If you’ve been using Submittable for a while, you know that we are always adding features and refining the interface you use to accept and process submissions. You may not know that our developers source many of the ideas for new features from users themselves, some of whom are remarkably tech-savvy. One such user is Brian Lewis, a software developer and writer originally from California, now working in Utah, who publishes Spark: A Creative Anthology.

For twenty years after graduating from the California State Summer School for the Arts (CSSSA), Brian planned to get back to writing. Meanwhile, he built a satisfying career as a software developer, married, and had kids. When he finally found the time to follow up on his literary ambitions last summer, he realized that his career as a programmer uniquely positioned him to navigate the rapidly changing publishing landscape.

Submittable: Tell me about Spark: A Creative Anthology and how you came to found it.

BL: Last summer, as I realized how long it had been since my graduation from CSSSA, I started writing again. As I began exploring the new landscape—totally changed by the Internet—I found that there were still not a lot of professional resources for recent CSSSA alumni. Even with the explosion of free e-zines and self-publishing opportunities, I just didn’t see the kind of support for new writers that would have enabled me to pursue a serious career as an author.

But something else had changed in the time since I’d graduated from CSSSA, too: I had twenty years’ experience in technology, a large professional network, the perspective to recognize the opportunities I had missed, and the skills and resources to do something about it.

I founded Spark: A Creative Anthology with the intent that it would be a professional publication exclusively targeting recent CSSSA alumni, giving them the opportunity to be professionally published alongside established older alumni and respected faculty who had been the young students’ mentors and heroes. I set three basic rules for the process: One, this would not be a web-only e-zine, but a professionally printed anthology with a companion eBook edition; Two, every accepted contributor would be paid, regardless of past publication experience; and Three, every submitter would receive personal feedback on their work.

As I got to work on this new project, which I expected to be small but hoped would garner some interest and support, I quickly discovered a vast community of aspiring and recently-established writers who loved the idea—and had nothing to do with CSSSA. Within a month of opening for submissions from CSSSA alumni, I expanded my scope to invite submissions from all talented writers, maintaining my three rules of professional, paid, and personal feedback.

Submittable: How does your computer science background influence your work as editor/publisher/writer?

BL: While software tools will never be a substitute for good writing, editing, and publishing skills, my background in computer science has led me to expect and seek out tools that will facilitate the core functions of any role while automating everything ancillary. For example, I knew that the best way to accept submissions globally, track my decisions, and respond in a timely manner would be to find an existing submission management application—preferably something hosted that I wouldn’t have to develop myself. As a writer, I had already submitted to several markets who use Submittable to manage their queue, as well as several markets who use their own submission management or who accept work by email. That meant Submittable was one of the first options I explored as a small publisher, and it was ultimately the tool I selected.

Submittable: How has Submittable helped you work toward your goals or made your life easier? 

BL: Like many creative people, I struggle with good organization of my physical space—papers, notes, pencils & pens. Submittable makes it simple to organize submissions, make notes, contact the submitter (and track the fact that I contacted him or her), and even collaborate with other staff as they read and make notes to help with the final decision.

More importantly, it has made it possible to have a staff at all! I mentioned that I had opened this project to all writers; as soon as I did, the submissions started flooding in much faster than I could keep up with on my own. Because Submittable is simple to use and accessible to anyone with an Internet connection, I was able to put out a call for help and quickly build a reading staff of twenty volunteers with members in California, Oregon, Utah, and Virginia.

By the time we closed our submission window for Volume I, we had received nearly 500 manuscripts. Five hundred! There is no way I could have made it through that queue—and provided personal feedback, as well—without an amazing volunteer staff, and there’s no way I could have had an amazing (and geographically-distributed) volunteer staff without Submittable.

Submittable has also made our quarterly writing contest possible, because each contest features guest judges selected from industry professionals, in addition to Spark staff judges. I could never leverage everyone’s generous participation if it required flying all the judges to a single location for the judging, but with Submittable, we can talk on the phone, chat online, or compare notes about contest entries we can all see without leaving our homes or offices.

Submittable: Our developers have appreciated your ongoing feedback about the system. What improvements would you suggest going forward? 

BL: First, I have to say that many of the ideas and suggestions I’ve had have been implemented before I can even suggest them to Submittable. Besides the advantages I’ve already mentioned, one real bonus to using a hosted submission manager is that there are other customers who have the same needs I do, and Submittable is very responsive to those needs and regularly deploys updates and enhancements which make the system better and easier to use. As a professional software engineer myself, I recognize the hard work that goes into prioritizing, developing, testing, and releasing new features with the responsiveness and effectiveness I’ve seen from Submittable.

However, since you’ve asked, I’d love to see a staff interface that was designed for easy use on mobile devices—both tablets and smartphones. There have been times when I’m away from my desk but have time to read, vote on, or assign submissions to staff, but the Submittable staff UI is still very desktop-centric, despite several recent improvements.

Something that only works on a desktop computer is the ability to see in the submission list who voted on a submission and how they voted. Right now, the “Who Voted And How” list only shows when you hover the mouse pointer over the aggregate score. Even in a desktop browser, it would be great to have an option to see the votes listed inline without the “hover” requirement, but for mobile browsers where “touch” is king, having to hover over anything to bring up a display is very difficult and not intuitive.

I’d also love to take advantage of more advanced search options. Today, I can search for things using combined filters like “All pieces with label X or Y assigned to staff A, B, or C with keyword ‘Scribophile’ in any form field.” But sometimes I need to be see who has not voted on a submission yet, or determine which pieces are not assigned to a particular staff member, or find submissions which have label X but not label Y. It would be great if I could do more complex searches:

  • “Submissions Joe has voted on”
  • “Submissions not assigned to Betty”
  • “Submissions not assigned to Betty which are currently assigned to Tom”
  • “Submissions which have the label ‘Current Volume’ which do not have the label ‘Submitter Has Been Paid'”
  • “Submissions with Scribophile in the custom form field ‘How did you hear about us?'”

… and other answers to complex questions I find arise frequently. And, of course, I’d like to be able to easily perform bulk operations on these results, like setting or removing assignments, setting or removing labels, etc.

Which brings me to the last of the big things I’d love to see: bulk “Unassign” and “Remove Label” features in the submission list. Right now, as far as I can tell, to unassign a single staff member from a batch of submissions, I either have to open each submission and “uncheck” the name of the staff member I want to remove, or in the submission list I have to note all the current staff assignments and re-assign everyone except the one I’m removing. I’d love to be able to select a group of submissions, select a staff member, and click “Unassign” to quickly remove the selected person from the submission.

For labels, I can currently set a label on many pieces at once, but I can’t remove a label from many pieces at once. Here’s an example of why I would even want to do this: when I’ve decided a particular piece should be included in the anthology, I use either a “Current Volume” label or a “Future Volume” label to indicate where I think it best fits. Once all the pieces have been selected for the “Current Volume” and it’s been sent to the printer, I’m ready to move on to the next volume. At that point, I want to be able to remove “Current Volume” all at once.

Submittable: That’s quite a list.

BL: Keep in mind that the only reason I am even able to envision and request these enhancements is that Submittable already works so well in its core features. It enables me to focus on the roles of editor, manager, and publisher in exactly the ways I was looking for when I first explored submission management options.

As Spark: A Creative Anthology has grown, Submittable has not only kept up with our needs, but in many real ways made the growth possible in the first place. It’s absolutely fair to say that a significant portion of our early success can be attributed to our decision to use Submittable as our hosted submission management solution.


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  • Brian Lewis

    Between the time this interview took place and the time it was posted here, Submittable developers completed the feature to allow me to remove a label from all submissions at once. Kudos!