Friday, August 13, 2010

Bowker Manuscript Submissions

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

A few of life's inevitabilities:

Death.

Taxes.

Writers' quest to find a way around the submission process.

There's nothing you can do about death. Taxes are pretty non-negotiable as well, unless you're prepared to retreat into a fortified compound and teach your children to be sharpshooters. But finding a way around the submission process...just about everyone seems to think there's an app for that.

In the olden days, before email, there were submission catalogs. You paid for a listing in a paper catalog, which was then supposedly circulated to agents and publishers--who, if they received it at all, promptly tossed it into the trash (this was before recycling, too).

Manuscript display websites, which allow writers to display their work for (theoretically at least) the attention of agents and editors, were born of the early days of the Internet and have been popping up ever since. Many display sites, such as HarperCollins' Authonomy, are able to boast some successes, but agents and editors have never really warmed to them. As a route to representation or publication, they offer considerably worse odds than the conventional submission process.

Then there are the query blast services. Instead of the tedious process of researching and querying appropriate agents and editors, wouldn't it be great to hire a service to mail out the queries for you? Problem is, there's another word for these services: spam. (I've blogged before about query blasters, and why agents and editors hate them.) You'd be better off spending your money on a good book about publishing.

Yet another kind of submission work-around is the online submission service, which, for a fee, lets you submit electronically to a participating list of agents and/or publishers (as opposed to passively displaying your work, as with display sites). For instance, Agent Inbox, which enables writers to submit to member literary agents. Again, though, success stories are few and far between (plus, not all online submission services take care to recruit only reputable publishers and agents). At best, you stand no better chance of snagging an agent's or editor's attention than you do through ordinary querying--which also has the advantage of being free.

Bottom line: despite many attempts to invent a better submission process, no one has yet managed to displace the existing one. That doesn't stop people from trying, though--or from re-purposing old ideas, even when those old ideas haven't really worked.

Case in point: Bowker (yes, that Bowker) has just launched its own submission service, Bowker Manuscript Submissions (BMS for short). BMS allows authors to upload book proposals into a database, which publishers can search according to their needs and interests, and contact authors directly if they want to read more. Cost to authors: $99 for six months. Membership is free for trade publishers. POD services and vanity publishers must pay a subscription fee.

Hold up a moment. POD services and vanity publishers? Why would authors need a submission service to contact fee-based publishers, which have no barriers to entry? Why would a submission service allow fee-based publishers to troll its database? Authors who use BMS can choose not to be contacted by fee-based publishers--but still.

The answer is twofold. First, BMS isn't a service for writers; it's a service for publishers. The verbiage on BMS's website makes this abundantly clear: "BowkerManuscriptSubmissions.com was initiated as a cooperative effort between Bowker and the Publishing community for Publishers looking for new authors and desiring an efficient way to discover and evaluate new manuscripts." So why not include fee-based publishers? After all, they need manuscripts too.

Second, per Bowker's official press release, BMS is modeling itself on an existing submission service: ChristianManuscriptSubmissions.com (formerly known as ECPA 1st Edition), a project of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association. CMS  has long included a variety of fee-based publishers and publishing services, offering this not-entirely-convincing rationale for their presence:

While it is the desire of most aspiring authors to contract with a major royalty publisher for the publishing of their book, self-publishing is another option. Self-publishing means that you contract with a publishing company that publishes your work at some cost to you. Many of our self-publishing members offer far more than just the printing of your book (the old "print-on-demand" approach) and so we refer to them as partner-publishers.
"Parner publisher" is certainly a nicer name than "vanity publisher," but it doesn't change the fact that authors may have to pay thousands of dollars to publish. Both of the companies featured on CMS's "partner publisher" testimonal page (Anomalos--which also does business as Challenger Publishing--and VMI) require authors to buy 1,000 copies of their own books.

Bowker's press release describes CMS as "highly successful." But how successful is it really? For publishers, it's certainly  handy--not because they discover a lot of manuscripts there, but because CMS siphons off the ever-rising flood of aspiring writers who'd otherwise be bombarding them with unsolicited manuscripts. CMS shifts the slush pile to a location where publishers can either ignore it or pick through it, but don't have to deal with it directly. You can see the appeal.

For authors, though...maybe not so much. Another testimonial page on CMS's website lists 11 publishers that have acquired manuscripts from CMS, and author testimonials add four more--a total of 15, less than a quarter of CMS's more than 70 member publishers. Moreover, three of the publishers mentioned in the testimonials are fee-based (VMI, ACW, and Xulon). According to an article by writer and former submission service-user Terri Pilcher, non-fee publishers bought just nine book proposals from CMS in 2007. (I've attempted to contact CMS myself to ask about sales stats, but have yet to receive a response.) CMS doesn't say how many authors use its service, but I think it's safe to assume that membership is in the hundreds, if not in the thousands. Those are pretty poor odds.

CMS's popularity among authors is boosted not just by the fact that many Christian publishers don't accept unagented material, but because so many Christian publishers steer writers in CMS's direction. Thomas Nelson, for instance, after it finishes pitching its POD publishing service West Bow Press, advises writers that "If you are interested in pursuing a traditional publishing relationship, you may consider submission of your manuscript proposal to ChristianManuscriptSubmissions.com where royalty publishers will have the opportunity to review your work." It is, in my opinion, highly irresponsible to suggest that writers pay a fee for a service that offers such minimal benefit, when they'd be much better off looking for a reputable agent.

Bowker is clearly hoping to benefit from the same kind of recommendations--its Platinum Membership requires publishers to "direct all unsolicited manuscripts to BMS from their website."
The culture of Christian publishing is different from that of trade and academic publishing, where Bowker is directing its efforts, so whether BMS can duplicate CMS's level of publisher participation remains to be seen. But even if it does, I think it's highly unlikely that secular publishers (non-fee-charging ones, anyway) will be any more inclined to use a submission service as a genuine source of manuscripts than Christian publishers are.

Bottom line: save your cash.

One last note. BMS's Author Services page provides a link to a list of literary agents. One might reasonably assume that the list has been carefully researched--because this is Bowker, right? The company that issues ISBNs? That publishes Books in Print? But before I'd gotten a quarter of the way down the list, I'd found eight agents Writer Beware has received multiple complaints about (mostly for fee-charging, but also for things like placing books with vanity publishers)--three of them on our Thumbs Down Agency List.

13 comments:

Frances Grimble said...

I got Bowker's solicitation e-mail in my inbox this morning. Note, I self-publish, I buy ISBNs from Bowker (the only source of ISBNs for US publishers), and my books are listed in Books in Print, published by Bowker. Bowker used the same email address I put on file with them (which is a different address from the one I use for many other purposes).

Bowker's always looking for ways to make money in addition to the sizable fees they charge for ISBNs, and the sizable prices they charge for such references (indispensable to many) as Books in Print and directories listing bookstores and libraries.

I don't know if Bowker does this any more, but when I started publishing (it was about 18 years ago so I can admit it), I fell for one of their ad schemes. They put rather long text ads for individual books in Books in Print, for (if I recall) $250. Bowker's marketing said that with such an ad, you don't have to contact bookstores any more, they will come to you. Naturally, only a micropress would buy such an ad. When I bought a copy of Books in Print (which I needed to do bookstore mailings, not being naive enough to rely only on the ad), there were few such ads in there, and I wondered why. I soon found out. The ONLY result was that a bookstore employee called me wanting to buy one copy personally as a birthday present for her sister--which she never got around to buying.

My take on Internet posting services for resumes, press releases, and anything else is that if it's free, usually, you might as well do it. (Though, be prepared for an inevitable increase in spam as the posting site (probably) and others (certainly) harvest and pass around whatever email address you gave. And if you post your entire manuscript publicly there is a danger that someone will pirate it.) But if someone charges for a posting service, there had better be verifiable positive results, and ones proportionate to the amount charged. I'll absolutely, certainly pass up on this service.

Life's Beautiful Path said...

Thank you, thank you, for continuing to advise us writers on what is and what isn't the safe way to becoming published.

M Barnette said...

Thank you for passing this information on. When I saw that email in my inbox-- I run a small publishing house so they spammed me about this... 'service'--I just had to tell everyone at Absolute Write's Bewares and Background checks.

I feel sorry for aspiring authors who will be taken in by this 'service' without realizing they're throwing their money down the drain.

Tabitha said...

I *love* that you take so much time and effort to seek out all this information, and then lay it out so clearly for the rest of us. Thank you.

Rachel Blackbirdsong said...

Thank you for the great information and advice. This article is a definite must-read for any writers out there.

Katrina L. Lantz said...

Fantastically written post. You put this so much better than I could have. I actually just blogged about direct submission services over at The Best Damn Creative Writing Blog and the owner of Pubmission.com (one of these direct submission services) wrote a lengthy response.

It's an important discussion to have as more tools and solutions are presented to writers in the saturated literary market. Some things are a good use of our time and money, and others are, like you said, little more than scams. Thank you for looking out for the author's best interest!

Anonymous said...

Several years ago I used the ECPA submission service for a nonfiction proposal. An editor from a major Christian publishing house got in touch with me. She wasn't interested in the book (they had something similar in development) but took the time to tell me how much she liked and that she thought my writing showed promise. She proved to be a valuable contact over time, and has even put me in touch with agents and other editors who I've been able to establish one-on-one dialogues with which has lead to more opportunities. The encouragement alone at such an early stage in my career was been worth 10x what I paid for the service.

Anonymous said...

Bowker is very unprofessional. I work at Harper Collins and I would never use such an amateur service. We don't even have enough hours in the day to meet with all the literary agents who have already screened the manuscripts, and who are bringing in quality writers to pitch to us. Just another money-making scheme from a company that has failed to give good value over the years; a very hypocritical way to do business.

Christy Pinheiro, EA ABA said...

Thanks for posting this excellent article-- I have been trying to figure out for weeks why Bowker was doing this, and for the life of me, I couldn't figure it out. I'm linking back to this and spreading the word. FYI-- my little company signed up as a publisher and found that as of yesterday, there were a total of 4 manuscripts submitted. Not exactly a landslide of interest.

Anonymous said...

Just goes to show that writing a book is a long slog and getting published is an even longer one. No magic short cuts.

Victoria Strauss said...

Update: A list of participating publishers is now posted at the website.

Most are smaller publishers that will accept submissions directly from authors (i.e., no submission service is needed to access them).

At least one, Sid Harta Publishing, is a vanity publisher.

Veronica Tabares said...

Thank you for the article. I am currently looking for an agent for a new book, and seriously thought about taking this shortcut. That is, I was thinking about it!

Anonymous said...

Very well done you are (still) continually looking out for unsuspecting writers and I applaud you for it!
Carol Van Drie