I’m always surprised and impressed by the diversity of ideas at work in independent publishing. Here’s another one: Submishmash.

Not to get all Wired Magazine on you, but here I’ve done an interview that includes the words, “It’s a services-based MVC architecture. We mostly use open-source technologies (Subsonic, ASP.NET MVC, JQuery).”

See, for the last few years I’ve been managing Publishing Genius submissions through an email address that directed subs into my personal inbox, where I would use various labels to keep them straight. It was easy, so I figured it was a good solution.

But a couple months ago I stumbled across a service for managing subs called “Submishmash.” I liked the curious name, and it was free, so with an ounce of hesitation, I decided to check it out. Since it was in beta, I had to send an email off to the creators. A couple hours later, someone named Michael FitzGerald responded and set me up with an account. He even helped me out by inputting my guidelines from the PG site.

It took me a couple weeks to decide if I wanted to use the service. I had to do my “due diligence” and ask around, find out if they’re reputable. Also, I was worried that writers wouldn’t send their work if they had to deal with signing up for an account with Submishmash.

When I finally adopted the system, I was immediately surprised by how well Submishmash works. Not only did writing continue to flow in, it seems like I started getting more. I don’t know if this is accurate because my old, email-based system doesn’t give me any reports. Submishmash, however, has great analytics. It made receiving subs fun again.

Submission management systems aren’t new. Famously, One Story developed one and sold it to the CLMP. Theirs is a paid system, though, and I can’t afford that, so I have no idea how it works. But I also didn’t know how overwhelmed I was with my email solution, and how disorganized. What I do know, however, is that Submishmash has made my job exponentially easier. It’s intuitive and powerful. It’s packed with features for reading on the screen, automated responding, filtering and reporting. And best of all, at least for me – the developers are great people who know their business, and who know publishing.

I’ve asked Michael FitzGerald, who aside from being a programmer also wrote the novel Radiant Days, if I could interview him about the project.

What’s the background of Submishmash?

About 2 years ago, Bruce Tribbensee and I were at lunch discussing start-up ideas. As a writer, I’ve always had an excel sheet that kept track of my submissions. I told Bruce it’d be nice if there was something better. Then I started whining about how the whole process was kind of a nightmare for both the writer and the publisher. (I started a satirical magazine in college and was later on the staff of Cutbank.) Bruce sort of just said, Submishmash. And it sounded good. But then we got sidetracked for a while.

So slowly it became clear we should focus on publishers, not writers. If we could solve a problem for independent publishers, then their writers would do well. If publishers had more time and money, then writers would. The present version of Submishmash came from that.

Originally we focused on tools for writers, namely a centralized place where writers could go and do ‘informed’ submissions, basically Doutrope and LitList.net but tied to real publisher data. It was all about solving the problem of what does a writer do the day after they’ve finished a story? We wrote a bunch of code around this, but it always came up looking like a Facebook for writers. And social networks are useless unless you have critical mass. And critical mass takes marketing money. So slowly it became clear we should focus on publishers, not writers. If we could solve a problem for independent publishers, then their writers would do well. If publishers had more time and money, then writers would. The present version of Submishmash came from that.

Who else is on the Submishmash team? Where are you coming from?

There’s a pretty loose group of about 15 people who have been crucial to making this happen. There are three main developers: John Brownell, Bruce Tribbensee, and myself. Bruce is a filmmaker and John is musician and songwriter. I’m fairly familiar with the publishing world. But we’ve all supported ourselves through software development over the years and we all, especially Bruce, have significant start-up experience. We’ve also gotten financial and technical support and advice from some very experienced software executives (RemoteScan, Microsoft) and a few writers of independent means. And Rosalie Cates at Montana’s Community Development Corporation (MCDC) was awesome with guidance when we first got started.

Finally we’re pretty active about getting editor and publisher input. I’ve bounced a lot of this stuff off editors and agents (we have an agent version). The application wouldn’t be where it is without the input of 4 original beta editors, including yourself.

Will it always be free?

Yeah definitely. It will always be free to indies. We’ll support it by selling an enterprise version to larger organizations and in other industries. For example, we have a non-profit that is using it to let people sign up for classes that require a writing sample. Also, we’re adding the ability for publishers to accept credit cards. This will let publishers sell subscriptions and run contests. If they elect—definitely not required–to do this, we’ll charge a processing fee per transaction.

Also, advances in cloud hosting over the last few years have made hosting an application like this pretty inexpensive.

When we were hanging out at the Wynkoop in Denver, I was really trying to wrap my head around your dedication to this product and to keeping it free. Writers and publishers do stuff for free because of their passion, but the rule seems to be that web people get paid, even by charging the writers and publishers. I’ve always thought that’s fine. That’s the way of the world. But you said something that I have paraphrased as, “Hey, we could work for Microsoft or Oracle, but this is what we want to do.” What I’m hearing is, “Why can’t people with marketable skills join the gift economy, too?” I don’t think I’ve got your mind right though. Can you level set me?

Submishmash won’t ever make a killing, but I was probably AWP-drunk when we talked. Because we do plan on someday supporting ourselves through an enterprise version to larger (non-literary) publications and we’ll retool the system for résumé and application management. (Imagine taking grant applications and such.) We’ve already sold a few customized versions to non-profits that use it for accepting class registrations. But most programming jobs are miserable. My last job was programming call-center software. Lucrative, but completely miserable. With Submishmash, I’m thinking all day about software that I actually use myself—I’ve submitted through it under a pseudonym. It’s so much more fun to write this kind of code, something I actually use.

I want to go back to something you said earlier. The idea that you can make things easier for writers by making things easier for publishers really blows me away. It’s so forward-thinking. I think people (like me) who agonize over ways to make literature viable work hard at making their stories great or their presses great—but in the meantime it’s extremely difficult to manage the administrative tasks. It’s becoming clear that literature doesn’t just depend on writers and publishers—even indie literature is developing a structure. Booksellers are getting into the mix, and lately a lot of developers have joined the charge with sites primarily for writers/readers—like Fictionaut or ambitious online journals like Electric Literature. But Submishmash is really back end, since your focus is on the publisher. To me this is absolutely essential, but is it thankless?

No, not thankless at all. John’s band Oblio Joes (click here to listen to a super cool indie rock song from the Oblio Joes) was around for 12 years. Bruce has spent the last 5 years working on a documentary about Travis Bean guitars. Radiant Days took me 8 years. More people have used Submishmash in the last month than heard of any of these projects. And whether they know it or not, they’re using Submishmash to make literature happen. And isn’t this interview being posted on the Internet Literature Magazine Blog of the Future? We feel pretty good.

But, to the first part of the question: Yeah, that’s exactly right. The arts are ripe for technological innovation because the big brains are all focused on the outward-facing parts of art itself. But successful ideas (not saying this is one) are always about simple solutions to difficult problems. How do I search the internet? How do I send information to my mom? How do small publishers get paid? How do they pay their writers? With few resources (which is starting to be any publisher that matters), how do they deal with endless piles of submissions?

successful ideas (not saying this is one) are always about simple solutions to difficult problems . . . Most software fails because it tries to do too much or it’s just what the designer or developer might think is ‘cool’.

Most software fails because it tries to do too much or it’s just what the designer or developer might think is ‘cool’. It becomes a pile of weird features rather than a simple tool that lets users complete a straight-forward goal. (In the software world, this is all 101. Sort of like a writer saying, Show, don’t tell.) But the best software is the software you don’t even notice you’re using. (Incidentally, writing can be the same way.)

I’m really interested in the function you mentioned for accepting credit cards. It seems to me that Paypal is a pretty weak solution for publishers. It basically provides a way to accept money, but then publishers have to create their own system for record keeping, tracking, filtering. Can you say more about your plans in this area, or is it too soon?

I had an amazing publisher (Jack Shoemaker), but every author still has to deal with the indignities of selling their own book, keeping track of promo copies that go out, tracking receipts, finding reading venues, etc. Just totally undignified and painful. The administrative stuff seems obvious to me. We’re going to start with something simple, the CafePress model, and go from there.

Any plans to make it a Customer Relationship Manager?

The credit card module will create CRM naturally. In some ways as soon as we added the “Export Submitters” functionality we started down this path.

I think the portal (do you call it that?) is a remarkably intuitive tool. Can you talk about mapping the site? I imagine you must have spent a lot of time figuring out where things would go?

(The “industry” term is SaaSSoftware as a Service.) We spent 3-4 months circling around the architecture and the User Interface. I guess I don’t want to talk about us, the individuals, too much. But John and Bruce are more traditional geeks than me. (They both take issue with this.) And I’m sort of a George Bush of programmers. If I have to think about an interface for more than 2 seconds, I start mispronouncing words and dropping bombs on women and children. So a lot of the process has been: John or Bruce make something cool and powerful, I complain that I’m too stupid to use it, then we compromise.

I’m sort of a George Bush of programmers. If I have to think about an interface for more than 2 seconds, I start mispronouncing words and dropping bombs on women and children.

At the same time, it’s really easy for writers to create an account and submit away. You require very little to sign up. Was this by design?

Yeah, simplicity over complexity. Always work towards removing user anxiety.

Do you ever edit hungover? I really like that. Reading your own work when you hate yourself. It’s good to do the same with software. Write it when you’ve got a clear head, but test it when you’re miserable. It’ll still be software, but you’ll end up with something simple and with all the annoying bits removed.

This is a nerdy question and I probably won’t understand the answer, but what platform do you use for progamming?

It’s a services-based MVC architecture. We mostly use open-source technologies (Subsonic, ASP.NET MVC, JQuery). Our goal is to release an API, similar to Google Docs, that would allow any developer with any technology to build on the platform. I personally think that the nerd wars around ‘good’ or ‘bad’ technologies is juvenile. The best technology is whatever best serves the publishers and writers. Geeks often make the mistake of focusing on the technology rather then the end-user. It’s the fastest way to write self-involved bad software. It’d be like a writer talking about how she created her novel with WordPerfect instead of letting us read it.

Will it help things to have more publishers using Submishmash? I know if I was an active submitter, I would want all my favorite journals to have an account so that I could track everything through the portal.

Yes. Submishmash wants to save the entire industry time, money, and energy. If you think about it: if 100s of publishers use these tools, they will collectively save hundreds of thousands of hours and dollars. This will result in happier editors, writers, and readers. It will result in a better literature, thus richer lives. People can be as snarky as they want about this, but our ambition is to make a big difference, to help literature through cheap, simple, and smart tools.

But to make this work, the software needs be about the publisher. We don’t want to start a club. We want publisher autonomy, independent publishers doing their thing.

But to make this work, the software needs be about the publisher. We don’t want to start a club. We want publisher autonomy, independent publishers doing their thing.

On a feature level, more publishers helps because software changes as it gets users. We expect editors to start complaining pretty soon about the submission archives… Can we just delete? And about paging. But we need users before we prioritize those problems. And then there’s functionality that we sort of day-dream about like tying into Google Maps—imagine a visual of all your submitters. Where do my poets live? Fun stuff. One of the things we don’t like about the other options for submission management is the general dreariness of them. If we have a boatload of smart people using Submishmash, I’m sure they’re going to dream up things we never would. And this kind of user input is really where innovation comes from. We aren’t going to make great software, editors will. For example, a few weeks ago, you mentioned that sometimes submission wouldn’t download IE 6. We initially thought, Ok, we need to fix downloading in IE 6… and then almost that same day, we heard from another editor (Matt Bell) who half-jokingly wanted to read submissions on his iPhone. So we thought about both these problems and instead of messing around with IE6, we realized if we could get the document into a PDF format, we could bypass the browser and presto! But we never would have gotten there without user input. So yeah, we want as many users as possible.

(Footnote: we do have an iPhone version of the manager. If any editors want to be in the beta group, contact Submishmash. This is Bruce’s baby. I don’t know why but I think it’s hilarious….reading submissions on the bus. You guys are sick!)

How many users are in the system now?

As of this morning, over 300 publishers and we’re signing up around 10 a day. I should note that signing up doesn’t mean they’re actually using it. Signing up just gives the publisher an account, like Gmail. Publishers implement the application on their own, and we can’t really track who is and who isn’t doing that. But I’d guess it’s a little over a hundred or so.

How did AWP work out for submishmash? Are you where you expected to be at this point?

AWP reception was astonishing . We met and got input from dozens of editors. So great to actually meet with the editors face-to-face and hear them describe their work-flow and day-to-day problems. We came home with a lots of ideas and look forward to implementing some cool solutions. We’re really, really excited about the next few months.

Do you think about Submishmash, like, all the time?

Yeah, pretty much. There are a lot of people using the system to do something important. We feel a significant responsibility to make it great for them.

Finally, what about your own writing. Still at it, or is it all ones and zeroes nowadays?

Thanks for asking! I’m pretty far along on a second novel, One Potato. I think it’s another year or so out. But really, I’ve always supported my wife and kids writing software. The only difference with Submishmash is that it’s software for an industry I love and like thinking about.