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About a month ago or so, I subscribed to I’m going to stay subscribed, which is its own nod of approval. It’s a writers’ resource with fabulous things going for it, from a scrupulously-maintained database of listings for thousands of publishers, agents, magazines, newspapers, contests, script markets, and other specialty writing fields, to the Submission Tracker, a valuable tool for writers actively sending out material and essential to anyone submitting more than one or two pieces a month (and even at that rate, I appreciate the ability to see where and when I’ve submitted articles and whether they have been accepted). Yes, you can add publishers to the Submissions Tracker that aren’t in the database, though I have found those to be few and far between.

Writers’ Market entries are rich with the information writers need to make decisions about where to schlep–er, submit– their manuscripts. In addition to well-vetted and carefully tended contact information for publishers, find valuable insights such as how much of a publication is freelance written, plus information about bylines, kill fees, rights, editorial lead time, how the publication accepts queries (electronic submissions are increasingly frequent–goodbye, SASE?), how many manuscripts they buy, and which areas of the publication are open to freelancers.

“Key to this Market” is one of my favorite features in item entries and demonstrates the high TLC factor that distinguishes Writers’ Market. “Key” offers tips for getting published, such as this advice for Family Circle Magazine: “Key To This Market: Break in with ‘Women Who Make A Difference.'” That sparked an idea for a spin-off from one of my longer entries. Would I ever write it? Would it ever get published? That’s up to me–but at least WM gave me a shove in the right direction.

The “Market Favorites” feature is another keeper. This allows you to “Organize the markets you refer to again and again into folders for easy referral and retrieval.” Given the size of the Writers’ Market database, “Market Favorites” is invaluable if you know what kind of markets you like to send things to and would like to concentrate on these publishers. for example, I created one “Favorites” folder for nonfiction essay publishers in the Bay Area/Peninsula, and I have another I call “Literary A-List” in which I can quickly access a dozen or so top tier nonfiction essay publishers.

Writers’ Market also has an “Encyclopedia” that could be subtitled “Writers’ Life Raft,” featuring over 1,300 entries “answering your questions about every discipline connected with writing—editing, public relations, advertising, songwriting, broadcasting, film, theater, audiovisuals, even lecturing.” That’s no exaggeration: the WM Encyclopedia–really, handbook–is where I learned how to prepare a manuscript for submission, in a 354-word entry helpfully cross-indexed with other topics useful for new writers such as “Reporting time on manuscripts” and “SASE.”

Some of the entries in the Encyclopedia could stand refreshing, particularly (to my eyes) the entries related to libraries. The entry on censorship says, “According to a report by the American Library Association, reports of books having been removed or threatened to be removed from libraries averaged one hundred per year in the early 1970s, three hundred per year in the late 1970s and approximately one thousand per year in the early 1980s.” A quick call or email to the ALA Library could update that information. But that is a quibble. Most of the Encyclopedia entries are clear and no shorter or longer than they need to be, though the entry for “limerick,” to my delight, could not refrain from quoting Edward Lear:

A flea and a fly in a flue
Were imprisoned, so what could they do?
Said the flea, “Let us fly–”
Said the fly, “Let us flee–”
So they flew through a flaw in the flue.

The Big But

Nevertheless, has some peccadillos. For all its good features, feels like a book poured into a website without enough consideration about what it takes to take a print product online. That lovely “encyclopedia,” for example, should be searchable, but it is only browsable. That’s not even one of my top ten peeves, which I will list as gentle hints to

Logging In (Or Perhaps, Staying Logged In)

1. The top logo link should match my login status. If I’m logged in, clicking on the WM logo should take me to the WM home for logged-in users (which is remarkably difficult to get to after I take any action within the system, such as search or browse), not back out to the public page. That clickable logo is what the usability eggheads call an affordance; it’s telling me that when I click on it something Good happens. Taking me back to the public page is a Bad Thing. If I really want to log out, I’ll search for that teeny logout link with the undifferentiated font buried in the middle of the left navigation bar and then log out, thank you very much.

2. Not only that, but once I’m on the public page, the system doesn’t know me any more. I have to log back in. This makes one of the theoretically most important navigation tools on a website–the top logo on a page–radioactive.

Browsing Around

3. “Recent changes to the database” is a great feature which I overlooked because it sounds like a list of geeky things I don’t care about. I finally clicked on it and found that it featured recent changes to listings. Then there’s the date scope, which requires users to key in a specific date, rather than toggling for more likely ranges such as “since yesterday,” “in the last week,” etc. (How far back can I scope, anyway? Tell us–right there.)

Search: The Final Frontier

I recently worked with a vendor whose usability answer for everything was “that’s how Google does it” or “that’s how Yahoo does it.” While that was sloppy, I saw half of his point. It’s hard to understand some of the search design decisions about when nearly every big website has figured out the no-brainers.

4. The search box for searching all markets should be a box on every page, in the same place, somewhere near the top (left or right, take your pick). Not (as it is now on most pages) a link. Not, as it is on one of the most important pages, “Search all Markets,” a box at the bottom of a long list, below the fold, where readers have to scroll to find it.

5. The list of specialized searches on the left is a good idea for writer communities. But label it (perhaps, ” Search Markets”), and at the top list “Search All Markets” or “All-Market Search” or something like that. (Part of me is curious about the WM taxonomy, but it’s all I can do to keep up with MPOW’s taxonomy needs right now, so I’ll refrain from tickling their metadata.)

6. The all-markets search box on the Search All Markets page needs to go up top, ABOVE the fold. UP TOP, ABOVE THE FOLD. Yes, I know I mentioned this in #4. It took me a week to find this search box because not in a million years would I think a commercial website would put its most important search box at the bottom of a webpage, far below the fold.

7. Link to your search help page on each search results page (not just the search page). No one except librarians will read it, but you’ll feel better, and that’s where help files belong. Help files are most helpful when people are desperate enough to seek help, which is when they are unhappy with search results. Everyone assumes they can search a database successfully until search results prove otherwise.

8. The search limiters for each market could be presented more elegantly. It’s very hard to scroll and click through several lists of choices. What about pop-up boxes with check-offs? I also admit to being stumped by some of the Boolean choices for these limiters. Though it must be just me and my failings; I take it these passed usability testing with flying colors. (Cue meaningful stare over my trifocals.)


Search Results

9. doesn’t present the search I just conducted. It only says “Your search has presented X pages of results.” My search for WHAT? Tell me what I searched for. This is particularly important when my search fails, but it’s still always important. The system knows what I searched for; let me know, too.

Then there’s the failed-search page, which says, “There are no markets that match your criteria. Please try again.” My WHAT criteria? How can I try again, if I can’t see what I did the first time? I can’t diagnose a bad search (or remember a good one) if you don’t repeat the terms for me. Make that “There are no markets that match your search for FAMBLY CIRCLE” and maybe I’ll see the error of my searching ways–particularly in a system without a spell-checker.

10. The “save search” feature on the search page has (to use a word that makes most of us cringe) potential. However, the search page is not the right location for this feature. People don’t want to save their searches until they know the search worked for them. Offer the “save search” feature on the search results page. Then put the saved searches into Your Writer’s Market (which is really My Writer’s Market, but never mind), and either let the user label the searches or at least name them Search 1, Search 2, etc. Also, “save search” only saves one search, and writes over the previous search. This is useful because..?

I could grouse some more… FAQs should be searchable, consider offering stemming (automatic word truncation) in your search function as well as a spell-checker, consider loading descriptions of the magazines so a search for Military turns up Air Force Times… and how about RSS feeds for subscribers so I can see what the updates are without logging in directly to the database?

But overall, is an important product I will continue to subscribe to. It’s a good value–maybe too good (assuming the online version needs revenue to sustain it): you get a year of free access to the database if you buy the “Deluxe” paperback edition, which can be had on Amazon for $32.99 and is eligible for free shipping. (The 2006 edition is due out August 10.) Since the database itself is $29.99 a year or $3.99 a month, that makes the book-plus-database deal a really good value–you get the book for just $3 more (which could explain quite a bit about the limited resources for developing the online product, since there’s no incentive for me to purchase only the database). The book’s entries can’t update themselves, but the book won’t log you out if you turn back to the title page.

But I just don’t heart WM… it lacks the scrumptious feeling of products I enjoy, such as RefWorks or even the eponymous Kodak EasyShare software. (I don’t want to get too intimate with my camera, and Kodak understands me.) Oh, for a week or two with a couple of search and usability gurus, a couple of coders, and the Writers’ Market database. It has so much potential.

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