The Economics of Competition: An Overview of the Contest Model

Michael Bourne
From the May/June 2012 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

When Karen Brown entered her first writing contest in 1995, she didn’t win. She didn’t win the second one either. Or the third. But the Tampa-based fiction writer refused to let these setbacks stop her. She continued to submit her stories to literary magazines and had many of them accepted in journals such as the Georgia Review and StoryQuarterly. At one point, she even landed an agent, who briefly shopped her work around to publishing houses before abandoning her to return to a career in editing. All the while Brown kept submitting—and paying entry fees—to writing contests around the country, always shifting the stories around in her manuscript, putting new ones in, taking old ones out, trying to find that magic combination that would win over the judges.

Finally, in 2006 Brown’s debut story collection, Pins and Needles, won the Association of Writers & Writing Programs’ Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction, which included publication of her book the following year by the University of Massachusetts Press. The cash award of $4,000 wasn’t life altering, and she readily admits that Pins and Needles didn’t sell that many copies or get many reviews, but she did have a book out and could proudly introduce herself as the winner of the Grace Paley Prize. On a more practical level, Brown, who finished her PhD in English in 2008, credits the prize with helping her get a full-time job in 2010 teaching writing and literature at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

She continued to write stories, but without a marketable novel to entice publishers, she couldn’t find a home for them in book form. So she went back to the method that had worked the first time around and, after five more years, she won the 2011 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction, for her second story collection, Little Sinners and Other Stories, to be published by the University of Nebraska Press this fall.

In the small world of literary fiction, Karen Brown is unquestionably a success story. She is the author of two books of stories published by reputable university presses, has a full-time teaching position, and, having finally secured an agent again, she is at work on a novel. Yet at each step along the way, she has had to pay publishers, in the form of contest entry fees, for the privilege of having her manuscripts considered for publication. “I wouldn’t even be able to tally how much money I’ve spent on contests,” she says. “I’ve sent [my work] to each of these contests many, many times.”

During the past decade or so, as commercial publishers have been snapped up by large corporations, resulting in publishers having to deliver higher profit margins than collections of poetry and literary short fiction can produce, Brown’s experience has become increasingly common. According to an analysis of Poets & Writers Magazine’s Grants & Awards section, the number of prizes offering the publication of a book of poetry or fiction has risen more than 50 percent over the past ten years, from 78 in 2001 to 118 in 2011. During the same period, the number of prizes offering the publication of a story collection, such as those won by Brown, has more than doubled, from ten in 2001 to twenty-one in 2011. (This magazine’s Grants & Awards section is an editorially vetted listing of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction prizes that offer $1,000 or more, prizes that offer less than $1,000 but charge no entry fee, and those that offer prestigious nonmonetary awards.)

This proliferation of writing contests arises from a simple economic reality: In an age when commercial publishers push a relatively small number of blockbuster books to meet their bottom lines, the hundreds of talented writers pouring out of MFA programs every year are necessarily steering toward small, university, and independent presses to get their work in front of readers. But how do those presses commit to publishing books of poetry and literary prose without the promise of a healthy return on their investment?

They run contests, that’s how. Take away the trappings of celebrity judges and awards ceremonies, and a well-run writing contest that ends in the publication of a book is really a kind of communal subsidy press. Because everyone understands that, realistically, there aren’t enough readers out there to support the publication of books of poetry and short fiction by unknown writers, all the unknown writers chip in a few bucks to help the publisher bring out the best book submitted for each contest.

Organizers of writing contests are, perhaps not surprisingly, wary of publicizing details of their contest budgets, but the organizers of three contest programs—the Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry and the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction, sponsored by the nonprofit literary press Sarabande Books; the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, sponsored by the nonprofit Cave Canem Foundation; and the Prairie Schooner Book Prizes in Poetry and Fiction, sponsored by the University of Nebraska Press—offered to share the budgets of their 2011 contests.

Last year, according to figures supplied by series editor Kwame Dawes, the Prairie Schooner Book Prizes in Poetry and Fiction drew submissions from 901 writers, each of whom paid a twenty-five-dollar entry fee, for a total of $22,525. Out of that, the organization had to cover $2,500 of each $3,000 prize (the remaining $500 for each prize came out of the university press’s budget) and pay four judges $1,000 each and twenty first readers $200 each; it also incurred a long list of other administrative and promotion costs. Add it all up (see table 1) and the total expenses are $50,700, or more than double the earnings from the entry fees. Because Prairie Schooner contracts out the publication of the winning books to the University of Nebraska Press, it doesn’t pay to produce or distribute the actual books, nor does it earn any profit that may come from selling them. “Clearly we rely on the support of our donors to sustain the prize,” Dawes says. “This is obviously not a moneymaking venture.”

The Cave Canem Poetry Prize, which is open only to African American poets, charges a slightly lower entry fee, and also contracts out the publication of the winning book, to one of three participating presses. Last year, according to Alison Meyers, Cave Canem’s executive director, the prize drew eighty entries, which at fifteen dollars each earned the organization a total of twelve hundred dollars, a little more than 16 percent of the cost of running the prize (see table 2). The shortfall, an estimated $8,883, had to be made up through individual donations and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and other foundations, according to Meyers.

Unlike Prairie Schooner and Cave Canem, Sarabande Books publishes its winners itself. According to figures provided by editor in chief Sarah Gorham (see table 3), Sarabande received a total of 1,252 manuscripts for its 2011 Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry and Mary McCarthy Prize in Fiction. The entry fee for both prizes last year was twenty-five dollars (it has since been raised to twenty-seven dollars), which, after no-fee coupons from last year’s finalists are deducted, netted the independent publisher a combined $31,175. When you add the roughly $13,000 Sarabande typically brings in from its prizewinning books each year, the press counted on $44,226 in income from its 2011 contests. This figure falls just short of the $44,650 the press spent running the two contests and publishing the winning books. “A book has to go into a second or third printing before we start to make money,” Gorham explains.

What is clear from the budgets, all three of which account for ancillary expenses such as staff and office space in different ways, is that entry fees are the foundation upon which such contests are built. Most fees tend to range from fifteen to thirty dollars, with slightly higher figures for contests that invite longer manuscripts such as novels. “I think in this day and age, if you have a manuscript, you can muster the fifteen dollars,” says Meyers of Cave Canem’s entry fee. “It’s kind of a reality check. We’re in this together.”

This notion of a partnership between publisher and author, symbolized by the entry fee, neatly sums up the view of many contest organizers, who see themselves as editors who value the work of writers that mainstream publishing houses cannot afford to take on. For the organizers, who are often working with limited marketing budgets and can’t promise writers print runs as large as commercial presses might, contests, with their cash awards and prestigious titles, offer a way to attract writers who might not otherwise be as excited about submitting to a university or independent press.

But more than anything, organizers say, contests offer small, independent, and university presses the financial wherewithal to publish books that major New York publishers won’t take a chance on. “If independent [presses] didn’t publish these works of art, who would?” asks Gorham, whose fourth poetry collection, Bad Daughter, was published last year by Four Way Books.

“We think of it as not simply recognizing excellence, which it is,” adds Meyers, “but also fitting in with our mission.”