Wednesday, November 22, 2006

When a Legit Contest Sounds Like a Scam

Writers aren't a very secure lot. In fact, there's a rather lucrative industry that preys on those insecurities: scam agents, most POD/vanity publishers, book doctors, etc. There's usually a particular tone to the websites and emails of those folks. Here's the standard sales pitch: We know how hard it is to get published. Your work is good enough to be published, but The Powers That Be are never going to recognize that. If you pay us $X, we will give you what you want: an "edge" in publishing. We have X number of clients, X of which have [insert vague but sounds great accomplishment (nothing concrete like making the NYT bestseller list)]. Here are what our clients are saying about us: [insert gushing praise from no one you've heard of].

So imagine my surprise when I started to hear elements of this sales pitch from a legitimate writing contest.

The Writers of the Future contest is a well-established venue for unpubbed science fiction and fantasy writers and artists. It must be pretty darn popular because it's free to enter, it accepts submissions at any time (there are quarterly "rounds" of the contest), it's judged by well known and well decorated genre pros, the winners get a free trip to a big writing workshop with--again--big names in the genre, and the winners get pubbed in a yearly anthology that is available at Borders and the like. And the winners seem to have a nice track record for their work after they've won the contest. All signs to the good, and a market I was considering for a couple of my shorter pieces, explaining why I signed up for their newsletter.

Then I get an email shouting from the subject, "Make $5,000 as a brand-new Writer." As I'm sorting through tons of spam, I'm only looking at the subject line, and I'm flagging this as scam or spam or both. But I figure I'll look into it, see how clueless and/or malicious it is. I open the email to find it's from WotF. I'm puzzled. Things don't clear up after the first line: "Dear Writer, Can you afford to waste $5,000? I don't think so."

How enigmatic. Are they telling me that I'm spending $5,000 and wasting it in other writing contests or other purchases? Are they telling me that $5,000 is mine just for submitting to this contest, thus it would be a waste of $5,000 not to take the time and postage to submit? Oh, wait. Maybe the right question is "Can I afford to waste the chance to earn (or maybe a free shot at) $5,000?"

But they continue, so it should be clarified soon, right?

How can you make $5,000 as a brand-new writer who has never been published? The answer is: With the Writers & Illustrators of the Future Contests. These international contests enable brand-new writers and illustrators to win sizeable prizes for their stories and illustrations. Entering is absolutely FREE!

But it gets even better - as a contest winner you will also get invited to a week-long, all-expenses-paid workshop where you learn powerful strategies on how to become successful, from industry greats such as KEVIN J. ANDERSON, ANNE MCCAFFREY, TIM POWERS, BRIAN HERBERT, SEAN WILLIAMS and others. Over the past years winners of the contest have become immensely successful such as:

SEAN WILLIAMS - has become a New York Times Bestselling Author and the #1 science fiction author in Australia since winning the contest.

JO BEVERLY has become a New York Times Bestselling Author since winning the contest.

STEVE SAVILE has published seven novels and one graphic novel since being a winner in 2002.

But the best is yet to come - all the winners of both the Writers and the Illustrators Contests are published every year in the annual L. RON HUBBARD PRESENTS WRITERS OF THE FUTURE ANTHOLOGY!

Seems straightforward enough now. But with the way this is set up and the language I'm used to seeing from scam artists, I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop.

This book contains all the award-winning stories and illustrations of the last year and further each volume has essays from well-known authors about the craft of writing and illustrating. It also lists the contest rules in the book. You need to know this information to get an edge on the competition and to get a shot at winning the Grand Prize of $5,000.

Thunk! Doesn't it sound like you have to buy the books to get the rules? (Here are the contest rules, by the way, free and available at the WotF contest website, which is never linked to in the entire email.)

But it gets better.

To make it easy for you, we have put together a special book package of Writers of the Future Volumes, whereby you pay only [sic] 5 books and get 2 additional books for FREE! Additionally you get FREE SHIPPING on this package, so you can't loose.

And there's the real rub. I love how they make it sound like they're doing me a favor by compiling this book package. By the way, they're not touting the actual stories in these anthologies as anything worth reading. They're wanting me to pay $40 for 7 books on the premise that I want the contest rules and writing essays to give me that scam-like "edge"--not because, yaknow, there's anything else worth reading in there.

But there's still more scam artist lingo to be had!

As you are reading this, your competition is submitting their stories and illustrations, winning the prize money that you could be winning! Don't wait and don't waste $5,000! Get your special package and start submitting and you too can be a Winner!

Shell out those bucks NOW before someone else gets that vague "edge" in the contest before you can! This email isn't about advertising the writing contest at all. It's about selling the anthologies from previous years.

A smart marketer who knows the audience and actually cares about their product (the way this email reads, it sounds like they want a glut of submissions from the most immature and gullible of the amateur writing group and not those who are more discerning and actually do their research, which does not bode well for the quality of the future anthologies; shit in equals shit out) can accomplish both a sales pitch and a contest advert. It's quite easy.

The first part of the email should focus on the prestige of the contest (list the accomplishments of the judges, list the accomplishments of the most successful winners and be sure to name their books or projects because some people only remember the titles of notable books and not the authors or maybe even only publishers, give the history of the contest--and I happen to know from the research I've done previously that this thing has been going on for quite some time and always has a passel of very respectable authors associated with it). Emphasize that, while the contest prizes are desirable, winning the contest (and thus getting your story published) is a great query-letter boost to help lift you out of the slushpile because of the prestige of the contest. Give the pertinent contest information (links, quick summary of the rules, deadlines, address, etc).

Then and only then, do you begin the sales pitch. And not in the "unlock the secrets" fashion shown above. Instead, a sales pitch geared toward "brand-new" writers looking to submit to a contest should be focused on giving them the tools to improve their submission. The only reason to read the anthologies (outside of the fact that they should be good collections, right? Why, oh, why did they not mention that these books might actually be enjoyable to read in their own right?) as a contestant is to get a sense of what a winning submission looks like, find the common elements, see what sorts of things the judges are interested in (although this is not as helpful since the judging panel, I believe, changes regularly), and then look at your own submission and see what more could be done to make your story more like the winners (e.g. if you don't see any vampire erotica, chances are they aren't going to like your story "Bloodsucker's Lust," but they may be interested in "Starfield Survivors" that you wrote for fun the other day; if you don't see any antiheroes, if you see a lot of character-driven stories, etc).

All this email has garnered, though, is my anger. It's designed to take advantage of fresh-from-their-first-"The End" writers. It's a deliberate ploy to get their money. It doesn't matter that the duped souls actually get something of worth out of the deal. They're stil being suckered into thinking that buying the "special book package" will increase their chances of winning the $5,000 prize money (which is a bit misleading as that's the grand prize; actually winning 1st prize in the quarterly rounds nets you $1000, then you get judged again for the grand prize selection). It's also a disservice to the prestige and judges and previous winners of the contest, marganilizing everything to a scamtastic sales pitch.

I've sent an email to the contest organizers (at least, I think I have; they only have a generic "contests@" email) outlining my concerns and disappointment. I wonder if anything will come of it. In the meantime, by posting this here I get a better sense of accomplishment by raising awareness about this. If you were as ticked at the language in the email as I was, let me know in the comments and I'll forward the thing to you so you can see it in all its glory and craft your own response if you would like to do so.


Andi said...

Their participation rate has dropped, which is probably why they've started sending this out. I sent a message a couple of weeks ago asking why I had yet to receive my Honorable Mention, and Judy added in a paragraph remarking that I hadn't submitted in a while, and they really wanted solid entries.

I didn't actually read the e-mail when I received it, because I'm already aware of the contest and what goes on. I will say that I've skimmed some of the stories in previous anthologies, and the quality is good. Also, the critique I received was very useful, so it's not a complete waste to enter, and it really isn't meant for those without ability.

Kellie said...

Yeah, I've got one of the anthologies that I picked up when I was looking into the contest last year. That's why I was so stunned to receive an email like this. If they want more quality entries, this is not the way to get them.

Steven Savile said...

Kellie - just wandered across this - you know the deal, it's a blind contest judged by some incredible judges, but forget the money the real prize is the workshop with Tim Powers, with guest lecturers like Kevin J Anderson, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, Charles Brown and a host of others. I can definitely chart a turn around in my sales and upturn in career since the win back in 2002, and have no trouble being their poster boy for the contest. I went full time as a writer two years ago and am contracted up for a good two or three more.

If you have a talent I'd urge you to enter and not get hung up on marketing spiel, ditto for anyone you know who is interested. The contest has a phenomenal amount of entries every quarter, but the boost to the confidence that winning brings is priceless.

If you have any questions just drop me an email via my website contact ( and I will do my best to answer them as honestly as possible.

Anyway, hope all is well and good luck with the writing!