Should You Pay Writing Contest Entry Fees?

writing contest

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Contests can present remarkable opportunities for authors, particularly unpublished authors.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.


BookBaby Book Marketing and Promotion


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  1. Hi Hope — I am wondering how I can promote the Erma Bombeck Writing Competition on your blog? It seems like a perfect place! The competition is open for Human Interest and Humor writers, $15 entry fee (pays for the prizes) plus a free ($450 value) registration to the Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop held in Dayton, OH, April 5-7. Essays should be 450 words or fewer. Details on how to enter are here: Deadline to enter is 1/3/18, 8:00 AM EST.

    • In the interest of equal time, it should be noted there are plenty of contests that don’t charge anything — which you can find on, for example.

      I consider entry fees a symptom of a society that expects the talent to subsidize the gatekeppers (as in the music industry, with companies like SonicBids, that also want folks to give money upfront to listen to them) for the nebulous promise of “exposure” — as Danny Klein (J. Geils Band) once observed, “Man, you can die from exposure.”

      Your contest may not have been cheap to run, but apparently, if I look at the above website, there are plenty of others who seem to manage. That leads me to believe that we don’t have to accept fees as a fait accompli, like the sun in the sky.

      >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.<

      Not quite. There are plenty of deep-pocketed amateurs out there that don't mind clogging up the pipeline, because they will happily pony up whatever it takes.

      Fees can also drive talent away, depending on how many or steep they become. Look what happened to ebay, for example — where many have since fled to (presumably) greener pastures like Amazon, who will, at some point, probably repeat the cycle. And so on, and so forth.

      Even without the fee issue, however, I think writers need to think carefully about whatever contests that they do enter — most are geared up to promote the home team (so to speak), whether it's the particular magazine, or talent from that area. As an outsider, your chances of cracking that situation are fair to nil.

      National contests are a different beast altogether, though the rights situations can be tricky, in some cases. Again, it's six of one, half a dozen of the other. In most cases, though, I think you're better off trying to build your own fanbase first — as opposed to hoping that somebody will discover out via the slush pile. Just my tuppenceworth.

      • ATM withdrawals were mostly free when that idea first began as well. Now none are unless you use your own bank’s terminals. Just goes to say.

        • I’m not even sure that exception holds true anymore — but people didn’t have to accept ATMs as a fait accompli, anymore than the fees being discussed here.

          As I pointed out, if you go to the above site that I mentioned — there’s plenty of contests that seem to get by just fine without them. Do they have some type of secret sauce that the fee chargers somehow overlooked? I doubt it.

          Just because folks condition themselves to go along with something that doesn’t sound right to them — at first — doesn’t make it right, nor even desirable. That’s all I’m saying.

    • I’ve run 10 screenwriting contests, five scene-writing contests, and two contests in which the content to be written was a movie script logline.

      I just published a book for screenwriters on dealing with the movie and TV industry, in which one very long chapter is devoted to responding to the many bitter complaints I received from aspiring screenwriters about contests in my survey for the book. The most common complaint I received could be summarized in either of these words: “scam” or “ripoff.” Because I got so many of those, I published in the book a composite average budget of the five years’ income and expenses for one of my contests, showing exactly how much money was brought in, and what it was spent on. It averaged a net of about $5,000 on an average of $65,000 in entry fees and income from sponsors. The rest went to contest expenses.

      The book is available on Amazon. Search for “Be That One In A Hundred” if interested, or see the website,

      I can well understand aspiring writers’ unhappiness with contests. I was one, and I was unhappy with contests I entered (after the first three, all of which I won). You pay good money to be rejected. It is very painful. But the harsh reality is that almost no one donates money to a contest, so the money has to come from entry fees.

  2. Very well said, Hope! I would also caution writers to watch out for contests that seem free, but actually have hidden costs — for instance, buried in the fine print, the sponsor asserts the right to publish ALL entries w/o payment or permission from the writer. So there’s no entry fee but they are essentially mining the entries for free content for their website, depriving authors of compensation. Other free contests make money by adding your name to marketing email lists. That’s fine if you want the services they sell, but know what you’re getting into.

    • Haven’t you noticed that whether it’s a dating site, a music promo site or whatever, they may have a free version where you can do a limited amount of things, but they all play the “upgrade” game. Haven’t you noticed?

  3. What’s a magazine’s submissions department but an on-going free contest? And since most contests have the same “not previously published” restrictions that many magazines have, a work sent to a contest is just as out-of-circulation as one sent to a regular publisher, but in my experience, contests are less likely to tell the losers when they’ve lost (and are thus freed up to be submitted again somewhere else), than publishers are about rejections.

    And the observation that free contests attract more low-quality work may be a nice argument for the contest owner to keep out the riff-raff, quality work would have less competition, and therefore be more likely to win than if it was sent to a paid contest. I don’t know about you, but I’ll take better odds on a small payout over longer odds on a big one.

    The only reason I’d go after a paid contest is if there was some kind of review, or judge’s discussion of why they liked the ones they did. Otherwise, it’s like those “fun runs” that charge just as much as the races that bother to contract timing systems and post overall results, but tell you that you have to keep your own time and who knows where you finish overall (unless you’re one of the top finishers).

    • I have avoided the paid ones because of a lack of affordability. I am a semi-retired person with a heavy debt load and have to really watch what I pay out. I challenge the argument that the free sites and contest attract only the riff-raff. I myself am very reluctant to play the whole “upgrade” game for that reason among others.

  4. The title of this article is worded wrong. Suggestion: What do contests do with there entry fee?

    I feel like this is a little click baity only because regardless of what they spend the money on that is not enough reason for us to take a chance. And this article would have been more helpful by listing out why its worth taking the chance when you’re going up against 1000 others and more.

  5. Thanks for everyone’s advice in this article and previous articles on BookBaby. I published my first children’s picture book with BookBaby last June. As a first time author, I didn’t even think about contests until reading articles on this blog. As I looked at children’s book contests, it was important to carefully look at past winners to see if my book would align with their past chosen winners and would winning the contest actually make a difference in marketing my book. I chose two paid contests this fall and one I didn’t place in and another I won 1st place in Children’s Picture Books for 5 and under. Winning this award has expanded my exposure to my segment of the industry and has strengthen my confidence to take my marketing to the next level. I will enter more free and paid contests this next year and take the “yoyo ride” of not placing or winning.

  6. Well, since you kind of laid it all out there in a professional and logical manner, your views pretty much make sense, unless you are the one person who decides that you want to offer something to your audience that truly seems like a loyalty reward or some other gift of another name that you just happen to be generous enough to supply. Though it may seem to good to be true, everyone is not out to build their empire off the backs of the hopeful or the wanna be famous. There are (in fact) more important things like engagement and the idea of knowing that you are encouraging participation. You talked advertising fees and I thought Social Media, Blogging and email newsletters. What about views and exposure? Let’s think this through.
    Whether it be a like, a share or a commentary entry, it will trump collecting fees anytime and also make the organization and organizer seem more legitimate. Nonetheless, thank you for sharing your views; they are appreciated. Thank you for my next great idea.


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