the journals'/press's websites, and have a running calendar in your head of when it's time to query who. Track your submissions, yes. But if you're someone already prone to being anxious, then anxiety during the waiting game is par for the submissions course. False hope much?

The last tip is a very pep talk-y Keep writing. Booored. Also, buckets of duh.

To my 2.5 readers, if you're still in dire need of some tips, I have a few.
  1. Don't read PW for submission tips unless this is your absolute very first foray into the submissions pool and you intend to get the degrees and play the game, all in. And if so, read this post I wrote, too. It decodes phrases commonly found in submission guidelines and offers a snarky little list of dos and don'ts.
  2. Keep track of current submissions, yes, but also, keep a record of previous submissions. I've been sending poems to Rattle for literally years, with no bite (I still love you, Rattle). Imagine how stupid I'd look if I kept sending the same ones. If it's your chapbook or book and you're paying a reading/contest fee, this tip is even more important -- and the risk of stupidity is even greater. And it should go without saying that you should keep good enough records that you aren't sending out work that's already been published, but it unfortunately happens, so I'm saying it.
  3.  Get a Submittable account, and make sure your Paypal info is linked to your bank account, or that the credit card you have on file hasn't expired. This tip is based on a true story in which my carefully prepared submission to a contest that met my standards -- hair toss -- was returned because my credit card was expired and therefore declined. This is the literary equivalent of having to walk away from a cart overflowing with groceries at the register. I know about that, too, BTW.
Please remember that there is no "tip" that increases your chances of winning a contest. There are only tips to more easily navigate the process.  You write the best you can, and you cross your fingers and throw salt over your shoulder as you send work off to presses/editors/judges who you feel will be receptive to it. There's no such thing as "get published quick," or even "quicker." Reprinting your manuscript every time, lest the pages be wrinkled, is NOT going to make you more likely to win a friggin poetry contest. I'd publish great poetry that was submitted on a bar napkin, if Blood Lotus took snail mail submissions. Don't be deterred from the only tried and true method: Read widely, write often, write well, revise mercilessly, know your market, and be good to other writers. Practice these things until they become "buckets of duh." (Note: Buckets of duh is my intellectual property, lol.)

Man, if PW was willing to give me a byline (the author of "Smart Approach" is "Staff"--I hope it wasn't all of them), I'm available for freelance gigs. They should get at me.

Finally, I say all of this out of love and respect for the art I/we practice. I'm frustrated with the biz. I'm frustrated that it IS a biz. I want to at least try to help people before they, too, get frustrated, and maybe give up on trying to share their work with readers like me. Or on writing altogether.

That said, and as promised, here's the, um, polished (?) version of the above, which I'll send to PW. It won't be printed, won't receive a condescendingly polite response from an editor, won't thrust me into any kind of spotlight where recent big contest winners take up their forum posts to hurl insults at me like "She's just trying to be famous!" or "She acts all indie, but I heard she didn't follow Tao Lin on Twitter until after he signed with Vintage!", and won't start a literary shitstorm.

But dang if I don't feel better having written it.

Open letter to the staff of Poets and Writers Magazine:

First, thank you for being a publication devoted to writing. Second, thank you for being a publication devoted to writing, with due attention paid to contemporary poetry.

Third, please remove the "Smart Approach to Contest Submissions" article from your website.

Over recent years, I can't help but notice that, despite the occasional shriek that poetry is "dead," there are new book contests, chapbook contests, first book contests, "best poem" contests, editors' choice contests, and so on, all the time. Regarding contest fees, as both a poet and an editor, and a former small press publisher, I have two distinct but not mutually exclusive opinions: 1) Writers deserve a fair shot at publication and prizes, not the illusion of a fair shot, and 2) editors and publishers deserve compensation for their time and energies.

I strongly believe your magazine is selling the notion that the contest system as it currently exists is fair, when in fact, it exploits both parties--writers who forgo buying lunch to enter a contest they think they have a chance at winning, and editors who are too busy and underpaid to read the not-ready manuscripts of duped writers.

Further, in your desire to sell magazines, I feel you are taking advantage of poets seeking to win contests to further their careers by normalizing a pay-to-play contest system that does not have at its core a desire to promote a wide range of the best poetry being written today. Which means that you as a magazine are not demonstrating a desire to promote a wide range of the best poetry being written today.

I feel it's time for a frank discussion about the very first--not necessarily the only, but the first--thing that separates contest winners from non: The ability to pay $15-$40 to have our manuscripts read and, statistically speaking, rejected.

But that discussion is for another day, soon.

For now, I take issue with your magazine's preoccupation with promoting contests/the contest system and what I'm sure is nice advertisement revenue, rather than with helping people be better writers.

Please promote books. Promote authors. Promote small presses. Please promote a reading life, rather than a writing business. Good readers make good writers, and better writers make better manuscripts, which make for a better pool of submissions, which makes better and more fulfilling work for editors and publishers and results in the publication of better books, which will in turn make better readers, and so on. When you do these things, you do them well.

The advice in your "Smart Approach to Contest Submissions" is neither smart nor an actual approach. It is elementary and cliche, and the lure of its headline carries a promise ("more effective contest submissions") the column can't deliver. A regime of reading widely, writing often, writing well, revising mercilessly, knowing one's market, and being good to other artists is the only thing that will help writers move along their careers. There is no way to either eschew or fast-track those practices. As a beginning writer, I would feel cheated by this advice. As a more established (though unknown) writer, I feel insulted by it. Please consider both of your audiences.

If you want to be the industry standard source of useful and practical tips for professional and established, as well as emerging poets, please resist the urge to recycle the same old how-to they can find anywhere and call it "smart." You are charging us for vapid "advice" like this in your print magazines, and I find it unconscionable that you err on the side of positing rampant paid submissions as the ethical norm, rather than on the side of straight, outside-the-box talk about how ALL serious poets can get their work in front of audiences while still being able to afford food.

Thank you for your time,
Stacia M. Fleegal

Update 6/13/13--I didn't write this post just to rant. I'm done ranting. I want to DO SOMETHING. I want this to be a place where we discuss this issue, where we transcend venting and try to shape a plan of action. Please speak up. Comments (and shares/retweets) are most appreciated. I'll try to respond to everyone. Thanks.


  1. Stacia, what guts! This is a very necessary discussion for one and all. And the issue is complex.

    The next step would be for everyone who feels this way to just boycott contests for one solid year and see if that makes a dent. Personally, I can probably count on one hand the times I've sent a check to a contest in XX years I've been (modestly) publishing poetry. XX =a long time.

    0ne thing worth noting is the reason for the fee in the first place. It's to keep the magazine, the press or the entity afloat and publishing those books/magazines. So books and mags are more readily available because of these fees... No fees, fewer presses and magazines? How do we feel about that? I would venture that without fees, we would have significantly fewer "opportunities" so now we can debate the good/bad of that!


  2. Good points — Stacia on the economic impact of contest submission fees on writers and Jeanie, on the potential for decreased publishing opportunities if contests don't generate income for presses. Personally, I'm not against literary prizes, but I prefer awards given to books (and poems/stories/essays) that have already been published. Journals can give editors' awards to the pieces they have already selected to publish as easily as they can give the High-Ho Review Prize to an unpublished poem accompanied by a submission fee. But what small presses need are book sales, and I'm in favor of manuscript submission guidelines that stipulate you must buy a book from the press for each submission. Not "your fee gets you a copy of the winning book," because that's lame — let the buyer decide. And if you can't find a book in a publisher's catalog that you *would* buy of your own free will anyway, that's a great sign that this might not be the right home for your manuscript. I stopped submitting to contests a few years ago, and have found a much better use for my dollars — buying books from presses I admire.

  3. Erin, I hear you. However, I think offering a copy of the winning book is a good practice for both parties. For the entrant, it's a free book, a return on her/his entry fee, and a glimpse into what kind of writing DOES win contests with that particular press. For the press, it's an instant audience for the newest release (also good for the newly published author), plus, it's reaching out to those people who have most recently shown a great interest in your press/publication, and staying in their heads, making a gesture. Know what I'm saying? I prefer to have my choice from the backlist, but I don't think the winning book is a consolation prize.

  4. As far as "if you can't find a book in a publisher's catalog that you *would* buy of your own free will anyway, that's a great sign that this might not be the right home for your manuscript" = spot. freakin. on.

  5. Thank you, Stacia, for starting this conversation. It is necessary. I would defnitely fall into that, eat or send contest submissions category and as I look at my submission log I see I haven't sent any in a while. It is hard to justify spending that money when I need a new roof and my car needs brakes and all that. Can't say my failure to enter is all about money. I just haven't had much time to explore contests lately. The focus, as of late, has been the novel, but there again I haven't sent it out to contests in a while. Well, keep up the good work.

  6. I've read Poets & Writers for years, and more and more I find articles selling publication/contests. The tips they give for contests are for beginning writers, and if they are just starting off they are not winning contests (99.999% of the time). They are not even getting past graduate screeners. No one wants P&W to be complete kill joys. They don't need to tell newbies they don't really stand a chance; beginning writers should be encouraged and supported, welcomed by the community at large. BUT they should be encouraged to spend money not on contests so much but on buying books and journals, reading their contemporaries, which is the best advice for winning contests and helps the lit world, too.

    P&W does a section where they interview debut poets, ask how many times they submitted, etc. It suggests a magic formula for success. It creates a divide and probably some unrealistic expectations (if you can't win a book prize in X attempts, you fail). The "contest issue" of P&W has the article "The Winner's Circle" with a subsection of it titled "Winners on Winning." They should simply put "publication = success" as opposed to, you know, "writing a great piece of literature = success." To give P&W credit, they did do a contest round up once where some of the questions included stuff like is the prize comparable to the fee, do the readers rotate, etc. But I feel the emphasis is becoming publication, not craft. About being a writer, not writing.

    CLMP helped create a fair standard for *reading* entries but I think it can be expanded to include fair practices within the contest fee system itself, more transparency in how the funds are used even. With a call to publishers to adhere to submitter-friendly standards while asking writers to use their capital responsibly, a conscientious consumerism on our part, we can support the presses working equally for themselves AND their authors/supporters while hopefully encouraging (maybe even forcing) some other places to reevaluate their methods and come up with creative solutions that benefit everyone.

  7. One way of selecting the best poems to submit is to pick those that score highest on the Poetry Assessor: