This November, more than 400,000 very optimistic people will try to write a novel during National Novel Writing Month. But even if you spend a decade perfecting a manuscript, that’s only the first step toward getting published — you still need to find an agent who loves you, and he or she needs to find a publisher who loves you, too. It’s a long, multi-year process with no guarantees and a very low rate of success.

Kayla Ancrum Photo: Courtesy of Kayla Ancrum

That’s why Chicago native Kayla Ancrum is launching Illuminovel, a “publishing research platform” that uses crowdsourced data to help aspiring authors get published. Just 26 years old, Ancrum lives in Andersonville and “writes books at work when no one’s looking.” Her first novel—The Wicker King, a dark psychological thriller for young adults—comes out this Halloween. She created this web-based tool to give writers valuable feedback from readers and literary agents.

Here’s how it works. Writers submit the first 30 pages of their manuscript, and Illuminovel sends it to hundreds of “beta-readers” who are paid to evaluate a book’s “overall quality, readiness for publication, marketability, and pertinent target audience information.” Three weeks later, writers receive a detailed feedback report that helps answer two key questions: “Is my book good enough for publication?” and if not, “How can I improve it?”

For additional help, writers can also submit their query letter (which writers send to agents and editors to entice them to learn more about the manuscript) and get feedback from three retired literary agents on “tone, marketability, and compatibility with your actual book.” And if you opt in to their “Manuscript Giftlist,” working literary agents will be able to see your query letter in a sortable database.

Illuminovel is currently in beta before going national in January 2018. Chicago caught up with Ancrum to talk about the platform, how she landed a major book deal, and being a first-time novelist in the city.

Where did the idea for Illuminovel come from?

The first thing that happens when you get a book deal (other than a lot of screaming) is that people start asking you three questions:

“How do I know my work is good enough?”

“What do agents look for in a manuscript?”

“How do I write a query letter?”

After hearing these three questions over and over again, it dawned on me that you could create a system that provided the answers in an unbiased and efficient way.

Because of my background in fashion design, I’ve always been a huge fan of crowdsourced data and how illuminating it can be for product designers and marketers, especially when users report entirely unexpected data. So I pushed up my sleeves and built Illuminovel, to give people illuminating data about their manuscripts. Users can use the data to improve their manuscript, or they can attach it to their query letter and send it to an agent as proof of concept.

Why is the submission process so hard and terrifying for writers, and how does Illuminovel help?

Artists in general tend have anxiety about putting their work out there. Books in particular are incredibly lengthy and labor-intensive pieces of art, and many people have been working on one for many years. When you have that kind of relationship between an artist and their work, the stakes are very high emotionally, and rejection of the work often is perceived as rejection of the self.

Illuminovel was largely designed to help people manage these anxieties. It gives writers a space to test-drive their work without botching opportunities with agents, and without publicly exposing large quantities of their work. Being able to see the value of their work broken down into graphs and charts also helps writers analyze the areas where their manuscripts might need help, without perceiving negative feedback as complete rejection.

Was it difficult getting literary agents to buy into this process? Or were they excited about a new discovery tool? Why is it important to protect their anonymity?

Since we’re still in beta, we haven’t begun advertising our service to literary agents, but Illuminovel was built with guidance from Macmillan, input from Signature Literary Agency, and received enthusiastically by Grant Falkner, executive director of National Novel Writing Month.

The anonymity of the agents working for us is not due to any particular interest in secrecy, but due to a persistent culture of harassment that agents often receive from novice writers when they are critical with their work. Illuminovel reserves anonymity as the baseline for anyone who works with us, but it’s not a requirement. An agent can engage in self-identification if they would like to. We just want to make sure that our staff is safe and that we are not directly liable for making them the target of harassment. This is a serious issue we are handling with the gravity it deserves.

What was your own submission process like with The Wicker King? How would a tool like Illuminovel have made a difference?

My process was similar to the way Illuminovel is constructed. When I began querying an earlier project, I selected about 45 people to test-read my manuscript. Then, I befriended a few agents via social media and rather than asking them to represent me, just asked for help cleaning up my query letter.

Now, I didn’t get signed for that particular manuscript, but it was enough to get requests to read my future work. I sent The Wicker King to test-readers, and then off to interested parties. Within three weeks, my agent signed with me.

However, I only gained traction with queries when I decided to handle my book less like an art project and more like a product. Publishing is a business that happens to be filled with people who are desperately in love with books. Agents and editors have passion projects, but at the end of the day, agents are scanning for books that they can sell.

This is why Illuminovel’s manuscript review service is not an editing service. It is a service that provides exactly the sort of information a writer needs to market their work to literary agents.

A lot of aspiring authors think you have to move to New York to be successful. Is there any truth to that, in your opinion as a Chicago novelist?

It may have more impact on journalists, short story writers, or nonfiction writers, but for novelists things are slightly less aggressive in regard to placement. My publisher is in New York, but I’m in Chicago and my agent lives in a small town. All of our communication is through email or short phone calls.

If someone asked me if they should move to New York to get a better chance at publishing their book, I would gently inform them that it’s not necessary. A good manuscript and a good query letter will find themselves the home they deserve, no matter where the writer calls home.

Adam Morgan writes about culture and history for Chicago magazine. He is the editor-in-chief of the Chicago Review of Books, a book critic at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and his writing has appeared in The Guardian, Poets & Writers, The Denver Post, Literary Hub, Electric Literature, and elsewhere.