Would you pay to be in an anthology?

by guest blogger Elspeth Rushbrook

With many writing competitions expecting an entry fee of £2-10 [$4-20] (pay into your own prize pot), it’s gladdening to see one which is free. And which offers a £1000 prize, the largest they claim in the United Kingdom without an entry fee (there are open prizes up to £5000 which do carry a fee, such as Bridport and Cardiff, both open internationally).

United Press run poetry competitions all year with £100-£200 prizes, all without charge (their prose prizes do carry an entry fee). They also offer publishing services from their Admail London address - that in itself alarmed me, that they conceal their real address.

The National Poetry Anthology sounds attractive, like it’s respected and read and stocked all over the country. (You do have to be from the UK to enter). All good bookshops will have it, United Press claim, who run the open comp for its content.

But the rules say that by entering, you automatically allow them to print your work in the anthology if you are chosen. Fine, except for a point I’ll soon come to.

And then, there’s the other book.

Having applied to these competitions for six years, I have a measure of the way it’s run. Only the two annual £1000 competitions – the summer closing NPA and the local poem which closes around Christmas – publish their winners. I have never heard anything about the many randomly named small comps, such as “Just My Luck”.

I’ve never been picked for the NPA, let alone won (and I realise writing this might end that possibility), but I have been allegedly “longlisted”. This means instead of a free copy of the National Poetry Anthology, which I have occasionally seen in shops (not promoted much, mind), I am offered a chance to be in another book. This book, I doubt, will not appear in shops – I do know something of bookselling. Even United Press say it can be ordered from all 'good' bookshops, not that they’ll be stocking it.

On bright paper, they ask you to write back in 2 weeks to allow the name of [insert yours here] to be in print.

You keep the copyright and can republish – but there’s a snag: once printed, including on your website, even your parish magazine, you usually cannot enter that work into other competitions or anthologies. So the only place you can publish it is in your own anthology.

So you would be allowing United Press to stop you ever garnering money or award for this poem, save any royalties on your own book.

And you can’t enter anything you’ve sent them before.

Worse, is that they want you to pay for this book, titled things like “Whispers in the Breeze” or “Ripples on the Water”. The going rate’s now £20 for the 200 page work (going by the one I did buy). You can have a dedication, photo, or profile – the latter may be worth allowing the publication for, you may think. That was my reasoning – until I realised that to allow this in print and online, and for a copy of the book, I would be paying over £40 (it’s £13.99 for an in print profile, £11 for an online one, more if you fill in a pink form and let United Press write it for you). That’s more like $80 if anyone in North America is reading this! That’s enough for long distance-ish (prebooked) train travel in UK or a year’s cinema membership.

And who will see it? Well, I guess the friends and family of those other poets within it, who might mostly give their attention to the work of the person that they know. Are talent scouts and publishers skimming these elusive works? I don’t know, but my gut is, not in great numbers. And I doubt it’ll be reviewed – my search engine picked up only the mentions of poets in the book, not any outside interest.

And I’d take care over the proof that they send you – mine (I’ve had a few now) have always had mistakes and not copied what I had sent. And with poetry, layout really matters.

I think it’s also a bit of a postcode lottery (zip code for anyone not in Britain). They pick poets from around the country and I think that if I lived in a city of many poets, I would have less chance of being longlisted than if I was living in, say, a rural area. This is also unfair – it should be, say, the best 100 poems not chosen for the NPA, wherever they are, although choosing all from the same area would perhaps also feel unbalanced.

I don’t wish to discourage anyone – it was a much needed boost when I first got my bright letter. I don’t think it means sucker, or your work isn’t good.

I think that United Press’s intention – on one level – is to encourage. Hey, you didn’t get the grand this year, you didn’t make it to our main anthology. But we did pick you for the longlist and would like that to mean the chance to be published.

But I don’t think that United Press should make money out of aspiring poets in this way, and especially not pressure you for permission to publish (if you don’t reply, they can’t).

£20 is too much for a slim-ish paperback (smaller than most novels or non fiction which are half the price), and the additional charge for online posting (which costs them almost nothing) and for the profile means they are stocking next year’s £1000 pot from those who weren’t chosen for the main course this year.

For not giving you a free copy or royalties (royalties are unusual with anthology, I checked this with the National Poetry Society), poets should have a free profile and online presence. Bearing in mind that this ‘honour’ actually means you can’t win another comp – so no £20 from Rialto magazine or £5000 from Cardiff, or even £200 from your local poetry society’s annual fundraising open submission.

I think that ALL competition results should be published and that the list of winners should sound more convincing – I did query if the £1000 was going to anyone real.

Do continue to read small print and query prizes and conditions. Competition promoters should make sure that their prizes are worth having, and not subtle scams.

Elspeth Rushbrook previously guest blogged for Artists Bill of Rights in December, 2014 and April, 2015. You can have a sneak peek of her forthcoming novel here (published July 2016).