Gearing up for submitting Glacial Elegies, I've spent the last couple of days researching book contests. Yes, I'll send queries to a few of the presses that don't use contests, but the majority of my attempts to place the manuscript will be through open competitions. Winnowing out all of the first book contests cuts the list down quite a bit.
It was interesting to be gathering this information again, as I haven't even really thought about the process in three years. During the time I was submitting Blood Almanac, foetry.com was at its height, exposing shady dealings in certain contests and railing against a perceived lack of ethics in how contests were judged. While I admit that some of the specific cases seemed to be unethical, the overriding sense that nearly all contests must be corrupt and fixed never sat well with me.
Now, as I've been reading the small print of contest guidelines again, I've been surprised to see so many presses printing promises of ethical judging or providing detailed explanations of their judging process. I like the openness of being able to see exactly how my manuscript will be handled, but I'm sad that it even has to be stated. The best statement that I read is over at Crab Orchard Review (such great people!). Jon Tribble, series editor for The Crab Orchard Series in Poetry says this, among other things:
The Crab Orchard Series in Poetry competitions DO NOT claim to be screened or judged blind since the manuscripts entered may include some or all previously published poems. We want the persons screening and judging our competitions to be avid readers of contemporary poetry and expect their experience as readers to be an integral part of their knowledge of poetry.
In the interest of fairness, I should say that I'm predisposed to Jon and Allison Joseph for their support over the years. However, I do think this statement gets it right. Of course, I would hope that screeners and judges would be well-read enough to recognize some of the work before them. After all, it was drilled into our heads during grad school that the way to get a book published was to first publish the poems in lit mags, thus garnering a readership and reputation. Most contests require the poet to strip his/her name from the manuscript, and some contests do not allow acknowledgments pages. The latter sometimes irks me because I feel that my journal publications should count for something; however, I do understand that the poems must stand on their own and the judge must pick the manuscript he/she believes is the strongest, whether he/she recognizes the poet or not. Finally, I do think a poet's close relationship with a judge should warrant a manuscript being eliminated from consideration, and I would happily withdraw mine if such a conflict occurred.