An Update on Blind Submissions – Parvus Press

An Update on Blind Submissions

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Last month, we announced that we were implementing optional blind submissions for our upcoming anthology, IF THIS GOES ON and there have been some questions about this decision and the process since we made that announcement. I’d like to take a few minutes and address why we decided to implement blind submissions and why they are optional here on the Parvus blog. I promise not to get too boring and that we’ll return to our normal “BUY OUR BOOK” programming soon!

First, what is a blind submission process? Most simply, it means that the people who read submissions for Parvus do not have access to any information which can identify anything personal about author. No access to their name, email, location, etc. They just have access to the manuscript itself and judge the story entirely on its own merits.

Why is this important? Well, there’s a very real thing in the world called unconscious bias. The gross oversimplification here is that we have pre-conceived notions about everything we encounter that we may not be aware of, but that our brain uses in decision-making processes. If you see a flash of red while driving, you’re likely to slow down and re-focus on your environment because we have trained out brains to unconsciously treat red while driving as an indicator that we should stop. We have the same process that applies to everything we see, hear, touch, and otherwise interact with in daily life. This can be a good thing, by helping us avoid car wrecks, or a bad thing, like when it makes us unfairly judge an author’s work.

Anybody who has ever overhead the statement “I don’t read fantasy books written by women” or “I can’t take a man seriously as a romance writer” has seen overt bias at work. But those same biases exist on an unconscious level. Readers could be influenced by something as silly as the domain of a writers email (The Oatmeal has a lovely comic about this issue here. HuffPo has a more offensive research-based article on it here.) or as serious as making a gender or ethnicity assumption from the writer’s name.

This isn’t to say that our submission readers would let unconscious bias influence their conscious decision on a story. After all, we ask for detailed notes of what a reader did or did not like in a story as well as having multiple readers weigh in on each submission in order to get a wide range of input. It is important, however, that submission readers never have the opportunity for unconscious bias, based upon an author’s identity, to influence their reading.

Why didn’t we do this sooner?

Two reasons. Testing and time. On the first, we wanted to be sure that we could support blind submissions from a technical perspective in a way that wouldn’t over-burden the review process. The second was the most important factor. I’ve, frankly, wanted a blind process since Parvus launched in January of 2016 (Happy birthday to us!) but commercially available solutions were either too expensive for a small press like us or were too unwieldy. As a small business, our most precious resource is time. If something slows down the submission process unduly, it can leave us dead in the water. An hour reading submissions is an hour not promoting a book, but an hour building a submission system neither reduces our submission queue nor sells books.

Under our old, highly manual submission process, a submission that was completely wrong for us – say it was the completely wrong genre, but the author obscured that in their cover letter – took about eight minutes of total processing time to log, review, and respond. Our last submission call for novels generated 400 responses in a very brief window of time. That’s 53 hours of time if ALL we did was reject every single novel based on its first page.

So – any process that we adopted to make submissions blind had to also be at least as efficient as the old, manual process while also “paying for” its own implementation time. In the end, I found a solution that worked by modifying a commercially-available WordPress plugin and combining it with some others. This allowed for a blind submission process that reduced minimum submission handling to three minutes. Given that it took about 30 hours of work to implement, that same 400 theoretical submission pile of nothing but pure garbage would now take 20 hours to process. It was a clear win and I was incredibly happy to be able to put together a solution that wasn’t going to drain money from Parvus by forcing us to subscribe to a third party submission manager that was built for the scale of a big five publisher.

That brings us to the most frequent question I’ve fielded since we announced the adoption of blind submissions: Why is it optional?

Right, so that all makes sense, but why is it optional for If This Goes On? Primarily because we’d never run the new submission manager on a large scale and I didn’t want to promise writers we would handle their submissions in a blind read if there was a chance we’d have to revert to a manual process in order to get through the submissions. As it is, we opened for submissions before the new management system was in place because we needed additional time to test it. Lastly, we discovered almost immediately that the process isn’t QUITE sufficient for a TRUE blind read yet. I have no automated method to be sure writers are scrubbing all personal info from their manuscripts and cover letters. A person has to do that. But once they’ve done that, they are no longer able to evaluate that submission as a first reader.

What does this mean for the future?

Overall, I’m incredibly happy with how the blind process is working. Feedback from our readers has been overwhelmingly positive; it seems they prefer to read blind by a significant margin. Feedback from me, the guy who has had to previously manage an unwieldy submission spreadsheet, has been positive as well. It’s refreshing to spend my submission reading time actually reading. We’re likely to move to a mandatory blind-read for our next open-reading period after If This Goes On. Right now, there are Parvus releases in the pipeline that need my focus and attention and it will be some time before I can code the logic necessary to allow an admin to quickly review subs to be sure there is no PII in them and kick them out for re-submission if they do. Until that piece is in place, I’m not comfortable mandating that all submissions be blind.

This was a whole lot of words, but there’s been some confusion around where we are on blind submissions and I wanted to share our thought process in as open a way as I could. At the end of the day, we’re hard-working people trying to do right by the authors who trust us to evaluate their work. We’re not always going to get it 100% right, but when we don’t, we’ll fix it. This current process has all been an effort to be sure that we know what we need to do to get it 100% right on future projects and we probably could have made that more clear.

Thanks for your time and for trusting us with your work,

– Colin

PS – If you run a small press and want to know more about the submission manager we’re currently using, please drop me a line (colin@parvuspress.com). We’re using two paid WordPress plugins, a free plugin, and a bit of custom code I put in to make everything work the way it should. I’m happy to share said code.

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