Submittable is an online submission management system used by publishers and websites–including my own literary journal, Banango Street. Submittable streamlines the submission process and makes it simple to receive, organize, evaluate, and respond to digital content. Banango Street is tiny, but I couldn’t imagine trying to deal with the submissions that we do get over email. Their users include the likes of GOOD Magazine and The Believer.
Submittable is currently in Mountain View, CA participating in the Y Combinator incubator, which had a 2% acceptance rate this summer. Co-founder Michael FitzGerald was gracious enough to sit down with me and chat about the company’s evolution, the state of literary world, and how it feels to run a startup.
Submittable was founded in 2009 by three developers based in Missoula, Montana, which isn’t on the other side of the country from Silicon Valley but might as well be in terms of entrepreneurial culture. Michael, who’s a writer, had just finished a short story and was in the process of determining where to place it. He described how the process of literary submission used to go: you’d have to meticulously find the right agent or publisher, select a few places to send a manuscript, and individually place them in the mail. Research and the post office put “tension on the process” of submission. Over the last five years, this tension has evaporated as the internet has made it easier for writers to submit with abandon to as many places as possible. This scattershot submission practice is often impersonal and just bad for both the writer and the publisher. Publishers get flooded with submissions, and “there’s just no human way to read 2,000 submissions a month.” Michael linked this upsurge in submission volume to the trend of magazines publishing flash fiction and other “more digestible” forms.
Fed up with his current job, he sat down with his developer friends one day—John Brownell and Bruce Tribbensee, respectively a musician and a filmmaker—and basically said: “Let’s make something. Let’s solve a problem.” The first iteration was a social network called Submishmash, tracking where writers previously had stories published, who journals and publishers were publishing, and more such data. Michael found that publishers weren’t biting: “Publishers in general, especially traditional publishers, are terrified of technology, because Amazon showed up like they were going to help , and then just flipped it around…in New York in 2009, publishers were hiding under their desks.” Though publishers weren’t going for the social network, Michael found they’d sign up for an account where they could curate submissions. And thus Submittable was born in its current form.
Michael pointed out that it’s easier than ever to create content and publish it—including this interview. With the glut of content, curation is a massive problem. At the basic level, says Michael, Submittable lets people curate any digital file in various media—documents, portfolios, films, music. Email, which was “built for asynchronous communication,” is a flawed system for sending something to be reviewed. If you forward a file to other people, like other editors, you lose the integrity of the original file because you’re creating copies. Submittable addresses this problem and has scores of use cases, which the users demonstrated. For example, restaurants are using the platform for resume management; restaurant employees were familiar with Submittable because they had used it themselves for artistic submissions. And the Millay Colony, an artist residency program in New York, uses it for accepting applications.
It’s this expansion of use cases that makes me think Submittable can scale up. Think of other companies that started in small niches and then became juggernauts: Facebook was a platform for college students, Google did search, Microsoft was originally a BASIC interpreter. Even 3M started as a mining company in Minnesota. I think Submittable will continue to expand its user base and grow out of its (what I think of as literary) niche, because the platform has such broad applicability. The starting point was more narrow—Michael and his cofounders made something that they liked using, and then that a few hundred loyal users liked as well. Once they had that solid foundation in place, they could start to think about expanding their scope, as demonstrated by their users.
Apart from being useful across broad domains, Submittable cuts down on nepotism. “What if there was just a cleaner, more objective way to focus on the work instead of the person?” asked Michael. Nepotism creates a less interesting literature, and a platform like Submittable democratizes the submission process and broadens the field.
Michael found that he enjoyed working for himself: “Submission management is not particularly sexy, but I get to write code, I get to deal with my sort of people, we make enough money that I don’t have a boss. Once you get a week of that, it’s difficult to imagine working for someone else. And how many people can say they have thousands of poets in their user base?”
One thing Michael said was particularly memorable to me: “Editors want nothing more than to find and nurture new talent.” I’ve been struggling with shaping the mission of Banango Street, and this definitely strikes me as a benefit of running an online journal. I really loved some of the poems we put in the first issue, and it’s gratifying to me that we’re getting those works out to a wider audience and maybe even serving as a springboard for burgeoning writers.
Though Submittable may seem to be an odd company out at YCombinator, which spawned the likes of Dropbox and Airbnb, Michael said that “It’s helping us be fearless about what we can do. It’s like with writing: after you’ve been around people who write at a certain level, you know what good writing is. Being around the other YC companies forces you to produce at a certain level, which is very good for the product.”
Take it from a current Submittable user: the platform rocks. As Michael said, there are a ton of use cases. Especially after a YCombinator summer, the company has a promising future. I’m definitely rooting for any startup that can carve out a space in the literary sphere, and I anticipate that they’ll prove themselves useful in diverse other spheres.