The current issue of Poets & Writers prints a very pointed query from a reader:
I just tabulated the cost for entry fees listed online from the May/June 2003 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. If I submitted work to every contest, it would cost me $727 in entry fees alone. Then there is the cost of round trip postage, the cost of duplication, the cost of envelopes, the cost of paper, the cost of computer printer cartridges, and the cost of waiting for the never-to-happen response that one might expect from such an immense fiscal contribution to the publishers. Is the issue of entry fees something that P&W accepts without question?
The editor provides a very evasive answer that essentially indicates P&W does indeed accept this practice without question. Since Poets & Writers is a publication that really exists to serve the interests of publishers and writing programs, not poets and writers, this answer is not surprising.
What is most evasive about Therese Eiben's response is that it fails to address the ethical issues raised by the very existence of these "contests." While no individual literary magazine or journal is necessarily attempting to dupe gullible potential entrants (although editors surely can't be so naive as to think there are no such gullible entrants, who from the start have no chance of winning), collectively this whole enterprise is nonetheless a colossal scam.
The popularity of these contests has risen to such an extent that probably a majority of existing literary magazines sponsors one. It is pretty clearly a way to raise a little cash for an endeavor that doesn't otherwise produce much. That literary magazines, which exist on the margins of the publishing "industry" but nevertheless often provide first publications for writers who go on to have considerable success in this industry, would have to resort to such devices is to an extent understandable, and ought to be occasion for shame among those in the "industry" (if they were capable of it), and for bitter disappointment among those who think American culture as a whole actually values serious writers and writing. Some worthy writers no doubt win these contests, but other worthy writers just as surely don't, and a culture that took literature seriously wouldn't require its aspiring writers to undergo such a humiliating (as well as expensive) dance of subjection.
But the editors and patrons of literary magazines still might feel some compunction about staging these contests. There probably are some writers who spend, if not the thousands of dollars tabulated by the letter writer, a great deal of money they really can't afford to spend just to get themselves published. (The cost of simply submitting manuscripts can easily run into the hundreds of dollars.) Does everyone have to stage a contest? Does anyone? Couldn't some of this money be more profitably spent publishing more issues and thus more writers? Couldn't the publishing "industry" help defray the cost of printing the little magazines? Couldn't the universities housing many of these magazines be more generous?
And couldn't Poets & Writers be honest and admit it's all ethically dubious? Or would this go too far in the direction of actually caring about poets and writers?
Perhaps the proliferation of online literary magazines will help to alleviate this problem. Perhaps the less onerous costs of publishing poetry and fiction in this form will make the scandal of these contests moot. In the meantime, my advice would be to not enter any such contest, even if you think you can win. Refuse to be scammed.