Contesting Contests: A Conversation

Posted by @ 2:08 pm on September 1st, 2011

A while back, I posted a link to Les Figues Press’s very first book contest. Whereas all I did was post the submission information, many commenters responded, asking questions and giving opinions about contests in general. To clear up any questions about motivation, profit margins, etc, I have assembled four small presses – Les Figues Press, Starcherone Books, Noemi Press, and Fiction Collective 2 – to discuss their contests. I hope you find this conversation as illuminating as I do.

Bios for the presses can be found after the conversation. The publishers representing the presses are as follows:

Les Figues Press (LFP) – Teresa Carmody

Starcherone BooksTed Pelton

Noemi PressCarmen Gimenez Smith

Fiction Collective 2 (FC2) – Lance Olsen

Note: You may notice an exclusion in the conversation here, that is, I didn’t ask anyone to represent a press who doesn’t have a contest. I had considered asking a few people, but ultimately, I wanted to focus on why presses have chosen to run a contest. Expect a post within the next few weeks with presses who have chosen not to run a contest, for whatever reason. Hey publishers: if you have a press that doesn’t run a contest and want to participate in a conversation like this one, email me: Lily [dot] Hoang [dot] 326 [at] gmail [dot] com.

LH: How long has your press run a contest, and what was your rationale in starting it? Do you require a submission fee? With the submission fee, does the applicant get any other goodies?

 LFP: Les Figues is hosting our first annual contest this year. We started it for a few different reasons. First, we wanted to move outside of the TrenchArt series.  While we love these books and the way the series intends a contextual shift for readers, we’ve also felt increasingly constrained by its schedule and format.  There have been manuscripts we’ve liked that simply wouldn’t translate well to the books’ tall, skinny trim size. Also, we don’t have an open submission period for the series. I won’t go into the ins and outs of how we review manuscripts, but let’s just say that we’ve almost accepted everything for the 2013 TrenchArt series—so we’re working about 2-3 years ahead.

Yet I think it’s really important for a Press to stay open to the unfamiliar, to survey what’s out there and to read work by people we don’t know. So the second reason we started a contest is to create an ongoing system for reviewing new work. And because a lot of the work we publish rides the line between poetry and prose, we wanted the contest to be non-genre specific too. So we don’t care if you call your work poetry, prose, true or made-up, we’re more interested in the what of it.

And yes, the NOS contest does have a $25 submission fee. To publish beyond the TrenchArt series requires more money, so our idea is that contest will pay for itself (see below). More, as every entrant receives a TrenchArt title of their choice, we’re also hoping to cultivate more readers for TrenchArt series books.  Entrants can choose, for example, Lily Hoang’s The Evolutionary Revolution!

Starcherone: We’ve done our contest for nine years — eight contests, one year off in the middle.  We started it for both economic and aesthetic reasons.  Economically, it for years was one source of revenue we could absolutely count on, while grants were hard to get (in New York State, competing against half the publishing world), and sales difficult to build.  It has always been approximately one-quarter of our annual revenue, and we have generally published four books a year, so the math worked out honestly as well, covering our costs.  But more importantly, especially over time, have been the aesthetic gains that have resulted from the contest, and this is something we knew at the outset, but has surpassed our most confident expectations.  We wanted to have a contest to make us aware of writers we didn’t know.  A small press can fall victim very easily to nepotism and in-breeding, and we wanted to steer clear of that.  Our contest has made us a truly healthy press — we have constantly replenished and diversified our gene pool by annually bringing in strong new work.  An added bit of luck was that, while we didn’t design it this way, every year we have awarded the prize, it has been won by a debut author.  This has annually brought us exciting new artists, and helped Starcherone continually redefine itself.  It has also really helped our gender balance.  For some reason, more than 80% of queries to Starcherone outside our contest are by men; we see a lot more manuscripts from men than by women.  But our contest has been won six times by women, and only twice by men.  I’ve always wanted Starcherone to represent writing by both genders (or five or six genders — keep ‘em coming!), and the contest has helped this to happen.

We don’t give anything to contestants who send us the standard entry fee, except an honest read and a chance to win our contest.  We do offer a discount on the most recent year’s contest winner, if the entrant pays a little extra.  The contest fee is currently $35; for $49.95, you can get the last winner’s book, ppd.  Our current books list for $20, and it’s about $6 to send them via priority mail, so it’s a pretty good deal.

FC2: To contextualize what I’m about to say, FC2’s mission statement: “Fiction Collective Two is among the few alternative presses in America devoted to publishing fiction considered by America’s largest publishers too challenging, innovative, or heterodox for the commercial milieu. FC2 was originally founded in 1974 as the Fiction Collective, a group of avant-garde writers, among whom were Jonathan Baumbach, Raymond Federman, Clarence Major, and Ronald Sukenick. In his New York Times Book Review column “Guest Word,” of September 15, 1974, Sukenick described the group’s aim to “make serious novels and story collections available” and “keep them in print permanently.” The Collective’s subsequent history has been shaped by this commitment to preserve cultural resources that might otherwise be silenced or lost. FC2’s mission has been and remains to publish books of high quality and exceptional ambition whose styles, subject matter, or forms push the limits of American publishing and reshape our literary culture.

As you mentioned, Lily, we run two contests.  The first, which is in its fourth year, is called the FC2 Ronald Sukenick/ABR Innovative Fiction Prize.  The person whose novel or short-story collection is chosen receives $1000 and publication by FC2.  The idea behind this contest is to discover writers FC2 might otherwise overlook–or writers who might otherwise overlook FC2–fairly early on in their careers.  While this isn’t necessarily a first-book contest, it can be and often is.  The result for us has been the discovery of a diverse group of authors exploring diverse approaches to innovation, which is to say this contest serves as a continuous replenishment of energy and aesthetics for FC2.

The second contest, which is in its third year, is called the FC2 Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize.  The person whose novel or short-story collection is chosen receives $15000 and publication by FC2.  The idea behind this contest (which, by the way, originated when a patron approached us with the idea and the money to launch it) is to reward innovative writers later in their careers (i.e., with at least three books published) for keeping on keeping on.  Again, this has been a tremendously productive way to reach out to innovative writers not associated with FC2.

In the past, FC2 got a bum rap for being an inbred clan.  The contests have been our answer to thinking the press beyond that (arguable) claim.  In both cases, I should emphasize, only authors not affiliated with FC2 may enter.  This year the FC2 Ronald Sukenick/ABR Innovative Fiction Prize will be judged by Noy Holland (it’s always judged by someone on FC2’s Board of Directors), while the FC2 Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize will be judged by Percival Everett (it’s always judged by someone not connected with FC2 by publication).

Noemi: We started running a chapbook contest about five years ago. We ran our first full-length book contest last year, and this year we run it in both poetry and fiction. We’d had open reading periods, and we’d published from these, but we came up against two stumbling blocks: we were going into insane credit card debt and we weren’t getting as many manuscripts as we would have liked during our open reading period. At most, we had about 75 manuscripts to consider during a single reading period.

We ask for a $25 reading fee. In the past, when we ran a chapbook contest, we’ve paid judges, but when we started the full-length book contest, we wanted to have more control. Committing to a book is a bit like an arranged marriage, so we wanted to be really excited about our potential partnership.

The advantage to the contest is obviously the money. We pay $1,000 to the winner. In addition, we’re able to buy advertising and bring all the bells and whistles to the production and dissemination to the books that win the contests. Since we’ve started the full-length book contest, we’ve also published finalist books that we might not have been able to publish.

 

LH: For the sake of transparency, would you be willing to disclose roughly how much your contest “makes” and how that money is used? (This, sadly, is an important question. A lot of readers assume the money goes into your pocket or for drinks or something.)

LFP: As this is our first year, we’re still waiting to see how this turns out. But basically, we’re hoping for enough submissions to cover the costs of printing and prize money.  And then, of course, there is the cost of promotion, and like most small presses, Les Figues works to promote our titles as long as they’re in print. All of the writers and editors reviewing the contest submissions are volunteering their time, including our judge, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum.

As a side note: publishing poetry and experimental/innovative/conceptual work is not a money-making endeavor. Les Figues is run on volunteer sweat and love.

Starcherone: OK.  We are a nonprofit, so it’s the public’s right to know!  Last year, we took in a little under $7,000 in contest fees.  Our total budget was a little under $30,000, and we published four books.  Basically, it costs about $7,000 for us to do an average book, allowing for all costs — design, printing, marketing, postal expenses, office supplies, author royalties, etc.  This counts as well the prize money and the modest stipend we pay the final judge.  Starcherone, to date, still has no paid employees, though we are trying to get to the point where that is no longer true.  Personally, I have been volunteering my time since we became a nonprofit in 2003.  We have offered contest readers token $50 stipends over the years, but our readers have usually donated these back to the organization, and so this past year we didn’t even do that.  Instead, this year, the editorial staff had five weekly meetings in May and June.  I confess: there was a non-insubstantial supply of alcohol consumed at these meetings, and the bills were paid by Starcherone.  We had mojitos for the first meeting, margaritas the second, etc.  But booze is the only compensation I have been able to get our editors to accept!  And these are editors, for Pete’s sake — drinks make them do a really good job!

FC2: We’re also a nonprofit.  Each contest asks for a $25 entry fee.  We receive somewhere between 175 and 200 manuscripts for the Sukenick contest–i.e., about $4500.  Because of the fairly stringent eligibility requirements for the Doctorow, as well as the fact that it’s still in its early years, we receive many fewer manuscripts–i.e., usually about 50, meaning about $1200.  Some of that money (especially in the case of the Sukenick) goes to paying out to the author her or his prize money (in the case of the Doctorow, that prize money is provided by our patron), but most of it goes into advertising the following year’s contest (advertising rates in venues like AWP Chronicle are outrageous these days).  What’s left over goes into FC2’s daily operations–stuff like raising our profile (and hence getting out the word about our authors’ books), renting a table at AWP, setting up a reading there, creating a presence at &NOW, frequent editorial teleconferences among Board members, distributing contest manuscripts to Board members across the country (no inexpensive task, that), etc.  The actual cost of producing our books is covered by University of Alabama Press, of which FC2 is an imprint, and layout and design is handled by Illinois State University, so virtually no contest money needs goes there.  In other words, the primary benefits of the contest fees go to the contest itself, while secondary ones go to all FC2 authors.

Noemi: We also made about 7,000 this year on both our contests. We pay the award and produce two for three full-length manuscripts and there you go. I sometimes buy drinks in the form of orange juice for the readers, maybe even pizza. I spent thousands myself on contests, and I get why people think it’s a racket, but it’s not, perhaps to my dismay because my credit cards get hit as hard as film school student’s.

When I get cranky and defensive thinking about the opposition to contests, I can always refer to how hard it is to cultivate an audience for a small press. A small press book can take years to sell out, and contests allow us that luxury.

LH: Are your contests judged blindly? Why or why not?

Noemi: Our contest entries are sorted and anonymized by Noemi interns and then they come to the editors. We like to judge them blind because I think the results are most interesting that way. The range is so wide and the mystery makes it such a joy. The poetry world is small enough so one of the editors might recognize a poem or even a gesture, but that doesn’t necessarily sway us. We’re so neurotic about it that we work hard to keep it blind and objective.

LFP: We are running a blind contest because this seems most fair.  Knowing who the author is does influence the reading…

Starcherone: We use blind judging, and have developed elaborate systems to ensure that our readers don’t know the identities of authors, and especially that the judge does not know the winner.  We have put this in writing on our website: “The winner of the Starcherone Fiction Prize cannot be someone whose work that year’s Final Judge recognizes during the blind final-judging process.”  We helped devise the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses guidelines on Contest Ethics in 2005.  (I participated in a roundtable on this with editors from several other presses; the transcript is available through CLMP.)  Then we went one further, creating additional statements defining conflict-of-interest situations in our contest, and how we would seek to resolve them.  These are also on our website.  Starcherone truly wants to ensure that everyone entering our contest feels that the winner has been determined honestly and without favoritism.  We also offer a refund of the contest fee, upon request.  I can recall returning only one contest fee in the eight years we’ve run the contest, and we have had in the neighborhood of 1,500 entrants over this time.

It is getting harder and harder to ensure that the “blind” stays in place throughout the judging, however, due to the highly networked nature of our endeavors as writers, editors, teachers, and students these days.  Everyone is aware of everyone; everyone seems to have everyone as a Facebook friend, or a friend of a friend.  So when we announce our finalists — which we have always done in the month before the winner is chosen — we risk the “blind” being compromised.  We have started to make requests with this announcement that people refrain from identifying the finalists, who are identified only by the titles of their books.  This also requires the cooperation of our final judge.  If I had my way, I’d like the final judge to go off on a remote island vacation once this judging begins.  I worry even about telling the finalists that they have been selected as finalists — I fear that once they start telling their friends, announcing it on their blogs, etc., the cat will get out of the bag.  We will keep doing the contest as we have been doing it — but I fear we may soon have some compromise in our system.

By the way, a related condition of our contest that I believe also helps Starcherone gain the trust of those who enter it is that we always choose a winner.  We have been very fortunate to have had judges who have always agreed to abide by this guideline.

FC2: Absolutely.  Blind judging is essential to running a fair contest.  Names are removed from manuscripts as they arrive and numbers are attached in their stead; this is done by staff at the University of Houston-Victoria.  Those names are then circulated among members of the FC2 Board of Directors; anyone who recognizes a name is asked to recuse him or herself from reading that particular manuscript.  Next manuscripts are distributed to Board members. To avoid any possible conflict of interest, former or current students or close friends of the judges are ineligible to enter the contests, as are any FC2 staff.

LH: What is your screening process? What is your rationale?

LFP: We have a small group of Les Figues-affiliated writers (authors and board members) who will be doing the initial screening.  Every writer-reviewer will recommend a certain number of manuscripts to Co-Director Vanessa Place.  She will winnow the selection down to 10-13 finalists and judge Sarah Shun-lien Bynum will make the decision from there.

We wanted a process that ensured a fair and thorough review of each manuscript, while also being mindful of everyone’s volunteered time.

Starcherone: We use an in-house editorial staff of about 10 readers to winnow the manuscripts down to five finalists; our process is described to some degree above.  The five finalists are then passed on to the guest final judge, different each year.  Our rationale is to endeavor to discover the best book submitted, in keeping with our tastes and identity as a publisher of innovative fiction.  Finally, our particular aesthetic is less important than the quality of the book — we are looking for the most accomplished work in the big, big pile.

FC2: Carefully vetted Ph.D. and M.F.A. graduate students in fiction writing studying at FC2 affiliated institutions around the country do the first screening of manuscripts, each supervised by an FC2 Board member.  The next round is done by the Board members themselves.  A shortlist of 10-15 manuscripts is generated, and the manuscripts on it are sent along to the judge.

Noemi: Again, we’re so neurotic about the process that Evan, Krystal, Mike, Nat  and I have read every single manuscript. After the manuscripts are organized and anonymized (separated from their cover sheet and vetted for identifying elements), we get together and do a really preliminary read just to get a sense of the field. It’s like opening Christmas presents. Then we divide the manuscripts and read them closely to determine finalists.

The finalists are read several times. It’s a really tough decision, and it takes a few weeks of back and forth emailing. We leave the final decisions to the editors: Krystal Languell, Mike Meginnis and Natalie Day.

 

LH: Has running a contest improved your press? Has it hurt it?

LFP: Again, it’s too soon to say, but we’re feeling really positive about it. We get to find a new manuscript, while everyone who enters gets to discover a new TrenchArt book.  

Starcherone: As I said in the first question above, Starcherone’s contest has made us the press that we are.  Two of our most important books came to us through our contest, and we may never have known these writers otherwise: Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey and Alissa Nutting’s Unclean Jobs for Women & Girls.  It also makes us able to do the other books that we do with more confidence and less regret and second-guessing.  Another publisher said to me recently: everybody I know wants to win the Starcherone contest.  I thought that was very cool.

FC2: Yes, yes, and more yes.  As I mentioned above, our contests are an amazingly effective way to continuously reenergize the press.  They keep us fresh, remind us and everyone else that the one constant about FC2 is that nothing is constant.

Noemi Press: We’ve gotten to read so many books, which is enormously educational for us as publishers because we get to see what people are doing. We read and eventually publish such a wide range of poets we might not have encountered, if it weren’t for the contest.

I think the press’s visibility has increased substantially because of the contest too. We haven’t seen the contests have a direct effect on how many books we sell, but I do think the poets we’ve had the honor of publishing bring us their own audience and that’s been amazing.

LH: Tell us more about your contest: when it runs, what to submit, etc.

LFP: We anticipate an ongoing summer submission schedule with a fall deadline, so the NOS contest is open now, with a September 9 deadline. The specific information is on our website: http://www.lesfigues.com/lfp/266/submission

Starcherone: We haven’t made the official announcement for 2012 yet, but typically we begin accepting manuscripts in October of the previous year, and do so until mid-February.  We accept fiction between 60 and 400 pages.  (We discourage books that are more than 400 pages.)  We announce finalists around July 1, and the winner in August.  The winner of the contest receives $1,500 and publication with Starcherone.

FC2:  All the information for both contests is up on our website: fc2.org, so I won’t go into too much more detail here beyond what I’ve already said above except to underscore that our reading period for both runs from 15 August through 1 November.  Both, that is, are now open.  Everyone interested in innovative fiction should consider submitting work.  This always represents a thrilling time of year for FC2 because we know we’re about to be wonderfully surprised.

Noemi: The contest deadline is March 15, 2012. The information for the contest is on our website: www.noemipress.org. We announce the winners at the end of the summer.

SPECIAL PEOPLES TALKING TO US:
Les Figues Press is a nonprofit, independent press dedicated to creating aesthetic conversations between readers, writers and artists. Les Figues publishes new works of poetry and literary prose (short stories, novels, novellas, drama), and curates events, including literary art salons, readings and multi-disciplinary performances—providing audiences with innovative ways to experience literature.

Starcherone Books is an independently-operated nonprofit publisher of innovative fiction, based in Buffalo, NY, publishing 4 books a year.  The press was founded by author Ted Pelton when he self-published his first book, Endorsed by Jack Chapeau, in 2000 (hence, “start-your-own”).  In 2003, we became a nonprofit, and in 2004 began conducting our annual contest.  Recent titles have been finalists for The Young Lions prize, the Cabell First Novelist Award, and the Foreword Book of the Year, among other awards.  In 2011, Starcherone became an imprint of Dzanc Books, while maintaining full independent editorial control.

Noemi Press was founded in 2002, Noemi Press is a 501(c)(3) literary arts organization based in Las Cruces, New Mexico, dedicated to publishing and promoting the work of emerging and established authors and artists. We’ve published books by Joanna Howard, Norman Lock, Danielle Pafunda, Joshua Edwards, Khadijah Queen and many other amazing writers.

Fiction Collective Two is among the few alternative presses in America devoted to publishing fiction considered by America’s largest publishers to be too challenging, innovative, or heterodox for the commercial milieu.

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