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The Economics of Writing, part two

March 5, 2007

As stated last week, this is a bit controversial: writing contests are bad business for both writers and publishers. Previously, I shared a story about a writer who spent more than $14,000 on contest entry fees, related postage, sample journals, literary memberships and writing conferences/workshops.

Now, why is this bad business for publishers? Let’s use a lottery as an example. Writers who contribute $14,000 to various literary institutions are not only contributing to the success of their competitors but they are also participating in a literary lottery. In the January-February 2007 issue of Small Press Review Harry Smith writes:

Poet & critic Richard Kostelanetz asserts… ‘sometimes… applicants are really supporting the production of a winner chosen before the contest is announced.’

Further, in this article in Poets & Writers:

Many poets who sent in their twenty dollars for entry fees… had different expectations for the process whereby winners were chosen. There is now widespread support for contest guidelines to prohibit a judge from picking a student or anyone to whom she has a close personal relationship…

Here’s a brief economic anatomy of a literary contest. A small press offers a poetry book contest. To enter and receive a copy of the winning book, send your manuscript and $20 for a chance to win $1000 and 50 copies of the published book. A regional small press, according to one source, received a over 300 submissions (considered a low submission volume compared to previous years). The contest earns over $6000. The winner receives $1000, the publisher pays $1800 (to print 500 copies of the winning manuscript) and walks away with $3200 plus all the book’s earning potential (estimated $2400 to $12,000) and doesn’t have to pay the poet royalty. The primary consumer of poetry books are libraries, poets, writers and schools.

Besides government grants, literary contests are how most small literary presses operate. This is bad for publishers for two reasons. One, this practice reduces the prestige of winning contests and fatigues the marketplace–i.e. the writers who read, support, finance literary journals in hopes of winning the lottery. Two, this limits quality product potential and expansion of the marketplace–i.e. writers waste their time submitting to contests instead of writing the next Cold Mountain and readers are deprived of great literature.

Next week I’ll offer some suggestion to writers and publishers on how to change the economy of writing.

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