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What’s Really Wrong with Poetry Book Contests?

by David Alpaugh

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Note: As winner of the Nicholas Roerich Poetry Prize and owner of Small Poetry Press, David Alpaugh has both won and run a poetry book contest. This article appeared first in the Fall 2008 e-issue of Rattle, Poetry for the 21st Century and is reprinted here with permission.

What’s Really Wrong with Poetry Book Contests?
Isn’t that a rhetorical question? Everyone knows what’s wrong with poetry book contests. They’re rigged! In 2004 the Web site Foetry began investigating personal connections between contest judges and winners. The poetry world was shocked by allegations that some of America’s most prestigious prizes were going to the judges’ students, friends, colleagues, even lovers.

Dishonesty! Cronyism! That’s what’s wrong with poetry book contests, right?

Not really. Most contest operators, screeners, and judges would never engage in the deplorable but statistically rare conduct outed by Foetry. I didn’t know any of the parties involved in the judging process that led to my own book award. During the five years that I ran a national chapbook contest there were never any personal connections between my screeners and judges and the finalists and winners they selected.

A glance at recent headlines should assure us that there’s no more corruption in “po-biz” than in sports, medicine, law, politics, media, religion, or any other human enterprise. To their credit, many contests responded to the concerns that Foetry raised by establishing clear ethical guidelines for screeners and judges and by taking steps to assure the anonymity of contestants. Manuscripts are more likely to be evaluated solely on their perceived merit today than ever before.

Fraud Is Not the Problem
Exclusive focus on the minor problem of contest fraud, however, has allowed more serious, systemic problems to go unnoticed. What’s really wrong with poetry book contests? They are being rendered less effective each year by the supply side economics that has subsidized their exponential growth and that promises even more in the foreseeable future.

A well-advertised contest, judged by a well-known poet, will attract hundreds of manuscripts, each accompanied by a $15 to $25 reading fee. Five hundred entries at the industry standard of $20 a pop will net $10,000. That’s enough to fund the cash award for the winning poet, compensate the judge and screeners, pay the bills for advertising the competition, and even cover the cost of printing the prize-winning book.

Since all but the advertising is payable after fees are received, contests are seductively risk-free. Anyone can set up as a publisher for little more than the price of a Web site, a classified ad in a few literary journals, and some low cost, often free, announcements via Internet poetry sites.

This risk-free dynamic is a powerful magnet, not just for existing literary presses and journals but for poetry entrepreneurs for whom book publishing would have been a financial impossibility 20 years ago.

Why There’s a Boom in Poetry Contests
The road to glut is paved with good intentions. Each additional contest-driven “publisher” believes that his or her contest is special; that it will advance the cause of poetry by introducing wonderful new poets to receptive readers via the prestige of a truly deserved book award.

But hold on to your ISBNs. There’s a significant difference between an “entry” and a “submission.” Traditional publishers are free to consider an unlimited number of submissions without obligation to accept a single manuscript. They are also free to solicit work from poets who have an established track record with at least a segment of the poetry reading public.

If 500 manuscripts fail to impress a traditional editor/publisher as marketable, or important enough to risk subsidizing — into the valley of rejection ride the 500! Many poets opt for the contest route only after being rejected multiple times by traditional publishers. If the same 500 manuscripts are entered in a contest, however, one of them must be given an award and must be published, usually with a glowing endorsement from the contest judge on the back cover.

Have you entered your work in a poetry contest?
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