Monday 21 February 2011


There are thousands of competitions out there. They naturally need money to be able to run so generally there is a fee of some sort. There isn’t all that much relationship between the size of the fee and the usefulness of winning or even just submitting to the competition.
Here are a few examples:

Competition:  Winchester Annual Writers, fee £5.00 - £7.00 , prize books, usefulness -you always get feedback
Competition: Terry Pratchett Prize, fee - free, prize £20,000 advance and publication of novel, usefulness - this will make or break you – forever.
Competition: The Red Telephone, fee - £10.00, prize publication of novel, usefulness - small publisher, but it’s a line on your CV
Competition: Arvon Foundation, fee -£7.00, proze - publication in anthology + £7,000 usefulness -cash will come in handy.

Just that short list raises a heap of questions about fairness.
The fee you pay at Winchester covers the expenses of the judges – many of whom work really hard. Often the judges are those writers who got their first break through the Winchester Conference. The writers always get a little feedback.
Transworld, who offers the Terry Pratchett Prize, is a huge publisher with lots of resources. A £20,000 advance is easy for them. It is still very generous. But there is a word of warning. If you win and your book is a flop, it may be difficult to become published again. It is a massive advertising campaign for both Pratchett and Transworld.
The Red Telephone – I know because I was one of the judges – raised enough to publish the book and put something towards marketing. The judges were not paid – much. The people at The Red Telephone will no doubt work really hard at getting the book out there. However, they do not have the resources or the connections of a big publisher. What if the prize-winner had submitted normally to a mainstream publisher?
The Arvon Foundation is a very respected organisation that organises courses for writers. This prize is amazing. The anthology in which your work will appear will have some built-in respect but it probably won’t become a best-seller.
Why fees are charged
You might also like to consider why people who organise competitions are charging fees. This may be:
To make a profit to pay the organisers
To cover the cost of the organisers – sometimes including paying the judges a fee
To make a profit for the organisation that sponsors the prize. This may be a commercial venture or a social enterprise venture.
To spend on the status of the competition – e.g. the competition organiser might host a prestigious awards ceremony.
  • To cover the cost of publication.
  • To cover the cost of publication and marketing the publication.
  • To cover the cost of marketing the competition.
  • Any combination of the above.
You need to balance any judgement about how fair these reasons for charging a fee are against how much you benefit if you win the competition.
Benefits of winning or of taking part
Here is a list of the benefits you might get from winning a competition:
  • A line on your CV
  • A cash prize
  • Publication
  • Publicity
  • An opportunity to write with a purpose
  • Feed-back on your writing.
Obviously, if more than one benefit is offered, the competition is even more beneficial. Just entering a competition gives you an opportunity to write with a purpose and in some cases to get feedback on your work.
However, even that is not is not all that straight forward. Here are some extra thoughts in connection with all of these benefits.
The line on the CV
The more prestigious the competition, the more impact winning has on how your CV looks. It’s a good idea to get your own web site as soon as you have one thing published or you are placed in one competition. Then keep a list of “awards” on that site. If as time goes by you win more prestigious prizes, you can delete earlier ones. Do get a web site you can edit yourself.
A cash prize
Always useful. Why not keep anything like this, including advances and royalties from eventual publications in a separate bank account? Put a tax allowance from royalties and advances into a separate savings account so that when the taxman calls for his share you have it ready. You don’t pay tax on competition wins. Then invest your earnings so that they grow more cash for you. Part of that investment should be in paying for further competition entries.
This always sounds good but a word of warning. The average novel sells 2,000 copies, anthologies of short stories and collections of poetry somewhat less. Will the organisers of the competition sell that many? Might not your work be better submitted normally to a publisher?
Beware, however, also of a really big publisher publishing your book. No matter how good your work if it is early work it will probably sell less well than that of an established writer. And even if it sells well because the organisers of the competition market well, it may not be received all that well. The big publishing houses show little mercy. If your work does not do well, they’ll never publish you again and you’ll possibly have less chance than complete unknowns of being taken on by any other big publishing house.
Only go for this option if your work is extraordinarily good.
Winning any competition will give you two sorts of publicity:
  • That generated by the organisers
  • That which you generate yourself by using social networking platforms and by contacting local press and media.
What will be the balance between these two ways of attracting attention? Will they between them expose you to over 2000 people? If not, consider submitting to a publisher instead. Also consider whether you have the time, the energy and the resources to achieve that exposure if you have to supplement what the competition organisers do.
An opportunity to write with a purpose
Competitions always give you the opportunity to work with a purpose. They can become almost like creative writing exercises. You also have a deadline to write to and some specific submission criteria. This gives a framework that reflects what happens generally in the industry.
However, don’t be too hard on yourself if you cannot write to that particular brief. Look for something else instead.
Feedback on your writing
Not many competitions offer direct feedback on your writing. However, you can extract your own feedback. If you win or are placed, the judge will give you some feedback. Take note of what they say and try to do it again.
If you don’t win or are not placed, look at the wining entries and what the judges say about them. What can you do to improve your script next time?

Which competitions should you enter?
  • That you’ve deemed to be fair.
  • For which you already have something suitable.
  • For which you could easily write something suitable.
Don’t ever think that you have to enter every single competition. However, you do need to develop a strategy for deciding which to enter and for keeping track of your submissions.
A few suggestions are listed below.
Entering the competition
  • Find out all you can about the work of previous winners.
  • Make sure the work is the very best it can be. Edit it several times. Share it with your critique group or workshop and as many other people as possible before you send it out. Let it rest for a while and then look at it again. Allow sufficient time for all of this to happen.
  • Check, double check and triple check that you have submitted correctly. Each competition has its own collection of idiosyncrasies.
  • Then, job done, get on with the next one!

Strategies for keeping track of competitions
  • As opportunities arise, cut and paste the details into a file. Keep entries in order of last submission date. Work through the entries in chronological order. Include in this file competitions that you’re not sure you might be able to create something for. If you keep on thinking about it until submission date, you might come up with something.
  • Construct a spread sheet with dates of winners’ announcement day order. Check this regularly. Make an informed decision of about how long.
  • Once you know that you have not won, put your entry into a folder of short stories, poems, flash fiction or whatever and look out for other opportunities. BUT ALWAYS REVISE YOUR WORK BEFORE YOU SEND IT OUT AGAIN.
  • Look out for information about why the winners won. Open a file on that competition and keep these files in a competitions folder. Refer to them again before you enter next year.

Wednesday 9 February 2011

Dangers of the Digital Age

I’m vain enough to set up a Google alert for myself. I’m now glad I do. What a shock two days ago when I came across the whole of my book digitized and displayed on the Scribid site.
I immediately contacted my publisher and the Society of Authors. Then I whinged to several of my social networking contacts. Everybody had heard it all before. It wasn’t news.
The publisher is asking them to take it down and the Society of Authors says that this site is quite good at responding to take-down requests. My publisher thinks they will just put it back up again.
I actually believe the person who posted the book is a little naïve and doesn’t actually know she is breaking the law. In some ways it’s very flattering: she thought my book was so good she wanted to share it with everyone. It is a poor quality scan and the pages load very slowly. I’m guessing that if anyone really wants to read my book, they’ll go out and buy it. “Exactly,” said my publisher when I shared that with her. So, no such thing as bad publicity.
However, what has happened is actually strictly illegal and in my opinion this site that encourages such rampant breaking of copyright law should be taken down. The ISP should be concerned. Think what happens when people are caught filming inside a cinema. They often get away with it, but when they are caught, punishment is severe.
One problem is that we have had the whole file-sharing precedent which rocked the music industry. It is recovering a little, and control is getting back into the hands of the recording companies. It does still not always favour the musicians.
Writers now also face a dilemma about genuine e-publishing. It is extremely easy to publish straight to Kindle. What a fantastic thing to do with your entire collection of out of print titles. Getting paid is a different matter. No UK platform. You need a US bank account and Amazon does not seem to appreciate that there is a tax agreement between the US and the UK.
Another model would be providing content for free and financing through advertising. Google-Adsense is almost ethical in that the advertising tends to match the projects and the advertisers do not have an input into your content. If you go to advertisers direct, you can be choosy about who advertises with you. You can refuse to be dictated to. However, if you want to earn enough you may be forced to compromise.
So, whilst we’re entering a new age with many exciting possibilities, there are plenty of dangers, too.

Sunday 6 February 2011


I visited my local library yesterday. It felt good. I’ve joined, and I took out my twelve books. Now, I’m white and middle class. I have a vested interest in literature because of my writing and because of teaching at a university. I probably actually need my local library a lot less than some other people. I tend to buy books – I have 60 unread on shelves in my bedroom at the moment. I’m going to get a Kindle soon, so that will be another format. I get plenty of reading anyway from my students and the work I edit for Bridge House and The Red Telephone. And now I have an extra twelve books to read. I shall read them, alternating with my bought books.
My point is, that whoever said that libraries were the preserve of the white middle class has it slightly wrong. Radcliffe library was buzzing yesterday: pensioners, children doing homework, people looking up local information, using the computers and one or two reading newspapers while I suspect the other half was shopping. And despite this being Radcliffe, those people were not all white.
Going to the library brought back memories. First of all of being a child and later a sixth-former and using West Bromwich library to bits. Radcliffe library is in a rather grand building. West Bromwich is in an even grander one.
I was reminded too of visits to the library with my children who owned plenty of books but needed even more and relished our fortnightly Saturday morning visits. That particular library was housed in a converted chapel that added to the charm.
I love visiting bookshops, but libraries are somehow even better. The book carries with it the history of all the people who have borrowed it and of the care with which the librarians have chosen it and shelved it. And I smile as I think of the writer who might get some PLR because I have borrowed their book and hope that somebody is borrowing mine.
I always work in Bolton library while my car is being serviced. There is a great study area there, a good selection of books and a busy but studious atmosphere. Oh, and by the way, I’m usually the only white, middle class, working-age person there.
I had a vision yesterday of being retired – if they ever allow my husband and me to do that – and making a monthly trip – or even going more frequently – to the Radcliffe library. It would be unthinkable for it not to be there. It is well-stocked, though the non-fiction would not meet all of my needs. Maybe Bury would be better.
Yes, there is certainly still a need for libraries. The way they are used may change slightly: these days you can renew online and they will soon be lending out e-books. The shelves of books, however, must remain