Contests, especially those targeted at new writers and poets, are another option worth looking into for un- and underpublished authors. There almost always is a fee associated with the contest, which is how the publishing entity (usually a literary journal or small press) can afford to publish the winning entries, but it's money well spent: Obviously one is purchasing the chance to have an entire manuscript published, win a monetary prize, and gain the publicity; but even if you don't win, you very well may place or show or receive an honorable mention -- which could get you noticed by another editor or agent who just might want to publish or work with you -- and almost always you get something back for your money, like a copy of the winning entry and/or a subscription to the journal.
And, quite frankly, contests are a significant revenue source for many journals/small presses, without which they may not be able to publish at all, so at the most fundamental level you're supporting the literary community as a whole -- at a time when it sorely needs supporting.
Using NewPages.com (one of my favorite resources) and its book contests page, here are a few contests that seem to me especially attractive for the writer or poet looking for that first manuscript-length publication. Contests for poetry outnumber prose contests, but writers of fiction and creative nonfiction have good opportunities as well.
For poets, Tupelo Press' 12th Annual Award for First or Second Book of Poetry is a wonderful opportunity, as Tupelo Press is an excellent and well-respected small press. As its website reports, the contest is open to all poets who are looking to publish either their first or second full-length collection. In addition to publication and national distribution, the winning poet receives $3,000. Deadline for submission is April 15, and the fee is $25.
Also for poets, 42 Miles Press' Lester M. Wolfson Poetry Award also caught my eye as it is a new contest and therefore may not attract as many submissions as a more established one. In addition to book publication, the winning poet will receive $1,000, fifty copies of her/his book, and an invitation to read at Indiana University South Bend. Also of note is the fact that the editors are open to "experimental as well as work of a more formalist bent." Deadline for submission is March 1, and the fee is $25.
Permafrost literary journal sponsors contests for both poets and writers of fiction: The Midnight Sun Chapbook Contest, and the Midnight Sun Fiction Contest. The winning poet receives thirty copies of her/his chapbook and $100 (a chapbook is a stapled booklet), while the winning fiction writer receives $100 and publication in the journal -- all fiction entries are eligible for publication. Deadline is March 15, and the fee is $10.
Unpublished novelists will want to check out The 20th Annual James Jones First Novel Fellowship, sponsored by Wilkes University. In addition to novels in progress, "novellas and collections of closely linked short stories" are also eligible for consideration. The winner receives $10,000, and there are two runners-up who receive $750 each. Deadline is March 1, and the fee is $25.
Another notable contest is Black Lawrence Press' The Black River Chapbook Competition for either a collection of poems or short stories. Deadline is May 31, and the fee is $15. Black Lawrence Press has other contests as well, including book contests (in addition to the chapbook competition) for poets and short-story writers, and even a contest for novelists. Thus its website is well worth perusing.
Competitions for creative nonfiction writers exist, but at this time NewPages.com is not listing any with deadlines in the near future. And, of course, the contests listed here are just a small sampling. Go to NewPages.com for a wealth of information on upcoming competitions, especially if you're a poet.