Originally written in February 2015
If like me you keep the sharpest half of your eyes on Paul McVeigh's excellent blog for writing competitions and submissions, you may have seen this recent addition: the Bath Flash Fiction Award. This is a new competition which seems to have links, via the judge, to the venerable Bath Short Story Award, and the Bath Novel Award, both of which are widely recognised and are reasonably prestigious. Despite my misgivings about the term 'flash fiction', it’s always good to see short-short prose being recognised, explored and encouraged given it is one of the fastest growing forms of writing in the literature scene at present, particularly online. However, my heart sank and my lips tightened and my teeth gritted when my eyes fell upon the entry fee. £9. Nine pounds per entry. With a limitation of 300 words (which is short even by flash fiction standards), that's 3p a word. Which, if you look at it like that, means I've already spent £4.86 on this blog post. Were those words worth £4.86? That third sentence ran on a bit didn’t it? Do you want a refund?
Now I’m not against writing competitions charging entry fees. Costs have to be covered, prize money has to be raised, judges have to paid and so on. But I baulked at £9 especially given the considerably low word count. And my eyebrows rose even further at the otherwise quite innovative concept that the competition will pause to pick a winner when it reaches 1000 entries. A day or two ago this was proudly displayed on the competition home page, with a counter showing how many entries had been received - all of this has now been removed and buried under item 15 of the competition rules. Perhaps this is because it’s not hard to run those numbers: supposing everyone who enters is a non-member (members get reduced entry fees) – that’s £9000 of entry money. The prize money is £1000 for 1st, £300 2nd, £100 3rd. Where is the rest of that 9K going? The website doesn’t say.
Members pay just £4 to enter, which is more reasonable, however to be a member you have to pay £5 every three months with no discernible benefit other than a fiver off this entry fee. What if it takes six months for the 1000 entries to be received? Members will, effectively, pay £14 to enter 300 words into a single flash fiction competition which, with it being brand new, has little to no pedigree. Weirder still is that it only costs £8 to enter the Bath Short Story Award, which is wider recognised, has a higher word-count and a similar amount of prize money – and this one has a date deadline rather than an amount cap. £8 is still a rather off-putting entry fee for me personally, but it feels a tad more justifiable. Why then has an extra pound appeared for the flash fiction award? And why charge entry fees at all?
I’ve entered a few writing competitions in my time with entry fees and always had to pause to justify it to myself. Flash fiction comps tend to ask for £3, short story comps ask for £5-£8 pounds, and novel competitions can get up to £15-£20. I’d like to reiterate: I’m not against charging entry fees, but they do seem to be on the rise and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to justify. Making a habit of entering competitions raises a writer’s costs considerably, especially if they never win any. And high entry fees lead towards a certain elitism: competitions for writers, but only those who can afford to enter them. I know quite a few very good writers who struggle to make ends meet who could not afford to place £9 worth of their gambling chips on one flash fiction competition hoping that the one single judge gets behind their obtuse genre-bending sci-fi pirate love story.
Plus, as my good pal Dan Carpenter has pointed out, there are now so many writing competitions out there winning one is starting to lose some of its value. Who cares if you won the South East Truro and District Johnny Michelmas Memorial Award for Flash Fiction when the writer next on the slushpile has won the Slough Rising Pheonix Young Person’s Quarterly Flash Fiction and Creative Non-Fiction Award for Winter 2011?
Ok, so it’s not quite that extreme, but take another glance at Paul McVeigh’s extensive competition list and you’ll see my point. Winning certain competitions does still hold weight, and if the Bath Flash Fiction Award can ride on the wave of its siblings the winner will no doubt be wearing a particularly attractive badge. Especially if it’s a badge made from £7000 worth of pure diamond.
With so many competitions out there its perfectly possible for writers to find plenty with no entry fees, such as the Mash Stories rolling flash fiction competition (find my story Pulse on the latest shortlist, plug plug), or the exciting Northern Writers Award. So, why bother with the likes of Bath? I need more justification. At best it feels cheeky, at worst it feels exploitative and somewhere in the middle it feels instinctually iffy. Do the benefits outweigh the costs here? In reality probably not. Or am I being totally ignorant here? Thoughts in the comments below please...