Reading the Tea Leaves
During the interview that serves as the centerpiece of this issue’s special section, I asked representatives from four popular book-publication contests if they felt that some writers remain skeptical of the way contests are run. I knew it was a loaded question, so I wasn’t surprised by the silence that followed. Many people associated with contests—administrators, preliminary readers, final judges, publishers, and even some winners—tend to tread lightly over the terrain that was carpet bombed by allegations of unfairness during a nearly three-year stretch, from August 2004 to May 2007, by the now-defunct Web site Foetry.
The main problem with the way some contests were run—by and large, the past tense applies—was not the result of nefarious plans hatched in the minds of evil warlords or money-hungry despots, but rather a lack of communication, a lack of transparency. That’s why the Council of Literary Magazines and Press’s Contest Code of Ethics cites “clarity of guidelines” and “transparency of process” as two of the bedrock principles of an ethical contest.
It’s also why this magazine publishes interviews such as the one on page 52, essays such as Laura Maylene Walter’s “The Dotted Line” (65), and regular features such as Bullseye (69): to provide information and access to publishing professionals so that writers can better make decisions that will further their careers. We have a similar goal in Grants & Awards (85), which is vetted to include only legitimate contests that offer writers a fair chance of winning a prize of real value. This editorial resource provides all the information readers need in order to decide whether any given contest is one they want to research further. And we always encourage readers to fully investigate each potential opportunity—including the details about how each contest is run.
Which brings me back to my question. The silence was broken by Michael Collier: “I’m just thinking of when I was sending my book to contests for five years, and how I felt each time I released it. You’re nervous about it, and if you become a finalist, you start to read the tea leaves. You try to think of all the angles of why you would or wouldn’t be selected. I think the act of sending out a book makes you attentive in a way that can also make you skeptical.” We all need to be attentive, but if we ask the right questions and stay informed, the answers might leave us a little less skeptical.