Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- More Dubious Writers' Services: The Manuscript Display Website

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.

6 comments:

Anne M said...

It's interesting to note that, as someone who joined Bookner, he still hasn't got it going. The e-maiol I received said "Thank you for joining. Wea re still waiting for enough members to join for this service to be operational. We will keep you posted."

Lucky I didn't join to be seen!

Bernita said...

I'm always reduced to wondering that if the urge to display one's prose becomes overwhelming, a blog serves the purpose nearly as well, with a nearly equal chance of being "seen", admired, and snapped up by all those eager, panting, idle, anxious, surfin' editors and agents.

Carolyn B. said...

Ms. Strauss,

You may be interested to know that the founder of a pay-to-get-reviewed site for writers is quoting your name in a snippy e-mail he posted at Miss Snark's blog.

See the comment trail about TheNextBigWriter.com at this URL:
http://misssnark.blogspot.com/2006/01/step-on-up-and-fork-over-your-cash.html.

What I find disquieting is the way he responded to Jo Bourne's original comments; Jo went to that website, examined the top-rated work on display at his site, and deemed it sub-par, which she believed to be an indication of poor reviewing or cheerleading at that site. A reasonable conclusion. The site's founder responded to Jo's comments on Miss Snark's blog by making allusions to the "illegality" of quoting from his site, disparaging Jo Bourne's fair use of quotations from the site's text used to illustrate her point. Miss Snark, of course, recommended that he get a grip.

The founder's indignation is ridiculous, but FYI. I will be interested to see what your site's response -- if anything -- is to this.

- Carolyn Bahm
Collierville, Tenn.

Victoria Strauss said...

Thanks for the heads-up, Carolyn. I've been away for a few days and didn't see that post till now. I've responded on Miss Snark's blog...I'm going to re-post my response here.

----------------------------------

Mr. Nasisi contacted me last April as a kind of scamwatch pre-empt, to let me know about the concept for his site and also about a contest he planned to run. I told him that both the site and the contest sounded fine--which they did, for what he was planning to do.

However, "fine, you're not a scam" isn't the same as "fine, this is a great idea," and to use my comment to suggest that I was providing some sort of seal of approval for his venture is disingenuous. I also told him this:

"I'll be honest with you. I think it's very doubtful you'll be able to persuade successful agents and publishers to participate--they are drowning in submissions, and have no need to look for more...Of course, there are marginal agents and publishers who would be interested--and fee-chargers and scammers will jump at the chance to acquire a new paying customer--but these kinds of agents and publishers are not worth having, and you would not be doing your authors any favors by hooking up with such people."

I offered to chat with him further about his ideas, and to vet the agents and publishers who used the site, but I never heard from him again.

So there you have it. Not exactly a seal of approval.

Jackie Beltran said...

I am a member of thenextbigwriter.com. I would like to express my opinion of the website. Commercially speaking, the website has substantial value but not so much as a venue for top writing, high dollar contests, or agent/publisher attention; rather for a fantastic community of aspiring writers who combine resources to make the author's work better. The reviews are not all terrific but many are. There are some excellent reviewers who take a substantial amount of time to professionally edit chapter by chapter and others who review from a reader's perspective. Personal attacks and obviously disparaging remarks which have very little to do with the work itself are not tolerated, immediately removed and the member is barred. In short, Sol is an awesome babysitter of budding authors, demands respect and very often, receives just that.

So, while the grand prize winner on tNBW in its draft form was found to be less than marketable by your standards, several members have perfected their pieces and have gone on to join the publishing process. I challenge you to take a look. I think you will be pleased by a website that is ever-considerate of the writing process and dedicated to helping aspiring writers create highly publishable material.

Sincerely, Jackie Beltran

Anonymous said...

We are trying to make 2bEntertainment.com a genuine venue for aspiring writers... for anyone with an idea for a creative property albeit writing, music and film. The idea is to build a free community that can identify what entertainment ideas have the most potential. So please check out the site and send feedback our way. (www.2bEntertainment.com)

Sincerely,
2bEntertainment.com