by Louisa Klein

Recently, thanks to a friend (he’s also a writer) I stumbled upon a number of online competitions which got me a little perplexed.
They all followed the same format and all the judges were other writers of the same genres.  Their job was to select unpublished manuscripts of unknown writers which would later be presented to agents. One competition was more prominent than the others.
Now, if you know a bit of the rules of the publishing world, you know that published, professional writers DO NOT read other people’s work. And that’s not only because they don’t have the time to read other people’s stuff (any idea how many manuscripts they’d receive?) but also for legal reasons: They want to avoid to be accused of plagiarism. It has happened in the past that famous writers have plagiarised totally unknown ones, sometimes on purpose, sometimes not. Sometimes, they just read something which wasn’t even that good overall, but had that one interesting thing: A character, a few jokes, a bit of world building. Then they’d forget about it and maybe months, if not years later they’d come up with the same jokes, or character, genuinely believing it was their own. It happens, trick of the minds. Other writers weren’t even in good faith and got sued, sometimes the unknown writer would win, more often not. Either way, being taken to court is a pain, so most writers would clearly state on their website that they DO NOT READ OTHER PEOPLE’S MANUSCRIPTS. TV and fantasy writer Doris Egan has such a statement on her website.  Nora Roberts has too.
In the very unlikely case that an established writer decides to read a bunch of unpublished manuscripts (for instance, to raise money for a charity) he or she is supposed to SIGN A NON-DISCLOSURE AGREEMENT, where said writer promises he won’t divulge the above manuscript in any fashion, unless with WRITTEN PERMISSION OF THE AUTHOR. The writer of course promises to not use the unpublished in any other way. Said agreement is binding therefore, if our established writer decides to act like a jerk and publish even only part of the work under his name, he can easily be sued and the unknown writer wins the case very easily.
Now, let’s get back to our competition. The ‘judges’ weren’t even all published writers, some just had an agent. Those who were published had mostly books released electronically either by small presses or by electronic imprints of big presses (which is almost like to be published by a small press, but that’s the subject for another post). Thanks to that competition, said writers were literally inundated by unpublished manuscripts to read, we’re talking dozens of books for each judge.   Which means I don’t know how many hundreds of ideas they could use in various ways and I DIDN’T FIND ANYWAY ON THE WEBSITE THAT THEY WERE SUPPOSED TO SIGN A NON-DISCLOSURE AGREEMENT. Not even a basic one. Now, when I was interning at the Random House group I read I don’t know how many manuscripts from the slush pile. 90% were crap but I can honestly say that 100% had at least one good idea. If not more. Whether it was a situation, the name of a character, a joke, there was something that I could ‘save’ from each and every book. Something that I could have used and put in one of my stories, were I dishonest enough. But guess what? Although I was just a skinny, harmless 17 year old girl, I HAD TO SIGN A NON-DISCLOSURE AGREEMENT before starting reading the slush pile. And I was a total nobody, a far cry from a traditionally published author with a few books under his or her belt.
Now, my friends pointed out that all the authors taking part as judges had a new book out and were clearly in search of publicity, so that was their goal, not fishing into other people’s pond for ideas. My answer was that, in the best of cases, those writers were very naïve about marketing, which wasn’t a point in their favour, considering that they were professionals, some had been for a while.
Why? Consider this:

  • These people were ready to invest 3 MONTHS of their precious time to read the slush pile, pick up their favourite manuscripts and POLISH AND EDIT THEM IN COLLABORATION WITH THE AUTHOR, to get them ready for an agent. And they’d do it FOR FREE. This is a massive work a good, professional editor asks good money for (and rightfully so).
  • They seemed unaware that the writers submitting to them either already knew their work (therefore wanted them as mentors) or simply wanted to be picked by whomever, achieve their goal and get published. No time to read other people’s stuff. Plus, we’re talking a dozen judges for a few hundreds competing writers: Even if each one of them will eventually buy a book written by each judge, it won’t make much of a difference.
  • They also seemed unaware that they could reach much more people (all interested in what they write) using Facebook ads and spending a little over 100 bucks.

Bottom line is: nothing made sense. Everything was sketchy.
I have nothing against traditional publishing itself, actually, I love it.  As I mentioned, I interned and worked for one of the Big Five and met some extraordinary people while doing my job. So, I can totally understand the urge some writers have to be traditionally published. But please, dear colleagues, DO NOT LET THAT URGE BLIND YOU. There are tons of serious, reliable online competitions for writers out there where rules are clear and authors are protected. The first two that come to mind are Pitchmas and the many competitions hosted by Authoress at her Miss Snark’s First Victim blog. Check those out first and always remember to protect you work.
As an alternative, follow my example and  consider the self-publishing auction, which is far from being easy, when done seriously and professionally. It costs lots of time, sweat and money. But, again, if done with a professional attitude, can put your work in front of lot of people and gain you a faithful audience of readers.
Good luck!!

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