There's been some online chatter recently about Creative Byline, a manuscript submission service that promises to streamline the process for writers seeking to approach publishers.
With Creative Byline, now in beta, writers can easily and affordably get their work in front of the editors who are interested. Editors can bypass manuscript overload to spend more time on those that match what they’re looking for.
A new method is long overdue. We think we have a revolutionary idea; we hope you’ll agree.
A shortcut past the slushpile? Even better, a shortcut past the "agented submissions only" policy that's so common nowadays with the big publishing houses? As someone who has seen manuscript display websites--most of which made similar promises to transform an outdated submissions system--come and go since the late 1990's, it doesn't seem so revolutionary to me. But let's take a closer look at how it works.
For a fee of $19 per adult book manuscript, and $9 per children's book manuscript, writers can upload a query package (for adult books, cover letter, synopsis, chapter-by-chapter outline, and the first three chapters; for children's books, cover letter, synopsis, and the full manuscript) to the site. The package is then vetted by first readers (who according to the FAQ, "have subject-matter expertise, advanced degrees in creative writing, and/or experience in trade book publishing"), and the writer receives feedback as to whether or not the package is submission-ready. If it's ready, the writer can choose an editor to receive the package, or send the package to the Manuscript Library, where it's available to all editors. If it's not ready, the writer receives suggestions for improvement; once these are implemented, the query package gets a second read (though not necessarily approval). Creative Byline guarantees that approved submissions will be seen and responded to by their chosen editors within three weeks. If they aren't, writers can submit to another editor at no additional cost.
That's what's in it for writers. What's in it for editors? Basically, the same promises made by any display website or submission service--manuscript pre-screening, submissions targeted to the editor's interests, and relief from "manuscript overload." Creative Byline's blog provides a more detailed exposition of what it considers to be the advantages it offers editors.
So far, Creative Byline has lined up only three participating publishers--but they are impressive names: Dutton Children's Books, St. Martin's Press, and Tor/Forge (publishers must pay an annual fee to use the service). The first readers have some degree of relevant expertise (according to Creative Byline's blog, most are graduate students pursuing MFA's in writing) and receive training in assessing and responding to query packages. The software available to both writers and editors (there are screenshots on the site) looks professional, well-designed, and easy to use. The submission fees are relatively modest, as is the membership fee of $8 per month (while the site is in beta, new members get 3 months free)--and though not all query packages will be judged submission-ready, all writers who use the site will at least get feedback on their packages. As the blog entry linked above points out, this is more than most writers can expect when submitting in the ordinary way to publishers (or agents).
As always, though, it's important to read the fine print--in this case, Creative Byline's Terms and Conditions.
According to Clause 3.2.2., First-Reader Reviews, "The first review does not constitute a full Query Package critique, but instead abbreviated feedback on areas of the Query Package that need improvement by the User prior to submission to publishers." So the feedback writers receive may not be as comprehensive as the website might encourage them to hope.
According to Clause 3.2.3., Publisher Criteria, "User acknowledges a publisher is under no obligation to view or read any portion of the Query Package even if User meets the submission criteria of that publisher, the User’s Query Package meets the Query Package submission criteria of that publisher, and Creative Byline submits the Query Package to the publisher selected by User." So though a query package may be approved and submitted, the chosen editor may not actually look at it.
But wait--doesn't Creative Byline guarantee timely feedback on submissions? Well...according to Clause 3.2.4., Credits, "If a User submits a Query Package to a publisher and the publisher does not view any portion of the Query Package within the specified time period, Creative Byline will provide a credit to the account of the User to submit the same Query Package to a different publisher. This credit must redeemed within one year of when the Query Package was submitted to the first publisher, and may not be redeemed for cash, or a cash refund, unless there are no other editors or publishers to whom the Query Package may be submitted." So it isn't really timely feedback that's being guaranteed--just that if there is no timely feedback, you get another shot. In other words, it is quite possible that writers who submit via Creative Byline will get no feedback at all.
This, by the way, is perfectly reasonable. Whether or not a service like Creative Byline can change the submission process, it can't change the balance of power, which still resides with editors--and editors are not going to be enthusiastic about using a system that compels them to respond to every submission they receive. Creative Byline, therefore, must leave its participating editors the freedom to respond or not, as they choose. But the belief that editorial response is guaranteed is what will attract many (if not most) writers to Creative Byline. So right away, we have a gap between expectation and reality.
Also a concern: not having seen a sample, I have no idea how thorough the first-reader feedback will be. But if it's not thorough enough to truly screen out substandard or inappropriate manuscripts, editors are going to stop bothering with Creative Byline. This is the bottom line that every manuscript display site or submission service runs up against: if they can't guarantee good material, all the bells and whistles don't mean a thing.
According to this article in the Grand Rapids Press, Creative Byline's founder, Brad MacLean, created the service because of the submission frustration experienced by his wife, commercially-published children's author Christine MacLean. Creative Byline definitely has the edge on software, and has already shown success in attracting reputable publishers. Depending on the quality of first-reader reviews, it may offer writers a useful and inexpensive critique service. But will it actually revolutionize the submission process, or change the way publishers acquire manuscripts? I'm not holding my breath.