"Reverse Submittable" and the Dream of Co-operative Publishing
Updated: Jul 10, 2020
Introduction to a Thought Experiment
Of the ideas pitched to help revolutionize how we do poetry publishing, one that appears now and again is a kind of "reverse Submittable" (RevSub from here on out). That is, rather than having poets submit repeatedly to numerous journals individually, we would instead have a one time, one stop posting site for your work which editors could then browse and select. The idea is very appealing for poets in particular because it cuts down on the redundant, tedious task of sending out the same poems and collections over and over (to very, very high rejection rates). For the publisher, it would allow for the discovery of new writing and the publication of work beyond the limits of their specific submission pool. Additionally, this could cut down on things like the submission cap to which each publication is limited in each submission period by Submittable, and which costs them money; and this in turn would cut down on submission fees all around. Altogether, this model -- if it is pursued in an equitable, anti-capitalist spirit, whereby no one is positioned to extract profits -- could do much more than simply remove the inconvenience of submissions: it could potentially lead to significant, large-scale changes in the culture of poetry publishing.
However, despite its significant appeal, it also raises a whole host of complicated logistical questions, ethical dilemmas, and serious pitfalls. Ultimately, despite my attraction to the idea, my conclusion is that the RevSub idea -- like Submittable itself -- is still inherently problematic and preserves elements of the market-based, "neoliberal" publishing model in tact. Nevertheless, by thinking this model through with a critical eye, I hope unfold from within this model a new approach that is more co-operative and collaborative and less market-oriented. As such, what follows is perhaps best described as a thought experiment, the results of which both pose a promising new reform of the current model and point a way toward something more revolutionary in how we conceive of publishing -- namely, co-operative publishing.
Elaborating the RevSub Concept
As sketched above, the RevSub idea is simple enough: instead of having a poet submit poems individually to different journals, as Submittable is currently arranged, we instead create a site that allows a poet to upload their manuscript once. In the simplest iteration of this, we just let the poets upload their work, and editors can then discover this through searching and browsing. Of course, stated this way, we immediately can anticipate some severe problems. The most obvious is that, despite possible improvements for the publisher mentioned above (cutting down on caps and fees, allowing them to broaden their submission pool and discover new work), it effectively expands the slush pile almost exponentially, drastically increasing the time lost to skimming through unappealing work. However, this is solvable if we allow for poets to select specific publications they want alerted to their submission. For example, I upload my manuscript of five poems, and then flag a dozen or so publications I think would be good fits. Of course, we would have to limit the number of flags, lest somebody flags every single journal, but for now it seems like a good approach: the submission is still directed somewhere specific (tho not strictly limited to those publications), and editors are not left simply to wade through thousands of irrelevant poems, but the poet is relieved of having to submit the same files repeatedly.
On the poets' side, further possibilities occur. Imagine if the uploaded submission is much more dynamic than the current Submittable queue. For example, poets could have profiles and each submission could allow for commentary, rating/voting, and other forms of discussion for poets and editors. Poets could help boost each other. For example, a poet who is not being noticed by editors could get votes from fellow poets that lead to greater visibility; poets or even journals could alert other journals to work that they think would fit well; a journal who passes on work they like could still vote or rate the work, leading to a sense that ones work is live in the world. We would have to guard against abuse and set parameters for how all this worked but some benefits include 1) a sense that ones work is live and in the world rather than wasting away for months unread or being totally ignored; 2) a sense of communal participation and democratization; 3) greater transparency in how poems are circulated; 4) a real sense of ones standing in the poetic market and/or a clearer sense of how the market is structured; 5) the possibility for journals to expand their demographic reach by searching for poets outside their present submission pool. On this last point, aside from soliciting work (which often has limits based on social capital and networking), journals were limited to who came to them. If they got all white MFA grads submitting to them, that is what they are stuck with publishing, leading to a relatively closed loop reinforcing racist and elitist exclusion. In a RevSub model, with poets searchable by demographic, we could increase representation and break through these limits. (Note: I am not entirely comfortable with the notion of searching poets based on race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. I would defer to others' thoughts on this, as I can see it becoming very problematic. However, I include it here as part of the thought experiment to show the fused issues, possibilities, and risks this model raises.)
Further, we could allow for poets to set parameters on what kind of journal they are interested in partnering with. For example, a poet may post work and stipulate that they do not want university affiliated journals taking their poems; they may also say they want print only, or online only; they could also indicate political tendencies, etc. In short, an enhanced Duotrope-like search function could be blended with the Rev-Sub portal to allow poets to match with and even discover journals they are interested in. This should also come with a demand that journals be open and direct about how they are funded and what their political tendencies are. Ideally -- wishfully? -- this could be a way of thoroughly reorganizing how we relate to one another as writers and publishers, and become a forum for making new connections and raising political consciousness. This could increase affiliations and connections, lead to discoveries and intensify education and awareness of how publishing works, thus demystifying things for the uninitiated. In sum: reverse Submittable, plus Duotrope-like search parameters, plus Match.com for poets/publishers.
Inherent Limits and Co-Operative Possibilities
Now, all this is appealing and, to my mind, would be an exciting improvement on the current model. As stated in the preceding paragraph, I think it could be used intentionally and consciously to very good effect in transforming and improving publishing practices. However, having thought about it for some time, I can't help but acknowledge some serious limitations that likely cannot be overcome. First, having one big open RevSub that everyone uses gives the people running it considerable power, and it could easily transform or mutate over time as people find ways to game or manipulate it. And of course, if this became costly and was not created and maintained in an anti-capitalist spirit and practice, it would be a disaster. In fact, my primary desire in endorsing such a model would be to use it as a tool against the debt and fee-driven practices we are currently stuck with. However, even if it were free (or very lose to it), and even if it were not manipulated and turned against itself in some way, it still leaves the market model in tact: in fact, it centralizes it. And while I want to think this would lead to greater transparency and possible democratization of some elements of publishing, it may end up simply reinforcing the way poets compete against one another for publication. At its worst, it would lead to journals name-searching prominent poets and then basically bidding for their work, leading to a poetry auction -- a far cry from the dream of socialized poetic production.
So are we stuck with the market model in either its current or "reversed" form? I don't think so. I think the best alternative is what I am calling co-operative publishing -- but enhanced by some aspects of the RevSub platform. I have written about this elsewhere, but essentially, the co-op notion is this: a journal or press becomes a collective enterprise gathering together poets, readers, editors, printers, designers, etc. into an intentional aesthetic and political project; they work to democratize all decisions made by the press, even editorial ones, and they vote on how money is handled as well; all of this is made transparent to the patrons and members, tho there are various levels of access and ownership available so as to preserve the co-op's integrity while still making its major products available and open to the public. Ideally, this would encompass workshops, classes, political education mutual aid, and other forms of political activity which allows the co-op to interact meaningfully with other presses and journals, as well as non-literary groups. And it seems to me that this approach would be greatly enhanced if we adapt parts of the RevSub concept but do away with the centralization.
For instance, we can take from the RevSub the notion of the submission queue as a kind of posting gallery -- where the poet has a profile and in which there are discussions, rating/voting, and commentary on their work -- but instead of centralizing it, each co-op would have their own, functioning as a simultaneous submission portal, workshop, and community forum, leading to the democratization of editorial decisions. In other words, the RevSub’s “posting gallery” for poets replaces the slush pile and becomes an immediate entry into a community process (esp. if one stipulates that only members may post/submit, tho this remains to be thought through). Assuming there are dozens or hundreds of members of a particular co-op, this becomes a way of participating immediately with a journal or press and removes the centralized, non-democratic element in editorial decisions. More than just, say, opening up the Submittable queue for patrons and members, this would include a way to vote, comment, and otherwise cultivate discussions around poems submitted to the co-op. There are MANY ways this would change the dynamic of submissions, and they remain to be sorted out. And while this might seem like moving just back to where we began -- poets submitting directly to a journal -- it is in fact a way of enabling a totally new ethos of literary participation and publication for those who have intentionally aligned themselves with a publisher that is a community, an ethos, and an aesthetic and political project.
Logistically, there would be the periodic publishing release to the greater public of non-members, including what poems and works have been chosen by members. But leading up to this would have been a democratic process of engagement and participation for those directly affiliated with the co-op. This could also allow, say, for patrons/members at a certain level to gain access to the gallery, enabling voting and commenting among multiple members of the co-operative, and thereby leading to a democratized editorial process. Imagine various tiers: patrons/members at a low level getting access to unique online work and a chat-room; at another level they get to participate in these things as well as voting on decisions and having input on the direction of the journal; and at another level they get all this AND access to the communal submission portal, where they can directly help shape which poems are accepted. (And perhaps this is not even dependent on patronage but other criteria? Again, I'm brainstorming, so others will need to help think this through.) (Note: Other features, such as podcasts, classes, workshops, reading groups, political education, etc. could all be a part of how the co-op works, but the details of the submission platform is my present focus.)
Additionally, different co-ops could have a different ethos toward the submission gallery and its community. For example, some may have a policy of strict democracy: whichever poems get the most votes goes into the journal. Others may have a group of editors which has oversight while perhaps also soliciting work from outside the submission pool. Some may have a very high level of critical discrimination, to discourage frivolous posting. Some may change approaches, or have special issues that are strictly democratic. Some may insist on a totally blind reading, others may ask for the poet to include biographical details. Things could be learned in this process., and above all it would lead to transparency and dialogue. And of course, the decisions made by those who access the submission gallery for a co-op should be accounted for in minutes or a report to all patrons, so that editorial stances and practices are understood by all.
Reality Checks, Further Dreams, etc.
Now, I will admit that, given this sketch, I can absolutely envision nightmare scenarios of in-fighting, discord, and strife. But I don’t think that conflict per se is a bad thing. Imagine a publishing co-op in this model begins with a rather clearly established, likeminded set of people pursuing a vision, but then as it draws in more people, ends up being transformed into a radically democratic journal publishing work that the original members want nothing to do with. Well, that in itself is interesting. That is something to study and learn from, and it stakes out a distinct history and ethos for that co-op in that moment. The founders could go on to form something else then. And in this way, multiple co-ops could exist as communities in dialogue and, at times, conflict. Positions can be staked out, ethos and vision becomes clear, and all along, poems are participating now as a community with clear and unconcealed social and political intentions and effects.
A co-operative journal such as this could potentially function as a replacement for the MFA. That is, a young poet could find community, instruction, and mentorship through affiliating with a co-op. We could even unionize the various co-ops, stipulate rules for how they interact with one another as well as with, say, conventional publishing and university systems. We could also discuss how alliances between co-ops might form, and how to best interact with poets who self-publish and choose not to align with a co-op. Ideally, self-published authors and unaffiliated poets could get along well with and even gain support from co-ops, as “fellow travelers” so to speak. The ultimate aim of this is twofold: autonomy for poets and fostering communal, political engagement. If undertaken in the right way, a union of publishing co-ops could effect a counter-hegemony against the traditional, capitalist publishing world and thereby help form a cultural front.
In conclusion, I see it this way: Submittable as currently used is a hub for neoliberal publishing; RevSub is a way to reform it, but it is only a reform and leaves many of the same structural problems in place. To move toward a more revolutionary organization of publishing, co-operative publishing is the most promising approach. It is also, alas, one of the most difficult to initiate and perhaps even more difficult to sustain. In order for this idea to take hold on a large scale, we need to keep talking about it and drawing in more ideas and boosting those who are currently doing this work. But that is for future essays.