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Writer Beware

So I entered a writing contest. Fortunately for me, however, I was asked to confirm my acceptance of the contest rules. When I re-read them I saw something I didn’t see the first time.

The works and copies of the contestants’ writings from the contest and the final novel may not be put up for sale by anyone other than redacted without sending pre-agreed royalties to redacted which will then be dispersed among the authors as previously described.

Neat, huh? By entering the contest, you not only grant publishing rights to the house running the contest if you win, but you agree to give them the sole option of publishing your book if you lose.

With the proliferation of “social networking” (I encountered this “contest” on Facebook) in recent years, no one should be surprised that the “preditors” (that’s a deliberate portmanteau of “predator” and “editor,” and not a misspelling by the way) would seek a way to exploit them. Just as the PublishAmerica scam thrived off of the early days of the web, modern equivalents are using Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ to find their victims. This one even has its own Facebook and iPhone apps, pitching itself as an “American Idol for Novelists.”

Some basic rules for those who choose to enter writing contests:

1. Read the fine print three times.

That clause that I posted above is stuck in the middle of the last paragraph on the page of rules, right after a whole slew of royalty payment percentages. Most readers’ eyes will glaze over after all the mentions of 1.77% and the like; as I said, even I didn’t catch the killer until the second reading. Go through the entire thing, including what might look like boilerplate, three times. If anything strikes you as not kosher just walk away.

2. Know what rights you’re signing away.

You’ll almost always be asked for first domestic publication rights. Magazines running contests will want first serial rights. Very few legitimate contests want subsidiary rights and ones that do should be approached with trepidation.

3. Approach “new” contests with extreme caution.

The longer a contest has been around, the better. If it’s lasted more than one year it’s probably not a scam (but that is no guarantee). If it’s been around for twenty years, it’s certainly above board. There is such a thing as a legitimate new contest, but they’re outnumbered by scams. If it’s new look at it even more carefully than you would have before. (Especially if it bills itself as something “different.”)

4. Entry fees alone do not make it a scam.

Some of the biggest contests charge entry fees simply because they are so large and running them takes a buttload of cash. Entry fees weed out frivolous entries, and cover the expenses of running a contest. Just because they want $5.00-$20.00 to enter doesn’t mean they aren’t above board. But a new contest with an entry fee? Be afraid. Be very afraid.

5. When in doubt, walk away.

There are so many real contests out there that there’s no need to enter a particular one. If you have any doubts at all (and I do mean any) walk away. It’s not worth it.

The reason scammers are out there is because enough people fall for their scams to make it worthwhile. Be smart, learn to spot them, and don’t get caught.

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