Letter-writing cranks R Us

In early April, Laila Lalami broke the news that, after many delays in naming winners, Zoo Press founder Neil Azevedo cancelled the first two Zoo Fiction contests via email.

Azevedo explained that the company had already spent the entry fees ($25 per manuscript) to advertise the now-defunct contests in prominent magazines and would therefore be unable to issue refunds. He tried to appease contestants by offering them, in lieu of a refund, the opportunity to forward a check for $1.42 in exchange for two poetry titles.

Now Poets & Writers has published an article by Thomas Hopkins that details the contests’ failure.

The article establishes that Azevedo neglected to take even the most basic step to identify a contest winner: he never forwarded any of the 350 manuscripts to the advertised judge, Atlantic Monthly fiction editor C. Michael Curtis.

“If I wasn’t prepared to back the book… then it seemed unfair to send it to Mike,” he explains.

Curtis, meanwhile, expresses surprise that Azevedo deemed none of the entries worth a second read, and said he was sorry he didn’t get to see any of the manuscripts.

Exactly how bad were the entries? Well, Azevedo concedes that they weren’t “crap,” exactly:

“They just weren’t interesting.” …. [He] says there were some manuscripts that “had some interesting things happening in them,” but none “worth going into debt to salvage.”

The debt fears are real, according to Hopkins. Entry fees totaled around $7,000, but it would have cost Zoo Press $20,000 to $30,000 to publish the two titles.

And Azevedo is not without his sympathizers. When the news was announced, Soft Skull Press associate publisher Shanna Compton leapt to the defense of Zoo Press, noting that the publisher retained in the fine print the right to withhold the award in any given year, that the rules said the fees were nonrefundable. She said these contest policies are standard.

As Hopkins observes, I and a few others remained skeptical.

On her eponymous blog, fiction writer Maud Newton wrote, “The small press shtick wears thin when there’s an entry fee involved.”

Let me be clear about one thing: I didn’t enter the Zoo Press contests. Consequently, I have no personal stake in the outcome of this debacle, except insofar as it is in the interest of every fiction writer to know, when he or she considers parting with money to participate in a literary contest, that all the entries will be read by the judge — and a prize awarded or the fees refunded.

The purpose of an entry fee is not to enable a fledgling press to increase its clout by funding contest announcements in respected magazines — particularly not when the press later refuses to name a winner and tells the entrants, “Oops, sorry, money’s gone. Can’t be helped. We used it to promote the contest.”

Regardless of whether Azevedo’s actions are technically legal, they smack of bad faith. To announce a contest and a judge and then proclaim the contest entries worthless without even passing them along to the supposed arbiter of quality is deceitful at best. And I wouldn’t be surprised if it were illegal under the laws of some states.

I don’t have time to research the various states’ consumer protection laws on contests, but I’d encourage fiction writers who entered the contests and don’t want to forward $1.42 to receive two backlisted poetry titles (which weren’t, after all, what they bargained for) to send email to the attorney generals of the states where they lived when they submitted their manuscripts. The email should probably say something like this:

Dear Attorney General:

In [month, year], I paid $25 to enter a fiction contest sponsored by Zoo Press, a Nebraska publisher that has since announced its intentions to call off the contest and retain the proceeds. Advertisements for the contest appeared in nationally circulated magazines, like The Atlantic Monthly, that are sold in [name of state]. When I submitted, I overlooked the fine print, which said that the entry fees were nonrefundable and that the press reserved “the right to withhold the Award in any given year.” The current issue of Poets & Writers magazine establishes that Zoo Press founder Neil Azevedo used the entry fees to promote the contest and the magazine, failed to hand the manuscripts over to the advertised judge, and unilaterally declared all of the entries worthless. Whether or not it is legal for him to do this, it smacks of bad faith, and I would like to receive a refund.

Can you please advise me whether the handling of the contest was legal under the laws of [name of state]? I’ll be glad to provide additional information. I look forward to your response.


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