Are writing competitions a scam?

Screen Shot 2016-11-08 at 12.02.52 PM.png

Twelve thousand entries. No, make that thirty thousand. Yes. That sounds better….

At the beginning of 2015 I won an art prize. I decided to invest my modest winnings in something even less appealing than visual art – creative writing. 2015 was my year of writing competitions.

My rules were simple; Only Australian competitions and only in 2015.

I chose three of the most reputable Australian writing competitions; The ABR Jolley Prize, the Overland Short Story Award for Emerging Writers and the Olga Masters Short Story Award – Two ‘big’, one small (the Olga Masters Award). All had an entry fee under $30.

I worked on my pieces and submitted on the due date. About a week after submitting to the Jolley Prize I received an email informing me that the deadline had been extended.

It got me thinking; why extend the deadline? Were they short of entries? How many entries did they want?

Research revealed that the Australian Book Review Jolley Prize attracts about 1200 entries, according to, you guessed it, the Australian Book Review. In 2016 the total prize money is $12500, with $7000 paid to the winner and the rest in other prizes.

So, if there’s around 1200 entries, at $20 a pop, that’s $24000. $12500 is paid out in prizes, leaving $11500 to pay for the administration and of course, reading fees. This all seems reasonable, until you consider the following;

– how do you know how many people enter?

– how do you know that all the entries are read?

I’m assuming the competition could be audited by Fair Trading, but there is no information on ABR’s website about terms and conditions, or how the competition is administered. In fact, there is no requirement to justify the outcome. The judges’ decision is final.

Now, in my opinion, the winning short stories were excellent, however, it’s unclear whether they were chosen from 1200 or 20 000 entries. Perhaps they were simply chosen from a much smaller pool of entries, say, perhaps the first two or three hundred entries, after which the ‘reading budget’ was maxed out. Or everyone got bored and stuck into the sticky wine. Who knows?

Writing competitions are classified as a competition of ‘skill’ rather than chance. In this way, they evade Australian gambling regulations. However, with a completely opaque judging process, who’s to say the outcomes are in fact based on skill rather than luck?

In the art world, trading in subjective artistic judgement is a well-established form of money laundering. Politicians and business people sell one another ‘important’ but obscure works of art that store well under the chaise lounge or beside the pool chemicals. It’s a simple and effective way to transferring money for ‘nothing’.

Writing competitions are a variation on the same theme. Entrants pay their money, wait until the jackpot pot is full (let’s extend the deadline for entries!) and then wait to see if they’re a winner. How, where or even if the works are ‘judged’ remains a mystery.

On that note, I’m starting a writing competition. Who’s in?