A Romanian writer named Mariana, who seeks a U.S. agent for her translated novel, wrote in with a question regarding journals and contests. Mariana has been applying to contests, but recently had an offer from a literary journal to publish one of her stories. She wonders if she should reject the offer, which offers pretty generous compensation, and apply to their contest instead. "This is not about money, but about finding an agent. And once published, the short story cannot be considered for a future contest," Mariana writes.
Because we've already explored the question of whether contests or regular journal submissions are generally better for writers, in this post I'm going to stick with Mariana's more specific question: what do agents pay more attention to? While it's true that agents may hear more about high-profile contests, agents do troll literary journals looking for new authors. If they're aware of a journal's prize, they probably also have a subscription to that journal. Several writers I know have been approached by agents after publishing stories in mid-sized literary journals, so I can say for a fact that this is one way to noticed. If the journal is paying what she told me they are, then it's a good journal, one agents are reading. While Mariana is right that a contest may bring an author more attention than a story publication, she has the publication offer in hand. Don't reject a firm offer for something that may or may not happen.
So in my opinion, if a reputable literary journal has offered her money for a story, she should accept it. It's an immediate opportunity to 1) get her work out there and 2) build a relationship with someone who obviously likes her work. The fact that they want to publish her story doesn't guarantee that she'll win the contest: The editor who likes her story may not be judging the contest, and even if they are, she may have lost their goodwill by rejecting their offer. My advice: publish the story now, add the publication credit to query letters, and then send another story to the contest.
Anyway, that's my opinion. Do you have firsthand experience with contests, journal submissions, or agents? What do you think Mariana should do?