Grinding It Out: Nathaniel Tower Interviews the Masterminds Behind The (Submission) Grinder

A few days ago, thanks to a post on the Write 1 Sub 1 page, I learned of a great new resource for writers called The Grinder. The (Submission) Grinder, as it is more properly called, carries the slogan “Milling your submissions into something useful,” and it follows in the footsteps of the acclaimed Duotrope’s Digest (which, as we all know, switched to a subscription-based model at the beginning of this year).

After only a few minutes of browsing the new site, I could tell The Grinder is a worthy successor to fill the partial void left by Duotrope closing its doors to the nonpaying user.

The (Submission) Grinder is the brainchild of the same writers responsible for the terrific literary venue Diabolical Plots. Its inventors, David Steffen and Anthony Sullivan, were kind enough to chat with me about their exciting (and booming) new project. Here’s what they had to say:

Anthony and David, thanks for chatting with me about this great new service you are offering free to all writers. I know a lot of people who have been looking for an alternative to Duotrope, and it seems like you’ve created the closest rival so far. Could you tell us what The Grinder is in just one sentence?

The Grinder is a tool for writers to track submissions and to find markets for their work with market response statistics to help guide them.

Obviously, Duotrope’s decision to charge its users in part must have motivated you to launch The Grinder, but why did you ultimately take on this responsibility?

We think that Duotrope made a mistake by choosing to charge for users to use their submissions tracker.  Other sites have markets listings, but what made Duotrope valuable to us was the user data that was used to calculate market response statistics.  By pricing many of their users away from the tool, we felt that they were driving away what is really their primary value–the data provided by users.

I did send this feedback to the Duotrope staff so that they would consider it. They thanked me kindly for the feedback, but made it clear that they were not going to change their plan.  It’s their plan, and their choice, so I can’t begrudge them for it. Anthony and I are both writers, and both of technical backgrounds, and we’ve been working together for about five years on the Diabolical Plots zine, so we knew we could work together well.  One day in December, I sent Anthony an email “Do you think we could do something like this?”  His reply was “I’ve already started.”

Why did you choose “The Grinder” as the name for this project?

Diabolical Plots was born back in 2008 as a zine with a staff of one, on a free Blogspot layout.  I chose the name because I thought it an amusing pun.  When I started working with Anthony, he overhauled the site, gave it its own domain name, and we contracted artwork from excellent artist Joey Jordan.  We gave her the basic directive “Something with a mad scientist would be good”.  She did a great job, with the full art which can be seen here. We use a clipped version of this for the top and bottom of the main site.

Notice that the mad scientist is force-feeding unedited manuscripts to an unwilling subject, while he prepares to inject Eros into his stories.  We imagined that this mad scientist must have all kinds of neat writing-related gadgets strewn about his lab.  Since this new project is a writer’s tool, we wanted a name for it that would evoke an image that would fit well into his lab.  Since the main value of the site is take user data, compute statistics from them, and make those statistics public for each market, we could imagine this crazed researcher feeding rejection slips into a giant meat grinder and turning the crank to produce statistics while he cackles with glee.

Aside from keeping it free, what are your ultimate goals with The Grinder?

We are still developing new features, but at some point we intend to reach a stable feature set that provides everything we want to provide so that the only work will be maintaining the market listings, rather than doing development work in parallel. Of course we want to continue to grow our user base.  We have some other ideas for future projects, but they will probably be outside of the scope of the Grinder itself, and in any case are in too early of a stage to discuss now.

What is your long-term plan in order to ensure The Grinder remains a free service?

Honestly, it doesn’t take that much money to keep The Grinder running.

But it does take some money.  We have a page of donation options, including one-time donations of any amount, and several choices for recurring donations. We also have some plans for projects that do require some money that we think our users will be very excited about. Donations will help us work toward those projects.

When building the site, did you use Duotrope as a guide?

Yes.  It is a simple, straightforward structure that meets the needs of such a writer’s tool.

What advantages do you think The Grinder has over Duotrope?

Our advantages stem from the fact that we are writers ourselves. We want a tool that is useful for our own purposes.  It is in our own best interest to make the tool as useful as possible, and to gather in more users to provide data to make it more useful for everybody.  As a result we are more responsive to user feedback.  In the last three months since we launched there have been many times when a user suggested a new feature, and that feature was available on the site within hours.

Our tool is free to use and always will be, which again stems from us being writers.  Making the tool free makes it more useful to everyone because it allows more data to flow in.  We want that data, and so we make it free.

And because we both write code by day, and write when we can, we have high standards for ourselves.  As long as there are improvements and new features that we can make that will be useful to our user base and make sense for the site, we will work toward making them.

One feature that we’re very proud of, which sets us apart from Duotrope, is our market response histograms.  Each market listing has a histogram graph which shows the market responses spread out over a time graph, with higher bars showing the days with higher responses. And if you are logged in, your submissions are represented on the graph with a purple dot.

You don’t need a math background to understand these graphs very intuitively, and we’ve gotten loads of positive feedback from writers who are watching their purple dot on a quest to climb the mountains of rejections and make it to the green meadows of acceptance.  Never since Atari has dot-watching been so exciting!

Another feature that sets us apart is post-acceptance tracking. Duotrope tracking ends at the time that the submission is either rejected or accepted. We thought that too pessimistic a view, as if rejection is a foregone conclusion. Writing takes a thick enough skin without your tracking tool discouraging you. If your story is accepted there are other things to track:  the date of contract, the date and amount of payment, the date of publication, and the exclusivity period.  These are important bookkeeping for any writer, and so our tools help track those.  We have plans to make further use of those, too, such as an alert when your exclusivity period for a published story is ending.

We have other exciting features coming down the pipe, too, so check back to the site to find them.

It sounds like you have developed quite the powerful tool. Are there any areas where you feel Duotrope is superior to The Grinder?

Yes.  These areas are what you might expect:  a larger user base, a larger list of markets, proof of longevity, a widespread reputation.  Some folks have expressed skepticism that we will stick around for the long haul, which is an understandable concern.  We are sticking around, but the only way to prove that to anyone is to stick around. The rest will come with it, more users, bigger reputation, and we are adding market listings every day.

Has the site been as successful as you hoped so far? What are you doing to get the word out?

We have been much more successful than we dared hope.  After only three months, we already have almost 700 users who have entered 14,000 submission records, and almost 1600 market listings (about half of which are open right now). We have received enough donations that we won’t be footing the hosting bills in the short term.  The response from the writing community has been extraordinary, spreading the word by social media, very nice feedback to us from writers and magazines.

When we initially launched, we spread the word however we could think, posting to Diabolical Plots, to Facebook and Twitter, doing guest blog posts on other sites. Writers helped us a lot with that effort, multiplying our signal, trying out the site themselves and spreading the word.  At this point we are not doing a lot of publicity effort because we feel that word of mouth is ultimately what really needs to do the work.

It looks like your efforts are really paying off so far. What other projects do you have right now?

We are still posting content on a weekly basis on the Diabolical Plots main site. Right now we’re working our way through the Nebula and Hugo nominees to write reviews of the nominees for each category. We have preliminary ideas for other projects that we’ll announce when we can, and when we have the funding, but at this point we’re still focused on the Grinder.  We still have new features to develop and that’s taking the bulk of our time.

Ultimately, what mark do you want to make on the literary world?

We would both like to be rich and famous multimillionaire writers, but you probably mean regarding the Grinder?  Well, we just want to give back to the writing community, to provide something useful that people will want to use, to meet new people through the Grinder, and to just generally make ourselves a part of the community that people recognize.

What are five of your favorite literary magazines out there right now?

For this one we’ll answer the question separately, since we don’t have the same five favorites.

David:  Drabblecast, Toasted Cake, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Pseudopod, and Stupefying Stories.

Anthony:  Apex Magazine, Lightspeed, Daily Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Waylines

Any plans for expansion of The Grinder?


One example is an expansion of the “brag” feature.  The current brag feature, which you have to turn on to use, shows your name on the front page of the site and on the recent responses of that particular market when you report an acceptance.  The expanded feature will post a  brag at the time of publication as well (using those new post-acceptance fields that we’ve added) such as “David Steffen’s story ‘Echoes of Her Memory’ has been published at Stupefying Stories,” with a link to the magazine so that people who see the announcement can easily find the story. We have many other features planned for implementation, so check back to see what they are.

It’s been great chatting with you guys. On behalf of the writing community, thank you for making this wonderful resource available to us.


9 thoughts on “Grinding It Out: Nathaniel Tower Interviews the Masterminds Behind The (Submission) Grinder

  1. I have no idea how this could be such “utter nonsense” as one of the writers up above me said; I can’t see this as any other thing than: totally useful. Thanks for this interview.

  2. This is really wonderful Nathaniel! I’ve read all your Duotrope blogs and now this RE: Grinder. I haven’t written and/or submitted in way too long and only just found out about Duotrope’s paid subscription requirement. When asking my writing circles if they paid or not they all have their own personal way of tracking and none have paid for the subscription. I am a huge fan of the market listing and was on the fence as to pay or not to pay, since I find great value in the market listing vs. me taking the time to do it myself. Thankfully, in reading your blogs I have now learned of Grinder and have something to pass on to my writing friends. I’m going to go check them out now and perhaps sign up for a month-to-month at Duotrope and compare the two for myself. Thank you again for all your hard work and critical analysis.

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