In case you trip over my pretentious (and possibly inappropriately used) Latin here, the basic translation is “I do not wish to contend”, or more simply, “no contest”. The term mainly comes up in U.S. courts where a defendant chooses to accept conviction on the criminal charges filed against them without actually admitting guilt, even though it pretty much still counts as a guilty plea. It’s complicated. I don’t claim to understand it.

But I’m tempted to start using the phrase at conventions, though obviously not quite in the same sense. At WonderCon we had some very nice, enthusiastic people come by our table, and they seemed very interested in our work. They also handed us a flier advertising their awards contest, encouraging us to enter.

Now I want to emphasize that I believe (or at least am willing to give the benefit of doubt) that their praise was genuine, but as they wandered on at last, I turned to Dawn and remarked under my breath, “I wonder how much this one costs?” It was a bit of an in-joke since we’d dealt with a group last year that on two occasions gushed over Dawn’s artwork and asked her to enter their art competition, both times neglecting to mention there was a hefty entry fee. You must forgive me if I’ve grown a bit skeptical in the wake of that.

Besides, when I logged on to check out the contest site, I found: you guessed it, a hefty entry fee. In fact it was even stranger because that fee only got you considered for one “Best Of” and one limited category, and then you had to pay further fees to get consideration beyond that. For example, you submitted your work to the Film section, and could ask to also be considered for “Best Director” as part of your initial fee… but “Best Actress”, “Best Screenplay”, etc. were separate buys.

I’m not suggesting these contests are all scams. I know movie companies spend quite a bit to get looked at by the Oscars (though I’m not sure if that’s promotional or if there’s fees to even be looked at), but we’re usually not talking the Oscars, or even the Eisners. There’s no fee I know of for the Eisner Awards, aside from production and shipping costs in getting copies of your work to the judges if you’re nominated. Same for the Russ Manning Award, which we went ahead and submitted Dawn for this year. Does she have a chance of making it to nomination stage? Maybe, maybe not, but all it cost us so far was a print copy of one of our comics, an envelope and a stamp. And these are awards that have at least some pedigree to them, that have been running for years or even decades.

The entry fee contests I’ve been referring to are relatively new fish, even to the point of being first year start-ups. Sure, everything’s got to start somewhere, but if you’re insisting on cash up front I’m going to be a bit leery no matter how much in the way of exposure and good times you’re promising. And if you or your volunteers / minions / whatnot cruise conventions telling artists they’re fantastic and they’ve surely got what it takes to win, can you at least be up front about the fact that they need to pay to play? Otherwise it comes off a bit like the nice lady who tells you how handsome you are and how much she’d love to date you, then when you get excited informs you it’ll be fifty dollars for the first twenty minutes. Weird stuff extra.

Again, not accusing anyone of scamming. I honestly think most “scams” that occur aren’t professional criminal operations so much as they come from an unfortunate convergence of naive organizers and naive clients. Out of sheer enthusiasm, the organizers make promises they can’t really deliver on, the clients buy into the dream, and then as crushing realities set in there’s a panic, everything collapses, and no one’s happy.  This does not always happen, but it happens enough that as one of the potential clients it pays to be wary, even if the person you’re talking to seems like the most sincere fan of your work *ever*. I mean, if that’s really true, shouldn’t they just feel the honor of having you be part of their contest outweighs any paltry fees? I don’t want to come off as arrogant there, I’m just saying if you butter someone up that much and then hold out your hand for money, you may be sending the wrong message. Maybe that’s exactly why no one wants to do that last part in person, they just want to get you to their contest website and… I dunno… hope the lingering afterglow of the interaction causes you to open your wallet.

The fact is that even if someone is 100% sincere and 100% confident of their organization skills, there are a lot of genuine scams that use the contest format, and scams tend to have “payment up front” as a vital component of their model. There’s an uphill struggle to overcome that stigma, and if I feel right off the bat that someone wasn’t being fully honest with me, it severely hampers my enthusiasm for taking a chance on what’s already an untested venture of dubious value.

In fact, I’m pretty much at the point where “pay to enter” just means I’m not interested. Maybe we’ll miss out on some genuine opportunities because of that stance, but a long-time professional like Mark Evanier will tell you the #1 rule is “They pay you, you don’t pay them“. Mr. Evanier was referring specifically to writing, not contests, but if you read that linked A Writer’s Life article he does mention the idea of contests and (spoiler alert) does not have good things to say. I don’t imagine there’s any contest out there that would pay me to enter it (for reasons of conflict of interest if not good taste), but unless it’s something exceptionally prestigious and established I don’t think I should have to pay them either, and then only a reasonable fee for processing. If their prizes and/or infrastructure are contingent on getting entry money, that’s just even more reason to run away (screaming and flailing optional, but encouraged).

Whether it’s a matter of malice or inexperience, the end result is often the same. So while it’s great to hear they love my work (or Dawn’s), if there’s a fee to get it considered by whatever panel of experts they’ve put together, chances are that we must enter our plea of No Contest.