Submittable This! - Umberto Tosi

Not Silicon Valley: The Big Sky town of Missoula, MT
It is difficult not to write about the current American crises of racial injustice, corruption, pandemic, and economic decline presided over by our criminal president. I'll give it a try and rant about a publishing annoyance this go-around. 

Start with the updated adage that century's road to hell is paved with well-intended apps. There are no problems that our smartphones can't solve - except the big ones - no mistakes Grammarly can fix - except the worst ones.

Sometimes we need to get it wrong to find what's right. My first draft attempt at a story usually turns out to be pathetically wrong, but it can lay down a pathway to what works, if I persist, and am lucky.

Monk (1917-1982)
This is why I've always loved Thelonious Monk, the prince of making "wrong" notes who threw rules and familiar chords into fireplaces like spent Russian champagne glasses, the king of confounding expectations as brilliantly as he set them up.

Sometimes progress only means solving problems that didn't really need fixing and creating new ones in their places. Take, for example, my old game of editing - the critical part of it that involves finding the best writing for one's publishing enterprise.

Back in the proto-Internet days when I used to edit regional magazines and run small publishing enterprises, I would receive a steady stream of submission and proposals via the US Postal Service. Offerings pilled up on my desk. I got interns I trusted to help me distill these offerings down to manageable batches I could read nights after work or over weekends. I relied on a stable of regulars I trusted for a steady supply of readable content, but now and then, I did find gems in these piles that came over the transom, as we used to say.

No more. Now 99+ percent of small publishing content is acquired via the anonymous house of digital mirrors that is Submittable. It's a convenient - easy-to-use online database management system that automatically registers incoming submissions and allows editors to review, categorize, note, accept or reject submissions anonymously without ever having to talk with any of these unwashed hopefuls directly.

The software was developed and is distributed by a firm based in picturesque Missoula, Montana (where one of my daughters lives) co-founded by data nerds Michael Fitzgerald and John Brownwell, who chose to keep their 500-person tech enterprise in that Rocky Mountain town rather than moving to Silicon Valley after they secured funding ten years ago. The firm's applications are used for a wide range of submission evaluation and organizing tasks, including for grant applications. Things have been going great guns for the company until just recently when it announced layoffs due to universities curtailing their grants programs due to the COVID-19 pandemic and economic slump.

I myself have used Submittable as a contributing editor of Chicago Quarterly Review and on other projects. I'm going to risk sounding like a crusty Clint Eastwood or Gabby Hayes curmudgeon waving a gun, shouting at progress to get off his property, but, hell, this is my post.

I confess to having used Submittable - both as submittee or submitter. I was impressed technologically but underwhelmed from both an editor's and a writer's point of view. It is a publishing appendage at best and a pernicious influence on the quality and creativity of published writing at worst.  

CQR's hand-wrought silver issue
Granted, it could well be a boon to universities, foundations, and corporations in sorting out candidates, essay contestants, and job applicants. But its efficiency is a double-edged sword when it comes to literary publishing. I don't like Submittable for being one of those cures that work by half-killing the patient. It's another one of those social media technology wonders that everyone embraces like a beautiful poisonous plant, oblivious of its unintended consequences. Nevertheless, I confess, that I have made use of it as an editor for more than one literary journal - as do virtually all such publications these days. It certainly offers convenience in allowing control and sorting of randomly contributed data.

But like so many other Internet platforms developed by wunderkinder of the gee-whiz millennium, it is based on a social myth. The myth is that the Internet Age has ushered in a meritocracy - and that it works. Neither is remotely true.

Submittable's dark side does not devolve from Submittable's technology - which works superbly - perhaps too well. It is because it has become a tool most widely used for a purpose opposite to that which its developers declared it was intended. The fault lies with its common usage.

It doesn't so much help editors and publishers find talent and/or build a core of brilliant creative writers whose work fulfills a publication's mission. It turns writers into customers, who publishers are all too tempted to treat - wittingly or unwittingly - as profit centers rather than creative partners.

This is accomplished through the all too familiar "readers' fees" that publishers charge through submittable levied on prospective contributors for the indeterminate privilege of maybe getting someone to look at their work - with not even a line of feedback promised to those who don't make it. At least the old rejection slips didn't cost writers more than the price of postage and maybe typing paper.

One can turn a profit without selling a single volume! (This is not to mention the commonplace vanity cycle of selling copies to the authors one does publish along with their friends and family. Somewhere along here, the fuzzy line is crossed into selling copies to a writer's associates, colleagues, and finally, fans at which point a book is "legitimate."

CQR - distinctive personal voices
Some literary journals still allow free submissions, or charge only a few nominal bucks, as does Chicago Quarterly Review. But many have made a lucrative business of charging substantially, which adds up, considering the relatively low cost of publishing on demand in this digital age. Fortunately for budding writers, there remains a good selection of publishers in various genres who still accept submissions free of charge, or nearly so.

There's nothing illegal or unethical about "reader fees" or vanity publishing. Labels are blurry and don't stick well. Who can blame the independent publishers at least for seeking revenue streams in an era in which actually readers - who used to buy magazines, journals, and books - expect everything free or at marginal cost in these times?

Reasonable submission fees can be a good way for literary magazines to discourage promoters and cranks from jamming them with scurrilous submissions.

Nevertheless, the reader-fee business model turns the creative stream of writing and publishing back on itself. Writers become - in sex-worker parlance - the trade and readers don't count for much except maybe bonus points.

The Submittable model also distances writers and editors. Editors run stories by writers far from where they are based and rarely communicate with them except for cursory exchanges of proofs (maybe), sending bios, the occasional messaged question, and contact info.

The creative writer-editor relationships that flowered among literary journals and magazines of the past now have all but ceased to bud in the shallow soil of digital age dissociation.

Technically software doesn't stop editors and writers from connecting. There are fields and pulldown windows for notifications and comments. It just makes colloquy incidental, and definitely not natural.

No more of those sometimes magical moments when a great story emerges from writers and editors kicking ideas around: Why follow up with a writer at all when it's so easy to go back to the anonymous, Submittable trough and fish out more content? The sorry tradeoff, however, is that Submittable-fed literary journals are like farm-raised fish - perfectly slick in their proper sameness, but lacking distinctive flavor.

It's no stretch to imagine researchers sending AI-computer generated stories to some distinguished literary journal. Going with this: let us say the journal is published by the creative writing school of a university, and that the university runs an experiment harnessing AI to sort through Submittable offerings. (AI programs have already written poetry and essays, albeit still mechanical.)

But it won't be long before, presto: We can delete messy human elements from the process entirely! Hell, why not go all the way publish an all-AI magazine to be read by robots? Such a journal need only repeat one, perfectly structured, academically correct, seamlessly composed, machine-learned story over and over in each issue. We could call it Bot Literary Review.

Now let's say that our University Prestige Journal publishes a new issue consisting of both human- and non-human-written-and-selected content. Would readers be able to tell them apart It would be a 21st-century literary AI Turing Test!

That could well be our future. But literary journals don't have to fall into the Submittable trap. Our own Chicago Quarterly Review uses Submittable as one of its tools but retains its lively personality through a network of its writers and its editors, who contribute to its content as well as process it. CQR's recent Silver Anniversary issue - rich with writings by its regulars as well as other talented contributors - many of whom have been associated with the magazine during its 25-year history - provided a sterling example. That was the last issue around which CQR was able to hold one of its regular public readings - now suspended due to the pandemic.

If you think I'm making a case for writers publishing independently and going directly to their readers, you guessed right. That is obviously my preference as an indie publisher myself. I don't submit my stories often, but when I do I prefer to send them to publishers I know and trust - then have myself a Dos Equis, even if I'm not the most interesting man in the world.

It's analogous to a lot of colleges run solely as businesses today - so many of whom have shifted from being institutions of science, thought and higher learning - to become enterprises whose prime directive seems more to make money from students rather than serve them and their communities. Students have become profit centers - with, of course, a few notable exceptions that prove the rule. Writers should be contributors not easy marks.

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Umberto Tosi is the author of Sometimes Ridiculous, Ophelia Rising, Milagro on 34th Street and Our Own Kind. His short stories have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. He was contributing writer to Forbes, covering the Silicon Valley 1995-2004. Prior to that, he was an editor and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and its Sunday magazine, West. He was also the editor of San Francisco Magazine. He has written more than 300 articles for newspapers and magazines, online and in print. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to several of its anthologies, including Another Flash in the Pen and One More Flash in the Pen. He has four adult children. He resides in Chicago. (He can be contacted at Umberto3000@gmail.com

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Comments

Jan Needle said…
So much new in here for old-fashioned little me! I've never realised some people charge you to submit, and I ADORE the idea of robots writing stories for only other robots to read - cut out the middle man and then some, eh? My favourite example of the law of unintended consequences is the fact that a gang of people decided to colonise America solely to spread goodness, hope and love. Turned out well so far....
At first, I thought Submittable was joke software you'd made up for this post... you mean it's actually REAL?
Eden Baylee said…
Hi Umberto, thanks for this. I recently learned about Submittable from a friend who is thinking of using it to find stories for a podcast.

I've not tried it myself as an author, but it's worth keeping in my back pocket for future stories.

Hope you're keeping well,
eden

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