The Contester: Winnow's Refund Runs Into Trouble

Kevin Larimer
From the July/August 2006 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

When Corinne Lee, the publisher of Winnow Press, announced last October that there would be no winner of the 2005 First Book Award in Fiction competition, the roughly three hundred entrants—each of whom had paid the required twenty-five-dollar entry fee—were understandably disappointed. But, as reported in the January/February 2006 issue of this magazine, Lee's announcement was accompanied by an uncommon promise for a contest sponsor: Winnow would refund the entry fees and postage costs and return all of the manuscripts that were entered in the contest, along with a complimentary poetry chapbook or fiction book published by the press. That promise pacified many who were smarting from Lee's claim that "no manuscript was worthy of the award." Over six months later, however, some entrants have not received their refunds, others have received only partial reimbursement, and, in at least one instance, a refund check could not be cashed due to insufficient funds in the press's account.

"We have sent out all our refund checks," Lee says. "I'm aware that we missed some people.but I'm not sure who they are. They need to contact us, as we don't know what to do. The process of matching up manuscripts, return envelopes, and refund checks became incredibly complicated. We had to sort through five different piles of items—regular-size SASEs, manila envelopes, manuscripts, postcards, accounting records—match them up, and send refund checks."

Lee admits that some entrants were sent checks for only twenty dollars rather than the full twenty-five, and she blames the discrepancy on human error. Winnow Press used interns and unpaid volunteers to help with the work, and, according to Lee, one of them was "just, well, confused." At the time of this writing, the press has not yet mailed the five-dollar checks to make up the difference.

Then there was the matter of the accountant. When Poets & Writers Magazine contacted Lee in March, after hearing from a reader who had received a partial refund in the form of a check that later bounced, Lee explained that a volunteer bookkeeper had accidentally paid a photographer's invoice twice, for a total of two thousand dollars—money that was earmarked for reimbursements. The situation was eventually rectified, but some refund checks bounced in the interim. Lee estimates that a dozen entrants were affected. "We feel terrible about this," she wrote in an e-mail. "It's the exact opposite of our intentions. Like most small press publishers, we are operating on a frayed shoestring, and an unexpected hit on our finances can be very difficult."

In addition to the First Book Award in Fiction, Winnow Press sponsors four annual awards: the First Book Award in Poetry, the Open Book Award in Poetry, and two chapbook awards in poetry and fiction. Despite Lee's assertion in October 2005 that the decision to refund fees for the winnerless fiction contest would not change the way the press administers future contests, all Winnow Press contests are currently "on hold until we can recoup the money we lost from making all the refunds," she says.

"I wish entrants would understand that we have a skeleton crew here," Lee says. "We do the best we can, but it takes time. We all have other jobs and do small press work on the side." Entrants to the First Book Award in Fiction who have not received a full refund should contact Lee at her personal e-mail address,

Kevin Larimer is the senior editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

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