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Ten Things We Hate About Trad Pub

Often when I say “I’ve started a small press; we publish the works of those who have trouble breaking into traditional publishing!” what people seem to hear is “me and a bunch of sad saps couldn’t sell our books in the Real World so we’ve made our own place with lower standards.” For those with minimal understanding of traditional publishing (trad pub), this reaction is perhaps understandable? But, truly, there are many things to hate about traditional publishing (and, don’t get me wrong – there are things to love about trad pub, too, but that’s not what this list is about) and it’s entirely reasonable for even highly accomplished authors to have no interest in running the gauntlet of genre restrictions, editorial control, hazing, long waits, and more, that make trad pub at best, um, challenging, and at worst, utterly inaccessible to many authors – even excellent ones.

Written in collaboration with @jhoomwrites, with input from @ramblingandpie, here is a list of ten things that we at Duck Prints Press detest about trad pub, why we hate it, and why/how we think things should be different!

(Needless to say, part of why we created Duck Prints Press was to…not do any of these things… so if you’re a writer looking for a publishing home, and you hate these things, too, and want to write with a Press that doesn’t do them…maybe come say hi?)

1. Work lengths dictated by genre and/or author experience.

Romance novels can’t be longer than 90,000 words or they won’t sell! New authors shouldn’t try to market a novel longer than 100,000 words!

A good story is a good story is a good story. Longer genre works give authors the chance to explore their themes and develop their plots. How often an author has been published shouldn’t put a cap on the length of their work.

2. Editors assert control of story events…except when they don’t.

If you don’t change this plot point, the book won’t market well. Oh, you’re a ten-time bestseller? Write whatever you want, even if it doesn’t make sense we know people will buy it.

Sometimes, a beta or an editor will point out that an aspect of a story doesn’t work – because it’s nonsensical, illogical, Deus ex Machina, etc. – and in those cases it’s of course reasonable for an editor to say, “This doesn’t work and we recommend changing it, for these reasons…” However, when that list of reasons begins and ends with, “…because it won’t sell…” that’s a problem, especially because this is so often applied as a double standard. We’ve all read bestsellers with major plot issues, but those authors get a “bye” because editors don’t want to exert to heavy a hand and risk a proven seller, but with a new, less experienced, or worse-selling author, the gloves come off (even though evidence suggests time and again that publishers’ ability to predict what will sell well is at best low and at worst nonexistent.)

3. A billion rejection letters as a required rite of passage (especially when the letters aren’t helpful in pinpointing why a work has been rejected or how the author can improve).

Well, my first book was rejected by a hundred Presses before it was accepted! How many rejection letters did you get before you got a bite? What, only one or two? Oh…

How often one succeeds or fails to get published shouldn’t be treated as a form of hazing, and we all know that how often someone gets rejected or accepted has essentially no bearing on how good a writer they are. Plenty of schlock goes out into the world after being accepted on the first or second try…and so does plenty of good stuff! Likewise, plenty of schlock will get rejected 100 times but due to persistence, luck, circumstances, whatever, finally find a home, and plenty of good stuff will also get rejected 100 times before being publishing. Rejections (or lack there of) as a point of pride or as a means of judging others needs to die as a rite of passage among authors.

4. Query letters, for so many reasons.

Summarize all your hard work in a single page! Tell us who you’re like as an author and what books your story is like, so we can gauge how well it’ll sell based on two sentences about it! Format it exactly the way we say or we won’t even consider you!

For publishers, agents, and editors who have slush piles as tall as Mount Everest…we get it. There has to be a way to differentiate. We don’t blame you. Every creative writing class, NaNoWriMo pep talk, and college lit department combine to send out hundreds of thousands of people who think all they need to do to become the next Ernest Hemingway is string a sentence together. There has to be some way to sort through that pile…but God, can’t there be a better way than query letters? Especially since even with query letters being used it often takes months or years to hear back, and…

5. “Simultaneous submissions prohibited.”

No, we don’t know when we’ll get to your query, but we’ll throw it out instantly if you have the audacity to shop around while you wait for us.

The combination of “no simultaneous submissions” with the query letter bottleneck makes success slow and arduous. It disadvantages everyone who aims to write full-time but doesn’t have another income source (their own, or a parents’, or a spouse’s, or, or or). The result is that entire classes of people are edged out of publishing solely because the process, especially for writers early in their career, moves so glacially that people have to earn a living while they wait, and it’s so hard to, for example, work two jobs and raise a family and also somehow find the time to write. Especially considering that the standard advice for dealing with “no simultaneous submissions” is “just write something else while you wait!” …the whole system screams privilege.

6. Genres are boxes that must be fit into and adhered to.

Your protagonist is 18? Then obviously your book is Young Adult. It doesn’t matter how smutty your book is, erotica books must have sex within the first three chapters, ideally in the first chapter. Sorry, we’re a fantasy publisher, if you have a technological element you don’t belong here…

While some genre boxes have been becoming more like mesh cages of late, with some flow of content allowed in and out, many remain stiff prisons that constrict the kinds of stories people can tell. Even basic cross-genre works often struggle to find a place, and there’s no reason for it beyond “if we can’t pigeon-hole a story, it’s harder to sell.” This edges out many innovative, creative works. It also disadvantages people who aren’t as familiar with genre rules. And don’t get me wrong – this isn’t an argument that, for example, the romance genre would be improved by opening up to stories that don’t have “happily ever afters.” Instead, it’s pointing out – there should also be a home for, say, a space opera with a side romance, an erotica scene, and a happily-for-now ending. Occasionally, works breakthrough, but for the most part stories that don’t conform never see the light of day (or, they do, but only after Point 2 – trad pub editors insist that the elements most “outside” the box be removed or revised).

7. The lines between romance and erotica are arbitrary, random, and hetero- and cis-normative.

This modern romance novel won’t sell if it doesn’t have an explicit sex scene, but God forbid you call a penis a penis. Oh, no, this is far too explicit, even though the book only has one mlm sex scene, this is erotica.

The difference between “romance” and “erotica” might not matter so much if not for the stigmas attached to erotica and the huge difference in marketability and audience. The difference between “romance” and “erotica” also might not matter so much if not for the fact that, so often, even incredibly raunchy stories that feature cis straight male/cis straight female sex scenes are shelved as romance, but the moment the sex is between people of the same gender, and/or a trans or genderqueer person is involved, and/or the relationship is polyamorous, and/or the characters involved are literally anything other than a cis straight male pleasuring a cis straight female in a “standard” way (cunnilingus welcome, pegging need not apply)…then the story is erotica. Two identical stories will get assigned different genres based on who the people having sex are, and also based on the “skill” of the author to use ludicrous euphemisms (instead of just…calling body parts what they’re called…), and it’s insane. Non-con can be a “romance” novel, even if it’s graphically described. “50 Shades of Gray” can sell millions of copies, even containing BDSM. But the word “vagina” gets used once…bam, erotica. (Seriously, the only standard that should matter is the Envelope Analogy).

8. Authors are expected to do a lot of their own legwork (eg advertising) but then don’t reap the benefits.

Okay, so, you’re going to get an advance of $2,500 on this, your first novel, and a royalty rate of 5% if and only if your advance sells out…so you’d better get out there and market! Wait, what do you mean you don’t have a following? Guess you’re never selling out your advance…

Trad pub can generally be relied on to do some marketing – so this item is perhaps better seen as an indictment of more mid-sized Presses – but, basically, if an author has to do the majority of the work themselves, then why aren’t they getting paid more? What’s the actual benefit to going the large press/trad pub route if it’s not going to get the book into more hands? It’s especially strange that this continues to be a major issue when self-publishing (which also requires doing one’s own marketing) garners 60%+ royalty rates. Yes, the author doesn’t get an advance, and they don’t get the cache of ~well I was published by…~, but considering some Presses require parts of advances to get paid back if the initial run doesn’t sell out, and cache doesn’t put food on the table…pay models have really, really got to change.

9. Fanfiction writing doesn’t count as writing experience

Hey there Basic White Dude, we see you’ve graduated summa cum laude from A Big Fancy Expensive School. Of course we’ll set you up to publish your first novel you haven’t actually quite finished writing yet. Oh, Fanperson, you’ve written 15 novels for your favorite fandom in the last 4 years? Get to the back of the line!

Do I really need to explain this? The only way to get better at writing is to write. Placing fanfiction on official trad pub “do not interact” lists is idiotic, especially considering many of the other items on this list. (They know how to engage readers! They have existing followings! They understand genre and tropes!) Being a fanfiction writer should absolutely be a marketable “I am a writer” skill. Nuff said. (To be clear, I’m not saying publishers should publish fanfiction, I’m saying that being a fanfiction writer is relevant and important experience that should be given weight when considering an author’s qualifications, similar to, say, publishing in a university’s quarterly.)

10. Tagging conventions (read: lack thereof).

Oh, did I trigger you? Hahahaha. Good luck with that.

We rate movies so that people can avoid content they don’t like. Same with TV shows and video games. Increasingly, those ratings aren’t just “R – adult audiences,” either; they contain information about the nature of the story elements that have led to the rating (“blood and gore,” “alcohol reference,” “cartoon violence,” “drug reference,” “sexual violence,” “use of tobacco,” and many, many more). So why is it that I can read a book and, without warning, be surprised by incest, rape, graphic violence, explicit language, glorification of drug and alcohol use, and so so much more? That it’s left to readers to look up spoilers to ensure that they’re not exposed to content that could be upsetting or inappropriate for their children or, or, or, is insane. So often, too, authors cling to “but we don’t want to give away our story,” as if video game makes and other media makers do want to give away their stories. This shouldn’t be about author egos or ~originality~ (as if that’s even a thing)…it should be about helping readers make informed purchasing decisions. It’s way, way past time that major market books include content warnings.

Thank you for joining us, this has been our extended rant about how frustrated we are with traditional publishing. Helpful? No. Cathartic? Most definitely yes. 🤣

*

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How to Edit an Over-Length Story Down to a Specific Word Count

One of the most wonderful things about writing as a hobby is that you never have to worry about the length of your story. You can be as self-indulgent as you want, make your prose the royalist of purples, include every single side story and extra thought that strikes your fancy. It’s your story, with no limits, and you can proceed with it as you wish. 

When transitioning from casual writing to a more professional writing milieu, this changes. If you want to publish, odds are, you’ll need to write to a word count. If a flash fiction serial says, “1,000 words or less,” your story can’t be 1,025 and still qualify. If a website says, “we accept novellas ranging from 20,000 to 40,000 words,” your story will need to fall into that window. Even when you consider novel-length works, stories are expected to be a certain word count to fit neatly into specific genres – romance is usually around 80,000 words, young adult usually 50,000 to 80,000, debut novels usually have to be 100,000 words or less regardless of genre, etc. If you self-publish or work with a small press, you may be able to get away with breaking these “rules,” but it’s still worthwhile to learn to read your own writing critically with length in mind and learn to recognize what you do and do not need to make your story work – and then, if length isn’t an issue in your publishing setting, you can always decide after figuring out what’s non-essential to just keep everything anyway. 

If you’re writing for fun? You literally never have to worry about your word count (well, except for sometimes in specific challenges that have minimum and/or maximum word counts), and as such, this post is probably not for you.

But, if you’re used to writing in the “throw in everything and the kitchen sink” way that’s common in fandom fanfiction circles, and you’re trying to transition only to be suddenly confronted with the reality that you’ve written 6,000 words for a short story project with a maximum word count of 5,000…well, we at Duck Prints Press have been there, we are in fact there right now, as we finish our stories for our upcoming anthology Add Magic to Taste and many of us wrote first drafts that were well over the maximum word count.

So, based on our experiences, here are our suggestions on approaches to help your story shorter…without losing the story you wanted to tell!

  1. Cut weasel words (we wrote a whole post to help you learn how to do that!) such as unnecessary adverbs and adjectives, the “was ~ing” sentence structure, redundant time words such as “a moment later,” and many others.
  2. When reviewing dialog, keep an eye out for “uh,” “er,” “I mean,” “well,” and other casual extra words. A small amount of that kind of language usage can make dialog more realistic, but a little goes a long way, and often a fair number of words can be removed by cutting these words, without negatively impacting your story at all.
  3. Active voice almost always uses fewer words than passive voice, so try to use active voice more (but don’t forget that passive voice is important for varying up your sentence structures and keeping your story interesting, so don’t only write in active voice!).
  4. Look for places where you can replace phrases with single words that mean the same thing. You can often save a lot of words by switching out phrases like “come back” for “return” and seeking out other places where one word can do the work of many.
  5. Cut sentences that add atmosphere but don’t forward the plot or grow your characters. (Obviously, use your judgement. Don’t cut ALL the flavor, but start by going – I’ve got two sentences that are mostly flavor text – which adds more? And then delete the other, or combine them into one shorter sentence.)
  6. Remove superfluous dialog tags. If it’s clear who’s talking, especially if it’s a conversation between only two people, you can cut all the he saids, she saids.
  7. Look for places where you’ve written repetitively – at the most basic level, “ ‘hahaha,’ he laughed,” is an example, but repetition is often more subtle, like instances where you give information in once sentence, and then rephrase part or all of that sentence in the next one – it’s better to poke at the two sentences until you think of an effective, and more concise, way to make them into only one sentence. This also goes for scenes – if you’ve got two scenes that tend towards accomplishing the same plot-related goal, consider combining them into one scene.
  8. Have a reason for every sentence, and even every sentence clause (as in, every comma insertion, every part of the sentence, every em dashed inclusion, that kind of thing). Ask yourself – what function does this serve? Have I met that function somewhere else? If it serves no function, or if it’s duplicative, consider cutting it. Or, the answer may be “none,” and you may choose to save it anyway – because it adds flavor, or is very in character for your PoV person, or any of a number of reasons. But if you’re saving it, make sure you’ve done so intentionally. It’s important to be aware of what you’re trying to do with your words, or else how can you recognize what to cut, and what not to cut?
  9. Likewise, have a reason for every scene. They should all move the story along – whatever the story is, it doesn’t have to be “the end of the world,” your story can be simple and straightforward and sequential…but if you’re working to a word count, your scenes should still forward the story toward that end point. If the scene doesn’t contribute…you may not need them, or you may be able to fold it in with another scene, as suggested in item 6.
  10.  Review the worldbuilding you’ve included, and consider what you’re trying to accomplish with your story. A bit of worldbuilding outside of the bare essentials makes a story feel fleshed out, but again, a little can go a long way. If you’ve got lots of “fun” worldbuilding bits that don’t actually forward your plot and aren’t relevant to your characters, cut them. You can always put them as extras in your blog later, but they’ll just make your story clunky if you have a lot of them. 
  11. Beware of info-dumps. Often finding a more natural way to integrate that information – showing instead of telling in bits throughout the story – can help reduce word count.
  12. Alternatively – if you over-show, and never tell, this will vastly increase your word count, so consider if there are any places in your story where you can gloss over the details in favor of a shorter more “tell-y” description. You don’t need to go into a minute description of every smile and laugh – sometimes it’s fine to just say, “she was happy” or “she frowned” without going into a long description of their reaction that makes the reader infer that they were happy. (Anyone who unconditionally says “show, don’t tell,” is giving you bad writing advice. It’s much more important to learn to recognize when showing is more appropriate, and when telling is more appropriate, because no story will function as a cohesive whole if it’s all one or all the other.)
  13. If you’ve got long paragraphs, they’re often prime places to look for entire sentences to cut. Read them critically and consider what’s actually helping your story instead of just adding word count chonk.
  14. Try reading some or all of the dialog out loud; if it gets boring, repetitive, or unnecessary, end your scene wherever you start to lose interest, and cut the dialog that came after. If necessary, add a sentence or two of description at the end to make sure the transition is abrupt, but honestly, you often won’t even need to do so – scenes that end at the final punchy point in a discussion often work very well.
  15. Create a specific goal for a scene or chapter. Maybe it’s revealing a specific piece of information, or having a character discover a specific thing, or having a specific unexpected event occur, but, whatever it is, make sure you can say, “this scene/chapter is supposed to accomplish this.” Once you know what you’re trying to do, check if the scene met that goal, make any necessary changes to ensure it does, and cut things that don’t help the scene meet that goal.
  16. Building on the previous one, you can do the same thing, but for your entire story. Starting from the beginning, re-outline the story scene-by-scene and/or chapter-by-chapter, picking out what the main “beats” and most important themes are, and then re-read your draft and make sure you’re hitting those clearly. Consider cutting out the pieces of your story that don’t contribute to those, and definitely cut the pieces that distract from those key moments (unless, of course, the distraction is the point.)
  17. Re-read a section you think could be cut and see if any sentences snag your attention. Poke at that bit until you figure out why – often, it’s because the sentence is unnecessary, poorly worded, unclear, or otherwise superfluous. You can often rewrite the sentence to be clearer, or cut the sentence completely without negatively impacting your work.
  18. Be prepared to cut your darlings; even if you love a sentence or dialog exchange or paragraph, if you are working to a strict word count and it doesn’t add anything, it may have to go, and that’s okay…even though yes, it will hurt, always, no matter how experienced a writer you are. (Tip? Save your original draft, and/or make a new word doc where you safely tuck your darlings in for the future. Second tip? If you really, really love it…find a way to save it, but understand that to do so, you’ll have to cut something else. It’s often wise to pick one or two favorites and sacrifice the rest to save the best ones. We are not saying “always cut your darlings.” That is terrible writing advice. Don’t always cut your darlings. Writing, and reading your own writing, should bring you joy, even when you’re doing it professionally.)
  19. If you’re having trouble recognizing what in your own work CAN be cut, try implementing the above strategies in different places – cut things, and then re-read, and see how it works, and if it works at all. Sometimes, you’ll realize…you didn’t need any of what you cut. Other times, you’ll realize…it no longer feels like the story you were trying to tell. Fiddle with it until you figure out what you need for it to still feel like your story, and practice that kind of cutting until you get better at recognizing what can and can’t go without having to do as much tweaking.
  20. Lastly…along the lines of the previous…understand that sometimes, cutting your story down to a certain word count will just be impossible. Some stories simply can’t be made very short, and others simply can’t be told at length. If you’re really struggling, it’s important to consider that your story just…isn’t going to work at that word count. And that’s okay. Go back to the drawing board, and try again – you’ll also get better at learning what stories you can tell, in your style, using your own writing voice, at different word counts. It’s not something you’ll just know how to do – that kind of estimating is a skill, just like all other writing abilities.

As with all our writing advice – there’s no one way to tackle cutting stories for length, and also, which of these strategies is most appropriate will depend on what kind of story you’re writing, how much over-length it is, what your target market is, your characters, and your personal writing style. Try different ones, and see which work for you – the most important aspect is to learn to read your own writing critically enough that you are able to recognize what you can cut, and then from that standpoint, use your expertise to decide what you should cut, which is definitely not always the same thing. Lots of details can be cut – but a story with all of the flavor and individuality removed should never be your goal.

Contributions to this post were made by @unforth, @jhoomwrites, @alecjmarsh, @shealynn88, @foxymoley, @willablythe, and @owlishintergalactic, and their input has been used with their knowledge and explicit permission. Thanks, everyone, for helping us consider different ways to shorten stories!

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Commonly Confused Words: Saucy Edition!

This week, we’ve got a special edition of “Commonly Confused Words,” featuring the word confusions we’ve seen come up in erotica! Needless to say, some of these words are a smidge on the saucy side, so only read on if you want to see that kind of thing. 

Often, which of these words an author uses marks the difference between a story being very sexy, and a story being very strange, so to all writers out there – it’s worth learning the differences, asking for help, or Googling if you’re not sure!

The confusions in this post were suggested by people on our Discord, and every single one is something we’ve seen actually happen!


wonton vs wanton

wonton (noun): a small dumpling or roll with a savory filling, common in some regional Chinese cuisines, usually served in a soup. For example: “The wontons in this soup are delicious!”

vs.

wanton (adjective): unrestrained, licentious, brazen, or flagrant, especially used in sexual contexts or to refer to the flirtatious and/or sexual behavior of an individual. For example: “His moans grew more wanton as his arousal intensified.”


bear vs. bare

bear (noun): a carnivorous mammal. Alternatively, commonly used slang for a relatively large and hairy gay man. For example: “The bear hunted for salmon,” or, “I love going to that bar, there are lots of bears there.”

vs.

bare (adjective): empty, exposed, without covering, or naked. For example: “She emerged from the pool, water sluicing from her bare skin.”

vs.

bear (verb): to have patience or tolerate. For example, “Please bear with me,” or, “She bore the hardship well.”

vs.

bare (verb): to reveal, expose or share. For example: “Stay and listen, and I’ll lay all my secrets bare,” or, “With the cameras on, he bared all.”


contraception vs. contraption

contraception (noun): a means of preventing pregnancy. For example, “When the Planned Parenthood open, people in the area were able to access multiple means of contraception,”

vs. 

contraption (noun): a device, usually arcane, strange, or unnecessarily complicated. For example, “When I asked you to build something, I didn’t mean you should put together one of those Rube-Goldberg contraptions.”


prostate vs. prostrate

prostate (noun): a small gland located between the bladder and the penis. It can be stimulated anally, and many people find the sensation pleasurable. For example, “A finger thrust into them and rubbed over the nub of their prostate.”

vs.

prostrate (verb): to lie down flat on the ground, or to suffer from severe exhaustion or a feeling of being overwhelmed. For example: “After his husband died, he was prostrate with grief.”


perineum vs. peritoneum

perineum (noun): the stretch of skin between the (scrotum or vulva) and the anus. For Example: “I licked over her perineum, then lapped eagerly at her clit.”

vs.

peritoneum (noun): the thin membrane that lines the abdominal cavity and covers the abdominal organs. For example: “The peritoneum plays an important role in protecting many organs, such as the spleen.”


semen vs. seamen

semen (noun): reproductive fluid which contains spermatozoa. For example: “She squeezed her eyes shut as her climax overwhelmed her, and semen spurted from her throbbing cock.”

vs. 

seamen (noun): the people who work aboard a ship. For example: “The navy employed many able-bodied seamen.”

cum vs. come

This one is a trick. There is no difference (despite what some websites say). Some people say “cum” is the noun and “come” is the verb but this is merely an attempt to formalize and rationalize usage; in reality, they’re the same word, but “cum” is more slang/colloquial, and “come” is more commonly used in writing and is more technically correct – however, neither is wrong.


And, finally, the hardest one (we mean “most difficult” one, get your head out of the gutter!)…

lay/laid/laid/laying vs. lie/lay/lain/lying

lay (verb): to place an object down. Present tense: lay. For example: “I lay my jacket over the back of my chair.” Past tense: laid. For example:  “I laid my jacket over the back of my chair.” Present participles: laid or laying. For example: “Where is the book?” “Oh, I laid it on the shelf over there” or “The book was laying on the shelf.”

vs. 

lie (verb): to settle into a prone position on a surface. Present tense: lie. For example: “He feels like watching TV, so he lies down on the couch and grabs the remote.” Past tense: lay. For example: “He felt like watching TV, so he lay down on the couch and grabbed the remote.” Present participles: lain or lying. For example: “I have lain still for many hours” or “She was lying on her bed, asleep.”

vs. 

to get laid (verb): slang for having sex. For example: “Oh man, I found the hottest guy on Tindr – guess who’s getting laid tonight?”

vs. 

lay (noun): slang for a sexual experience, usually applied as a description of a person along with an adjective rating how positive or negative the sexual experience was. For example: “Dude, no, whatever you do, don’t hit that. Worst lay of my life.”

Most of the confusion between these two derives from the past tense of “to lie” being “to lay,” versus “to lay” being the present tense of a different word. The easiest way to figure out which one you need between lay and lie is figuring out the subject of the sentence. If the subject is interacting with an object (a book, a jacket, etc.), then you probably want “to lay.” If you subject is moving themselves then you probably want “to lie.” For example: “After picking the cat up, she lay it down on her bed,” versus, “the cat lies down on the bed.” Or, in the past tense… “After picking the cat up, she laid it down on her bed,” versus, “the cat lay down on the bed.” Yeah, it’s kinda confusing – if you’re really struggling, try figuring it out in present tense first, and then switch it to the tense you actually need once you’ve figured out which one is the right word.

So, now that we’ve resolved some confusions – go forth and PORN!


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Fanart and the “Right of Publicity”

As we make progress on our second anthology, And Seek (Not) to Alter Me, a collection of queer transformative works inspired by William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, we confronted the following question:

If artist contributors do works recognizable as performers in specific adaptations, does that present copyright issues?

To solve this, we did some research, and we thought we’d share the results with you all!

The use of likenesses of performers in original artwork doesn’t fall under copyright protections. Instead, in the United States, performers are protected by the right to publicity, which gives individuals the exclusive right to license the use of their identity for commercial purposes. This means that, for an image or likeness of a performer (or other public figure) to be used in a commercial context, either the performer needs to be the commercial originator (as in, they need to be the person selling the thing), or they need to have given their express permission.

However, there are two significant exceptions to this.

  1. Freedom of the press allows photographs of performers to be used without their permission if the image(s) in question are considered newsworthy. This is how paparazzi are able to sell images to tabloids, for example, and in general, legal precedent has favored unauthorized photographers over the privacy and publicity rights of performers.
  2. First amendment rights to artistic freedom allow artists to create transformative  works of artistic merit that include a likeness of the individual, even without permission, and to sell the original or reproductions of that work.

Obviously, the second of these is what is applicable in our case, and in the case of the majority of fanartists. The challenge is assessing what counts as “transformative.” As with fanfiction, this is a legal gray area, and there’s precedent both in favor of creators and against them. Different states have also interpreted their laws more loosely or more strictly, as have different countries. Therefore, there’s no hard and fast rule for “this is transformative enough” and “this isn’t.” 

Creators are on their most solid legal ground when they either:

  1. create a work that heavily modifies the appearance of the performer(s) depicted in a distinct artistic style (for example, doing an abstract work versus doing a photorealistic one) or
  2. sell only limited numbers of the work, in a way considered “artistic” instead of one seen as “for commercial gain.”

And again, these metrics are subjective – a major example in the case law, for example, involves an artist who did a work that featured the likeness of Tiger Woods – without permission – and then put it on T-Shirts which the artist sold. The court ruled in favor of the artist, deciding the work was transformative enough, even though the approach was clearly commercial. But in another instance, where an artist did a painting of the Three Stooges and put that on a shirt, the court ruled that the aim of the artwork had been primarily to create fiscal gain and commercial, and that the work wasn’t sufficiently transformative. It can truly go either way, with the vicissitudes of legalities, the views of the ruling judge, state and national and international law, and the individual aspects of each case.

In addition, a creator will be on much safer legal ground if they are careful not to violate any copyrights or trademarks. For example – if a creator uses a reference image taken by someone else, that reference image could be copyrighted. For a second example – if a creator makes a piece of artwork and then labels it as “Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter” the issue of trademark is introduced – Harry Potter and many related terms are trademarked – and could face legal challenges from multiple directions. Avoiding these pitfalls can help reduce the risk of a legal challenge.

If a creator makes a piece with a recognizable likeness on it, and sells reproductions featuring that likeness, they are potentially at risk of being sued. However, those of us in fandom know that the extent to which most celebrities pursue their right to sue people is limited. Consider how many shirts are up on sites like Redbubble with art featuring recognizable images of main characters from popular franchises. Theoretically, any of these individuals could be sued, but in practice, few have been sent cease-and-desists, much less actively taken to court. Because these individuals have chosen not to enforce their right to publicity across the board, they’re also in a weak position to start enforcing it – when a right such as right of publicity isn’t consistently enforced, applying it to specific cases can become difficult for celebrities (in a similar way to how trademarks can lapse into the public domain if a trademark holder doesn’t vigorously defend their trademark, which is how some brand names have legally entered the vernacular even though they’re technically trademarked). 

Performers are more likely to pursue legal action if the work in question damages their “brand” – for example, if it’s derogatory – or if the work in question is to be widely distributed for extensive profit (profit the performer receives no amount of, because they haven’t been involved). They’re also most likely to win a legal case if they can prove damage has been done to them – as in, if the work(s) in question have cost them jobs, opportunities, money, etc.

When considering whether to create a work that includes a likeness of a public figure, a creator should therefore consider:

  1. Do they have the permission of the public figure in question?
  2. Does the public figure have a history of pursuing legal action against creators who use their likeness?
  3. How widespread will sales of this work be, and how profitable?
  4. Is the work insulting or derogatory toward the public figure?
  5. Is the work being produced and sold in a state or country that have “right to publicity” laws?
  6. On the off chance they choose to sue, is the creator able to protect themselves?

In conclusion: there are real risks, but they are minimal for creators in the United States. If you have concerns, make sure you research intellectual property law for your area, contact an intellectual property lawyer, and/or research the celebrity you are creating artwork of to see if they have a history of vigorously protecting their rights. When in doubt, it’s safer to opt not to sell the work in question.

From the point of view of the anthology we’re working on, we’ll be advising our artists to keep in mind the “significantly transformative” aspect, both as regards “right to publicity” and copyright of reference images, and try to avoid direct representations of living actors who have portrayed these roles – because Duck Prints Press operates under the laws of the state of New York, and in New York, “right to publicity” rights end upon the death of the person in question. A photo-realistic image of a performer playing a specific role would likely be a no-go, if that performer is still alive, but otherwise – especially considering the positive light our work will portray performers in, the transformative nature of our project, and our projected scale of sales (not more than in the hundreds, we expect) – we don’t predict having any issues, even though technically we could be sued if we use a recognizable likeness of a living performer.

For those coming at this issue without our specific interests – make sure you do your research, understand your rights and the rights of the performer/celebrity, be aware that you could potentially be vulnerable, though the odds are low, and consider speaking to a lawyer if you have concerns.

Good luck, and happy creating – and selling those creations!!

DISCLAIMER 1: We are not lawyers. Nothing in this post is intended as, nor should it be interpreted as, legal advice. This post is for general information purposes, and may not be the most up-to-date information or the most relevant to your individual circumstances. If you have questions about intellectual property law, your best bet is always to consult an intellectual property lawyer.

DISCLAIMER 2: Duck Prints Press LLC is incorporated in the state of New York in the United States, and operates under the laws of the state and country. Creators in other states and other countries should supplement this information with research specific to their location. This website lists information state-by-state.

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What is an Alpha Reader?

Stories don’t exist without writers – that much is a given. But the best stories are never a solo effort, even if they have only a single author. Other people will contribute, in big ways and small, and potentially fill many roles to help the author see the work through to completion. Three of the most prominent of these roles are:

Alpha readers

Editors

Beta readers

Each does something different, but often in fandom-based writing spaces they’re used interchangeably in ways that can lead to confusion and a mismatch of expectation and performance between the author and the person helping them. As such, Duck Prints Press will be doing a series of three posts over the next few weeks that discusses each of these roles in detail. The purpose of these posts is 

  • to provide a definition of each role (alpha, editor, and beta)
  • list examples of services a person in each role might provide for an author, 
  • provide insight into some appropriate ways for an author to interact with their helper, and
  • to suggest some points that an author and their selected feedback provider should discuss before the alpha/editor/beta begins work, to ensure that both individuals have a positive experience and that the helper is providing the kind of information that the author is seeking.

Two things of note before we proceed:

  1. There is no single definition of these terms. We’re not claiming to be an authority or to say, “these are the correct definitions and all others are invalid.” Instead, our goal with these posts is to provide a common framework to help authors and individuals interested in helping them communicate about the nature of the roles to be undertaken, and to give information to help both writers and people who want to help writers understand what help is desired and how they can support each other.
  2. If an author hasn’t said “I’m looking for an alpha/editor/beta,” then it doesn’t matter what form of feedback you provide – unsolicited alphaing, editing or betaing is generally unwelcome and often unhelpful. Yes, some authors DO like and appreciate it. However, most don’t. Never use these posts as, “now that I know what alphaing is, I’ve read your story and now I’m alphaing for you!” That’s not how this works. Alphaing, betaing, and editing are always collaborative, undertaken between an author and feedback provider that they’ve entrusted to help them. If you’d like to give feedback to an author about something of theirs you’ve read…ask them if they want it! And respect their response! It’s really, truly that simple.

What is an Alpha Reader?

Alpha readers are generally one of the first “outsiders” brought in to support an author, and, depending on how the author approaches their process, may be sought before the story has been written. The primary roles of an alpha reader are to brainstorm with an author, flesh out the plot, fill plot holes, solve conundrums and issues that arise, and help the author get their vision of the story put down in concrete words. Alpha readers may be recruited short term, to help an author work through a specific issue, or they may accompany the author from conceptual inception through the entire first draft or beyond – some may even end up credited as co-authors, depending on how many ideas they end up contributing! In fandom spaces especially, alphas are often described as cheerleaders, and in many cases, they are explicitly asked not to provide extensive criticism and editing – alphas work with the understand that they have been brought in to help an author complete a first draft, and so the issues they help with are those more relevant to a work at an early stage of development.

Many people short-hand alphas by jokingly refer to them as “rubber duck debuggers,” inspired by the habit many computer programmers have of talking out a problem to an inanimate object until they figure out the solution. The idea is that alpha readers often don’t have to do anything – they just have to listen to the author until the author figures out the solution themselves! Sometimes, that’s truly all that an alpha will need to do, but don’t assume that’s all an alpha will do, and don’t play down the critical role that many alphas have played in the development of stories by giving timely, insightful feedback. An alpha can be invaluable in solving issues, seeing through thorny challenges, resolving points of uncertainty and confusion, and providing the author with the motivation, support and encouragement they need to see a first draft through to the end. Alphas are great, and are definitely not interchangeable with a rubber duck (however much we at Duck Prints Press love our rubber ducks).

Services/Responsibilities/Activities Associated with Alpha Reading:

  • Meet with the author to establish the scope of help the author would like. This post includes a thorough list of tasks often undertaken by an alpha reader, but it’s unlikely that an alpha reader will do all of these tasks. 
  • Listen to and incorporate world building and character information provided by the author, and work to provide feedback that fits with what they’ve established.
  • Read an author’s notes or outlines to get a general idea of what the author is trying to accomplish
  • Discuss story elements with the author to whatever degree of detail and specificity the author requests.
  • Offer insight and ideas to help solve problems that the author approaches you about, within the scope of what the author has said they’re willing to change or modify about their story.
  • Cheerlead, praise, and support the author as they write their first draft.
  • Indicate sentences, passages, and/or chapters that work especially well, and those that lacked adequate explication for the alpha to understand what took place.
  • Point out issues with representation, areas where the author might need to do more research, use of racist or sexist tropes, and other aspects of the story that may be problematic. (Please remember to be careful of the difference between “this story contains problematic elements” and “this author is problematic.” Many authors intentionally playing with these elements.)
  • Make sure to offer feedback on what is good and what you like!!
  • If given a full first draft manuscript to review, post-reading you may be given a list of questions the author would like you to answer, indicating specific areas that the author would like more information about and/or help with.
  • Very rarely, an author may ask for an alpha to edit for grammar, structure, word choice, and other technical elements. However, in “standard” definitions of alpha reading, these roles would be excluded.
  • Be honest and objective! Don’t say something is good if you don’t think it is, and don’t say something is bad just because you didn’t like it.
  • Understand that an author is never obligated to take an alpha’s advice!

Services/Responsibilities/Activities Associated with being an Author Working with an Alpha Reader:

  • Have a clear idea of what an alpha reader will be asked to do before recruiting one – ideally, any request for an alpha should include this information! Don’t just say, “I’m looking for an alpha reader” and assume that anyone who responds will understand that to mean the same thing as you do. Instead, say, “I’m looking for an alpha reader to help me with…” and indicate the specific area(s) that you’re requesting support for.
  • Don’t ask for feedback if you’re not prepared to be given feedback. Understand that requesting an alpha may mean opening yourself up to criticism; never forget that you invited them, so respect them and appreciate them. Don’t ask someone to alpha for you if you don’t respect their opinions and assessments.
  • Communicate your expectations and needs clearly.
  • Listen to the alpha reader and take their advice under consideration.
  • Indicate when you’ve reached a decision, so the alpha reader doesn’t continue to focus on a point that has been resolved.
  • Be kind and polite, even if ultimately you reject the alpha’s recommendations.
  • Ask clear questions directly related to what you’re trying to find out about what works and doesn’t work in your manuscript. Don’t try to be vague or passive to try to “get at” if something worked; it’s better to be honest and straightforward.
  • Employ multiple alphas to get different viewpoints.
  • Do not take criticism of the work as criticism of you as an author and person.
  • Respect the alpha reader’s boundaries.
  • Understand that the alpha is never required to agree with you, and may ultimately dislike your work.

Communication is critical! If both parties aren’t clear about their expectations and responsibilities, how can they effectively work together? It’s also critical to set and maintain boundaries. An alpha doesn’t agree to be “on call” 24/7. An author doesn’t agree to hear endless criticism of their ideas. An alpha should never be subjected to material that they’ve indicated may trigger them. An author should never be subjected to an alpha harping on a pet idea that the author has already indicated they don’t wish to use. If the relationship isn’t working for both individuals, it should be terminated. Furthermore, just because the relationship doesn’t work, that doesn’t mean either individual is “bad” at fulfilling their role; often, it’s simply a mismatch in communication and work styles. And that’s okay! Don’t bad mouth someone you failed to work effectively with…but also, don’t feel you need to keep working with them!

Suggested Questions an Alpha Reader and Author Should Discuss Before Working Together:

Not all of these will be relevant to every author/alpha relationship, but they’re worth being aware of!

  1. Will the alpha reader be paid for their help? This is generally not relevant in fan spaces, but may be if the alpha is working on an original work destined for publication.
  2. Will the alpha reader be credited when the final product is made public?
  3. Will the alpha reader be expected to keep silent about what they’ve read, or perhaps even sign a Non-Disclosure agreement or other form of contract?
  4. When is the alpha usually available? When is the author usually available? Will meetings be held regularly on a schedule, as-needed, or elsewise?
  5. What software and/or accounts will the alpha be expected to use? For example: a specific word program, a gmail account, Discord, etc.
  6. How will the author and alpha communicate primarily? For example, by chat program, by e-mail, by telephone, etc.
  7. Is the alpha required to be familiar with other works in the author’s oeuvre?
  8. Is there any potentially triggering material in the work that the alpha should be made aware of?
  9. Does the alpha have any unusual triggers or squicks that the author should be aware of?
  10. At what stage of the project is the alpha reader being invited in – conceptualization? Writing? Completed first draft?
  11. What specific aspect(s) of the book is the author looking for feedback on? The plot? The characters? The pacing? If a specific line landed as intended? Is the dialog catchy? Is the world-building thorough? 
  12. Will the alpha reader be providing long-term help (eg, for the entire time an author is writing the first draft of a novel) or short-term help (eg, an author has gotten stuck at a specific point and wants to discuss that only with someone else)?
  13. Is the author looking for someone to primarily listen to them and let them work it out on their own?
  14. What are the main themes/tropes/elements/etc. the author hopes to communicate? It’s often best to discuss this after the alpha has read the work, so the author can see if they’ve succeeded, but it depends on when in the process the alpha has been brought on. If the alpha is helping develop plot and concept, it will be important for the alpha to understand upfront what the author is trying to accomplish.
  15. Is the alpha familiar with areas relevant to what the author is writing? For example, if the story is fanfiction, is the alpha familiar with the franchise? If the story is in a specific genre, is the alpha acquainted with the tropes of that genre? If the story is in a specific setting – especially if it’s a setting with a high degree of technical specificity – is the alpha able to offer insight and knowledge to support accurately portraying that setting?
  16. Does the author want criticism at this stage? (Usually, inviting an alpha implies the answer to this is yes, but don’t assume!)
  17. Does the author want editing done? (Usually, inviting an alpha implies the answer to this is no, but don’t assume!)
  18. Are there aspects of the story the author feels are “set in stone?” Are there aspects the author doesn’t mind changing, or would even prefer to change?
  19. Is the alpha welcome to provide suggestions for developments outside the framework of storyline and world building provided by the author? For example, would the author be open to having the alpha say, “maybe you should create a new character to fill this role,” or, “maybe you should change the entire ending,” or would they prefer that the alpha work with the plot, characters, pacing, etc., elements that the author has already created?
  20. Check in throughout the process – Is the way I’m doing this working for you? Is this feedback helpful? Are my responses as the author enabling you to do your work as an alpha? Do we need to change anything to ensure that this is providing the kinds of support that the author has requested? Talk to each other! You’re in this together. It’s okay if things need to be changed (in the story, in the relationship, in the communication style, you name it) – change them until you find a way to collaborate that works best for both parties.

You’ll see the common theme in all this advice is that the key to a successful alpha/author relationship is communication. Authors: be clear and honest about your project and your needs. Alphas: be clear and honest about your assessments and suggestions. Work together, not in opposition. Now, go forth and write things, and read things, and make amazing stories!

We expect part two of this series – What is an Editor? – to come out next week (5/23/21) and part three of this series – What is a Beta Reader? – to come out the week after (5/30/21). Depending on interest and the success of this series, we may also consider making posts for other roles (for example, sensitivity readers, language pickers, culture pickers, subject experts, etc.). We’ll update this post with links as additional posts are published.