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Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The CloudAge™ Author: Tracking Submissions

Ah, (some of) the business end of being a CloudAge™ Author, and wanting to "Write Anywhere, Anywhen™": the publishing! While there are a lot of options now, for self-publishing—see my chap book of poetry, Hooray for Pain!, on Kindle Direct Publishing, for example—many authors are probably still interested in getting published through more traditional routes, at least once.

There are a lot of aspects of the business end to attend to, whether you intend to publish through traditional means, or use kdp, CreateSpace, and/or other Artisanal Publishing (thanks to Guy Kawasaki for the term!) routes. An author is often expected to maintain a social media presence, even if they are not publishing themselves—I see a lot of requirements in current agent submission guidelines to include things like their number of blog hits, facebook likes, twitter followers, or mailing list subscribers (or all, plus some!). For the author submitting to agents or publishers, there is also the Herculean task of creating query letters and/or proposals, submitting them, and keeping track of their status. There are marketing questions: how? when? where?—and answering these questions can require its own book of tasks.

With that in mind, I'm going to be your pathfinder (after a fashion)—starting with query or proposal submissions. Today, we're going to waft through the brume of options for keeping track of the query letters, book proposals, and agents or publishers who receive them. We'll look at some thing you can do as a CloudAge™ Author to help maximize your time, and help keep things from falling through the cracks. In another post, I'll go over some tools to keep on top of your social media, and after that some ways to manage your myriad marketing responsibilities.

Submission tracking: first, let's define some terms. What I mean by "submission" can be anything from a query letter to a book proposal to a draft of a manuscript. By "tracking," I mean keeping a record of all of the steps of a submission, from initial mailing to result, and on to proposal/drafts & (hopefully) eventual contract.

Next, let's talk about what things really must be tracked, and what things I recommend you also track. When you submit, at a minimum, track:
  • To whom you submitted (some tools refer to this as the "market", including agent or editor name, if you know it, as well as address);
  • What you submitted (query letter, proposal, manuscript, etc.);
  • When you sent the submission;
  • How you sent it (email, postal mail, fax, etc.);  and,
  • Which writing project was involved.
In addition, I suggest you may find the following things very useful to track:
  • The agency or publisher for whom the agent or editor works;
    • Include, somewhere, details about their business: how they prefer manuscripts & queries, in what genre(s) do they specialize (and, conversely, what they don't accept), etc.;
    • Which of their publications you've read or researched; and,
    • The agency/publisher phone & fax number.
  • Which submission you sent (I'll explain more in a moment);
  • The agency/publisher's timeline for reviews (this will be important later);
  • Whether they accept simultaneous submissions, and if so, whether you submitted simultaneously.
Also, finally, there are manual, non-electronic ways to do this, as well. I assume that anyone reading this blog is interested in technological solutions to these problems, and so I will focus on those.

When I say "which submission," there are a couple of things to think about. First, what kind of submission was it? Was it a query letter? Perhaps a non-fiction book proposal? Did you send the first draft of a manuscript? That information should be included as part of your submission tracking.

Second, which actual file did you send—electronically or otherwise—and where is it on your computer or cloud service? That is, if you printed and posted a physical query letter with a SASE for reply, not only can it be helpful to track that it was a query letter, but also to put the filename of the document you printed out. Later, when you get a positive response, you can look up the file you used, and learn more about successful query letters. In addition, by keeping track of which file you sent to which agency or publisher, you can help avoid the problem of double-sending—if there's a filename, they've already been sent a submission—or cross-sending the wrong submission.

Finally, it is important to stay on top of the dates, both of submission and the review timeline. This is one area where technology solutions can be very handy: once you've submitted and made your entry, you can have the computer or tablet or smart phone set a reminder for you to follow up on the submission. If the agency says "6-8 weeks," then in about 9 weeks set a reminder (or, your tool may enable you to set one automatically!), and in that reminder link back to your tracking tool. That way you have at your fingers all of the information you need to remind yourself what you sent, when, and why.

Spreadsheet tracking

There are a few different technological ways to keep track of the submissions you make, regardless of kind or destination. First, and probably the oldest of these, is the old-school spreadsheet. The basic format here, is that you open Excel, or Numbers, or Sheets, or whatever else you might have around (VisiCalc or 1-2-3, anyone? Anyone? No?), make columns for the variety of fields you wish to track, and enter submissions as you make them. Some of these tools are free, others are not. Sheets, as part of Google Docs, is a free spreadsheet, and is available on the web and via Android or iOS device. If you have purchased a new Mac in the last couple of years, you can download iWork's Numbers for free to your computer. The iPad version is free to any iOS 8 device sold after 01 SEP 2013, upon initial activation, or is $9.99 otherwise. Excel can be downloaded for free to the iPad (to create new spreadsheets, you must log in with a Microsoft account of some kind, whether Live, or Hotmail, etc.), but it is not free for use on your computer unless you work somewhere with an Office 365 subscription (or older versions, possibly), and then you might be able to install & use it free on your computer & device(s).
  • Pros:
    • Reasonably simple to create.
    • Depending on which spreadsheet program, can make edits from just about anywhere (yay, cloud!).
    • Very free-form: Field names, contents, formatting, conditional cell highlights or text coloration, etc. ad infinitum can be tweaked to your heart's (or OCD's*) content.
  • Cons:
    • Can rapidly become unwieldy—rejection is a real thing, and submitting to dozens or even a hundred agents or publishers is not unheard of, making the spreadsheet potentially several dozen rows long, occupying several printed sheets.
    • Edits to metadata may require editing every entry individually, as well.
    • No automated way to trigger follow-up.
    • Data entry can be extremely repetitive (contrast the DB/CRM option, where information is entered one time, and can be linked to afterward).
If you do choose to use the spreadsheet method, I suggest creating one file for all your submissions, but creating a new "page" or "sheet" for each writing project. That way, you have one place to go for your submissions, and can look at the status of any individual one very quickly. Another option is to create a separate spreadsheet for each submission, or to create one for each month, or year, in which you submit, using pages/sheets for each separate project's submissions during that time frame.

Specialized Submission Trackers

There are some specialized tools available, for the writer who wishes to track submissions. Writer's Digest, via their Writer's Market, is one such tool. A year's subscription is $39.95 (US), with semi-annual ($24.99) and monthly ($5.99) options available; a year's subscription is included free if you purchase the current Deluxe edition of the Writer's Market book, as well. In addition to the tracker—in fact, possibly the more important draw of the site—is a searchable database of agents and publishers, including information about their genres, submission guidelines, website, and much of the information in their book, but in a searchable form. A subscriber can create and save searches, and even mark agencies or publishers, so as to notify the subscriber when the agency or publisher entry is updated.
Duotrope is a similar tool, with a free week trial (subscription for $5/month, or $50 for an annual subscription), and offers similar searchable database tools.
The Writer's Database is a somewhat similar tool; it does not appear to have an internal database of markets available to search, but it will allow you to enter your own (that is, you've done the research, found the agency or publisher to whom you will submit, and then save that entry in your "My Markets" area). It is, however, free to use.
  • Pros:
    • Designed for writers, as submission tracking tools, and are generally very good at it!
    • Contain either a pre-existing database of markets, which is searchable, or the ability to add your own markets.
  • Cons:
    • Two of three are not free; the one that is free does not have a searchable database of markets.
    • No real customization available—you get the fields they give you.
    • I did not note any automated way to remind yourself to check up on submissions on Duotrope or the Writer's Database. Writer's Market will allow you to send an email to yourself.
    • Only accessible via web browser (I did not see any iOS or Android apps for these sites), which may not be ideal for smart phone or even some tablet users.

Self-created Database

If you code in PHP, ColdFusion, PERL, or other programming languages, have a website or hosting service, and are comfortable with MySQL, Postgresql, or heck even have a copy of Access on your old PC and prefer that, you can create your own database. For most, this is not going to work out (though, if this is your comfort zone, you might be able to make a mint on it, if you can outperform the ones listed above!), but for some, it might.
  • Pros:
    • Completely customizable—database schemas, tables, web access, connectivity, relationships, can be completely defined by you.
    • Essentially limitless in scale—subject to provider restrictions, of course, but if you have ten book projects, and each of them is submitted to fifty different agencies or publishers, you can really track 500 as easily as 5. This will be limited to your ability to code & design, as well, however.
    • Follow-up (follow-through?) for submissions can be heavily automated.
  • Cons:
    • Requires an existing knowledge of, or interest in learning: database design; database administration; programming in one or several of: PHP, PERL, Python, any number of languages for CGI programming (C, Java, C++), or a dynamic website system like ColdFusion; software debugging; UI design; web design; CSS and/or HTML.
    • Designing, implementing & maintaining a database, and coding, testing, and deploying the front-end software to access & use it, are often more than full time jobs. If you work, and are writing, you may not have time to also code your own submission tracker!

"Commercial" CRM or CRM-style DB

Finally, there is the option of the Customer Relationship Management (or CRM) database. I use Commercial in quotes because there are several options, most of which do require a subscription payment, but not all. Subscription options for some of these can be as low as $10-15/month per user for tools like Insightly, Base CRM, or Zoho CRM, or go as high as thousands of dollars for a product like Infusionsoft, Peoplesoft, or SAP. I prefer this option, personally—and, in fact, my next blog post in this series will be a detailed explanation of how I have mine set up—and I recommend it for most CloudAge™ Authors. Why, you ask? I'm glad you did:
  • Self-publishing (or Artisanal Publishing?), hoping to attract attention and agency/publisher notice on your timeline? You will want a tool to keep track of your customers, media events, even social media. Any CRM worth having around will have tools to allow you to capture your communications with customers, create projects and/or timelines for activities, track income & sales, and schedule tasks—often, with automatic reminders & follow-up timers—allowing you to stay on top of your time without losing all of your sleep.
  • Hoping to publish via more traditional methods? A CRM will help you organize and track submission progress, send reminders to you to help you stay on your timeline, allow you to gather information about the agencies and/or publishers you target for submissions, and organize them into groups by writing project.
The way I see it, in the CloudAge™, you must own your brand as a writer first, and if you start by envisioning yourself as a business, using business tools to help keep yourself organized and focused, you will significantly improve your chances of succeeding at it. The great news is that some of these business tools can be free to start with, and as your brand—and income from it—grows, you can expand into more powerful versions of those tools that do cost money.

  • Pros:
    • For the CloudAge™ Author looking to build a brand around their writing, CRMs are an excellent tool for keeping track of many aspects of business, from projects to mailing list management to income to marketing to event tracking, so incorporating submission tracking is just another part of the business function.
    • Automated reminders for submission follow-up: many of these will place reminders directly into your calendaring software (which software depends on the CRM—some integrate with iOS apps, others with Google Calendar, etc.).
    • Many of these tools have free apps for iOS or Android, in addition to web or Mac/PC versions, and can be accessed from anywhere with Internet access (yay cloud!)
    • Customizable, at least in part; custom fields & field types can be created to help form the exact information-tracking you (not I, or her, or him, or they) need.
  • Cons:
    • Most options are month-to-month or even yearly subscriptions to use even the most basic functionality (though, some are free at the most basic level), and some can be prohibitively expensive for a writer just trying to make it.
    • Learning curve and setup for optimal utility requires an input of time that may be too expensive for some to give.
    • At the most basic level, many are restricted in terms of custom fields or other data, and may not offer enough for some without a paid subscription.

Whatever choice you do make, for your submission tracking, I wish you the best of luck with your submissions! In my next blog entry, I am going to show you how I organize my submission (and, even writing projects to some degree) using the Insightly CRM platform.

Also, if you have any other suggestions, or especially if you've had success with technology tools to submit your various projects, comment below so we can all learn!

*: People who suffer from OCD, or ADHD, may find the options in spreadsheet tracking either 1) freeing, allowing them to make very fine-grained formatting changes for each option, or 2) overwhelming, because the sheer number of combinations of text, cell, color, and other formatting options may be too much.

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