I'll let you folks in on a little secret. When we launched our first contest in October 2006, we received fewer than 70 entries. Our second contest was based on a premise that was so poorly designed it turned people off, and we received fewer than 40 entries. It wasn't until contest #4, when we'd been around for a whole year, that we broke 100 entries (with 162 of them).
The secret I'm letting you in on is, the percentage of really good stories was quite small back then. I can remember sending out ten stories in the final round while knowing at least two of them had no chance of publication. One time, only nine stories made the final round.
That was a long time ago. For contest #18, we got at least 20 stories that were better than some of the stories that used to make the top 10. We got at least 15 that we'd have been proud to publish in our first year. In fact, the four stories that made the top ten this time, and did not get published, would probably have been published even three years ago.
However, our policy (which we've violated only once) is to publish no more than six contest entries: first, second, third, and up to three honorable mentions. We don't plan to change that. Our policy and the gradual rise in the quality of our contest entries have combined toproduce an unexpected effect:
How well a story uses our contest premise matters a lot more than it used to.
Long ago, a story that was great in every way except use of premise would beat a story that was merely good, but used the premise better. Now judges are comparing stories that are great in every way except use of premise against stories that are great in every way including use of premise. Guess which ones win?
Today I'm sending out the free critiques we're giving to the four runner-up stories, and in two of those cases, mediocre use of the premise is the number one reason those stories lost out. One of those stories is one of the best written pieces we've ever received. I'd bet some pretty decent literary magazines would take it in an instant. Our prize judges turned it down because its use of premise was too weak. In fact, we publishers almost disqualified it from the contest for that same reason. But it was so good in every other way, we didn't have the heart to DQ it. (That'll teach us. It got the lowest score of any of the top 10 because "time" was just barely relevant to it. Next contest, we'll know better.)
I hope you folks will, too. We're called On The Premises for a reason, and that reason matters more than ever. Keep it in mind when we launch our next contest on or around November 10. Use the premise, and use it well!