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The Contester: The Failure of Zoo's Fiction Contests

This is the inaugural installment of our new column, The Contester, devoted to the news and trends (some good, some not so good) of literary contests. While the number of legitimate prizes continues to grow at an unprecedented rate—as evidenced by the wealth of new opportunities listed in the Grants & Awards section each year—it is imperative that creative writers also be aware of the political, financial, and ethical implications of these popular contests. The Contester will deliver the stories behind the competitions, and examine the sponsoring organizations, the judges, the winners, and the losers. To comment on this installment of The Contester, or to suggest topics for future coverage, please e-mail us at editor@pw.org.

Founded by Neil Azevedo in 2001, Zoo Press has become well known for its poetry books and prizes. Of the eight to ten books of poetry it publishes each year, two titles are the winners of its annual poetry prizes: the $3,500 Kenyon Review Prize and the $5,000 Paris Review Prize. Those contests charge an entry fee of $25 each, which funds the prize monies as well as the publication and promotion of the winning books. Any remaining funds help support additional titles on the press’s list. In late 2002, Azevedo decided to expand his fledgling press’s purview by applying this contest model to fiction too. But Azevedo’s foray into fiction did not unfold as he had hoped.

“I’d hesitate to call them all crap, because they weren’t,” says Azevedo. “They just weren’t interesting,” he says, referring to the roughly 350 manuscripts submitted during the last two years to the press’s two annual fiction contests. Azevedo says there were some manuscripts that “had some interesting things happening in them,” but none “worth going in debt to salvage.” So in April 2004 he canceled both contests—no winners were chosen, and no entry fees were refunded. The response to his decision has been, as Azevedo puts it, “overwhelming.”

Zoo Press launched its fiction program with the Award for Short Fiction, which offered $5,000 and publication of a book-length collection of short stories. The deadline for entries was February 14, 2003. Subsequently, the press announced the Angela Marie Ortiz Award for the Novel, which was to be a $7,500 prize, plus publication. The deadline was July 31, 2003. C. Michael Curtis, fiction editor of the Atlantic Monthly, was named “recurring judge” for both contests. The entry fee was $25, and the prize monies were to be advances against royalties.

But Azevedo did not receive nearly as many submissions as he had hoped. He says he can’t be sure about the numbers, but according to his estimates, by the summer of 2003—when the deadline for the Award for Short Fiction had passed and the deadline for the novel award was fast approaching—Zoo Press had not received more than 280 submissions for both contests. At $25 per entry, that amounted to about $7,000, which wasn’t even enough to pay the cash prizes—not to mention the cost of publishing and promoting the winning books. Azevedo estimated that it would have cost Zoo Press $20,000 to $30,000 to publish the two titles, including the editorial, design, printing, shipping, and advertising expenses.

So Azevedo extended the deadlines for both contests to August 30, 2003, and spent the money he’d received from entry fees on promoting the contests, hoping to solicit more submissions and give the contests “as good a chance as possible of succeeding,” Azevedo says. He bought lists of e-mail addresses of writers and publishing professionals, and sent messages publicizing both the prizes and the extension of their deadlines. But the largest promotional expense was the purchase of a half-page advertisement for the contests in the September 2003 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, which hit newsstands during the first week of August. The ad noted that the contest deadlines had been extended for their “inaugural year.”

Both Azevedo and the Atlantic Monthly declined to disclose the amount of money that Zoo Press paid, but the magazine’s 2003 rate card indicates that an ad of those specifications cost $6,035 for a book publisher. While Azevedo may have received a discount, it wasn’t through any connection with C. Michael Curtis, who says that he “didn’t even know they had bought an ad until this all blew up.”

Regardless of cost, the promotional effort proved unsuccessful. By August 30, Azevedo estimates that Zoo Press had received 20 more manuscripts for both contests. Later in the fall of 2003, he postponed choosing finalists for both fiction contests indefinitely. “Thanks to all the writers who entered last year’s contest[s],” read a notice on Zoo Press’s Web site. “Because we extended the deadline, and had a large number of submissions, we, as yet, have not chosen a winner; however, we should have one very soon.”

When asked why, at that point, he postponed his decision rather than announcing that no winners would be chosen for either contest, Azevedo says: “We still wanted to do the fiction [contests], but were at a loss as to why they had failed so miserably.”

Azevedo then proceeded to announce the 2004 contests, with the same deadline dates as the previous year: February 14 for short fiction, July 31 for the novel. The second annual contests, however, were even less successful than the first. “The big elephant in the room that no one wanted to talk about,” Azevedo says, “was that this wasn’t going to work.” Zoo Press received approximately 50 manuscripts in total before he decided to cancel the 2004 contests. A handful of submissions were received after the decision was made, and the checks for those entries were ripped up.

On April 5, Azevedo sent one e-mail message to all contest entrants. “It’s with deep regret,” he began, “that I am writing to inform you that Zoo Press will be abandoning its fiction program and both its prizes. We still love fiction, but we admit that we cannot publish it as well as others (FSG, for example). The experiment did not unfold the way we had hoped, as, I guess, is the nature of experiments.” He told the applicants that their entry fees had been spent on promotion—which he inaccurately referred to in the e-mail as “a full-page ad in the Atlantic Monthly” plus “two other smaller e-mail campaigns.”

Azevedo wrote that he wanted to “be candid” with the contest entrants because it was Zoo Press, not they, that had failed. The press would “be happy to send” each contestant two complimentary poetry titles from its backlist, Azevedo wrote, provided the writer was willing to send Zoo Press a check for $1.42 to cover shipping costs.

“It was a very difficult decision really,” Azevedo says. “And there has been an overwhelming response. But I’d say that over half of it has been very supportive. It’s a small but vocal part,” he says, “that has been very vitriolic.”

On personal Web sites, in letters to the editor of this magazine, and in conversations among writers across the country, complaints about the canceled contests were aired. “This strikes me as a potential scam,” wrote Edward Champion on his blog, edrants.com. On her eponymous blog, fiction writer Maud Newton wrote, “The small press shtick wears thin when there’s an entry fee involved.”

Many agreed that the situation, especially the notion of keeping the entry fees, was, as Jeanne Leiby, editor of the Florida Review, put it, “very, very disturbing.” But not everyone. Shanna Compton, the associate publisher of Soft Skull Press in Brooklyn, came to Azevedo’s defense. She pointed out on her own blog that the original contest guidelines on the Zoo Press Web site clearly stated that the entry fees were nonrefundable and the press reserved “the right to withhold the Award in any given year.”

Regardless of their quality, was the number of entries unreasonably low? Compared with the number of submissions to the press’s poetry contests—at least 1,200 per year by Azevedo’s estimation—the 350 was indeed low. “It takes time to establish a book contest,” says Sarah Gorham, editor in chief of Sarabande Books, a nonprofit press based in Louisville, Kentucky, that administers contests in both poetry and short fiction. “Writers are naturally concerned about the reputation and shelf life of a new competition,” she says. “In the last ten years—and it’s taken that long—the number of fiction submissions at Sarabande has risen steadily. And luckily, so has the quality.”

Zoo Press, however, did not wait. Martin Lammon, the director of the creative writing program at Georgia College & State University and the former president of the board of directors of the Associated Writing Programs (now the Association of Writers and Writing Programs), says the actions of Azevedo and Zoo Press are unconscionable. “It’s one thing to conduct a competition and have a judge declare no winner, which is a matter of aesthetic judgment,” says Lammon. “But apparently Zoo Press was using competition fees to fund the contest prizes, judge’s honorarium, and promotions. Such self-funding competitions are irresponsible for just this reason: What happens if enough people don’t enter?” Indeed, many literary prizes are funded by endowments, such as the Bakeless Literary Publication Prizes, which have been awarded to poets, novelists, and creative nonfiction writers since 1996.

As it turns out, the Zoo Press contest fees were never used for the judge’s honorarium; Curtis never saw any of the manuscripts. Azevedo screened all the submissions and did not pass any of them on to Curtis. “If I wasn’t prepared to back the book,” Azevedo says, “then it seemed unfair to send it to Mike.” Curtis was “surprised that none of them were worth a second read.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t see any of them,” Curtis says.

Robert McDowell, publisher of Story Line Press in Ashland, Oregon, understands Curtis’s surprise. He says the manuscripts that make it to the final round of the poetry and fiction contests administered by Story Line are of such high quality that it is difficult to pick only one winner. “If you’ve got a lot of entries, and you can’t pick a winner, I think it says more about the person reading than about the quality of the manuscripts.”

Azevedo says he’s disappointed “that the contest model, which has been so successful for us in poetry, has been disastrous for us in fiction.” He feels “humbled, sad, and apologetic,” and wishes he hadn’t had to make the difficult decision to cancel. Yet he remains optimistic that Zoo Press will publish short story collections and novels in the future, with or without a contest. “We’re still researching it,” he says.

Thomas Hopkins is a graduate student in creative writing at NYU. He works for Soft Skull Press and lives in Brooklyn.

Credit: Nathan Kissel

Neil Azevedo

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The Contester: The Failure of Zoo's Fiction Contests (July/August 2004)
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