Should You Pay Writing Contest Entry Fees?


If you are considering entering a writing contest and wondering why it is charging an entry fee, consider the operating costs of the contest provider.

I recently received this email from a reader of my newsletter:

“I’ll sometimes find a contest that might work for me, but then the publication requests $10, $20, and sometimes more to enter. Most times I just pass. Why should I pay to present my work? I have paid a few, but generally I balk at anything over $10.”

My first question is, “Would you fund a contest out of your own pocket and work for free?”

Contests can present remarkable opportunities for authors, particularly unpublished authors. They can expose your work to audiences and jumpstart your career – not to mention pay you for your writing. They are an oft under-appreciated chance to further a writer’s reach and reputation.

A tiny minority of writing contests out there do not charge a fee. Why? Perhaps they have a major sponsorship or the financial means to operate without having to ask for fees. Most contests simply do not have that luxury.

I managed a contest for nearly a decade, and I can tell you it was not cheap to run. Still, we offered a category that required an entry fee, and another that didn’t. To make a point, the winner of the no-entry-fee category received a meager $50 first prize, while the winner of the entry-fee category earned a more generous $500 prize.

If you are considering entering a writing contest and wondering why it is charging an entry fee, consider the operating costs of the contest provider, including:

  1. Prize money. No organization has bottomless pockets. The money for operations, including prize money, has to come from somewhere. Why not entry fees?
  2. Judges. If the contest boasts the participation of a reputable judge or two (or more), they have to cough up the money to pay these judges. Just as no writer should be expected to work for free, no writer, publisher, or agent who serves as a contest judge should either.
  3. Advertising. You’d never hear about a contest if it were not advertised. Advertising is not free. That money has to come from somewhere.
  4. Publishing. Many writing contests include publication as part of the prize. Whether print or online – but particularly in print – there are expenses affiliated with publishing.

There’s also the qualifier of setting a barrier to entry. In my experience, contests that that require an entry fee typically attract better work. The contest I ran was something of an experiment, and the results confirmed what I expected: the quality of writing was higher in the entry-fee category. When there was no financial barrier to entry and writers had nothing to risk, the quality of the writing submitted was notably inferior. It wasn’t even close. That fact alone justifies the entry fee.

Back to the email I received, I look at things precisely the opposite way: if I see a contest that does not charge an entry fee, I investigate more to determine how they can afford to fund the competition. Even then, I wonder why an organization would choose to forgo the income stream provided by entry fees and avoid drawing funds away from other needs in its enterprise.

The bottom line is, if you find a contest that seems legitimate and suits your writing, pay the entry fee. A reputable contest provider has the right – and the need – to charge it. Plus, it might inspire you to submit a better-quality product.