If you haven’t had a major publication yet, this might be a good time to consider entering a contest. There are many of them out there, but there are a few criteria worth considering. First, how long has the contest been around. Being new doesn’t make you automatically a scam any more than being around a long time automatically makes you legitimate, but there is something to be said about the ability to look at a long history. You can’t really research something that is brand new.
Next, is there a fee? Some legitimate contests do have an entry fee, but what is this fee in relation to the potential gains? What is the average number of entrants? If the prize is $100 and the fee is $25, everything after the first four contestants is free money for whoever is running it and you would make better money any number of ways. Also, if the prize is free editing or an automatic contract, remember that getting a contract is not the same as getting a favorable contract. That free editing might just be a segue into getting you to pay for a vanity publishing venture or that contract might just be one that gives the publisher all of your rights to the story.
Some contests gain a great deal of prestige for even being in the semi-finals, but most don’t really warrant mention unless you are a finalist. Sometimes even winning the contest doesn’t mean anything to a potential editor. Probably the most noteworthy exception to this is the Writers of the Future contest. Even being considered at all is worth noting and being a finalist is very close to a free ticket to the top of the slush pile for editors in the related genres.
The reason for this is that the WotF contest has been judged by some of the biggest names in the industry. It has also been an indicator of new rising talent. A number of noteworthy authors got their start in this contest, including Dean Wesley Smith, Dave Wolverton, and Michael H. Payne. Winning the contest gains you a great deal and costs you nothing but the cost of mailing the entry. If you happen to be a writer of Science Fiction or Fantasy, I highly recommend this particular contest. Feel free to look over their information on the Writers of the Future website.