Manuscript display websites promise to showcase your writing to agents and editors in electronic form. Instead of printing out and snail mailing your cover letter, synopsis, and first three chapters, you can display them online in a venue that agents and editors can easily visit. Some display sites are free, but many charge membership fees, and some offer extra services, such as editing or POD publishing, at an additional cost. Some sort of ranking service may be included, on the (dubious) theory that agents and publishers will pay more attention to offerings that have a greater number of positive reader reviews.
You may be familiar with the display site concept because of the recent flurry of attention paid to Bookner, a display site whose aggressively opinionated owner has come in for a fair amount of ridicule from writers, agents, and editors. Bookner is pretty recent--it came online in mid-2005, touting itself as "a new and revolutionary concept." But manuscript display sites aren't a Big New Idea. In fact, they're a pretty old idea. And not a very good one.
Display sites first began appearing in the late 1990's, on the crest of the same hysterical futurism that spurred the dot com bubble and forecast the demise of the printed book by the year 2010. They were touted as writers’ Great New Hope: a brand-new cyberspace opportunity to bypass publishers’ closed-door policies and agents’ huge slush piles. Agents and editors, the sites declared, would be eager to visit a venue where manuscripts were pre-sorted into easily-searchable categories and genres, where submissions were pre-screened for quality--and best of all, where they wouldn’t have to put another piece of paper on their crowded desks. All hail the brave new electronic world.
By 1999, there were dozens of display sites online, all offering some version of this dream. Trouble was, many of the sites didn't have enough content or variety to make visiting them worth agents' or editors' time. Also, since most weren't run by people with publishing experience, they weren't as good at screening submissions as they thought they were. Uninterested in exchanging a paper slush pile for an electronic one, established agents and editors stayed away in droves. In 2000, when Ann and I wrote an article on display sites for Writer's Digest, the successful agents we interviewed told us either that they'd never been tempted to visit a display site, or had visited one and weren't impressed by the quality of the manuscripts on offer.
As a result, display site success stories were few and far between. Worse, the sites were a magnet for marginal and questionable agents and editors--not exactly the kind of contact the hopeful writer was looking to make. Writer Beware received many complaints from writers who were contacted by non-reputable agents and publishers as a result of a listing on a display site.
By 2002, most display sites were out of business. The only major one I know of that has survived in anything like its original form is Authorlink. Authorlink--unusually for a display site--is run by someone with publishing experience, and has always been diligent about promoting itself and its writers to people in the industry. Authorlink offers some genuine success stories. However, its archives are also full of deals with marginal publishers and bad agents.
Trends are cyclical--and in the nanosecond-attention-span environment that is the Internet, trends cycle much faster than in the real world. Over the past year or so, new display sites have begun appearing--Bookner being just one--making the same promises and employing the same techniques as their defunct predecessors. A sampling I've discovered in my travels around the Internet include Bookpitch ("A publishing portal"), Zirdland ("...answering the call to provide a solution to the ever-widening rift between the writers and the market"), Monkeyclap ("...streamlin[ing] the entire publishing process in less time, at less cost, and without wasting precious resources"), Writersconnect ("...enables you to upload your manuscript directly to the desktops of publishers around the world"), The Next Big Writer ("...to find, reward, and promote the best undiscovered talent"), 2BEntertainment ("...to unconventionally discover literary, film and musical talent"), and Publish-This ("...giving Authors the opportunity to get their work in front of the people that matter").
I'm sure there are and will be others. But I don't expect they'll be any more successful this time around.