A few words with Neil Clarke on his world dominating submission management system

Anyone who writes science fiction or fantasy should know Neil Clarke, editor and publisher of Clarkesworld Magazine, which this past weekend became the first online magazine to win the Best Semiprozine Hugo Award. Not only is Neil's Clarkesworld one of the most exciting genre magazines out there, he played a vital role in saving the semiprozine award when the World Science Fiction Society attempted to eliminate it.  Through semiprozine.org, Neil rallied resistance to this change by showing how magazines like Clarkesworld, Interzone, Weird Tales, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and many others are a vital part of the genre scene, publishing stories and analysis you won't find anywhere else.

However, beyond his work as an editor and promoter of semiprozines, Neil is touching the lives of SF/F writers in a much more subtle manner--he is the creator of the submission management system which is taking over the genre world. Originally created by Neil for Clarkesworld, the system has now spread to Asimov's, Fantasy Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, Electric Velocipede and other magazines.

Neil's system is incredibly easy to use. Unlike other online submission systems, you don't need to create an account to keep track of your submissions. Simply go to the magazine's website and enter your name, email address, cover letter and other information into the system. You can then upload your manuscript in either a .rtf or .doc format. Once you submit, you receive an email confirmation with a link to check on your submission's status.

And that's where Neil's system can turn into a major case of writer addiction. When you first submit, your sub is marked in the "received" category. In some of the variations on his system you will even see your place in the queue. For example, when I submitted to Lightspeed Magazine a while back, my initial queue rank was number 14, a number which quickly fell. It was then briefly "under review" before belly flopping into the Slush God's rejection pool.

While it might be tempting to hit "refresh" over and over when your submission is under review, the value of Neil's system has nothing to do with seeing that "under review" category magically change to an acceptance (although Neil has remarked before that, at least with Clarkesworld Magazine, being "under review" for more than a few days is a good sign). Instead, the value of Neil's system is that you know your submission was received, that it is being considered, and that it isn't lost in some email or snail mail postal hell.

Because I was so impressed, I asked Neil what lead to the system's creation, about his thoughts on online submissions, and more.

Me: What led you to create your online submission system?

Neil: Gmail. Prior to 2009, we (Clarkesworld) used Gmail for all our submissions. It was fine when we started, but as the volume of submissions grew, it became increasingly obvious that this wasn't the right tool for the job. I've been designing online systems since the mid-80's, so when I couldn't find something better, I built one.

Does the system save time over postal submissions?

Postal delivery is obviously slower than electronic delivery, but the time saved isn't just that bit at the beginning and end of the submissions process. My slush readers are scattered around the country and we all have instant access to the submissions, comments, and responses. I know one paper-submissions market that makes monthly exchanges of paper between their reader and editor. That's an inefficiency we don't have to worry about.

In your opinion, does an online submission system allow magazine to attract stories from a more diverse pool of writers than is possible with postal submissions?

Allow is probably the wrong word. There are more people with postal access than internet access. What makes the difference is the decreased cost and increased convenience of electronic submission over printing, mailing and providing return postage. I don't have hard numbers, but I do hear from many grateful authors outside the US. They often cite the high price of international postage as a deterrent to sending stories to non-local markets. You can find some of these comments in response to this post.

In addition to your Clarkesworld, other genre magazines now using your system include Asimov's, Fantasy Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, and Electric Velocipede. Why are so many genre magazines gravitating toward online submissions, and is there anything in particular about your system which makes other magazines want to use it?

Online submissions are convenient and very popular with authors. To me, it seems more like common sense and good business. I understand why some people are reluctant to embrace this format, but I think not taking them will put those markets at a disadvantage. The editors that aren't taking electronic submissions know what they are doing. They don't consider the disadvantages to be significant enough to change yet.

I've been more than willing to share my experiences with online submissions with other editors. The magazines you've mentioned (and a few more) adopted my system because they thought it would work for them. It's not always a perfect fit, but the ideas I get from the other editors are quite good and worth the time it takes to implement them, so we all end up benefiting from the deal.

At Clarkesworld, what is your process for working submissions through the system? How many editors or slush readers take part?

1. A slush reader (myself included) claims the next story in the queue and downloads the document.

2. The story is read.

3. The reader goes back to the system, tags the story for acceptance or rejection and includes a few comments for my eyes only.

4. I review the processed submissions and send out the appropriate letters to the authors.

5. The submission is closed and archived.

There are five us reading slush. I'm first reader on 20-25% of all submissions.

Have there been any major bugs with your system? Any complaints or praise from people using it?

The only problems we've had with the system have been when well-intentioned tech people at a publication have tinkered with it. No real complaints. Mostly suggestions and thanks. There is always room for improvement.

Do you foresee any new developments with future versions of your system?

I originally designed the software for Clarkesworld and didn't intend to be distributing it. There are some changes I still need to make to help each magazine become a bit more independent. The system will also continue to receive upgrades from the editor's wishlists, but the majority of those will be invisible to authors.