Go Forth (Vol. 17)

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Submittable, next to email and international postal service carrier providers, is probably the largest literary submissions platform in existence in current humanity. I think that a lot, if not, at this point, most writers who have submitted their work to journals and contests have at some point interacted with this company, but I don’t know if anyone stopped to ask, What is this thing I am sending my work to? I decided I’m asking. Michael’s cool. He used to edit a DIY/Punk ‘Zine called FAT when he lived in Budapest. Now he does this. I figured if anyone wants to start a publishing related company, they could read about these guys.

–Nicolle Elizabeth

NICOLLE ELIZABETH: Hi Michael. Thanks so much for talking to us about Submittable. How did Submittable start as a concept and get rolling as a company?

MICHAEL FITZGERALD: Bruce and I were friends and thought it might be fun to start a company together. We didn’t know what we wanted the company to be. Neither of us had business experience. (We once made a documentary about alpinists who exclusively scale mountains with letters on them.)

At lunch one day, we made a list of things that sucked. I had just sent out a story the night before to five or so places. The process and tools people were using were sort of scattered and amateur. So, in the list, I added “Sending Out Work.” Bruce asked about it. I said it was a nightmare finding appropriate journals, sending them work on all these different systems and then tracking the submissions. He said, “It’s a Submishmash.” We started writing code that night.  A few months later we tricked our other friend, John Brownell, into joining us.  A year later, we had a few hundred clients.

But we kept running into problems with large universities and businesses. The IT people and administrators were suspect of something called Submishmash. It was always a struggle to get them to write a check, and our bills were piling up. So we renamed it to Submittable. It’s a little soul-crushing, but our revenue instantly doubled. We went almost three years before making a living of any kind. We originally thought it would take two or three weeks.  

NE: Submittable is able to cater to various aspects of publishing, from literary contests to publications. How many active submissions are there on any given day?

MF: Around 6000-7000 files are sent via the platform every day. At any given time four hundred people are logged in reading work or reviewing music or films (The system works with hi-definition video and audio). When I last checked, we were hosting well north of six million files. (Users can delete files so this isn’t a total that have come through the system.)

We don’t track in detail how publishers use it, or whether a client is ‘literary’ or not. In the beginning, we screened sign-ups to see if they were literary or art journals and if so we gave it to them for free, but the manual screening became an untenable time-suck. Our solution was to grandfather in all our original free users and dramatically drop our pricing to something we thought most people could afford: $10.

NE: Do you think that Submittable can be a helpful literary tool for writers as far as keeping track of an archive of samples of their writing, and how they have progressed over the years?

MF: I don’t know. As a writer myself, I find myself thinking from that point of view when developing features. (There’s no business reason for having a way for writers to track their work in the system. In fact, customer support of writers is probably our largest expense.) But the customer is the publisher.

In general, we think if publishers are healthy, writers are, and right now publishers are kind of screwed. So if we can make something that helps publishers save time and find outside work, I think writers will do well too.

The one problem with Submittable is that by making it so easy to send out work, I find myself sending out more and more often. I assume everyone does this, which doesn’t really help a publisher if the work isn’t appropriate or fully polished.  Also, after introducing the custom form builder, we’ve seen a huge spike in non-publisher organizations, such as schools, producers, film festivals, galleries, and non-profits, using Submittable to accept portfolios, applications, films and music.

NE: Any advice for blooming writers, editors and publishers who want to start a journal?

MF: Publishing is in a strange place these days. What exactly is it? Is putting up a WordPress site and publishing your friends publishing? Is curating a Tumblr blog publishing? I guess it just matters what you want to do. If you want to publish or promote the eclectic voices of authors you admire because it’s an engaging and entertaining process and ultimately feels good, this is an amazing time. With little or no cost upfront you can professionally produce and promote people’s work.  If you want to create the next Scribners, getting started seems easier than ever, but getting to a place where you are actually promoting and selling hundreds of titles and authors per year seems more difficult than ever. I still think the latter is an amazing but very difficult goal. 

I’d just suggest that you try to be in it for the long haul. Putting up a WordPress site and grabbing a Submittable account does not necessarily make you a publisher. (Just like how writing a bit of code and securing the url does not make a company.) Try to build something long and lasting, build a sustainable process with people you like and care about and who you can count on. Try to think about the un-fun parts of publishing: paying people, the undignified part of promoting books, recurring revenue, etc. I think we all wish it was just cleverness and making art, but that’s usually 10% percent of anything. The rest is mostly endurance and luck, and doing things we generally don’t love doing.  Also, don’t shy away from the inevitable question: how will we make money? Another way of saying that is: how will these people we love eat? It’s fine to not make money and do things that don’t make money, but you will eventually have people or employees who depend on you. Being able to buy your kids food or bowler hats for Halloween is awesome. Don’t look for shortcuts. Grants, Kickstarter, or getting subsidized by a university have a way of letting us off easy but those aren’t generally sustainable. Expect to spend at least 50% of your time doing the undignified job of selling.

If you’re trying to start a company, be as focused as possible. Solve one problem rather than creating a solution. Don’t worry about scaling or “how big the market is.” Just create something you and your friends would use. Start it with people you love, people who are going to keep going when it sucks and when any sane person would quit.