Tuesday 24 April 2012

When a Big Prize Means Even Bigger Frustration

In a couple of weeks, I'm going to reach a depressing milestone. On 18th May, it will have been a full two years since I signed what I naively thought could be a life-changing contract. I won the 2010 Chapter One Promotions International Short Story Prize. I haven't scooped many first places, but this one was a biggie. I don't really like to say how much cash was involved, although I'm sure people can Google it and find out. Suffice to say it's a prize well worth winning. The mistake I made was to assume the big prize fund equated to slick organisation and a professional approach to the writers who'd be published in the anthology.

To say I was excited to have won is an understatement. The whole thing was quite surreal - the day I got the call to tell me the result I was on my own, slogging away at renovating my house. It was mid-March and freezing cold. After the call I sat down on the bare floorboards and wondered whether I was the victim of an unnecessarily elaborate and cruel hoax.

But, no, eight weeks or so later the contract came through as promised and I gleefully signed it and sent it back, along with a hard copy of my story and a biography. And then I waited. And waited. Out of the blue, in late August I think, I got a call from Chapter One. There was a problem with the payments, they said. It was going to take a while to get the money to me, and it would come in instalments. Okay, I thought, I'd prefer a big wedge of cash, but instalments are better than nothing.

The first chunk came through quite quickly. It was still a decent amount of money, but knowing it was a fraction of the whole took the shine off a little. I put it in a savings account and felt underwhelmed about it. After that, a pattern formed. The due date for the next instalment would come around and I'd wait a couple of days, check my PayPal account, then send a polite reminder to Chapter One. I'd get an apologetic reply, usually, and then the money would transfer over. Bit by bit, my prize dribbled in, and my enthusiasm for it waned with every passing month. I did get all the money in the end.

In the intervening months I'd done some basic research, and I'd found this entry on Sally Quilford's blog and the Absolute Write forum that triggered it. I took some comfort from the fact that people had received their prize, eventually, but it alarmed me that most were saying there was no sign of the promised anthology, in some cases years after the results had been announced.

It might just be me, but this seems worse than them dragging their heels over the payment of prizes. After all, the shortlisted writers will have their stories published, but their only reward will be a copy of the anthology. Plus, we're all writers, we all strive to share our work, to get it out into the world. Yet agreeing to have your work featured in a Chapter One anthology seems to be much the same as locking it up in a box and burying it in the garden.

I contacted them at the end of last year, to let them know my new email address. I also asked about progress on the anthology. I was told they were still waiting for bios from some of the authors. Really? I don't know a single writer who would be offered a chance of publication and think, "Yeah, I'll give that eighteen months or so. You can't rush a good bio." I remain unconvinced. Nevertheless, Chapter One said they were hoping to send out proof copies of the book at the end of January or early February, this year. I'm glad I decided against holding my breath.

If you were to take a look at Chapter One's website (you'll have to manage without a link from here - I don't feel I owe them any web traffic), you'd see the most recent anthology they're promoting contains the winning stories from 2006. Yes, you read that right: six years ago. And I'm using the word 'promoting' in a very generous way there. There's a low resolution image of the cover and a brief sentence about the book, above an 'Add to Cart' button. And that's it.

Still, if you decided you wanted to check out what was "inspiring and fresh" six years ago, bear in mind that you can't buy the anthology anywhere else. It doesn't have an ISBN; you won't find it on Amazon or in your local indie bookstore or Waterstones. There's no eBook version. Compare this to Bridport or Brighton or the Willesden Herald - competitions where the anthologies are put together in time for the awards ceremony. They're out into the world while the results still matter, they're well promoted, and readers can get hold of them easily.

After two years, I am entitled to demand that they publish my story or return my first publication rights. As the contract also states that I will have 30 days to review the proof copy and I haven't received one yet, I know they're going to miss the deadline. So I will be writing to them to request my rights back. Part of me is pleased by this. The story is one of the best things I've ever written and it has been a constant bugbear of mine that my biggest success is something nobody can read. But mainly I feel disappointed. I so wanted to be proved wrong about Chapter One, to find that my year was the year they got their act together, and delivered a beautifully designed anthology that me and the rest of the writers on the shortlist could be proud of.

Instead, it seems like the 18th will just mark the start of the endgame, where they have 90 days to respond to my request and the whole thing drags on for another three months. Perhaps, despite everything, by the middle of August I will be clutching a copy of the anthology and be so blown away by it, all of this grumbling will seem churlish and ridiculous.

I really hope so, but the odds don't seem that great.


Teresa Stenson said...

Yeah, they're not going to produce the anthology in that time, are they.

The best thing is that you're going to have the rights to your story back. What will you do with it, you think?

Perry said...

Definitely get those rights back. Also, they may be in breach of contract.

Jessica said...

Dan, I think you should get the rights back to your story and send it out to other places.

Two years ago I had a short story accepted for a newish (issue 3)magazine. I am still waiting for the print edition to arrive! They keep making promises on their FB page and their website keeps disappearing and then reappearing. They are already taking money for issue four and five.

The PDF version arrived in January. So maybe I will get to see my story in the print edition soon.

Anonymous said...

Hi Dan
I used to work at Chapter One Promotions and I really recommend extracting yourself from any dealings with them asap and telling *all* your writer friends *never* to even consider sending work to them.

Myself and 2 other members of staff were not paid for months and months after our payment was due and had to threaten legal action. We have since reported the company for financial mismanagement.

In my opinion Joanna Bertie knows next to nothing about literature and cares even less (we never had a single conversation about a writer or book), though she did manage to get lots of good literary folk involved to judge competitions and run workshops etc. so none of those people are to blame.

I better stop now because even though I left four years ago I am still angry with COP and really urge you to warn other writers.

Anyway, I would love to read your story and suggest you call and demand the rights are returned to you which, considering that COP have broken their contract, shouldn't be a problem. I suggest you be very firm.

Go forth!

I really don't mean to stir anything here I just feel quite strongly and after I saw Tania Hershman's retweet I felt I had to respond.

Best of luck!

Vanessa Gebbie said...

On the face of it, it would seem that Chapter One Promotions are just another money-spinner for the organiser(s).

Dan Purdue said...

Thanks everyone for your comments - I'll be back to respond in a little more detail, but before things go much farther I just want to reiterate that I did get all the money that was due to me in the end, and as far as I can tell there's no breach of contract at this point (unless paying the prize money in instalments counts as breach; the contract doesn't actually say it would be paid in one go).

I'm not saying they're doing anything wrong/illegal, just that it's all incredibly slow and frustrating.

Chloe said...

Several times I've nearly entered Chapter One competitions but haven't because this is a story I've heard about from different people on various forums over and over again. Generally they seem to be considered unprofessional - running competitions with big prize money to hook people in, and then dragging it out for years. They still get listed in some reputable places so they can't be all bad, but I know many writers won't touch them with a barge pole.

I'm glad you got the money (though it was unprofessional again to do it in installments). Really hope you'll get the rights back soon and find somewhere else to sell the story as I, for one, would really love to read it! If it's one of your best then it's awesome!

Rachel Fenton said...

Very best of luck getting your rights back, Dan. Having just won my first competition I know I would be extremely gutted if it all turned out to be this much of a drawn out hassle getting my prize.

Try and focus on the good stuff - you have a brilliant story and will be able to use it again (hopefully soon)!

Anonymous said...

I was also 'succesful' in the same competition and whilst I was never due any prize money I was led to believe that my story would be published as a result.

In email and telephone contacts and other investigations last year I came to the conclusion that it was best to expect absolutely nothing from Chapter One. So far I've not been disappointed.

I was recently asked for a biography and told that the proofs of the anthology would be available soon. Like you...I'm not holding my breath....

SJIHolliday said...

I'm in the same position as 'Anonymous' above. I actually just emailed them about the so-called proofs and Johanna got back to me immediately saying they were still waiting for 2 stories and 3 biographies and that they were looking into new processes to make things run more smoothly from now on. To be honest I had forgotten all about the anthology until they sent me an email at the beginning of April asking me to email them my story. It's truly bizarre.

Dan Purdue said...

Hi all, thanks again for visiting and for your comments.

I wrote this blog post out of exasperation, really. If you just look at the prize money, the Chapter One competition should be somewhere between the Bristol Prize and Bridport. But in terms of prestige, unlike those two competitions, I doubt it shows up on many literary radars. This is what annoys me the most, I think. It wouldn't take much to address this, but the organisation seems tangled up in other stuff that detracts from the credibility of the competition and the anthologies that are (eventually) published.

I know it can take a while to get stuff organised, but once 12 months have passed from the closing date, you've missed the prime opportunity to sell anthologies. Small presses and the like can struggle with funds, volunteer staff can leave, time can slip away and deadlines end up getting missed (which I guess is the problem with the magazine you mention, Jessica). But if you set up a competition where the prize fund runs into thousands, you need to take precautions against such eventualities.

The bottom line is, it doesn't take two years or more to put an anthology together. I did mine in a week, and it's readily available to anybody who's interested in it.

I don't know what the answer is. I'm uncomfortable with the idea of urging people not to enter the competition, as I'm convinced the only reason I got paid was because people were entering the 2011 competition. What I would recommend though is that Chapter One rethink their strategy. If the current prize fund is unmanageable, then it needs to be scaled back. The winners need to be paid within a few weeks of the result being announced; the anthology shouldn't take more than six months at the absolute maximum. Make sure the book is full of good quality stuff, make it available, bang the drum for the writers involved. Plenty of places do it really well, and even though their prizes aren't so generous, writers fight tooth-and-nail to get on the shortlists. The alternative seems to be a policy that does nothing but irritate entrants, and undermine the winners' success. In these days of blogs, Twitter and the like, this isn't sustainable as discontented voices will drive away future entrants.

I've got no objection to people or organisations running competitions to make money, but that doesn't have to be at the expense of a contest that promotes good writing, and treats people fairly and with respect for their efforts.

Teresa Stenson said...

I'd make that comment above a blog post in itself, Dan. Title it 'An open letter to Chapter One Promotions', and alert them to it.

Quillers said...

This is a really interesting post, Dan and I've retweeted it.

Anyone running a writing competition should ensure they have the prize fund available as soon as the comp ends. It's nothing to do with being professional. It's about being ethical. No one should have to beg for their prize money, and/or have it paid by instalments.

It's possible that the entries didn't cover the prize fund, but that's not the entrants' problem. I don't carry Chapter One comps on my blog or in my Writers Forum pages anymore, because of all the problems people have had with them. This post has confirmed that I've been right not to list them.

Linda King said...

Thanks for the warning, Dan. How frustrating, but at least you'll end up having been paid and still having your work, or having been paid and the publication finally making an appearance. Keep us informed - I expect we all want to read your story now!

Christopher Fielden said...

Hi Dan

I was shortlisted in the 2012 comp and was expecting a proof of the story and bio in November 2012. It's now March 2013 and I've heard nothing from them, despite emailing them and writing letters. Their lack of professionalism is very disappointing. Looks like the 2010 anthology did get published in the end though? It's on their website... 2011 and 2012 not there though. Cheers, Chris

Dan Purdue said...

Hi Chris,

Firstly, congratulations! I get the impression Chapter One still get a lot of entries to their contests, so well done for getting noticed.

You're right, the 2010 anthology did get published - I wrote about it here: http://lies-ink.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/closing-chapter-one-chapter.html

It seems like Chapter One have not made a radical change to the way they operate and my suggestion with regard to your anthology would be that you don't lose hope, but also that you don't hold your breath. I would guess it might be next year before you see the finished book.

Try not to let it get to you. It's disappointing to have a story "locked up" for so long, but it's not the end of the world. Write more, send stories to other places, and find success elsewhere. In my experience they're not great at responding to emails and the effort you put into chasing them up is probably better spent doing something more constructive. I wish you luck!

All the best,