Twenty-five quid, that’s what.
Way back in the dim and distant past... What was it? Eighteen months ago? I paid my twenty-five quid and I entered the Mslexia novel-writing competition. I did not know then what my money was buying me.
I was asked recently whether it was worth entering writing competitions that charge a fee. It’s a tricky question to answer.
You might have read my thoughts on contributing work for free, and I still think I’m right. I still think that work should be paid for... always! Sometimes that pay might take the form of waiving a fee for the sake of a charity, but it’s still payment, because someone still benefits. As writers, as anything, we must not sell ourselves short. If one of us does it, we all suffer.
Does the same sort of principle apply to competitions? Does the competition turn into a vanity exercise if we pay to enter. It’s tricky, isn’t it?
The problem, as I see it is this: If you want a good and experienced reading panel, it must be paid to read, and if the competition is popular and a representative sample of each entrant is to be read, that’s a lot of reading, and a lot of responsibility for the reading panel to recommend the right books to the judging panel. If you want a good and experienced judging panel, and if you want to add prestige to the prize by having celebrated or acclaimed judges then they must be paid, too, and the more celebrated the higher the fee.
The Mslexia Prize attracted about 1800 entrants who were invited to submit 5,000 words each, for a reading total of 9 million words or about 100 full length novels. That adds up to about forty working weeks of reading for someone... someone who has to be paid.
Then there were the judges. I don’t know exactly how this competition was run, but even if the three judges were only given the final dozen shortlisted books, they might still expect to read them pretty thoroughly. A dozen books that each takes a dozen hours to read, and all three judges have to accomplish that feat, adds up to a total of thirteen more regular thirty-five hour weeks. Add to that time spent talking about the books, comparing notes, working through suggestions, corresponding, weeding out, picking, choosing, getting together and cogitating, and it soon becomes very clear why some competitions really do need to ask for a fee, simply so that they can run at all.
The Mslexia competition took about £45,000 in fees for their novel writing competition, and I’m willing to bet that it ran at a loss.
As a runner-up in the competition it would have been twenty-five quid well spent. I got an agent, too, and you can’t put a price on that, and no one who has ever gone agent-hunting will argue with me, I promise you. If every budding writer could invest twenty-five pounds and be guaranteed an agent, trust me, plenty of them would sell their grandmothers to raise the cash to do it.
That’s not why those twenty-five pounds were a good investment for me, though.
As a result of entering and doing well in the Mslexia competition, I met Rebecca Alexander. We met on-line to begin with, and then in person, and we now correspond very regularly. She’s a lovely woman, and I am glad to be able to call her my friend.
If my book had bombed I still would’ve spent the cash if it meant meeting Reb, and I’d do it again... and again.