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Answered Asks: Publishing Without Using Amazon?

Cross-posted reply to an ask received on Tumblr.

hey, i’d like to just throw this out to you, since you’re a press so i have a feeling you might know. if i was seeking to publish a book but i didn’t want it to ever be sold through amazon, what would my options be?

I’m assuming you mean you’re interested in self-publishing? If yes, then yeah, I can give you at least some information about your options. 😀

If you don’t want to use Amazon, you definitely still have some options for self-publishing a book. I can sympathize with this sentiment; we hate Amazon and I’ve done what I can to keep our works off there (and, ultimately, failed, but still kept it to a minimum).

There’s two overarching questions you’ll need to consider when deciding how to proceed:

  • What formats are you selling? Are you doing e-book only or e-book + print or print book only? What about audiobooks? Which will influence your choices.
  • Are you mostly interested in direct sales (as in, you personally sell the book to the customer) or sales-through-an-intermediary (as in, a bookstore sells your book to a customer) or distribution (as in, you list the book with someone who acts as an intermediary between you and other vendors)?

As briefly as I can, first, here’s what Duck Prints Press uses:

  • Ingram – e-book (and, once we have one – we’re working on our first! – audiobook) distribution. Ingram is the biggest book distributor in the US and has a virtual monopoly on distribution. Even places that aren’t technically Ingram, such as draft2digital, usually use Ingram. Because they’re a near-monopoly, Ingram has a lot of ability to, well, screw people, and one way they’ve tried to screw people is they keep making it harder to get into their better services, pushing people to their much-less-supported service IngramSpark. I managed to get the Press grand-fathered in to Coresource, which is their e-book and audiobook distribution system, even tho we don’t meet the current minimums for number of titles for that product. I CAN’T get into Lightning Source, which is their better-supported print book distribution service, because we don’t have enough titles (we’d need 30, we currently have 10ish). If I wanted to use IngramSpark, I’d have to ditch Coresource, and I don’t want to do that because Coresource works great and has good customer support, and so I had to settle on a compromise I don’t love until we meet the minimums for Lightning Source – I use Coresource through Ingram for e-book distribution (and don’t distribute to Amazon), which is…
  • draft2digital – print book distribution. This was my work around for not losing Coresource in the name of getting Ingram print on demand (pod), and it came with a price: d2d doesn’t let me opt out of Amazon, much to my irritation. So the three titles we currently have pod on ARE on Amazon.
  • our webstore – e-book and print books, directly sold to the public. Our website lets people download e-books; I package print book orders made through the webstore myself and mail them myself.
  • in-person sales – I started vending at events last year; this year I’ll be doing about a dozen.

All of which goes to show, even trying to publish while avoiding the most evil places is really hard and a source of frustration. If anyone knows a good option for ethical publishing distribution, I’m honestly all ears. Competing with Ingram is extremely David vs. Goliath (see also the recent death of Small Press Distribution).

So: remembering that Amazon is easily the worst but that there’s still basically no ethical consumption or production under capitalism…

Ingram

Of the places I’m familiar with, the best-known option with the widest reach for self-publishing distribution is IngramSpark. As mentioned, I don’t use Spark, but Coresource lets me completely customize which of Ingram’s partners (vendors, wholesalers, libraries, etc.) I actually distribute with, and I’ve assumed that other Ingram products are the same. I believe IngramSpark is currently free per title; they get paid by charging fees per sale and because they get better listing deals with partners than an individual would get (like, Ingram might get charged x per title they list with, idk, Barnes and Noble, whereas you as an individual would get charged y, where y is larger than x, and Ingram pockets the difference).

I know a lot of people who use IngramSpark and my impression is that when it works, it works really well, but when it doesn’t, getting help/customer service can be a nightmare. Virtually everyone I know who has used them has stories about late titles, support taking a week+ to reply, that kind of thing. I believe they have an option to pay for better/more rapid responses from customer support, which I feel kinda tells you everything you need to know about IngramSpark.

Draft2Digital

Another option is draft2digital. They use the Ingram distribution network, but again they can do so cheaper than an individual can because of their bulk sales through Ingram. They also offer e-book, audiobook, and print distribution. I use draft2digital for print and I’ve been quite satisfied with their customer support, but their print distribution doesn’t allow opt-out of Amazon. HOWEVER, I believe their e-book distribution does. At minimum, there’s a checklist on d2d about “steps you have to take to distribute e-books through d2d” and I’m assuming if you just. didn’t do that checklist. then you obviously wouldn’t get your books distributed through them. The other big thing I don’t like about d2d (which may also be true of IngramSpark, idk) is that they charge after the first revision. Which is to say: you put together your book, you upload your book, you get it all set… and you notice a mistake. Okay, fine. You fix the mistake and re-upload. Re-uploading uses a “change token.” You only get one free change token per title per six months. So, you notice another mistake you feel you have to fix a few days after that first? That’ll cost $25. I’ve personally just kinda… tried to find all my mistakes right off and fix them, and anything I spot after that, I keep a log and will update all of them at the six month point. (I understand why they do this, btw – they have actual humans doing set-up on their end, so if you revise eight times in a week, that’s a lot for an actual human, and charging for the tokens forces people to be careful, helps ensure people submit books that are actually ready in good faith, and helps keep costs low. That doesn’t mean it’s not annoying, though.)

Bookvault

Bookvault is a UK-based print-on-demand option (so NO e-book distribution, just print) that has recently started offerings in the US too. They currently have a relatively limited distribution network, but they’re growing, and especially for UK-based people they’re a strong alternative. I’ve heard a lot of positive reports about their printing in a FB group I’m in (Kickstarter for Authors – do recommend, lots of great info there), but I’ll own my personal experiences weren’t great and I’ve decided not to keep using them for now. However, if what you primarily want is print books as print-on-demand, and some limited distribution choices, they’re a good choice, and they can help with option five below.

Do It Yourself Lite

A fourth option that’s a LOT of work is…you add it everywhere yourself. Most places will let you. For example, here’s how to sell on Barnes and Noble.com. When I self-pubbed a book a few years back, before I ran the Press, I submitted my work by hand to several different options (B&N, Kobo, Amazon because I still used them then, Smashwords, to name a few). However, doing this isn’t the same as distribution – it only will sell through that specific vendor – and as far as I know there are no options for doing print-on-demand those ways (I THINK, tho I’m not sure, that Amazon is the only place you can set up both e-book and pod through a single vendor – it’s not something I’ve researched tho, cause with the Press, doing single-title-at-a-time entry across so many different vendors is simply not realistic).

Side note on this: I don’t believe there’s a way to list self-pub books on Bookshop.org, but don’t quote me on that.

This method also doesn’t work well if you want to get your title in with libraries. I researched this a bit well over a year ago now, so I don’t recall all the details, but before we signed up for Ingram I DID try to see if there was a way for us to publish and get in libraries especially without involving them, but there…wasn’t really. Places like Overdrive that handle e-book-to-library distribution don’t really have a way for individuals to submit; I have this vague memory I found a way to do it that involved paying per title but tbh I can’t even find that now (though while I was looking I did find this decent-looking article about how to get your self-published book out in the world, echoing a lot of what I say here).

Do It Yourself Difficult Mode

Your fifth major option, and what we originally did as a press, is: do it all yourself. You can get your own storefront (ours is through Woocommerce + WordPress). You can do your own crowdfunding. You can run your own newsletter (I use Mailerlite), do your own advertising, etc. You can do your own printing (we currently use Booklogix and I’m quite happy with them, their customer service is A+++). You can vend at events, you can market to local bookstores, sell through bookstores that do consignment, etc. You can learn to format your own e-books (I use a combination of Affinity software and Calibre, with an assist from Daisy to improve the accessibility of our e-books). You can get access to stock images and vector art to make things look nice (I use vecteezy). There’s a LOT you can do entirely on your own. And that’s what I did for myself before I ran the Press, and what I did for the Press for the first couple years we operated.

The reason I changed how the Press handles things? I hate to say this but the sad truth of publishing is that not using Amazon is utterly crippling to a publisher. As of 2 years ago, Amazon represented 67% of all book sales in the United States. Not selling through Amazon means accepting you’ll simply be completely unable to reach more than half of the people reading works in English all around the world (works not in English may be different, I don’t know that market since I publish in English). And for myself, alone – for my works? I could make that choice. But the Press currently works with well over 100 authors, and I ultimately felt I couldn’t make the same choice to them. I tried so so hard not to compromise this, but refusing all distribution, when we were also avoiding Amazon, meant completely hamstringing the ability of authors we work with to market and sell their books. It meant, to work with us, people would have to sacrifice so much of their ability to earn money from their words, and it just didn’t feel right to continue in that avenue as we grew. So, I was forced to compromise: first to use Ingram, which I did on the condition that I’d be able to reject Amazon specifically, and then by having to use draft2digital, including their goddamn Amazon print-on-demand, at least until I qualify for a better option, which as soon as I can do? You bet your butt I’ll be switching and opting out of Amazon again.

The current climate makes these choices really hard, and I didn’t make them lightly, nor did I make them alone – there’s about 20 people on the DPP staff, and they all contributed opinions and voted on the final decisions I implemented for the Press in these regards.

(and sorry, I know “what DPP does and why” is a bit to the left of your actual question, but I felt like it’d be weird to make a list of recommendations without including the decisions I’ve personally made and why – like, why would I recommend you something I don’t do myself with the books I publish? So sorry for the info dump.)

The TL:DR of all this is, as far as I know, and as I’ve been forced to accept as part of the realities of running a small press in the modern world of publishing, is that avoiding one Big Evil (Amazon) with any hope of achieving even a modicum of success basically requires partnering with at least one other Big Evil (Ingram especially). It’s a very hard game to win.

HOWEVER, you are doing this FOR YOURSELF, NOT for all the people involved in a business larger than just you. If you’re willing to put in the extra work to figure out a lot on your own and manage your own marketing, you can theoretically build enough of an audience to go it alone without Amazon OR Ingram OR places like Kobo/B&N/etc. You’ll have to outlay more out of pocket – things like webhosting cost money – and you’ll have to be a lot more careful – if you’re running your own website instead of using someone elses, you gotta go above and beyond making you’re in compliance with privacy rules and such – but it can be done.

And if you don’t want to go that route, and your only real “to avoid” is Amazon specifically… use IngramSpark.

Sorry I’m long-winded. I hope this helps! Good luck with your publishing goals!

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Celebrate Small Press Month with Duck Prints Press

March was National Small Press Month, and Duck Prints Press celebrated by collecting 12 questions from press contributors, recording the answers, and posting them on Tiktok and Instagram! Curious about the Q&A? This post includes a link to all the videos, and transcripts of each one for those who aren’t inclined to watch a mess of recordings. Read on, and learn the answers to…

Introduction

Transcription: Howdy everyone, I’m Claire. I go by Nina Waters and unforth, and I’m the owner of Duck Prints Press, and I am very very very very much not accustomed to being a talking head in a Tiktok video, so I hope that this will be okay and that everything is awesome. So we are here at Duck Prints Press celebrating Small Press Month, and for that we had a bunch of our folks suggest questions that they might like me to answer and so over the next couple weeks (I expect) we’ll be answering those. So now you know what the basic idea is, and I hope you enjoy the answers.

What inspired you to start your own press?

@duckprintspress

Unforth is back answering the first question we got: What inspired you to start your own press? #smallpress #smallpressmonth #publishing #booktok #duckprintspress

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Transcription: Hey folks, it’s unforth again from Duck Prints Press and here answering some questions about the press for Small Press Month. The first question that we got was “what inspired you to start your own press?” There were definitely a lot of factors that went into it, but I would say that the sort of most immediate big one is that when I started writing fanfiction I found that I was surrounded by all these really really amazingly skilled writers and many of them dreamed of being involved in publishing and didn’t really know where to start, how to get involved, who to talk to, blah blah blah, all that stuff, and I had just enough connections in publishing to think I had some idea of what I was doing and some qualifications for filling that space. And then it took 7 years to actually do it, so yeah it was a pretty big job. But here we are!

What distinguishes Duck Prints Press from other small presses?

@duckprintspress

Claire is back answering our second question: What distinguishes Duck Prints Press from other small presses? #booktok #smallpress #smallpressmonth #publishing #queer #duckprintspress

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Transcription: Hello again, here’s unforth/Claire/Nina, depends on what you want to call me I guess. Unforth is online, Claire is my actual name, Nina is my pen name. Once again here to talk about Duck Prints Press as part of our feature for Small Press Month, and our second question is “what distinguishes Duck Prints Press from other small presses?” Answering this well would require knowing a lot more about other small presses than I actually do, but I would say a lot of it’s different because of – well, for several reasons. We are much less top-down, in that we have a much more collaborative process for basically everything we do. We’re also much less of a black box,  which is to say that it’s not like “send in submission, get answer back, that’s all you ever really know.” We try to be really really transparent and open about our process, what we’re doing, our timelines, our reasons for picking some people and not others, all of that jazz. We also are different in that we focus very strongly on LGBTQIA+ and queer stories and characters. I try not to say writers and creators and authors also because I’m not here to out anybody, but many of us are queer. I’m queer, hi! Yeah, that’s just a few of the ways, there’s way more, but I’m trying not to turn this into video essays. Have a good one, guys.

What is the best thing and what is the hardest thing about running a small press?

@duckprintspress

Claire is back, talking about the best and hardest things about running a #smallpress #booktok #smallpressmonth #publishing #duckprintspress

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Transcription: Hi! Unforth here again for Small Press Week – Month – with Duck Prints Press, and we are answering questions we got from our contributors about the Press, and I am the owner/founder/manager/almost everything. “What is the best thing and what is the hardest thing about running a small press?” The best thing is the people. That one is really easy. I have met so many amazing creators who I would never have gotten to know otherwise, and everybody is just brilliant, talented, skilled, wonderful, y’all are amazing. I do this for you, and I do it for all of us, and I want to see us all succeed and be awesome and show everybody that a press modeled like this can work. You guys make it worth it every single day. The hardest thing is all of the not-fun parts. You know, everybody’s going to enjoy different parts of running a business. I find fiscal stuff to be challenging and a drag and it takes forever. I spent 3 hours doing our taxes last week. Don’t even get me started on collecting sales tax. It would bore you to tears, and it bores me to tears and I have to do it anyway. And marketing. Marketing takes so much time and so much work for so little reward that’s visible immediately. Like, the reward’s coming. It goes – little by little we get there, but it’s – man, it feels like you take baby steps for months to get, like, 5 feet closer to where you want to be. So I would say, the parts I find hardest are the actually “being a business” parts.

A word of advice to people wanting to start their own press.

@duckprintspress

Claire with a message for anyone with hopes of starting their own press #booktok #smallpress #smallpressmonth #publishing #duckprintspress

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Transcription: Hi hi, unforth here again from Duck Prints Press, filming some questions – sorry, filming some answers to questions we got from people involved in the press about how Duck Prints Press came to be as part of our features for Small Press Month. And our next question is, oh – it’s, well. “A word of advice to people wanting to start their own press.” One word: don’t. No, I’m kidding. It’s way more work than I ever thought it would be, but perhaps more importantly, you’ve got to be ready to be a jack of all trades. You’ve got to be ready to think that you can learn anything you need to learn, because you’re gonna have to. I know more about tax law than I ever would have imagined myself capable of learning because there’s never enough money to hire all the professionals you need who are experts and there’s never enough resources to recruit the people who have that information so you need to figure it out yourself, or at least that’s what my situation has been. Maybe if you have a lot more starting capital than I do you’ll be in a better position in that regard. Just, don’t be afraid of it, but be ready to learn all kinds of things you thought you’d never learn. And also if you think you’re gonna have time for your own writing, haha good luck with that. I hope you have a better time of it than I’ve had.

What is the best way for people to support small presses? 

@duckprintspress

What is the best way for people to support small presses like Duck Prints Press? One word! #booktok #smallpressmonth #smallpress #publishing #duckprintspress

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Transcription: Hi! It’s unforth/Claire/Nina Waters here again. I’m the owner and founder of Duck Prints Press, a small press that focuses on working with fanfiction authors to publish their original work, and we are answering questions we got from our contributors about things about the press as part of Small Press Week. And the next question is – “what is the best way for people to support small presses like Duck Prints Press?” Money. The answer is money. I can’t imagine this is a surprise. I mean – this is best way, mind you, I’m not saying only way. But I mean – there is never enough sales. It would be, you know, back our Patreon, support us on ko-fi, buy our books, review our books on Storygraph, Goodreads, our website, any place else you can think of. Your personal blogs. I don’t know – anywhere. Instagram. Tiktok, hi! But I know money is in short supply for basically everybody. If you’re looking at this and going “well, duh, money, but how can I do that?” That’s fine. Signal boost us. Talking about us. I mean, even just literally, just hitting a reblog/retweet/share button really, really, really helps. Because even if you don’t have money, when the posts spread through social media if they find – if they spread through 100 people and one of those people has money, then we make a sale. And that helps us, because in the end, this can only be a passion project for us, and we need to make money if we’re really going to succeed and show people that we can do this. And I think and know and believe that we can. And so help us out!

Why do small presses matter?

@duckprintspress

Back again answering questions for #smallpressmonth ! This time Claire is explaining why small presses matter #booktok #smallpress #publishing #duckprintspress

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Transcription: Hi, it’s unforth/Claire again, here for another Small Press Month update from Duck Prints Press, and I just realized – I decided to do all of these on a day I’m wearing a ducky shirt. I didn’t plan that or anything, just worked out. I only own one ducky shirt – it’s not even like there’s a lot of them. And our next questions is, “In your opinion, why do small presses matter?” Small presses matter because traditional publication – trad pub – is really obsessed with marketing and success and corporation stuff and making huge profits, and they don’t have time for small voices and taking risks and margin – you know – marginalized people and publishing stories stories that they don’t think will succeed. And they’re wrong. I think those stories absolutely can succeed, but also, you know, there needs to be somebody out there taking those chances and that’s what small presses do. And a lot of small press don’t succeed, but even when we fail, stories have still been published, they’ve still been out there, the stories have still gotten told. So even when we fail fiscally, we’ve still succeeded in the core goal, which is to tell these stories to as wide an audience as possible. And that’s why small presses matter.

What are the common misconceptions about small presses, either internal or external?

@duckprintspress

Today Claire’s talking about a big misconception in the small press industry #booktok #smallpress #smallpressmonth #publishing #duckprintspress

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Transcription: Hey hey, unforth here again with another of Duck Prints Press’s Q and A session answers to questions from our contributors that we’re doing for Small Press Month. And the next one is the first one that I’m sort of like “I don’t have any idea what I’m gonna say.” “What are common misconceptions about small presses, either internal or external?” I can answer internal I guess. I think people have a – well, maybe external too – I think people have a much inflated idea of our earnings and sales. They’re – they’re very low. Hi, I’m the owner. I’ve been running this for over 2 years and I have never taken a paycheck. One of these days I need to get paid. That would be nice. But I think there’s this idea that “if you build it they will come,” which is to say that if you write the book and put it out there, then people are going to magically appear to buy it. And that’s really, really not the case. It is so much work to get books into people’s hands or onto their devices as the case may be. In terms of other misconceptions from an external standpoint, I have no idea. You know, everybody comes to a job from a direction when they start a business. There’s gonna be things that they knew ahead of time and things that they didn’t. I came to this with a lot of experience in writing and editing and things like running web pages and organizing fandom events and things like that. I have no press experience. I haven’t worked for other presses. I am not traditionally published. I know some people in the industry, that’s about the closest that I get. And so what their point of view might be, I could not begin to tell you. But you know, we manage.

What are your biggest non-monetary victories?

@duckprintspress

Claire here to talk about some of our biggest non monetary victories! #booktok #smallpress #smallpressmonth #publishing #duckprintspress

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Transcription: Unforth from Duck Prints Press here again answering questions we got from our contributors about Small Press Month and what running a small press is like. So our next question is, “what are your biggest non-monetary victories?” I guess it sort of depends what you consider a victory. I really appreciate the buy-in we’ve gotten from fandoms that know about us. Every time we get a lot of reblogs and a lot of boosts, it feels good because these are our people. We are fans. That’s the whole point is that we’re fans doing this in the hopes that we can get other fans involved as readers and writers and artists and graphic designers and website people and like every single person is a fan. The only person involved who isn’t a fan is my – is the lawyer I hire. And for all I know he is a fan, I haven’t asked. It’s really none of my business. It’s also – it always feels good when somebody big notices us, so, you know, the owner of another small press backed our first Kickstarter. I don’t care about the money – it’s cool that this person noticed, that’s what I was excited about. Cecilia Tan reblogged – sorry, retweeted us. A few other, you know, people who you’re like “hey, I know that name! I know who they are!” saw that we existed, and that feels good. I also feel like it’s essential. So yeah, I would say that most of our biggest non-monetary ones have been, like, “senpai noticed me” moments, haha. But you know, we’re getting there. I feel like I keep ending them with things like that so let me trying tying this off a little bit more intelligently. I think that in order to succeed ultimately, we need that kind of attention on us, and so every time it happens, it feels like a small victory because I figure – I think I read somewhere, and this might be total nonsense, that you need to, like, see a word at least 20 times before you actually know it. Like, before you can remember it, spell it, use it correctly in context, blah blah blah. And so I tend to perhaps inappropriately use that as my metric for, like, what it takes to succeed. Which is to say that, any given person is going to need to see Duck Prints Press and know we exist at least 20 times before that actually means something to them and they maybe think of us when they go, “Hey what am I going to read next? What book should I buy?” So, you know, that those – when those big people see us, that’s a lot of people’s one time finding out that we exist, so that means a lot. And somehow this has ended up the longest video. Funny how that works out.

What are the core ideas behind Duck Prints Press?

@duckprintspress

What is Duck Prints Press’s mission? Claire here to talk about the core idea behind DPP #booktok #smallpress #smallpressmonth #publishing #queer #duckprintspress

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Transcription: Hey hey! Unforth here yet again with another of our Q&A questions from Small Press Month. We asked people on our Discord if they had questions about running a small press that would work well for videos during Small Press Month and these were the results. And I’m sorry I keep swiveling my chair, I’m trying to find an angle where the snow falling outside doesn’t reflect horribly off of my glasses. That’s why this keeps happening. Anyway, the next question is: “What are the core ideas behind Duck Prints Press?” The core idea behind Duck Prints Press is to work with people in fandom communities – fan authors, fan artists, etc. – to help them to bring their original work from concept to fruition. You know – we love it when those people publish with us, but we do actually offer consulting, so if those people don’t want to publish with us, they can just have us edit and then publish it someplace else, and that would be fine too. The core of it is helping people create, encouraging people to create, and helping all – helping individuals succeed by helping all of us succeed. Because many of us have individual followings for our fan works, and I think that if we – I really believe, and it’s one of the core tenants of the press – that if we pool all of that together, we can help all of us to get to where we want to be in terms of – as writers, as artists, as creators, you know, as published people. So, yeah, that’s the core idea. That comes with a heavy queer/LGBTQIA+ flavor. Nobody has to be queer, no story has to be queer, but the general gist is all very, very not straight or cis, or you know any combination thereof. We’re not that picky. We’re not outing anybody “own voices” style here. Helping fan creators to get more attention for their original work and lifting all – lifting each other up to do it. That’s our core idea.

What would you do differently if you had to start over?

@duckprintspress

What would you do differently if you had to start over? Claire talks about the possible ways Duck Prints Press could’ve been changed #booktok #smallpress #smallpressmonth #publishing #duckprintspress

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Transcription: Unforth from Duck Prints Press here again answering questions for Small Press Week – Small Press Month. I keep making that mistake. Small Press Month about Duck Prints Press, the fan-oriented small press that works to help fan creators publish their original works. And our next question is: “What would you do differently if you had to start all over?” That is a really good question. Because if I’m honest, I don’t think we screwed anything up all that bad. And the things that got most messed up were kind of outside of our control to some extent. Like a lot of our year-2 plans just got delayed and put on hiatus because I ended up needing back surgery. I would do that differently. I would not try to run a business that was only 7 or 8 months old while suffering from increasingly severe spinal stenosis. That sucked. Don’t do that. In terms of things that I could control… I don’t know if it would have gone better because it’s really impossible to say, but doing a model where we had a lot more starting capital would have been very different and potentially could have gone a lot better. I think of Big Bang Press, which tried to do something very similar to us. They launched with a Kickstarter that raised $55,000, and what happened after that is best left to various fan wank webpages. But when I think about, sort of, what I could have done differently if we had started with $55,000, that would have been really different and I think potentially really helpful. We could have gotten a lot more input from professional than we’ve been able to really afford so far – like, by that I mean a CPA, a lawyer. Like, obviously we’ve spoken to those people, but I have to always try to keep it brief and do as much myself as possible because there’s just not enough money to go around. But if I’d had – if we’d gone a direction where instead of , sort of, shoestringing it from the beginning and trying to build from small to big, if we’d instead gone a “let’s collect investors and make this work from the – you know – build everything at once with a big starting investment” – I wonder how sustainable that would have been once the initial investment ran out? But it certainly would have made a lot of things different early on, and a lot of those things could have been easier. So, yeah, I know the reasons I didn’t do it that way, so I can’t actually say for sure I would do it differently or do it that way if I had to start over. But I do think that it’s a very different approach that could have had a very different outcome and might be interesting if we had a multiverse that we could test hypotheses in. 

Where do you see Duck Prints Press in 5 years?

@duckprintspress

Where will Duck Prints Press be in five years? Find out Claire’s plan so far! #booktok #smallpress #smallpressmonth #publishing #duckprintspress

♬ original sound – duckprintspress

Transcription: Unforth here! I also go by Claire, which is my real name, and Nina, which is my pen name – Nina Waters. And I am the owner of Duck Prints Press, and I am here answering questions from our Discord…Discord members, that’s a good word…Discord members about the press as part of a celebration for Small Press Month. And our next question is, “Where do you see Duck Prints Press in 5 years?” And I’ll own, I actually usually don’t project out quite that far. By the time I go to 5 years, it feels a little too pipe-dreamy and I tend to look at more like one to two years as more like my goal. Like, I’m in planning for 2024 right now in March of 2023. But I would say, 5 years, I’d love to see us breaking even consistently and making enough of a profit. I’d love to see our Patreon bringing in about a thousand dollars a month, which would be a bit – a little over double what we’ve got now, we’re about $400. And when I say Patreon, and I mean Patreon and ko-fi combined, I always short-hand it. I’d love to us having a really steady stream of novels coming out, like, maybe 10 novels a year, as well as 4 anthologies and all the short stories, novellas, and novelettes. I would definitely like to see our books on some bookshelves. I think that that’s achievable and probably – I mean, honestly, I think all of this is achievable, or most of this is achievable in a shorter time frame than five years. Like, I think I can probably have books on bookshelves sometime in 2024 – bookstore bookshelves, I mean. And I also – I think I’d love to see a pretty solid cadre of artists and authors who are working with us consistently. I’d love to be doing several major art projects a year, so like – tarot decks, art books, card books – I feel like there’s a lot of other really obviously stuff and my brain is just totally blank right now. But you get the idea. So not just author projects, but also projects that are sort of the artist equivalent of a novel as it were. And…yeah. I’d just really like to see us keep growing and keep doing what we’re doing. I think we’re on a good track.

How do small presses in general (and Duck Prints Press specifically) differ from tradpub?

@duckprintspress

How do small presses and Duck Prints Press differ from traditional publication presses? It turns out there lots of ways we’re different! #booktok #smallpress #smallpressmonth #publishing #duckprintspress

♬ original sound – duckprintspress

Transcription: Unforth here again from Duck Prints Press, answering questions about the press for Small Press Month. I’m going to try filming this one with my right hand holding the camera, which for some reason seems much harder. And this is our last question for small press – Small Press Month. How is one 3-word phrase something bumbling in so many of these videos? The world will never know. “How do small presses in general, or Duck Prints Press in particular, differ from traditional public – tradpub – traditional publication presses?” I mean, certainly size. I mean, those places that have entire departments to do things that I do all of myself or do all of, do most of with the support or 2 or 3 other people. I mean, we’re almost up to having an editing department. We’ve got 12 or 13 people now helping with editing. But, I mean, we still only have on lead editor, like for things like anthologies, it’s still – I’m still the last say. Nobody else has yet been able to step up and be a lead editor, though I’m looking forward to that as something we might do maybe next year. Things like, I mean, selection process, transparency, I mean obviously we’re not a public company, we’re not traded. We don’t have investors. We don’t have stockholders. Things like that. So, yeah, I mean, it’s honestly it’s so different that it’s hard to say how different all of it is. I would say this is not about presses in general, I think we’re pretty atypical in how we handle these things even among presses – small presses, I should say. I’m not trying to exceptionalize us, like, I’m sure there are other places doing things similar to what we’re doing. But I certainly don’t know what they are, so I can’t like shout them out like “hey that place does what we’re doing!” Yeah, it’s sort of different on every level. In ways, like, we don’t work through agents at all. We don’t take unsolicited manuscripts ever. Our recruitment strategies are totally different. Our marketing strategies are totally different. You know, we’re – we really came at this as fans, first, and we looked at kind of what – what makes a fan thing succeed, whether that this is a new fanwork, or a zine, or a pay-for-production campaign, whatever it is. What are the things we’ve seen and been involved in that have worked that have done that. We tried to emulate that because we’re fans and we expect our audience to be fans, so we decided to take an approach using methods that are tried-and-true in fandom, and applying them to our original work. And, yeah, from bottom to top, that is just totally different than what trad pub does.

Outro

@duckprintspress

One last message from Claire as we wrap up Small Press Month. We hope you all enjoyed these as much as we did! Do you have any additional questions? Drop them here! #booktok #smallpress #smallpressmonth #publishing #duckprintspress

♬ original sound – duckprintspress

Transcription: Hey hey, so one last time here with unforth. That’s me. My real name is Claire, my pen name is Nina Waters. I am the owner and founder of Duck Prints Press, which is a small press that works with fan authors and fan artists and fan creators to publish and share our original work. We’ve been celebrating Small Press Month all through March, answering a whole mess of questions that we got from our Discord members. We hope that you’ve found these interviews interesting. I’ve honestly never done anything like this before. I have no idea if I’m doing a good job. But I hope you’ve enjoyed them. They’ve been interesting questions to think about and to answer, and I look forward to sort of opening up dialogues about any of these topics. If you’ve seen anything, heard anything, read anything in any of our posts on this topic that got you thinking, we would love to hear more about that. So, probably you know – I expect I’m gonna use this last video in a master post that links to all the others, check them out! We answered a bunch of questions about why we exists, what we do, who we work with, how we’re different, and we’d love you to get more involved. So don’t be a stranger, okay? And yeah, that’s again, I’m Claire/unforth, this has been all about Duck Prints Press, duckprintspress.com, in case that wasn’t really obvious, and um. Yeah. I hope you have a great day. And in conclusion, you guys – you guys want to see the snow? It’s been snowing the whole time I did this. It’s really pretty outside, take a look. Hopefully you’re not just seeing, like, tons of bug wire right now cause I can’t really see how good a view you’re getting, but yeah it’s really snowy outside of my office right now. Hopefully that wasn’t just, like, 10 seconds of just like glaring white light. If it was, I’m really sorry. Have a good one, everyone. Bye!


Thanks for joining us for Small Press Month, y’all, and if you’ve got any questions we didn’t answer, we encourage you to check out our FAQ, comment on this post, or drop us an ask on Tumblr!

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Answered Ask: Catering to Fanfic writers vs. Other Writers

On Book Publishers Day (Monday, January 16th), we asked our followers across all our platforms if they had any questions for us as book publishers, and we got one anonymous ask on Tumblr! This week’s blog feature is our response to that question.

What’s the difference between catering to fanfic writers and to other kinds of writers? Or is there not much of a difference? Happy Book Publishers Day BTW.

Ah, I’m so excited that you decided to send in a question for Book Publishers Day! I delayed answering for a few days so I could really think about the answer, and now here we are. 😀

Tentatively, I’d say that there’s not a huge difference between catering to fanfic writers and catering to other kinds of writers, but there are a few. I’d say the biggest differences aren’t specifically in “how we cater to authors” so much as “how we’ve envisioned and structured the whole Press differently because of our collective roots in fandom.” Here’s some of the biggest differences that strike us, starting with those that are more narrowly about catering to the different types of writers, then getting a bit more general.

Privacy/safety concerns. While of course everyone worries about their privacy and maintaining data security is critical when dealing with contractors, employees, etc., it’s something we especially emphasize when working with fanfic writers for two primary reasons. First, a lot of fanfic writers don’t want people who know them in meatspace to become aware that they write fanfic, given the stigma against it in some communities. Second, a lot of fanfic writers are queer and they aren’t necessarily out in all their circles. Thus, we put a lot of extra effort into ensuring that people who work with us can keep their “fandom self” separate from their “meatspace self,” if they want to. I’d estimate roughly half of our authors opt to keep their various “selves” completely separate, and we work to be very public about the steps we take to protect our authors and the guarantees we have in place that we won’t “out” anyone in anyway – that we’ll do everything in our power to protect them.

Publishing education. While plenty of the authors we’ve worked with have been interested in publishing for a while, and a noticeable minority have published their original work with other Presses, a lot of our authors have always seen publishing their original stories as more of a “someday” and aren’t familiar with the processes of what happens after the stories are written. So, we put a lot of effort into process-related transparency and answering questions to ensure that writers know what to expect. For example, we make blank versions of all our contracts public so that people who are considering working with us have plenty of time to read them, research standard contracts, and decide for themselves if they think our terms are favorable. We want people to know what they’re getting into and to feel comfortable before they commit, and to feel comfortable walking away if that’s better for them.

Unconventional publishing models. That said, we’re also rather outside the mold for publishers, because only a few of the folks in our upper echelons have a background in more traditional publishing and/or medium/small Press publishing. I, the owner, have flirted at the edges of the more mainstream publishing industry but while I know a lot of people in trad pub and indy pub, I haven’t worked in it myself nor have I been traditionally published. Thus, we definitely have had a learning curve ourselves, and it also a lot of our internal structure and approaches are specifically, explicitly designed around fandom models instead of around more standard Press models. For example, we wholesale adopted a zine approach to anthology production and publishing – we select creators and give them freedom to create within the parameters of the anthology theme, then help them with editing, instead of asking for completed stories that we sift through and pick our favorites. For another example, our approaches to tagging and cataloging stories and our interest in breaking out of industry-standard rigidly defined genres are also deeply rooted in our experiences as fans and fancreators in fandom spaces. Basically, in the same way that we approach writers who are fanwriters first, original writers second, we ourselves were all fandom people first, publishers second. and our methodologies grew out of our experiences as forum moderators, fandom event creators and runners, zine editors, etc.

Community spaces. Again, because we’re looking at more of a fandom-based model transplanted onto a publishing milieu, we’re very oriented on building a community and relationships. Our Discord is quite active, and we talk about our lives, about our projects, help each other out with research and betaing, etc. To be honest, I don’t know if that’s different from other Presses, but I at least strongly suspect it’s well outside what trad pub does.

Transparency. In the end, we view Duck Prints Press as a collaboration, as something we’re growing together with writers, editors, artists, graphic designers, etc., where all of us have been active in fandoms first. Toward that end, general transparency about our decision making, processes, and plans is important to us, and we work hard to make sure that people involved in the Press know what’s going on. We hold monthly meetings to which everyone involved in the Press is invited (our next one is this Tuesday!) where we talk candidly, openly, and honestly about our progress on current projects, any set backs we’ve encountered, and how we’re doing fiscally. In the same way that, if I’m involved in a zine, I’d expect the people running it to talk about the money earned, where profits are going, if there’s been an issue with production, if someone’s life going haywire has introduced delays, etc. That’s the level of openness we aim for.

Education. This is an area where we’re still expanding, but we’ve so far offered two classes to people involved in the Press on grammar and editing stuff. The idea is, a lot of people who write fanfic aren’t “trained” authors, and we often don’t know the rules, just “what sounds right.” And, that’s fine, that’s why we have editors! But if people want to learn more, we’re striving to provide more opportunities for that. Related, we’re extremely, and atypically, transparent about our selection processes for people who apply to anthologies. We are not and will never be a black box where submission stories come in and acceptance and rejection letters go out. Not only do we use a rating rubric that’s available publicly, we also share completed rubrics with authors upon request. We want people who are interested in learning and improving to see our notes and to have the chance to ask questions. We want to support people who are aiming to improve. And, flipside, we don’t automatically send those rubrics out to applicants because we wholeheartedly subscribe to the fandom-standard attitude that concrit is only helpful when it’s asked for. If someone doesn’t want more information, doesn’t want to improve (because improvement NEVER has to be one’s goal as a writer, especially for fanwriters doing fic for fun!), we don’t force that feedback on anyone! So, so many of our structures are based on fandom models, are grounded in fandom ethos.

Relaxed restrictions. All of the people who run the business are queer (I’m aroace genderfluid, myself), and most us are neurodivergent (my diagnoses are ADHD and clinical depression), and some of us are disabled (my wife, for example, is an ambulatory wheelchair user, though she’s not heavily involved in the management team…right now she’s anonymizing the submissions to Aether Beyond the Binary), and many of us are parents (I have two kids, aged almost 5 and almost 7). I’ve been active in online fandoms for more than 20 years, and the people in my fandom circles have overwhelming shared the above characteristics. Most are queer. Most are neurodivergent. Many struggle with health issues and disability. Many are parents, have multiple jobs, are caring for parents, are supporting their partners, are facing a multitude of meatspace challenges that make working in a traditional publication model difficult or impossible. In a lot of publishing, things like really struggling with deadlines, or having to navigate the potential for unexpected health flareups, or juggling multiple jobs, or working around a child’s schedule, would be dealbreakers – the deadline is the deadline, meet it or get out. That’s…so not us. We strive to create an environment with the flexibility to meet people where they are, where having life go sideways (cause let’s be real, life always goes sideways sooner or later) doesn’t disqualify someone from breaking into the industry. As long creators communicate with us about their hurdles, we are very free about giving extensions, making exceptions, tweaking schedules, etc. We don’t want anyone hurting themselves just for a story. Yes, it can make management more challenging at times, but we always look to grant the same grace that we hope to be given when our own lives get complicated. (2022 has been a huge example of this, as my health issues resulted in my needing surgery last February and it completely disrupted all our project timelines for the year – we’ve really only just caught up in the last month or so).

Setting expectations. We aim to set realistic expectations with authors who write with us. My own sense of other models is that most publishers promise success without necessarily delving into things like “but you’ll have to handle all your own marketing” or “this is how many copies you can honestly expect to sell.” Authors can often be in for a rude awakening once they’re in the door and contracted and would be hard-pressed to back out. We’re very small, and we operate on a shoe-string budget (I have been operating Duck Prints Press for just over two years and we’ve never yet earned enough for me to take a paycheck, and we’re in the red for both of our first two years, though our 2022 numbers are a significant improvement over 2021 and we have every reason to hope we’ll keep growing). We can’t afford a lot of advertising, can’t be the only source of marketing, can’t promise that people will sell lots of copies (full disclosure re: what that means, our average short story sells under 10 copies during the first week it’s released). We can’t promise anyone a livable paycheck. What we offer instead is community, support, creative freedom, understanding, and the chance to be part of a fan-run business that is slowly but surely growing, and growing amazingly. No editor will ever say “you have to change xyz so your story will sell.” No editor will ever say, “we just don’t want that story.” We want to publish what our writers want to publish, and we want to work all together to help grow all our audiences. And that means, for people involved right now while we’re this young, we can’t promise much, but we can promise one wonderful thing: that the future looks bright.

This went a bit beyond “working with fanfiction writers versus trad pub writers” and more into “ways we approach things differently than a more mainstream Press,” but I think that does tie into how the approach is different. We’re not viewing the Press as The Owner And Managers Who Are Always Above and the writers as The Content Creators And Cash Cows. All of us in the management team are also fandom people, fanwriters, fanartists, etc. It’s not two distinct groups, it’s one big group of more-or-less equals (yes, there’s still a hierarchy, there has to be some, but it’s not super top-down and there’s lots of opportunities for people to share their skills up the not-really-a-ladder) with the doors thrown wide open to welcome in more folks.

And that, I think, is the crux of the difference of how we cater to fanfic authors compared to what we might do differently if we were working with a more mainstream set of authors. While we do maintain certain editorial standards and we obviously don’t accept everyone who applies, we still try to cast a wide net, to opt for inclusion over exclusion, to try to make allowances, to make space for people at different levels, with different experiences, with different life challenges, etc. In the end, I’d love everyone who ever applies to work with us to end up as part of the Press, because if people want to work with us, we want to work with them! There’s no way to just bring in everyone at once, and some people need to hone their skills more before they’ll be ready to meet the writing standards we aim for, but it’s nothing that can’t be learned. And, if people want to learn it, we want to help them learn it.

We’re a publisher, yes, but we’re also a community of fanwriters who all dream of being published, helping each other to make that dream a reality.

This was probably a ton more answer than was really necessary, but here we are. 😀 Thanks for asking, anon, and I hope you found the answer informative!

(I’m @unforth, by the way, it occurs to me a lot of people may not realize that.)

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How to Pitch to Duck Prints Press

A post by Duck Prints Press staff editor Owl Outerbridge.

In the publishing world, the word “pitch” conjures up a certain image. Perhaps you’ve been asked to write an “elevator speech” so you can quickly pitch your story to an interested party at a conference or meeting. Maybe you’ve participated in Twitter pitch-parties where you only have 255 characters to hook an agent. Every publisher and agent has their own expectations, and we are no different at Duck Prints Press. Since submissions are open again, we thought we’d take out some of the guesswork and tell you what we, as a press, are looking for.

For authors who have never worked with us before, the application asks for two  submissions: a writing sample and a pitch. The requirements for the writing sample are listed as part of the rubric for each anthology. We’re often looking for something a little different with each project, so we highly encourage you to look over the rubric and follow it closely when selecting a piece of your writing to share. Otherwise, it’s pretty straightforward. We want to see the best of you—a polished selection of writing that sings to your abilities as an author.

What we’re looking for in a pitch is more subjective and a bit different from other presses. Many presses only accept fully written stories, so a pitch is used as a teaser to drum up interest. We choose authors for their storytelling ability, assessed by their writing samples, and then ask them to write us a new, never-before-seen story. While we don’t expect authors to submit completed stories, we do want to know you have a fully realized story you want to write that interests us and fits within the anthology’s themes and requirements. In essence, what we would like is a cross between a teaser and a summary—something interesting that tells us how the story will unfold and lets us see how it might fit in with the other stories in the anthology.

Here are our suggestions on how you can create dynamic and interesting pitches specifically for Duck Prints Press:

  • Spoil us! No, seriously. We want to know the beginning, the middle, and the end of your story. Or, if not the end, at least give us a clear view of story progression with an intriguing hook. We need to know there is a story in your heart and that you know where it’s going.
  • Fit the brief. Every anthology is unique. Each one has a list of requirements, and your pitch should make it clear how your proposed story fits those requirements. If the anthology asks for a certain genre, a certain type of character, or a certain type of relationship, call those things out. Don’t make us guess.
  • Give your pitch some character. Who are the main players and what are their relationships? How do you want these relationships to resolve? Found family? Tell us! Enemies to lovers? Same! The characters don’t need names yet, but they nonetheless need to live and breath on the page.
  • Plot is everything. What does the main character (MC) want, what is in their way, and how does their life change? What motivates your MC? Who, or what, is the antagonist, and why? How do you want to resolve the plot (even if you leave off on a question?) You won’t convince us you’re ready to tell this story without conveying these aspects of the story.
  • Make us feel. Is there longing in your story? Passion? Anger? Romance? We want to get a feel for the tone as we read your pitch. Please make sure it matches the tone we’ve asked for in the anthology, though. A grimdark horror story for a “happily ever after” anthology won’t make the cut.
  • Take all the space you need. Each pitch has a maximum number of words. We give plenty of room to make sure you can fit everything you need because we’re looking for so much more than an elevator speech. Be aware of the flow, though. You want to be concise and exciting.
  • Edit, edit, edit. Your pitch is as important as your writing sample and should be edited to the best of your ability. It should be formatted well, have good sentence variety, use excellent grammar, and have been spell checked. We don’t expect perfection, but editing is a major part of our process. We like to see that our authors turn in their best work every time. It can often help to have someone else look over your work before you turn it in. We strongly encourage the use of alpha and beta readers for all press work.
  • Tag it. We ask that, in addition to submitting your pitch, you also submit a list of preliminary tags. Think about how you would tag this story if you were to post it on Archive of Our Own. Will your story contain potentially upsetting content like sexual abuse (on screen or off screen?) Character death? Harm to children? Our staff has a variety of life experiences and while we strongly believe in your freedom to write what you want, we believe equally in harm reduction and giving people the tools they need to curate their own experiences. We request more general tags as well. Are you planning a story that you’d call fluffy? Is it angst with a happy ending, or hurt/comfort, or whump? We’d love to see tags similar to those that would go in each section of an AO3 post: major warnings/potential triggers, type of relationship (if any), and “additional tags.” You don’t have to have everything single thing in there, and they can potentially change, but tags help us assess what tone and specific content you’re planning to include in your story, once it’s fletched out from short pitch to full length. Tagging is not optional.
  • Most of all, have fun! If you are in love with your story, we will see that love. You are applying to write with us because you have a passion for writing that you want to share with the world. Don’t get lost in the details and forget. We have authors from around the world who have written for a huge variety of fandoms, people who are native speakers and grammarians, people who speak English as a second (or third) language, people who dabble in every genre. What do we all have in common? A passion for the craft. We love to write, and we want to work with people who also love to write. You—yes you!—can do this, and we can’t wait to see what you have to show.

Looking for more information? We’ve got you covered; this is not the first time we’ve written about pitches!

Who We Are: Duck Prints Press LLC is an independent publisher based in New York State. Our founding vision is to help fanfiction authors navigate the complex process of bringing their original works from first draft to print, culminating in publishing their work under our imprint. We are particularly dedicated to working with queer authors and publishing stories featuring characters from across the LGBTQIA+ spectrum. Love what we do? Sign up for our monthly newsletter and get previews, behind-the-scenes information, coupons, and more.

Through the month of January, 2023, all new monthly backers on our Patreon and ko-fi can claim a merchandise freebie in addition to all their backer rewards – which, depending on your backer level, could include a free copy of this story! Why not take a peek at what we have to offer?

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How to Write a Great Query Letter

Part 2 of a 2-part series of guest posts by Alec J. Marsh. Part 1, “Why Query Letters are Good, Actually,” came out last week; you can read it here!

Alec is also the author of Duck Prints Press’s forthcoming novella To Drive the Hundred Miles, about a young man coming home for the holidays and finding more than he expected. It’s coming out December 21st, 2022. They know what they’re talking about, as an author and about a writer-writing-about-writing, so read on and learn!

Now that you’ve read the first post in this series, and had a week to reflect on it… are you convinced yet? Are you ready to acquire the most important marketing skill of your career? Great! 

If you’re primarily interested in how to pitch to Duck Prints Press specifically, there will be a full post about that coming out in the near future. But I promise, these skills will help you whatever your writing aspirations are. 

1. The Really Boring Part

Most queries open with a paragraph called “metadata.” This is all the marketing stuff that you need to get out of the way so your agent/editor knows what kind of book it is. This includes 

  • Title: Self-explanatory 
  • Length: This is vitally important for traditional publishing. If you are a debut author and your story isn’t within the accepted range, you’ll get automatically rejected by most agents. There are very good industry reasons for that, but discussing that’s a different article. If you want to look at the averages, check out this link.
  • Genre and age range: This is practical for marketing and readership purposes, and it also puts the summary in context. 
  • Comparative (or Comp) Titles: This is a tricky one, and a full discussion on selecting appropriate comparative titles could easily be its own separate blog post, but the short version is that you should pick titles that your book can be compared to. That can be descriptive—”Supernatural but set in Eastern Europe”—or genre—”For fans of Tamora Pierce”—or even trope based—”Sunshine/Grumpy romance set in a world of danger and magic.” There are a ton of options, but the main point is to position your story in the market and make it easy to pick up quickly. 
  • Logline: This serves a similar purpose as the comp titles do and is meant to sum up one cool part of your story. It doesn’t have to sum up the entire story. For example, Gideon the Ninth sounds wild if you try to summarize the plot, but I’ve been able to convince all my friends to read it by saying simply, “it’s about lesbian necromancers in space.” That’s all you need! In casual conversation, this is often called your “elevator pitch.” Imagine you’re at a convention and you get into the elevator with your dream agent, and you have only the length of the elevator ride to sell them your novel. What do you say? That’s your logline.

***Both comp titles and logline are technically optional, and you don’t need both of them. It’s better to write something unique than to waste the space putting something in just because you think you need it. 

2. The Biography

This usually goes at the end of the query. Don’t overthink it. If you have any credentials, put those in; relevant credentials can include past publications, editing jobs, or a creative writing degree. Then write one to two sentences that make you sound interesting. For example, I say that I like long walks in the fog (because I write moody fantasy) and have a history degree (because it inspires my fantasy world building). 

3. The Body

I left this until the last because it’s the hardest and most important part. A killer summary will make up for dull metadata and a lackluster bio. But if the body of your query letter is weak, no MFA in the world will save you. This section should be 300 words maximum.  

Your simplest formula for including what needs to be in this paragraph is four sentences: LEAD, OBJECTIVE, CONFLICT, TWIST. It’s simpler than you think to write the first draft. I promise. Let it be terrible, get it down, then edit it to a fine shine (much like you’ve already done with that novel!). 

  • Lead: This is your main character. Name them and describe them by including their profession, skills, or other plot-relevant details. 
  • Objective: What does your main character want? Try to make this as specific as possible. “Longs for  acceptance” is vague and generic. “Wants to be accepted into the Book Guild” is specific and gives a reader clues about their personality and the setting. You can put in some information about motivation here too. Maybe her father was also a bookbinder and she needs to redeem the family name. 
  • Conflict: Now we’re getting to the meat of it! Why can’t your main character get what they want? Again, try to be specific and don’t leave it to platitudes. If the bookbinders just don’t like her, that’s generic. If they don’t like her because they think she’s as corrupt as her father was and will bring ruin to them, that’s something a reader can really dig into. We have themes implied now! We understand this is a story about family ties, redemption, and preconceived notions, and you didn’t even need to spell that out. 
  • Twist: This is the most nebulous part of the query. The twist can be a real plot twist, like her discovering that the bookbinding guild also sells occult books. It can be a cool thing about the setting, like the bookstore being on an airship. It can be the romantic subplot, if she falls in love with her rival apprentice. It can be the historical inspiration, if the book is set in a fantasy world reminiscent of Renaissance Italy. In short, what makes your book special? What’s going to prompt people to shove it in their friend’s faces? It’s similar to the logline in that way. 

You can also put the twist at the beginning of the body paragraph, if it’s really cool. You can weave it throughout. You can put it at the end in a mic drop moment. Just make your book sound cool. That’s literally all this is! 

And those three sections…are basically it! Doesn’t sound so scary now, right? Oh wait, it still does? Okay, then, here’s some more tips to help you!

  • Write down everything you need in a query in whatever order works for you. I do it like a sad, clunky mad libs just so it’s all on the page. It’s a lot of pressure to include all this important information AND make it pretty in one go. 
  • Ask your beta readers to help! It’s hard to summarize your own stories when you’ve been living inside them for months. I’ve helped so many friends with their queries because they wrote something perfectly serviceable and technically correct that somehow still made their story sound frightfully boring. (This is not a condemnation of their skill as writers. The skills needed to write queries are completely different.) 
  • Don’t use rhetorical questions. This is mostly personal taste, but I think they’re a waste of space. “Will she follow her heart?” is sort of useless when 99% of stories are about people following their heart. “She must choose between her ambition and the chance at true love” is so much more clear and includes more conflict. 
  • The body of your query letter actually only needs to include the first 30-50% of the story in most cases—enough to leave the reader/agent/editor eager to know what happens next, and no more. This isn’t true if the twist is necessary to understanding why the story is exciting. Can you imagine trying to sell Gone Girl without including the twist that it was all a set up? That twist took the story from generic true crime to something truly original. So to some extent, you’ll need to use your judgment, but there’s rarely any need to try to fit the whole plot into that 300-word paragraph.
  • Above all, be specific. 
  • Do not shy away from giving spoilers (again: BE SPECIFIC). “She finds information that may change everything,” are seven words that tell you nothing. If you say what the information is (“she finds a note from her father that makes it clear he was framed”), you’ll leave the reader desperate to know what the outcome will be, begging for the rest of the story. 
  • Get the query competent and coherent, and then leave it for at least a week. This is good editing advice for any story, but it’s absolutely vital for a query. Because they’re so short and so much rides on them, every single word you write in the query has to be useful, and every sentence has to be clear, concise, and intriguing. Don’t rush this; it’s better to go slow and get it right then hurry along and face a pile of rejections. 
  • Have a query beta reader who hasn’t read your story. Make sure it makes sense with no context. Revise it again. Leave it for another week. (I’m sorry. But I’m not really.)

I know this sounds like a lot. Query letters are hard, and the pressure makes it harder. Writing culture loves to hate on them, for good reason. But you learned to write a novel, something that takes years to master! You can learn to write a query letter too. I won’t pretend it’s easy, but it is a skill you can learn, and it’s worth it! With a single page, you can convince people to buy your book, and that’s magical! 


You can learn more about Alec here; you can learn more about To Drive the Hundred Miles here, and read a teaser here. And, you can check out Alec’s two already-published erotica works Heart’s Scaffolding and Study Hall.

Who we are: Duck Prints Press LLC is an independent publisher based in New York State. Our founding vision is to help fanfiction authors navigate the complex process of bringing their original works from first draft to print, culminating in publishing their work under our imprint. We are particularly dedicated to working with queer authors and publishing stories featuring characters from across the LGBTQIA+ spectrum.

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Why Query Letters are Good Actually 

Part One of a Two-part series of guest posts by Alec J. Marsh.

Hello, it’s me, Alec. I’m a new editor to Duck Prints Press and the resident corporate shill sellout. I love Duck Prints Press and their ethics (and will write an opinion piece soon on why they rock and you should submit to them). I also…. love traditional publishing. 

I’m sorry! I know this makes me a trend-following sheep. I know it’s a hot take in the indie pub crowd. Traditional publishing absolutely has its flaws, and I could go on at length about them. I’m still aiming to get my novels traditionally published. I want to be able to find my book at a Barnes & Noble and be nominated for a Hugo. Sorry not sorry. 

One of the worst parts of traditional publishing is the arcane hoops you have to jump through to participate. As anyone who has poked querying with a long, tentative stick knows, there are many requirements, and every agent’s website uses slightly different phrasing, and it’s a nightmare to navigate. It’s an extra nightmare if you’re neurodivergent and desperately seeking a clear, simple list of expectations. Unfortunately, the basic requirements are there for a reason. A GOOD reason. Learning the skills required to put together a good query package will serve you well, whether you want a ten-book deal with Tor, to sell hand-stapled zines at the local convention, or anything in between. 

So let’s get into it! 

The first thing you need in any submission process is a query letter. What is a query letter? In short, it’s a 3-5 paragraph essay about your book, yourself, and why a publisher should buy your work (and therefore why an agent should agree to represent you). You need to tell the agent the genre, the plot, and why this book is special. They are excruciating to write, because yes, you need to condense your book down to 300 words, maximum, and sell it at the same time. 

But imagine, for a moment, that you’ve walked into Ye Olde Barnes & Noble. There, on the end cap, is a cool new fantasy book you’ve never heard of. The cover has a sword and a snake on it, and you like swords and snakes. But how is it different from the 20 other books with names like A Court of Swords and Snakes that have come out in the last five years? The first thing you do is pick the book up, turn to the back cover, and read. 

You know what’s on the back cover? 

Paragraph one: In a stunning tour de force, ACOSAS takes you through the glittering world of naga politics… (A teaser sentence)  

Paragraph two: Princess Arya has always wanted to be a dancer. But when the evil northerners attack her kingdom… (A paragraph about the main character and the central conflict of the book) 

Paragraph three: Alec J Marsh lives in the Pacific Northwest and has never seen a snake in the wild. (A biography of the author) 

Guess what you just read? A query letter. In many cases, what’s in the blurb is actually pretty close to the exact query letter the author originally sent to their agent. Yes, really. Sometimes a query letter makes it from agent to editor to publicist to final copy.

They’re that important. 

But Alec, I hear you say, I’m not planning to get trad published! Why do I need to do this? Well, indie and self-published people—you will need to write cover copy for your book. And you’ll almost certainly need to write it yourself. The good and the bad part of self-publishing is that you do everything yourself. Less meddling (good!), but less help (bad!). And here’s the hard truth: absolutely no one will spend a single one of their hard-earned dollars on “sex babes get pounded by space aliens” if the back cover says “lol I suck at summaries, I promise it’s good :)” It’s useless, and it’s disrespectful to the buyer’s time and money. 

And that is why query letters are good, actually, for all writers, and are worth practicing how to create!

So go out there and sell your books, and you’ll accidentally write your query along the way. 

In Installment Two…now that I’ve convinced you that you should write a query letter, I’ll go over how to actually, you know, do that. You can read part 2 here!

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The Duck Prints Press Style Guide

Do you love the nuts and bolts of writing? Have you always been confused by the difference between a hyphen, an en dash, and an em dash? Do you want an easy-to-use, free resource to help you improve your technical skills related to spelling and grammar?

We are here to help!

After months of work, we’ve polished the Duck Prints Press style guide until it shone and shared it publicly on our website!

This valuable resource includes a ton of information, and we’re expanding it regularly. While it’s especially relevant to people working with us (especially our growing editor staff!), it can also be of general use to the authorly public. That said, though, always make sure that when you submit to a publisher you focus on their style guide, because no two publishers are going to resolve these issues in exactly the same way. And when we say “issues,” we mean “all those areas where the major style guides (we use the Chicago Manual of Style 17th Edition) don’t offer unambiguous answers,” such as:

  • Oxford commas (we use them)
  • How to handle capitalization around certain punctuation choices, especially in dialogue (…it depends on the circumstance)
  • Which interrobang to use (?! or !?)
  • When to spell out numbers versus when to use numerals (…it’s complicated)
  • Incorporating words that use accents and/or special characters (we always use special characters unless the author suggests we not)
  • Spacing around ellipses and em dashes (…again, it’s complicated)

…and many other incredibly tiny, fiddly editor things that 9 out of 10 readers won’t notice but that that tenth reader has very strong opinions about.

Ultimately, putting a clean, professional-looking manuscript out to the reading public requires that an editorial staff make decisions on all these kinds of issues and many others. It doesn’t so much matter which direction the staff goes (there’s not a huge difference between putting regular spaces versus thin spaces versus hair spaces around em dashes); what matters is that whatever choices are made, they’re implemented consistently. To ensure that consistency, we’ve written and now use this internal, Press-specific style guide.

And now, if you want, you can use that style guide too!

Happy writing, and feel free to let us know if you’ve got questions we haven’t addressed in the guide. Fiddly editory spelling and grammar is our jam!


Want to learn more? Some related posts!


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Editing Tips for Beginning Editors

This is a guest post written by Adrian Harley.

Congratulations! If you’re reading this, I’m willing to bet you already have a lot of the skills you need to be an editor. Even among full-time professionals, a lot of editing skill comes from reading a ton—you get an “eye” for when a sentence just doesn’t look right. The more you read professionally edited work, the better you get at it. (Fanfiction is incredible, obviously. But fanfiction has its own quirks, and the grammar and punctuation can vary, so I’m not confident recommending it as a way to brush up your instinctive grasp of when a sentence “looks right.”)

The specifics of what you do as an editor can vary a lot depending on what you’re editing and who you’re editing for, so in this post, I’ll be covering some of the basic principles that I think will be helpful no matter what type of editing you do. Broadly, I’ll be going over language-related tips and profession-related tips. 

Language

I won’t be going over the nuts and bolts of grammar here, as a zillion good guides to it already exist online. Grammar Girl is my go-to free resource, and a lot of grammar and punctuation questions can be easily answered online or in a style guide from your library. I looked up the rules for commas a LOT in my first years of editing, and I still have to double-check them sometimes. A lot of the fiddly details differ between guides (how to write a.m. and p.m.; serial comma), but the nuts and bolts of grammar and punctuation stay the same across guides. 

Professionally, those fiddly details are a big chunk of editing. Do you write out numbers less than 20? Less than 10? Do you capitalize titles like “President” all the time or only in certain situations? There’s no one right answer, which is one of the many reasons there’s no “right guide” to editing. A style guide will decide many of these questions for you. If you pick up editing as a profession, your employer will most likely have a style guide in mind. You may want to pick one for yourself if you do freelance editing. That way, you won’t have to re-decide on every job, and if you get repeat clients, you’ll be sure their text is consistent across all their documents. A “series bible” for fiction works on similar principles. 

Whether you’re looking at those fiddly details or at the big picture, one principle of editing is to never take anything for granted. Someone says there’s five ancient orbs needed to defeat the dragon? You’d better count the orbs. Make sure every proper noun in the story (names of people, places, things) is spelled the same every single time. This is the kind of thing you’ll get quizzed on if you ever apply for a professional editing gig. Every editing job I’ve ever applied to has an “editing test” of at least a page, and it usually has at least one of those errors (if not both).

Another major thing to watch out for is colloquialisms, especially ones that mean multiple things. A short list of common errors I see:

“Since” should only relate to the passage of time; it does not mean “because.”

“While,” again, should only refer to time—two things happening simultaneously. “But,” “although,” “whereas,” and others are good substitutes for the other sense.

“Due to” does not mean “because of,” it means “caused by” (and I’ve seen some editors argue to not even use it for “caused by” and to only use it for when something is owed to someone).

“If” will often need to be replaced with “whether.”

Obviously with dialogue, that’s a whole nother story, but be careful about these in narration, even with a colloquial narrative. They can introduce unintentional double meanings.

When you’re moving from basic accuracy to style, you’ll often need to “tighten up” the language. This might be something you’re used to doing in your own writing. This doesn’t mean all prose should be sparse! But as an editor, part of your job is making sure that every word is contributing something, no matter whether the sentence is flowery or stark. One exercise is to go through and see if you can cut one word from every sentence. Depending on what type of editing you do, you’ll have different “filler words” to look out for. My personal demon is “just,” so I always do a search for that when I’m revising my own work. In my day job, the word “provide” often signals a clunky phrase that could be condensed into a single, better verb (e.g., “provides assistance” vs. “helps”). 

You’ll look for a lot as you edit, so don’t feel like you have to do it all at once. A simple search can make sure you’ve caught issues like “while” and “since.” Other issues are best solved in their own read-through. For me, I try to do a read-through specifically for passive voice. I often skip over passive voice on my all-purpose read because, well, the sentence makes sense, doesn’t it? So my eye simply doesn’t catch it if I’m not on the lookout. As you edit, you’ll figure out what process works best for you.

And to wrap up the language section—checklists are your friend! I used to have a post-it of all the things I knew I struggled with, and I’d systematically search the document for those trip-ups after I did my first read. You can customize your own checklist with whatever snags give you trouble.

Professionalism

A huge part of editing as a professional is in how you interact with other people. Your whole job is telling people they’re wrong, after all, and you often have no control over whether they’ll listen to you. Everything you can do to make the criticism easier for them helps!

My favorite “one weird trick” that my first boss taught me is to turn every criticism into a question. If you’re suggesting a significant revision, “How about…?” is one of my favorite leads. If you have no idea what’s going on, do your best to figure out what might be causing the issue, then form a question around that. “Are there missing words here?” is kinder and more useful than “Huh?”

Essentially, your role as an editor is to advocate for the reader. This “reader stand-in” role can help frame critique as well. Will the reader understand this? If you’re in one of the more-technical editing jobs, that question may be completely necessary. As an editor for scientific research, I’m often editing documents meant for people who know way more about the subject matter than I do. The framing of “the reader” is also a useful tool in your toolbox for fiction. You may be editing something that you are not the target audience for. Or, on the other end of the scale, you may know without question that you’re reading something incomprehensible. The polite device of “the reader” helps add a level of depersonalization to the critique.

Unsurprisingly, for editing, communication is key before you even start work. “Editing” covers a huge range of possibilities. Make sure you and the author are on the same page. Do they want a proofread—only correcting glaring errors? Do they want you to improve the phrasing of sentences? It can go all the way up to practically rewriting the thing, if you’re working at a corporation and the authors aren’t professionals. This conversation beforehand will let you know whether you should make “artistic” suggestions as you read, whether you need to stick with nuts and bolts, or something in between.

If the author says they only need a proofread and you discover the whole thing is terrible, that’s when some tactful emails come into play. Never start doing a higher-level edit unless you’ve talked about it with the author first. You have much better odds of an affirmative if they feel like they’re collaborating with you–that you’re both in it together to make the best document possible. As far as the tactful emails go, be kind and be specific. If you have examples of what you’d like to correct, throw those in. It helps the author know what to expect and make an informed decision.

And sometimes the author says no, and that’s okay! You must wash your hands of it. It’s not your name on the thing, and if you don’t put it in your resume, it never will be (fresh out of college, I worked on a couple truly awful novels that nobody will ever know I worked on). Perfectionism is HARD to overcome, I know, but accepting the errors gets easier with practice.

And finally, if you’re still wondering, “Am I cut out to be an editor?” I would recommend the words of Neil Gaiman. In his excellent “Make Good Art” speech, he says that as a freelance artist, you need to do good work, do it on time, and be pleasant to work with. And then, he adds, “You don’t even need all three! Two out of three is fine.” I recommend the whole thing if you ever want to battle imposter syndrome, because the same tenets apply to editing. At least I think they do. You don’t need to be the perfect editor—nobody is. But I guarantee that you have most of what you need already, and I hope this has helped.

Biography

Adrian Harley, one of Duck Prints Press’s editors, has been a full-time professional editor of scientific research for 10 years. Their freelance and ad-hoc editing has run the gamut from books to blog posts to family members’ cover letters. They’ve been published in Duck Prints Press’ And Seek (Not) to Alter Me and the forthcoming She Wears the Midnight Crown, as well as OFIC Magazine. 

Want to learn more?

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Received Asks: How Did You Pick the Name You Create Under and What Influenced that Decision?

A collaboratively written post by multiple members of Duck Prints Press. The input of every individual author has been used and lightly edited with permission and credited in the way they’ve requested.

Two days ago, a member of Duck Prints Press posed the following questions to our blogging team:

  • Whether you publish under a pen name or your given name, what factored into your decision to use one or the other?
  • Was personal safety the primary reason behind deciding to use a pen name, or were there other reasons? 
  • If you use your given name, do you feel safe? 
  • What’s your advice for [creators] who are thinking about publishing original [work]? 

A number of us replied, and we all felt that the compiled responses would make a good post to share, as “whether or not to use a pen name” is a recurring question we often get in-server, and is likely one many of y’all out there thinking of publishing your original work have pondered as well. 

Do you publish under a pen name or use your given name, and what factors influenced your decision to use one or the other?

@arialerendeair: I publish under a pseudonym and always will! I decided to go with names that riff off my fanfic name (Aria Lerendeair) – Aria L. Deair (for non-erotica) and Aria D. Leren (for erotica) because I’ve built a community and wanted it to be a bit of an in-joke when they find/buy my content. If someone were to find the story organically – they might get the name reference, they might not. It’s a fun way to create not-separation between the names and have one for the different genres! 

boneturtle: I (try to) stay anonymous aside from necessary contracts because of personal safety as regards certain family members. I honestly don’t worry about strangers knowing who I am, but if I am aiming for anonymity I have to commit.

Annabeth Lynch: I use a pen name, but I plan on taking at least the first name as my legal name when possible. I won’t share that or my pen name with my family because 1) they don’t know I write, and I’m not content to share that with them at all, and 2) I don’t want them to know I’m queer. They likely wouldn’t be hellish about it but I would certainly be mocked. Also, now I live in the south and while I live in a liberal section because of the nearby colleges, the place I want to move after my husband’s schooling is ~liberal~ in a vague way but definitely not as good as where I am now. It’s one reason why I’m hesitant to try and get my books in bookstores that might want in-person events.

Dei Walker: I went with a pen name for the erotica I wrote for DPP (and I’ll keep with that), but the first name holds a link with my real name in some ways. My husband’s a teacher at a fairly prestigious private school, and there’s a degree of “yeah my wife writes smut” that’s okay with colleagues but isn’t okay if the parents find out about it if they use search engines to learn more about me.

Willa Blythe: I chose to use a pen name. One, my real name is kind of weirdly spelled and I don’t actually even use my first name because it is a very popular name from the 80s that my parents left a letter out of… I go by my middle name but I spell it differently than what’s on my birth certificate, and I’ve gone by this name since I was 18. Everyone in my life knows me as (NAME) save my family, and they know I go by that. It’s not a nickname, it’s my name, and that’s fine. 

Anonymous: I decided to use a pen name for two reasons: 1) my name is incomprehensible to English speakers – not only is it hard to pronounce, but it also uses special characters; 2) I’m a primary teacher in a small town where gossip goes wild (for example, when I decided to go part-time so I have more time for writing it was going around that I was pregnant ) so I don’t want anyone to find out that I’m queer and write queer romance. There are idiots out there who wouldn’t want me to teach their kids because of that. I eventually came up with a pen name that is a word play on my legal name so it still feels like me, and the people I want to know would recognize it as me but strangers are unlikely to make the connection.

Nina Waters ( @unforth ): I publish under a pen name because people always mispronounce my last name and my understanding is that it’s better to make a pen name people can pronounce. Back when I was still considering trad pub, I was planning to use multiple pen names so I could write across genres. Nina Waters was gonna be spec fic and romance, but I love historical drama type stuff too and like. Those sell better with a male name on them? So I was gonna use either C. P. Houck (so, my actual initials and last name) or Charles (or maybe Chuck) P. Houck, since Charles is a family name (my uncle, my grandfather, and my great grandfather on my dad’s side are all Charles’s). That all said, when I decided to go the small Press creation route instead, there was basically no way to keep my real name out of things since as the owner I have to put it on all official paperwork, which means it’s filed with the government and a matter of public record. Since anyone could access it, there didn’t seem to be much point in keeping it a secret/separate. 

Was personal safety the primary reason behind deciding to use a pen name? What other reasons influenced your decisions?

(some authors included their answers to this in their replies above)

Nina Waters: Not really, though I did originally concoct the Nina Waters name for a really silly version of personal safety? I was writing a thing based on my unrequited feelings for someone and I obviously couldn’t put that under my real name without risking them figuring it out, so I needed a pen name. I never did finish that project lmao and now I would never bother but the pen name stuck. 

arialerendeair: Part of [why I use a pen name] is because I was doxxed (and received threats) from a non-writing community almost a decade ago. I’m not afraid of attaching my real name to my works – I’m proud of them! But with the very real possibility of that happening again at some point in the future, I didn’t want to risk it!

Willa Blythe: There was an additional reason that using a pen name was important to me, though. When I wrote fan fiction, I was the victim of a targeted hate campaign aimed at people who wrote fanfiction about a certain character. I wrote fic that I loved and I stayed in my corner, but I got aggressive and hateful messages constantly about not only myself but also my young son, for the crime of choosing to write about a young man of color instead of the overwhelmingly popular white m/m ship in that fandom. It was alarming, especially when people I didn’t know sent me messages about my workplace and my movements there. Prior to that, I’d been pretty open online. I’m not now. I take doxxing very seriously. My son’s safety, but also my own and my roommate’s, are of huge importance. I write about things people don’t love: complicated queer relationships, critiques of capitalism and white supremacy, critiques of religion and spiritual practices, etc. I have to do what is necessary to create distance between my real life, my fandom life, and my writing life. That said… I’ve done more to separate my fandom and writing identities than my real and writing identities, for a variety of reasons. It’s complicated, but as much as I love fandom, it does breed a certain kind of entitlement that my personal friends and family just don’t have.

If you use your given name, do you feel safe?

@owlishintergalactic: My wife and I had a huge conversation about the implications of me writing under my wallet name. I am quite politically involved in the Early Childhood Education and Early Childhood Special Education sectors in my county and state. This is a sector where being openly LGBTQ can cause problems with a particular subset of parents and voters. Yet, we don’t believe we should have to hide who we are and that we are LGBTQ – like many other parents in our state. We decided, in the end, that since I don’t write anything more racy than “mature,” it makes sense to build my platform using my real name. My writing is a part of me. It is a part of my advocacy. It’s my profession. But it is a risk, and it’s mitigated some because I live in one of the most open and inclusive communities in the US. For the most part, though, I do almost all of my online work under a variation of Owlish because it creates a layer of protection between me and the internet masses who don’t always have the best intentions.

Nina Waters: I. uh. Mostly? I definitely worry about it. I’ve been thinking about getting a P. O. Box for the business so I at least don’t have to use my real address all the time too. I worry that if someone took offense to the kind of work I do, they could go after my children, and that scares the crap out of me. In retrospect I wish I’d worked a little harder to keep my identities separate, but they were already mostly merged by the time I had kids and I’d have had to completely restart with new screen names and everything, so it felt like it was already too late by the time the business became public.

What’s your advice for [creators] who are thinking about publishing original [work]?

Nina Waters: The advice I give to people in the Press is if they’re even a LITTLE unsure, they should use a pen name. At any time when they decide they’re comfortable they can always switch to using their real name, but once the genie’s out of the bottle there’s no putting it back.

arialerendeair: There are a great many reasons to choose to use a pseud! For your own personal reasons, for reasons involving your spouse, your family, your activism work, because the internet is a scary place sometimes and many grew up in the web safety diligence era. If you are picking up a pseud for any reason at all – great! They can be fun, they can be punny, (is it a coincidence that D is the middle initial for my pseud that I write erotica under? Nope!) and they can be a chance to reinvent yourself for an audience that doesn’t know you yet. There’s a power in being able to shape a persona – and sometimes it’s fun to grab that and see where it leads!

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Do you – yes, you, the person reading this! – use a pen name for publishing your art, fiction, or other types of creations? Have you kept your fandom, creation, and meatspace selves separate? We’d love to hear your answers to the above questions, so feel free to comment and weigh in!

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How to Ask for Feedback on Your Writing

A guest post by boneturtle (@fishwritesfic).

It can be daunting to ask for feedback on our work. Past negative experiences, horror stories from friends, fear of people disliking something we’ve worked so hard on, uncertainty about what to input to ask for, and many other factors can make it seem easier to write our stories alone rather than show them to another person. 

Once you understand how to ask for feedback, however, sharing your works-in-progress can become a valuable tool for gathering information and honing your craft. So if you’re struggling with your work in progress, hoping to publish or publicize your story in some way, or are looking to develop your writerly skills, read on to learn how to ask for the right feedback for your needs!

How to ask for feedback

First, and most importantly: You don’t need to ask for feedback. Whether you ask for input depends on your individual writing, editing, and publishing goals. This post starts at the point of assuming you’ve already decided that you’d like feedback, but are hesitant or struggling for whatever reason. Here are some tips on getting the type of feedback you’d like – feedback that helps you move forward armed with useful information.

1. Be specific

Do not let people guess what you want. They will guess wrong. 

Even experienced editors need to be given some directions so they can focus on the aspect(s) of the story that you’re concerned about. For example, if they give suggestions on a story element you’d thought was fine, but offer no comments about dialog which you’re afraid sounds stilted, you may end up feeling more anxious than before. So when soliciting feedback on your work, tell your reader exactly what type of feedback/information you’re looking for, and ask them not to color outside those lines unless you allow it. Your questions will help your readers focus their energy and give you feedback you can actually use. (More on what types of feedback or aspects of the story you may want to consider is later in this post!)

If your work is being edited for publication, this rule changes slightly since your editor will also be applying their own suggestions to help get your story ready for their particular outlet, but you’re still welcome to ask any additional questions and request feedback on the things you’re worried about! 

2. Think about what stage your story is at

Different stages of writing need different types of feedback. Too nitpicky early on, and you might waste effort polishing passages that don’t make it to the final story—and it’s easier to fix big-picture issues earlier in the writing process. A good rule of thumb is to start broad at first, and get progressively more specific as the story takes shape.

Early-stage: When you’re still brainstorming ideas and working on your first draft. Early-stage readers (often called alpha readers) are there to help you understand how your story is coming across but not to give value judgments.

Some example questions to ask early-stage readers:

  • Characterization: What are your impressions of the main character(s)? Who do you think they are, what are their motivations? What do you find interesting or cliche about them?
  • Worldbuilding/Setting: What is most interesting/surprising/confusing to you about this world? What is important to the people in this society? How is this world similar to or different from yours? 
  • Mood/Tone: Does it feel funny, dark, matter-of-fact, poignant, exciting? What parts make it feel that way? Is the narrator’s tone matter-of-fact, dramatic, funny, and does it feel jarring to read?
  • Plot: What do you think this story is about? What do you expect to happen next based on what you’ve read so far?
  • Sensitivity: If you’re familiar with the disability/job/experience described in this story, how well did it reflect your experience? Where did it fall short? What sorts of details would be more appropriate or accurate to include?
  • In General: What confused you? What excited you? What wasn’t as interesting? What made you want to read more?

Early-stage feedback is for collecting impressions, finding out what people are interested in, confused by, what they think the story is about, etc. This is important information for you as a writer as you aim to assess whether your writing is faithfully conveying your ideas. If people generally have the wrong impression about something that you thought was obvious, that could be an indication that you need to rework that part of the story to make the important details more clear. 

If solicited before you’ve completed your manuscript first draft, early-stage feedback can also give you ideas for how to move forward. If people are excited by a certain theme, you might decide to emphasize that theme. If they all expect the same thing to happen next, you might do something to subvert those expectations—or play into them—or, if it’s not at all what you had in mind, tone down the hints leading to that conclusion.

If you want reliable feedback, it’s often better to keep your questions general and avoid spoilers. For example, if you’re trying to figure out “does the reveal about Character A work?” and you directly ask that, your early-stage reader will already be clued in and on the look out specifically for that, so you won’t get a clear idea of what a reader who isn’t “primed” would read. 

 However, if you want to ask your reader for more specific or technical advice at this stage, be ready to share more so they can better help you (e.g. the story concept, where you’re at in the writing process, what unanswered questions you still have about the world, the characters, and the plot). You can always wait and share this information after they’ve read the passage if you don’t want to spoil their reading.

Middle-stage: Once you’re sure that your story’s most basic aspects are sound, try asking more technical questions about story structure, pacing, tone, and characterization. You don’t need to give much context; instead, see what the readers understood from the story itself. This helps ensure that your writing is clear and accurate to your intentions.

Some example questions to ask middle-stage readers:

  • Characterization: How does the main character come across to you at the beginning of the story? Have your impressions changed by the end, and why? What moments made you empathize with them? Do their actions feel justified? If not, what parts felt contradictory or confusing? What are your favorite and least favorite parts of them?
  • Worldbuilding/Setting: How does the setting affect the way you understand or think about this story? What details made you feel like you were really immersed in the world? What details or descriptions pulled you out of the world? What felt confusing or contradictory? What felt especially meaningful or cool? Did anything feel random, inconsistent, pointless, irrelevant or unnecessary? 
  • Mood/Tone: Is the narrator’s tone flowery or lyrical? Matter-of-fact? Is the mood (the feeling you get from the story) dark, funny, tense? Where does it shift, and do any of the shifts feel jarring?
  • Plot: Does the story feel ‘finished’ at the end? If not, what do you feel is missing? What unanswered questions are you left with? Are there any storylines that you wished you could have read more of? What parts did you want to skip or skim? 
  • Sensitivity: Same as for early-stage readers If you’re familiar with the disability/job/experience described in this story, how well did it reflect your experience? Where did it fall short? What sorts of details would be more appropriate or accurate to include?
  • In General: Same questions as early-stage, but also: what themes or motifs did you notice in the story?

The goal of these questions is to get more technical feedback; looking at the whole story, what works well, what is missing, and what takes away from the story’s success? These more specific questions can help you in your revisions as you decide what to elaborate on, rewrite, or cut.

Late-stage: After a few rounds of edits, you might be ready for a beta reader. In fanfiction circles, a beta reader is an all-rounder who helps with everything from brainstorming to proofreading, but here I’m referring to the person who reads your story before publication to give you one last chance for edits before sharing with the general public.

If you’re at this stage, you can ask many of the same questions as for early and mid-stage feedback, but also let your reader get more into the weeds about thematic elements, contradictions in characterization, plot holes, and details about the world that still seem inconsistent or confusing. Ask them to be picky; the story is all there, this is your chance to make sure it hangs together.

Spelling and Grammar Feedback: Once you’re sure your project tells the story you want to tell, you may solicit an editor to give you feedback on Spelling and Grammar (SPAG). It’s equally important to make sure this person is clear on what aspects of the story they’re supposed to focus on, and you should specify if you want their input at all on conceptual aspects of the story or if you’d prefer them to focus on clarity, proper grammar, spelling, and the other technical components of the story.

3. Choose your readers carefully

As important as the questions you ask is who you’re asking them of. Will this person respect your boundaries and only give the feedback you request? Will they be honest with you and non-judgmental toward your writing? Close friends and family can often seem like convenient, ready-made readers. However, unless you’ve worked with them before and know how they’ll behave, proceed with caution. People who are too close to you might be too gentle because they want to make you happy, or they might ignore your boundaries because they think they know what you need better than you do or that those boundaries apply only to strangers. If someone, because of their relationship to you, is going to give responses you can’t trust, don’t ask them. 

Great readers are often other writers. Join writing groups (Eventbrite, Meetup, NaNoWriMo regional groups, and local writing cooperatives are good places to start), writing courses (my personal favorite is the International Writers’ Collective, and Clarion is also widely popular and well respected, but also look for courses near you!), and reach out to people whose fanfiction or original writing you admire. It can seem scary to contact people out of the blue, but these are all people with the same hobby as you, and even if they’re too busy to work with you they’ll be happy to know you appreciate their writing!

You can offer to trade feedback, too. Trading feedback is a great way to build your skills twice as fast – as you learn to give critique, you can also better learn how to apply critical reading skills to your own writing. 

4. Ask for help from multiple people

Spreading out the job of giving feedback can make the job easier on your readers. It can also mitigate the sometimes intense emotions that come with getting feedback. If no single person is commenting on everything, then you won’t feel as burdened by any one person’s opinions.

Some areas you could ask different people for help with include:

Brainstorming: If you have a friend whose ideas complement yours, ask them if they have time to talk stories with you! All ideas are good ideas when you’re brainstorming.

Developmental edits: Developmental editors can listen to where you want your story to go, see where it’s at now, and help you cross that sometimes-frightening gap between the two. Some editors are trained in this, but a trusted writing friend who has editing experience can also be a huge help with developmental edits.

General Story Comprehension: Check that your story makes sense (and if not, where/why/how it went wrong). The example questions under the early-stage and middle-stage feedback stages are great for your general-comprehension readers.

Characterization: Although you have an idea of who your characters are, does that come across to your readers? Ask someone who loves characterization to help!

Sensitivity readers and/or subject matter experts: When writing about an experience, location, or type of character that you’re not familiar with, try finding people who’ve lived that experience to check whether your descriptions resonate with them.

Beta reading: Ask someone who reads voraciously to go through the whole story and make note of all their unanswered questions, plot holes they spot, things they loved, things that were confusing, etc.

Proofreaders: Your beautiful grammar nerds. If you’re working with a publisher, your editor will likely do a proofread. If you’re self-publishing, don’t skip this step! Editing software can help but won’t capture all of those stray en-dashes where an em-dash should be. 

5. Remember feedback is a tool, not a prescription

When you get your feedback, don’t panic! It’s for you to use as you wish, and most writers only act on a small part of the feedback they receive.

You can use your reader feedback in unexpected ways. For example, if someone says that they really wanted to see more of a side plot, that may convince you to develop it more. However, if you didn’t want them to care so much and think it’s detracting from the main story, you could cut it and save it for its own story.

Additionally, there is no rule that says you have to ask for feedback for every story or stage of your writing process. If you’re writing a short story that you feel confident about, you might only want a quick round of feedback at the end. If you’re doing a long, multi-chapter piece, you might do a mix of early and middle-stage feedback for different sections of the story. One story might come so easily that it feels like it’s writing itself while the next needs lots of extra help. 

This is all normal. You’re not losing your touch if you need more input on certain stories; every story is unique.

6. It’s Okay to Ask for Only Praise

Normalize the writing cheerleader! As someone who has both given and received writer cheerleading, I truly don’t know how I wrote before discovering this. It’s less structured and has more emotional investment than other types of feedback, so is a bigger commitment for your reader. If you want a writing cheerleader, explain to your reader what you’re hoping for and ask them if this is help they’d be comfortable with providing. 

A writing cheerleader will shower you with praise, poke you for updates, and generally be your emotional-support reader. If you’re struggling to get words on the page or have been feeling down about your writing, they can make the difference between finishing your story and never touching it again. But even if your writing life is mostly smooth sailing, it’s still valid to want to find a reader who’s excited to read what you send them and who gives you unmitigated love in return. Let them boost your ego; you can be critical once the draft is written. No matter how cringey it may seem at first, the joy is infectious, and it works.

The Feedback You Never Knew You Needed

Before you start asking for feedback, you may wonder why anyone bothers exposing themselves to potential criticism. And even after this becomes a normal part of your practice, you will sometimes get feedback that doesn’t help or reflects the reader more than the writer.

So why ask for feedback?

Beyond developing your critical reading skills and learning more about your own writing, feedback can teach you about people: how they think, what they notice, what makes them care. It helps you understand how other people experience the things you write so you can start writing in those ways more deliberately. It can also help you learn to manage your “preciousness” about your own writing—when you let other people dissect your work, even if they’re not making value judgments, there’s going to be some discomfort. Learning to push through that for the sake of growth is like developing a superpower. You’ll start seeing your writing as the medium through which you communicate with your readers and developing ways to do that even more effectively.

Do you need to ask for feedback? Absolutely not. But if you’ve decided you want feedback and you learn to ask, accurately and clearly, for the kind of feedback you want, it can be incredibly useful, and—dare I say it?—fun.