Fifth Anniversary Party: Q & A with the Editors

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

Next month, Toasted Cheese marks its fifth anniversary. To start the celebration early, the editors had a virtual get-together to answer some of your most burning questions.

Background Image: Shai Barzilay/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Q: Whatever inspired you to use Carroll’s poem as the backdrop for this wonderful online community? And just what the heck is a Bandersnatch!? Is it akin to a Jubjub?

Bellman: Well, we called ourselves Snarkers, and I’d always strongly associated the word Snark with the poem, which I tried to memorize at one point in my life. (I think I made it through Fit The Third, but no one would ever let me get terribly far in trying to recite it for some reason, so it was thankless work.) It seemed like a natural match.

Baker: In fourth grade, we were given the assignment to draw one of the characters from “Jabberwocky” and I chose the Bandersnatch. It looked a lot like Grimace from McDonalds. I don’t think it has anything to do with Jubjubs, which are birds, I believe. I also freely admit to being the one who coined “snark” as our code for bad writing. A snark is a kind of half-snort, half-huff with an eye roll—for flair.

Q: The “B names” the editors use as aliases are all taken from the poem. How did you chose your B-name (assuming you use one) and do you think it suits you?

Beaver: Well, the Beaver is Canada’s national animal, so it is apropos. Also, I can do a good beaver impression. And no, that is not obscene. I just have big front teeth. Okay, why does even that sound indecent?

Bellman: Since I got us the web site and was sort of the “ringleader,” I was the titular leader of the expedition. Which meant everyone else did more of the real work 😉 Besides, I was perplexed and distressed when the bowsprit got mixed up with the rudder…

Boots: “Boots” to me sounded like a cat and I like cats, so I chose it. It also reminded me of the classic song, “These Boots Are Made For Walking” and Nancy Sinatra, so it was a good fit all around. Yeah, it suits me. I found a great picture titled “Boots” of some slinky woman in big tall boots with high heels, and I love it. But, I still kind of think of cats when I hear it.

Baker: I really, really wanted my B-name (Baker) for two reasons. One was that it was the surname of a main character in the book I’d recently finished. The other was that I actually do bake quite a bit. I’d bake more if my husband weren’t so strong-willed about eating sweets. Baking is a good stress reliever for me.

Q: Do you call each other by your B-names?

Boots: Only in TC forums, really. I use their original online names, the ones they were when I met them, because it’s how I think of them. Guess I’m old and unchangeable.

Baker: The only people I really call by their B-names are Boots and Beaver and only in the context of TC. I’m like Boots in that I use their “real” names more often, even for myself.

Q: Which editors have met in real life?

Beaver: I’ve met Boots!

Boots: Beaver came to visit me in Portland, OR. and stayed a couple of nights while attending a writing “seminar.” She knows why that’s in quotes. She didn’t have trouble with the pets or the kids or even the husband. She and I did dueling chats and she logged on from my house to tag-team the rest of the TC gang. Sadly, I couldn’t show her much of Portland because I don’t know where anything is and I don’t drive! We went to Powell’s and went out for a drink with the “teacher” of the “seminar” to a school that’s now a high-end jazz bar (no joke). We still had fun.

Bellman: I met the Barrister once. It was fun! I was hoping to meet Billiard in January, but events intervened and it is not to be. Maybe next year, Billiard?

Baker: Billiard and I have met twice, both times in my town. I have a photo to prove it, taken in a restaurant which no longer exists. So I guess we win.

Ana: Haven’t met any of them in real life. Should fix that.

Q: Let us in on your favorite in-joke among the editors.

Ana: I doubt we should let them in on the all-time dreck list, but it kind of amuses me.

Beaver: That has to be either “bummer” (the final word of a story told from the PoV of a rabbit scooped up by hawk then dropped splat onto a highway) or “cough cough THUD” (description of narrator’s boss dying).

Bellman: cough, cough, thud.

Boots: My favorite is actually an icon. The little freakish pink icon you probably always wondered about on our icon list is an “in” joke. We call it the “paramecium”. What is it? It’s a HUG. It was someone’s idea of a nice, soft, cuddly hug. It looks like someone flattened a bear with a steamroller.

Billiard: Vampire cop comes to mind, as does “magic wand.”

Baker: Mine would be the butterknife. I forget exactly what the discussion was but it was during a live chat/class on the site where we’d all met (and coined “snarking” etc.). Someone was telling a “suspenseful” story that was just laughable and there was a prediction that the MC would use a butterknife to defend herself against the predictable intruder in her house. Sure enough, there was the butterknife. I said “aloud,” “Is she going to spread him to death?” Somehow it got all mixed up with our vampiric in-jokes and we now believe that you can use a butterknife to kill a vampire. There are a lot we have a vampires. The mere mention of a vampire can send us off on giggle fits.

Q: What are some of your favorite stories by other editors?

Beaver: I found this question really hard to answer because, like Baker says below, the reason I connected with my co-editors in the first place is because with each of them, there was something in their writing that clicked with me. So, picking one thing is hard. I am impressed by all of my co-editors who have completed novels.

Ana: One of Baker’s erotic stories made Best Women’s Erotica a couple years ago.

Bellman: TC 1-1. Pick one at random that isn’t mine…

Boots: Baker’s Whited Sepulchers tops my list. I read it in about 3 days, and it’s a full blown novel. It’s beautiful, interesting, and fun. Beaver’s articles rock and her recent one about copyright laws rocked my universe and saved my cookies in a sticky situation.

Billiard: Tough one. I think all of the TC editors are amazingly talented writers.

Baker: There’s Boots’s naked cooking story, which has to be on the list. Beaver’s silver balloons story and her work about Riley and well just about everything really. Billiard’s is the only chick lit I’ve ever liked b/c it’s actually about something; I like best the drafts she sends for feedback because I like to watch her process. Ana’s piece “How Long is the Night?” has stuck with me over the years because it was inventive and evokes such a feeling of comfort and gives a sense of character. When it all comes down to it, I think my softest spot is for Bellman’s comic mystery short story “From Soup To Nuts,” a printout of which I recently found in my files. It was the first online short story I ever commented on because I felt so moved by the quality of the writing, the structure, the humor, etc. After I commented, Bellman dropped me an e-mail thanking me for the comments and the rest, as they say, is history (and that was almost six years ago!).

Q: What’s your favorite piece of unpublished writing (your own)?

Beaver: I do have a soft spot for So Far Away… The killing a wild pig scene is a classic! 😉

Bellman: A fairy tale parody/parable I’ve been working on for about 15 years. I’ll finish it eventually!

Ana: I have this unfinished novel swirling around in my head…

Boots: “Photographs,” a piece of creative non-fiction based on my experiences with some pictures. It’s probably the best thing I’ve ever written because it’s memorable, short, and says a lot about the author herself. I submitted it to Writer’s Digest Short Story Contest, but it didn’t win anything. Haven’t really found a venue for it beyond that.

Billiard: I wrote a piece inspired by one of my favorite songs. It (the story) is called “Dissonance.” The song is called “Black Monday” and is achingly, heart-wrenchingly sad. I think the story does it a tiny bit of justice. Now, if I could only find someone to publish it…

Baker: I have a few short stories tucked away here and there but I think my favorite is probably the piece I’ve worked on most recently. It’s a novella, possibly a novel, with the working title Reasons For Moving. I usually just call it “Seth,” same as I call Beav’s So Far Away “Riley.”

Q: When did you know you had to be a writer?

Baker: I had written stories and poems for pleasure since I was in elementary school. I liked the idea of being able to entertain people without having to be in the room. I also enjoyed reading my stuff aloud, when invited. I never thought I’d write as anything more than a diversion. When I was a freshman in college, I had to write a kind of character profile for the character I was playing in my final scene in my actor’s studio course. I got a “10+” on the paper and my theater teacher commented, “Will you continue to write?” She also said, in front of the class, that she called a friend of hers to read the paper aloud because she thought it was so funny. I thought, “Maybe I should continue to write. Or she’s saying ‘please stop acting.’ One or the other.” So I switched to an English major and then went on to take more writing courses and I ended up majoring in creative writing.

Boots: I remember writing my first Nancy Drew-type “novel” in the 7th grade. I think that was my first honest attempt at anything truly literary. I know I wanted to be one before, but I was SURE I would be in the 7th grade.

Beaver: I decided that I wanted to be a writer when I was 12 (I actually wrote it down in my journal), but it’d been simmering for about a year, since I’d received some gushing praise for a poem I’d written. I knew that I was a writer when I was 28, when I made a conscious decision to get serious about writing after a long hiatus and a difficult year. The very first thing I wrote in the sketchbook that I turned into a notebook on the fly was: “I am a writer.”

Ana: I started writing in my 40s, in part as a way of finding myself by trying on other characters I’d invented.

Billiard: Probably in grade school, when I started writing a novel about being stranded in the ocean… my little brother had one of those tent-tops for his bed (remember those?) and I used to pretend I was in a boat by myself out on the ocean. And I started writing my little stories about it in a composition notebook. I have no idea what happened to that notebook.

Bellman: I think I was in 1st grade. I’d just published my first book, about my dog. The teacher published it for me. In third grade I started my own comic strip called “Wormy Apples” about worms in apples that told each other jokes.

Q: Do you do any other creative work?

Beaver: I used to do a lot of arty/crafty stuff, but not so much anymore. I choose to put that energy into writing. I do like photography. And I cook, which yes, is creative. I’m not a stick-to-the-recipe type person.

Baker: I bake. I knit. I scrapbook. I decorate. I webdesign. I take photos. I do whatever I can that has any element of creativity to it.

Ana: I love singing Renaissance Polyphony.

Bellman: I write songs occasionally, does that count?

Boots: I also make graphics in Paint Shop Pro. What I mostly do with it is create things FROM things, because I can’t draw a lick. But I do webset design (See all the stuff around here? That was me.) and photo alterations and awards and… whatever comes to mind. I’ve been doing a lot of icons lately based on Whedon characters (Buffy, Angel & Firefly) and whatever else strikes me as needing to be an icon. I also do some minor photography, mostly of the flowers in my yard and area.

Q: Do you write or edit as part of your real-life job?

Bellman: My job title is editor, actually. I both write and edit. Almost all the time. TC is rather like a busman’s honeymoon.

Billiard: Not currently, but I used to. I worked in journalism for several years.

Boots: Sadly, not even a little right now. However, I’m hoping for a promotion. Which means mostly MEMO writing, but will include some informational writing as well. Of course, TC is one of my real-life jobs, so I do edit all the time!

Q: If you went to college, what was your major?

Beaver: Biology. Though I was originally a creative writing major.

Ana: Physics and Math.

Bellman: Physics.

Boots: I went to technical college and my major was Travel & Tourism. See how much that helped in my current vocation of cellular phone customer service? Man, I’m glad I went and did that.

Billiard: Communication arts, with a minor in writing.

Baker: English, with a creative writing emphasis, and a minor in American history.

Q: Is editing satisfying?

Beaver: Yes. Like Billiard, I am amazed by the quality of the submissions. Yes, there’s a lot of crap in the slush pile, but at least once a quarter, we’ll get a submission that simply makes me go: “Wow.” And that makes wading through the slush worthwhile.

Billiard: Yes. I am constantly amazed and gratified at the quality of submissions to TC.

Bellman: For the most part, yes.

Ana: Mostly, yes. The babysitting aspects, not so much.

Boots: Editing your own work is always satisfying. Editing others can be kind of touch and go. It’s great to see when someone’s used at least some of your advice to strengthen their story. Or, when they’ve learned from some simple mistake you pointed out and don’t do it again in the next story they write.

It sucks when you see someone repeat the same simple mistake over and over from story to story. It’s worse when they don’t seem to understand why it’s a mistake and why they can’t choose to do it that way. Why they aren’t instantly qualified to make a million grammar mistakes or break writing and publication rules before they’ve been published.

Baker: It can be very satisfying, especially when someone sends something fantastic your way and even more so if the person has never been published. I love TC being someone’s first publication credit. I’m also very proud of the quality of work we get. I feel like TC is a strong writing credit to have in one’s portfolio. It’s also satisfying when you comment on a story and you see a later draft and your suggestion was used. I just proofread a piece by Billiard and saw where she’d used one of my suggestions and it felt great. It never gets old.

Q: What will make you stop reading a submission?

Beaver: Bad grammar/spelling/etc.—not typos, I’m not going to penalize anyone for a typo—but when a writer repeatedly makes the same error, it shows me that s/he doesn’t recognize it as a mistake. An implausible plot and/or one that I’ve seen a hundred times. Uninteresting characters. A story that doesn’t have a point, or degenerates into a rant, or that is near-incomprehensible because either the writing isn’t very good or the writer is trying too hard to be “deep.”

Ana: Lots of typos or grammatical errors will sometimes annoy me to the point that I stop reading. Also, if the piece fails to some to some kind of a point or at least introduce an interesting character in the first 10% or so of its length, I’m outta there. Conversely, interesting characters or ideas will keep me there. Another pet peeve: special effects that don’t come through in the e-mail or whatever version I’m reading (like, for example, Microsoft quote and em-dashes). Not every editor has or can run Microsoftware. Use standards (like pure ASCII).

Bellman: One of the main reasons I stop reading is eye fatigue. If a paragraph goes on for too long, my eyes hurt trying to read it. I’m also turned off by things that sound like catalogue descriptions and excessive exposition. I tend to skip over that kind of thing.

Boots: A poorly written and misspelled cover. We don’t ask for a lot in our covers, but a little professionalism goes a long way. If you’ve got bad sentences and misspelled words in the cover, the rest of the story can not be good. It’s very telling and will stop me from reading before I even reach the story itself.

Baker: A full name turns me off, like “Jane Smith sat in the doctor’s office…” So does a “police blotter” description: “Jane arranged her auburn hair and blinked her marine-blue eyes as she rose to her full height of five foot three inches tall.” A good or bad cover letter can also affect my reading of a story.

Q: What will make you keep reading a submission?

Beaver: Wanting to know what happens next. Interesting characters or premise. Writing that demonstrates a mastery of technique, that the writer actually reads, works at his/her craft, etc. If it’s a pleasure to read, regardless of what it’s about or where it’s going, I’ll keep reading.

Bellman: I keep reading if I’m emotionally engaged right away. You have to make me care what happens next. Stories are most memorable when they are really good, or when they are really horrid. The really good ones stick around as haunting memories, and the really bad ones stick around as in-jokes.

Boots: What keeps me reading is the first paragraph. If your first paragraph is compelling, I keep reading. If I’m bored by over explanations or backstory, confused by poor grammar, yawning from technobabble, or wondering when the next good TV show comes on, you’re done. Remember the first paragraph hits the reader over the head with a club so you can drag them off to your cave. Take me to your cave.

Baker: Good dialogue can keep me reading a story with mediocre prose aspects. I also like to be shown something new or unexpected. It really all comes down to character. Is this someone I want to follow through this adventure?

Ana: I really like strong or memorable characters.

Q: How do you get the ideas for the Absolute Blank articles you’ve written? Are you working on any right now?

Boots: A lot of my ideas come from editing the work of others. I see a lot of the same mistakes and think, “Oh, good idea for an article.” No, I’m not currently working on one. I’m currently working on having an idea for an article, which is… not working on one.

Bellman: I write about the things I struggle with most, or the things I do best. I should probably be working on one right now, but November just ended…

Beaver: I just keep my eyes open for ideas at all times, and when something strikes me as a possibility, I jot the idea down. Nothing at the moment. Just finished one with Baker (November).

Billiard: Not currently working on anything, and I usually get my ideas by divine inspiration. 😉

Baker: I usually get ideas from other articles I read or from postings on our forums (of questions, stories, whatever) or the ideas just come to me. I’m not currently working on any but I’m thinking of doing on on dialect in 2006.

Q: How did you come up with the ideas for your contests? How do you decide on the topics?

Ana: The latest Three Cheers contest we kicked around for a bit before we came up with the play-within-a-play theme. Seemed intriguing at the time, and a number of entries did really interesting things with it.

Boots: I get ideas from everywhere, really. Things I saw, things I heard, things I watched on TV, whatever and whenever. I write a lot of random stuff down as I think of it or overhear conversations or see it happening. Makes good fodder when you need it. I submit several ideas to the group that will be editing and they submit several, then we vote. Pretty democratic, but it works well and there haven’t been any fistfights I’m aware of.

Beaver: I got the idea to run AMT as a creative non-fiction contest because some of the best submissions TC had received were CNF. It’s something I like to read, and it gave us some variety in the contests. The topics—like AB articles, it’s just something I keep simmering at the back of my mind, and when I run across something I think will work, I jot it down. I try to keep them summer-related.

Baker: Dead of Winter was my baby. We were thinking about running a contest so I think we were all brainstorming possiblities. There are many good horror contests that close October 31, before anyone’s really in the Halloween mood. The phrase “dead of winter” came to mind and I thought it would be fun to open a horror or suspense story contest at that time of year and set the deadline on the shortest day of the year. The topics are fun to come up with. For DOW, I usually find inspiration in something I’ve read. I think, “I’d like to read more like this” so I set it as a DOW topic to get more stories. I think about possible DOW topics a little too much; I may have next year’s ready already.

Q: What’s your favorite section/aspect of Toasted Cheese?

Beaver: The Literary Journal and Absolute Blank.

Baker: If, for some reason, we had to get rid of all but one part of TC, I would keep the e-zine, including the contests. I enjoy reading submissions and giving people the opportunity to be published. I also like seeing the diversity of writing in our submissions, from beginners to those who’ve written for years. You can’t always tell which is which just from the submission.

Ana: I love the impromptu prompted writing. I’m always amazed at what comes out of my head.

Bellman: The forums.

Boots: I love Mustard & Cress—our “Resources” area. I recommend it to everyone and use it everywhere for everything writerly. Someone will ask me, “Know a good site for names?” and I can instantly say, “I know at least six, let me point you to them.” The other best thing is the forums’ “View Posts Since Last Visit” feature, which shows everything since my last actual visit and catches me up all around the TC forums in one blessed moment.

Q: Tell us about what you’re writing now and about the last creative writing you’ve done.

Ana: At the moment I’m involved in a NaNoWriMo novel (National Novel Writing Month: you write a 50k word novel in November). It’s a rewrite of a cool idea I started on 5 years ago, which stalled. Low-tech scifi, I suppose you could call it.

Baker: The last creative writing I did was on the aforementioned novella, in March. I had a few false starts on short stories but couldn’t get into writing them. I write a blog entry (or two or ten) about five days a week. I co-wrote the November AB with Beaver, our first collaborative project believe it or not. I also wrote the December Snark Zone, which is about how I never have time to write.

Beaver: I just finished NaNoWriMo for the second year in a row. My current writing project is of a more academic nature, but I’m kind of fired up about it. Because I’m geeky that way.

Bellman: Just finished a children’s fantasy for NaNoWriMo. Next is going to be a series for younger children, and lots and lots and lots of editing on the NaNo project.

Boots: I just finished, and won, NaNoWriMo’s 50,000 words in a month challenge. I wrote my 50k on a story I based off a Greek myth about Amazons. The myth is about a Queen of the Amazons named Lysippe who had a son. The son was favored by Athena, but Aphrodite wanted him for herself. He refused her, and she cursed him to be in love with only his own mother. Unable to bear the humiliation of it, he drowned himself in the river. Artemis tells Lysippe that the land is now cursed and she must take her Amazons and find a new homeland. My story is the journey of the Amazons to thier new homeland, from the point of view of thier chief healer. (whew) So, that’s the last thing I did… and that I’m still working on. 50k was maybe half. Guess I just need one more month! (heh).

Final Poll Results

Publishing and Print-on-Demand:
What POD is, what it isn’t,
and when it might be right for you

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker) & Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

Techno-jargon: print runs and print-on-demand

Print run and print-on-demand are printing technologies rather than business models.

“Print run” is the conventional method of printing a book. A publisher prints a batch of books using offset printing technology, i.e. a printing press. The number of books printed depends on projected sales. When the first batch of books is sold, another batch is printed. You may have noticed several printings listed inside the covers of popular books, e.g. “First Edition, 17th Printing.” This refers to the print run. Most commercial publishers, and certainly all the major ones, use print-run technology.

“Print-on-Demand” (a.k.a. publish-on-demand, POD) is a newer method of printing a book. Its rise in popularity can be traced to the advent of digital printing technology. Like the name suggests, books are printed “on demand,” or after an order is received.

On a per-book basis, POD is more expensive than print run. This means that cover prices of POD books are generally higher than print run books. However, because the technical set-up is less expensive than print run, it can be cost effective to use POD if very small quantities of a book are required and/or the anticipated demand for the book will be sporadic.

Because digital technology is used, it’s generally quicker to print a book on demand, however, it also often means that the quality of the book suffers.

POD saves the expense of storing books and means that there’s no waste when books go unsold, but because there’s no space reserved to store books, returns can be problematic.

Because it is so cost-effective, most vanity publishers have turned to POD technology. This association has led to the common assumption that any publisher that uses POD technology is a vanity publisher. This is not true. Some small commercial publishers do make use of POD technology. More on that below.

Background Image: Waag/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Different kinds of publishing: trade, vanity and self-publishing

The three general publishing business models are commercial (or trade) publishing, vanity (or subsidy) publishing, and self-publishing. All three types of publishing can use either print run or print-on-demand technology. However, it is much more common for commercial publishers to use print run and for vanity publishers to use POD.

Commercial (Trade) Publishing

Commercial publishing is the accepted method of publishing, and the only one respected by the publishing industry itself. A commercial publisher:

  • derives its profit from book sales, so it must be highly selective in what manuscripts it chooses to publish—a commercial publisher must choose works that will sell!
  • purchases the right to publish a manuscript (and often other subsidiary rights, e.g. movie rights) from an author.
  • usually pays the author an advance (a sum paid prior to the publication-and sometimes the writing-of the book). Note that some small independent commercial publishers cannot afford to pay their authors advances.
  • assumes all the risk of publication and production costs. There are no costs to the author.
  • edits the manuscript.
  • designs the book, including layout and typesetting, cover and interior design, binding, paper quality, etc.
  • satisfies all legal formalities, such as acquiring an ISBN, registering copyright, etc.
  • pays a printer for the initial print run and warehouses the books until they are sold. (The publisher owns all copies of the book printed.)
  • markets (promotes) the book and distributes it under its own imprint.
  • pays the author royalties based on the sales of the work.

As mentioned earlier, most commercial publishers publish books in print runs. However, they do use POD technology in some limited circumstances, when the expense of a print run isn’t justified, e.g. to print advance reading copies or to keep backlist books available.

Additionally, some small independent publishers use POD exclusively as a more economical publishing method. This can lead to confusion. If a publisher publishes books using POD technology, how does an author know if it is a legitimate or a vanity press? Over and above all other considerations, remember: a legitimate commercial publisher will not ask an author for money, regardless of the technology used to produce his/her book.

Other clues you’re dealing with a reputable publisher:

  • The publisher’s website is focused on selling books, not attracting new authors.
  • It has been in business for years rather than months (if it has a good rating on the BBB website, all the better).
  • It offers authors a standard publishing contract. If you’re not sure what to look for, consult a lawyer who specializes in publishing.
  • It pays advances. (However, remember that a very small publisher may not be able to pay its authors advances.)
  • It has its authors work with an editor and requires manuscript revisions prior to publication.
  • It focuses on particular genre or market and publishes a small number of titles per year.
  • Its books have been reviewed by reputable reviewers and are available in off-line bookstores and libraries.
  • The quality of the publisher’s books is good. (Buy or borrow a published title and check it out!)
  • Its book prices are in line with similar books published by other publishers.
  • Its staff is happy to answer your questions.

One final note: Be wary of any publisher that calls itself “traditional.” This is a term vanity publishers invented to make themselves sound more legitimate, and is not one commercial publishers use.

Captus Press is a commercial publisher that uses POD technology. From their website: “We design and typeset hard and soft-cover books with a state-of-the-art page-imaging system, that allows efficient traditional print runs as well as “print on demand” for customized editions.” Among other things, they publish textbooks, one of which I happen to have on my shelf (Criminal Law & Procedure by Jennie Abell & Elizabeth Sheehy).

To give you an idea of the quality, this book looks like it was printed directly from a Word document. It’s 8.5 x 11″ size. The cover is solid burgundy, with black and white type. There are no graphics inside or out. The table of contents looks like one auto-generated in Word. The fonts are a mixture of Arial and Times New Roman. It’s an unattractive book, but beyond that, it’s hard to read because the text is arranged in two columns without intuitive breaks between sections.

The only way this book would sell is to a captive audience. Since that was exactly what the publisher had, it was probably a good deal—cheap to produce, thereby increasing the profit for both publisher and authors.

Vanity (Subsidy) Publishing

Note: “Subsidy publisher” was originally used to denote publishers that were in all other respects like commercial publishers (selective, edited manuscripts, provided marketing & distribution, etc.), but required authors to pay part of the cost of printing and binding their books. These subsidy publishers usually published niche non-fiction or academic books, i.e. books that had merit, but a tiny target audience. The term “subsidy publisher” has now been co-opted by vanity publishers in an effort to sound more legitimate. True subsidy publishers are rare.

All fee-based print-on-demand publishers are vanity publishers. A vanity publisher:

  • derives its profits from authors’ payments, not from book sales. Authors are its primary source of income.
  • does not purchase manuscripts. Is paid by the author to publish the author’s book, i.e. authors pay for the cost of publication.
  • often asks for the same rights as a commercial publisher, without offering any of the same benefits to the author in return.
  • is not selective. Will publish any author’s work as long as the author is willing to pay for the service.
  • does not edit manuscripts.
  • may charge authors separately for each aspect of the publication process, e.g. design, printing, marketing, distribution.
  • generally expects authors to market and distribute their own work, while setting the book’s price, controlling discounts, etc.
  • distributes books under its own imprint.
  • if publishing via print run, owns all copies of the book printed, retains all copies except for a few “author copies” (and probably charges a storage fee). If the author wants additional copies, he/she must purchase them.
  • (theoretically) pays authors royalties.

These days, most vanity publishers operate exclusively online and use POD technology, e.g. iUniverse, PublishAmerica, xLibris. However, there are still some vanity publishers that publish in print runs, e.g. Vantage Press.

Advantages of Vanity Publishing:

  • Content-wise, vanity publishing offers more independence for an author than commercial publishing—there’s no editing!
  • Fee-based POD is much less expensive than both print run vanity and self-publishing.
  • Since vanity publishers are designed to attract authors, the vanity publishing process is easier to navigate than self-publishing.
  • It’s a reasonable option for small projects that an author doesn’t intend to market commercially, such as a memoir intended for friends and family only. (Self-publishing may be a better option.)
  • It can be an opportunity for established authors to bring out-of-print books back into circulation (the fact that work has already been published reduces vanity stigma).
Disadvantages of Vanity Publishing:

  • Fees paid are unlikely to be recouped by sales.
  • It’s often more expensive than self-publishing, because vanity publishers charge more than the actual cost of production in order to make a profit.
  • Publisher has no incentive to design a quality book, because its profit has already been made. Vanity publishers generally offer standard templates for interior design, typeface, size, cover, etc. and charge extra to vary from those templates, if they allow it at all. These templates are immediately recognizable to those in the publishing industry.
  • Because vanity publishers are not selective, their books are not respected by the publishing industry. Most offline bookstores and libraries will not accept vanity-published books, and reputable reviewers will not review them.
  • Author does not have the same control over the publishing process that he/she would if self-publishing.
  • There is an extremely wide range of vanity publishers, from those who are honest about the service they offer to scammers that attempt to look legitimate and promise fame & fortune. It can be difficult to know with whom you are dealing.


Self-publishing is often lumped in with vanity publishing. Authors who have used a print-on-demand vanity publisher often say that they’ve “self-published” their books. This is a misnomer. Self-publishing is the publishing of books by those who have written them. Self-publishers are personally responsible for every aspect of the publishing process from writing to distribution. A self-publisher:

  • is the author.
  • pays all costs of publishing the book.
  • retains all rights to his/her book. (Note, however, that if the author is looking to sell to a commercial publisher later, the book will be considered previously published, so he/she couldn’t sell “first rights.”)
  • is responsible for editing his/her own manuscript or hiring an editor to do so.
  • has complete control over every aspect of the production of his/her book, including cover design, interior design, typeface, paper quality, etc.
  • hires a printer or book manufacturer to produce a professional-quality book. A reputable printer charges only for the printing and binding of the print run.
  • or prints books him/herself using a photocopier or computer printer. In this case, books may be printed on demand, but they will be of a lesser quality than a print run.
  • can choose a name for his/her “publishing house.” Only this name or the author’s own name appears as the publisher of the book. (The book printer’s name does not.)
  • is responsible for all marketing and distribution. However, self-publishers set their own pricing and discount terms, can make special offers, etc.
  • owns all copies of books printed. Responsible for storing them (some printers offer warehousing). Self-publishers may do whatever they like with their books at no further cost.
  • receives all proceeds from the sales of his/her books.

An example of self-publishing is What Color is Your Parachute? by Richard Nelson Bolles, which “was first published December 1, 1970 — self-published, in fact, with the author using a local copy shop (CopyCopia) in downtown San Francisco.” Notice that the author printed the book himself; he did not rely on a vanity publisher to do the printing. Ten Speed Press later picked up the book, which comes out annually.

Two examples of printers / book manufacturers are Western Printers and Centennial Bookbinding. Notice how they’re all business. No hype, no hard sell, no rants about the “evil” publishing industry.

Advantages of Self-Publishing:

  • Self-publishing is a more reputable alternative to vanity publishing.
  • Although expensive, it may be cheaper than vanity publishing because an author can shop around for individual services and is not paying a middle-man.
  • Authors have full control over the process, which often results in better-quality books. For example, an author could hire a graphic designer to design a unique cover, rather than being stuck with a template.
  • Authors retain full ownership of their rights.
  • In some circumstances, a book may have a greater chance of success because the author is more committed to promoting it than a publisher is.
  • If your book sells well, or wins awards, a literary agent or commercial publisher may pick it up. (Check out Writer’s Digest’s annual “Self-Published Book Awards.”)
Disadvantages of Self-Publishing:

  • While not as maligned as vanity published books, self-published books still suffer a lack of respect in the publishing industry, because there’s no third-party screening. An author may have difficulty getting his/her book reviewed, placed in bookstores and libraries, and accepted by wholesalers and distributors.
  • Self-publishers are responsible for the entire process of publishing, promoting, and distributing their books. It takes a huge commitment of time, money, and energy.
  • To cut costs, self-publishers may choose printing and binding techniques that are not of trade quality, e.g. computer-printing and staple, comb, or wire binding, rather than offset printing and perfect binding.
  • Costs are unlikely to be recouped by sales.

If your reasons for wanting to self-publish are more about serving a niche market, less about wanting “to be published,” and you consider any profits that you earn gravy, then self-publishing might be for you. Niche non-fiction is non-fiction with a small, but real, target audience, e.g. books tied to a very localized market or esoteric technical manuals.

Most major commercial publishers aren’t interested in niche market books regardless of their merit, because they simply won’t sell enough copies. Do, however, try smaller independent publishers before going it alone.

Self-publishing may be a good choice for an author who:

  • Is an expert in his/her field.
  • Is familiar with the target audience for his/her book.
  • Has a built-in or guaranteed market, e.g. a professor who can assign his/her book as a required text.
  • Has fan base and direct access to his/her target audience, e.g. an inspirational speaker who can sell books after his/her talks.
  • Intends to promote his or her work personally, and has contacts with publications and reviewers.
  • Wants to get his/her book on the market quickly because it contains time-sensitive material.
  • Wants to use the book as a promotional tool, e.g. a chef/restaurateur who has written a cookbook.
  • Wants editorial and/or design control.
  • Is reprinting a book that was commercially published, but is now out-of-print.
  • Has created a compilation of pieces that previously appeared in commercial/trade publications, e.g. a poet might want to publish a chapbook of poems that have been published in literary journals to sell at poetry readings.

Self-publishing is not a good option for authors who think that:

  • They’re going to get rich.
  • It’s easier than finding an agent or publisher.
  • “Commercial publishers just don’t understand my genius.” If commercial publishers are rejecting your book, chances are, it needs more work. Revise, revise, revise.

Arthur T Cushen‘s The World in My Ears is the perfect example of when to use self-publishing: the author was an expert who was famous in his (obscure) field, the amateur radio hobby of “DXing.” He had a tiny, but fanatical, target audience. The book would never be a commercial success but it’s a classic to those “in the know.”

What you might be asking yourself about getting published

Q: I really want to be published—now! What’s the best way for me to get my book into print?

A: Slow down! The first question to ask yourself, before “how do I get published,” is “why do I want to be published?”

  • Do you want to share your book with tons of people?
  • Do you want to see your name on a cover?
  • Do you want to make money?
  • Do you want to wash your hands of this book so you can work on another?
  • Do you just want to say “I’m published” and leave it at that?
  • Do you want respect from writers, editors, and agents?

One huge fact about POD, whether it’s vanity publishing or not, is that a lot of people in the writing business see it as vanity-based. Going the POD route can place a stigma on your book as well as on you.

If you finish “My Masterpiece” and POD-publish it, then write “Another Glorious Work” and attempt to sell it to agents or trade publishers, they may look at your past publishing history and say, “Why didn’t she sell that first book? Is it that bad? Is she that impatient? Did she refuse to edit for publication?” Your fellow writers (and maybe some potential readers) may have the mindset of “It’s in print but it’s not really published” — kind of like putting a story in your family’s holiday newsletter and calling it “published.” If you don’t care what people think and you really can’t wait to get published, POD may be for you.

If you decide to use a commercial (non-vanity) publisher who uses POD, you might not have any say in whether POD technology is used to print your book. If this is the case, give some more thought to whether this publisher is the one for you. If everything else about the publisher feels right to you, it’s probably still a good fit. Be ready to explain the publisher’s screening process, compensation, and other assets to those who challenge the validity of the publication.

Q: I still want to publish my novel but I’d like to do a chapbook of my short-shorts. Should I not go the POD route because of what an agent might think?

A: Agents worth their salt will not hold that against you. They’re probably not looking to publish a chapbook or an anthology of your short stories or poems; they want to sell your novel to a publishing house. This is the flip side of the previous question. In a case like this, an agent could see this as a sign of a serious writer looking to get her feet wet in the publishing world. If you do well selling copies (at readings, for example), an agent might say to himself, “She’s got the drive to make it happen.” It’s when you POD a major project—your life’s work—that an agent might say “Hmm…”

Certain POD publishers do send up red flags with agents and commercial publishers. Before working with iUniverse, xLibris or similar wide-scale POD outfits, consider that they come with a built-in stigma that can be tough to shake. Small publishers who use POD technology do not carry that same stigma and can be worthwhile, depending on your situation. A little research in this area goes a long way and you’ve already started by reading this article.

Q: Agents/publishers want me to change my book. I like it the way it is. Wouldn’t I be happier going the POD route and preserving my work the way I want it?

A: You might be happier… at least today. The question to ask yourself here is, “Why don’t I want my book edited?” If you think the editorial changes being suggested will substantially change your book, even bring about a major rewrite, you might want to step back from the book and look at it with fresh eyes. The agent wants to sell your book. The agent knows what will get the book sold. If she didn’t see potential in your work, she’s not going to be interested in being your agent. By saying, “I want to work with you to make this book great and here’s how we can get there,” she’s doing her job. Remember: she doesn’t make money unless the book sells.

I have a few books by a writer who desperately needs an editor. Her storytelling is great; she writes about ghosts, urban legends, etc. in central Pennsylvania and her tales are compelling. Unfortunately she does not know the difference between “its” and “it’s,” she uses pseudonyms for real people and forgets to makes all her changes (someone called “Susan” in one paragraph is “Sally” in the next), her stories often lack basic structure and the list of editorial gaffes goes on and on. I own three of her books (which I just want to go through with a big red pen) and all three have different publishers. I know people who would enjoy reading her stories but I can’t bear to give a copy as a gift because the lack of editing is embarrassing—for me!

She might not realize how bad it is since she publishes time and again. I don’t understand why she won’t have an editor look at her work (or even run it through Word before sending it to the publisher) but if I were an agent who saw her stuff, I’d insist on editing before publishing. She now has a reputation for doing slipshod work, even among those of us who enjoy the storytelling. Writers in similar genres who have quoted her or quoted portions of her stories in their own work have often made side comments that they’ve had to “extensively edit” the source material. I certainly wouldn’t want people to tackle my book with a big red pen and then snark about it. I’d rather say “Yes, give me some editorial feedback.”

I bring this up because I feel that having an editor look at your work is never a bad idea, even if you have luck at getting published. You might gain new insight about your work. An editor might catch that you have a continuity error. If you absolutely, positively refuse to do one lick of editing (“it’s perfect the way it is”), your only solution to seeing your work in print might be going the POD route. Self-publishing is a second option but it can be expensive and a writer who won’t pay for an edit probably isn’t interested in paying to self-publish either.

If you decide to go POD but do your own editing, keep in mind that some POD publishers limit the number of times you may go back and make corrections. If you’re paying up front to have your book published, get it as ready-to-print as possible. If you go back to fix things one time too many, you may have to pay again.

Q: Won’t I make more money if I go POD?

A: Not necessarily. As mentioned above, POD is often pay-in-advance. You’ll have to hustle to recoup those costs, giving up writing time, personal time, etc. to promote your book and sell copies. Having a website where people can order simply won’t be enough. You need to be out there pushing yourself and your book if you want to break even. As we mentioned, POD publishers often set a high cover price. Very, very few POD writers make any money back, much less a significant profit.

If you have the patience to go through a trade publisher, they pay you royalties from the sale of your book. No matter how you publish, educate yourself on how royalties work and what you can expect to reap from sales. Read your contracts carefully.

No matter what publishing route you take, prepare yourself not to ask, “Would I have made more money if I’d gone the other route?” Second-guessing your rewards won’t do you any good after the fact.

Q: I’m not publishing to make money. I’m publishing to get my art out there. Since I don’t care how much money I make, wouldn’t POD be a good choice for me?

A: It might be the perfect answer for you. If you have the money to POD several copies of your work and hand it out (or sell it for less than you paid), the very idea that people are reading your stuff can give you a real high. You could get your book out there, get a following, and then print your next book however you like (you might want to POD again). If the artistic pursuit is most important, go for it!

You also might be publishing for other reasons than making money or seeing your name on the cover of your Great Novel. If you’ve gathered Grandma Louise’s recipes (along with her interesting stories, of course), maybe you could turn to POD. The next time one of your cousins asks you for the sweet potato pie recipe, you can tell him to get his own copy.

Café Press has a POD-like program that is free to you. You can buy copies of your own book to distribute or link to Café Press from your blog or Website and allow people to buy that way. It might be a good way to do POD without sinking a lot of money into it.

Q: I want control over the way my book is marketed so I think I should go POD.

A: Good idea, so long as you have the time to get out there and sell, sell, sell! Ways to promote your POD book include creating a website (with order form), going to bookstores for signings and readings, attending festivals (not just book festivals but anything relevant to your topic) and doing radio or TV interviews. Keep in mind that promoting isn’t free. You’ll have to get to all these places, transport copies of the books, buy gas or even plane tickets.

Some bookstores, usually major chains, refuse to carry POD books; I heard a staff member at my local Borders discussing this with an author the last time I was in the store. It’s part of that POD stigma we mentioned. Smaller, independent bookstores are more flexible. Some might consider doing a consignment type of deal with you. See the AB article on zines for more info on self-promotion, working with bookstores, etc.

Q: I’m a little wary about publishing at all. How do I know if I’m getting taken?

A: If less-than-complete confidence is holding you back, take a deep breath. If you aren’t confident about getting an agent, you probably shouldn’t rush to a publisher instead. It’s okay to get a few rejections first; don’t let the possibility of rejection stop you from trying to get your book to a publisher. The first part of this article gave good examples of what to look for in a legitimate publisher.

Learn as much as you can about your publisher, POD or otherwise. Unless they’re absolute scam artists, they are not going to take “My Masterpiece” and run with it. Even a scammy vanity publisher will hang around long enough to get paid. Once you pay them, why do they still need your manuscript? Don’t sink your money into publishing unless you’re confident about the publisher with whom you’re working. If you’re unsure about it, keep querying those agents (See AB articles The short, sweet guide to writing query letters and So You’ve Finished Your Novel: Now What?)

I’ve decided to go POD. Now what?

  • Familiarize yourself with the legal aspects of POD. If you’re publishing Grandma Louise’s Best Cajun Recipes, this might not be relevant to you. If you’re doing a POD novel, for example, you need to learn about contracts, rights, payment, “fair royalty” etc. We have included a list of relevant URLs at the bottom of this article for your reference. You might also want to speak to a lawyer before you sign anything, especially a check.
  • Tell yourself that you’re probably not going to be 100% happy with the artistic aspects of the book and that’s okay. Sure by skipping the editor, the content is exactly what you want—the cover, typeface, paper quality, etc. won’t be (unless you’re very lucky). If you want more say over these cosmetic aspects, think about holding out for a trade publisher. You might not have much more say but in general the quality is better and you’ll be happier with the finished product.
  • Get ready to sell, sell, sell! As mentioned earlier, you need to promote your book. If you don’t intend to get it out there, why are you publishing in the first place? Whether you’re publishing to make money or just to share your work with the world, you’ll need to let people know about it somehow.

POD can be the ideal solution for many writers. The best advice we can give, as writers to other writers, is to make sure you’re not “settling” for POD. If POD is your first choice and the best for you and your work, go for it!

Relevant links for more information

On publishing:


Final Poll Results

Five Quick Tips
for Getting Your Story Published

Absolute Blank

By Erin L. Nappe (Billiard)

The slush pile. It’s where no writer wants to be, and where no editor wants to go. As an editor at Toasted Cheese, I’ve had to wade into the slush pile on many occasions. As a writer, I’ve tried my hardest to keep out of it.

I recently had the good fortune to have one of my short stories published in the national-circulation women’s magazine Woman’s World. In light of this success, I thought I would share a few quick tips for keeping out of the slush pile, a vital first step toward seeing your name in print.

Background Image: Nino/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

  1. Know your market!

It’s no mistake that the magazine that published my story is one that I’ve read. My mom has been picking up Woman’s World and reading it since I was a kid. And because I read just about anything you put in front of me, I’ve been reading it for about that long. As I got older, I started looking at the fiction with a writer’s eye, and truly believed this was a market I could succeed in. The stories that I’ve submitted to Woman’s World were written specifically with this market in mind.

Woman’s World publishes two types of stories; short romances and mini mysteries. Knowing this, I wouldn’t send them, oh, say a science fiction story. I was writing a short romance, and I know that Woman’s World‘s readers want uplifting, character-driven stories with endings that hint at the possibility of true love. With that in mind, I wouldn’t send them my angst-ridden piece about a young woman in love with a musician who keeps breaking her heart. You need to understand the magazine or journal’s readership, and you need to be aware of what the editors are looking for. If you don’t think your story will fit in, it probably won’t.

Read the publication before submitting. At the very least, send for a sample copy or spend some time online or at a bookstore looking at examples of what’s been published by this market. Getting published is kind of like dating or job hunting
 it’s all about finding the right match!

  1. Follow submission guidelines carefully.

Always, always, be sure that you’re following the most recent submission guidelines. When I first submitted to Woman’s World, the maximum word count for short romances was 1,500 words. Sometime between when I submitted the story and when it reached the editor’s hands, that word count was cut to 1,100 words. Fortunately for me, the editor liked my story and gave me a chance to cut it down to fit their guidelines. But the bottom line is this; if you’re given a maximum word count, don’t go over.

Make sure you submit your manuscript in the correct format. If the magazine or journal wants a hard copy of your story, don’t send an e-mail (and vice versa). If the online journal asks for submissions in the text of an e-mail, don’t send an attachment. Check the most recent copy of the Writer’s Market for guidelines, or check to see if guidelines are listed on a web page. Don’t let your manuscript be thrown out over something you could have avoided!

  1. Submit only your best work (editing and proofreading are your friends!).

I cannot stress this enough—before submitting, make sure your manuscript is clean and error-free. Once, I submitted a story that had a punctuation error in the first sentence. It was immediately rejected (with the error circled), and I’ll never know if it was thrown out because of the story’s content or because of my mistake. Don’t let this happen to you! Post your story at one of our online forums for critique before sending it in. You want to be completely happy with what you’re submitting. Have a meticulous friend check your spelling and grammar. (Even the best of us make mistakes—trust me!)

  1. Be professional.

When submitting your work, always do so in a professional manner. Manuscripts should always be typed, and you should make sure to include all requested information such as address, telephone number, e-mail address, etc. When submitting manuscripts through regular mail, you should always include a SASE to help the editor keep you informed of the status of your submission.

DO NOT inquire about the status of your submission until after the time designated in the submission guidelines. If the publication’s guidelines state that they normally respond within three months from submission, don’t write an inquiry letter after two. Editors are busy, and bothering them unnecessarily is not recommended. After the designated four-month period had passed, I sent an inquiry to Woman’s World with another SASE, and heard of my acceptance via e-mail within a couple of weeks.

Be sure to keep good records of what you submitted, when and where. You don’t want to embarrass yourself and forever be tagged as an amateur by sending an inquiry letter to the wrong publication!

  1. Keep your cover letter and bio brief.

Brevity should be the soul of your cover letter. The editors don’t need to know your life story. My cover letter looks something like this:

Dear Ms. Granger:

Enclosed is my short story “A Mother Knows” (1,089 words). You are the first editor I am soliciting with this story, as I believe Woman’s World is the ideal place for it. [Your introduction. Name the story, give the word count, maybe say something nice about the publication. You might possibly also include a brief synopsis.]

I am a part-time college writing instructor and substitute teacher in Buffalo, New York. I am also a contributing editor at, an online writing community and literary magazine. I have had short stories published in the online magazine and in Journal of the Blue Planet. [Your bio. Keep it simple. List any publications
 if you don’t have any publications, leave this part out. Don’t draw attention to it!]

I will wait four months for your reply before approaching another publication. Please notify me of your decision by using my enclosed SASE. Thank you for considering “A Mother Knows”. [Your closing.]



That’s it. Simple and to-the-point.

Of course, I can’t guarantee that following these guidelines will get your story published. What I can guarantee you is that not following these guidelines will get your manuscript thrown out before anyone even reads it! Of course, submitting your work will always be hard, but knowing your market and following the rules of the game will make it a little bit easier. I know; I’ve been there.

Final Poll Results

The Risks and Rewards of Writing True Stories

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

So you’ve started a blog to document your university years. Or penned a personal essay about what it was like going through your parents’ divorce. Or maybe you’re really ambitious and you’re working on a memoir about your job as a celebrity dog-walker. Great! Creative non-fiction, writing that mingles factual events with fiction techniques, is hot these days.

Related Articles

But wait— before you hit that publish button or send off that query, are you ready for an audience?

Mari Adkins, a writer who keeps a personal blog as well as one devoted to her writing, expresses a sentiment common among personal bloggers, “I don’t blog for the audience; I blog for me. I blog (and I write) to keep the voices in my head at bay. The interaction with other people is nice, but I don’t need it. I just have to get things off my chest and out of my system.” She goes on to say that if people don’t like what they read they can always click that X in the upper right corner of the page.

In explaining her blogging motivations, Mari hits on a key truth. A side effect of blogging, even if you’re writing primarily for yourself, is that you do have an audience. An audience that is potentially as big as everyone who has access to the Internet. That’s a lot of people. But if the thought of billions of people checking out your blog makes you hyperventilate, relax. Your actual readership will probably be small.

Even so, it can have a huge impact on your life. It’s not the size of your readership that matters; it’s who those readers are. Blogging can be a tremendously positive experience, connecting you with others who share your interests, people whom you might never have met otherwise. “Keeping [my] blog was essential for my soul and my sanity through school, and had the added unintentional benefit of plugging me in to a network of brilliant people who helped me accomplish some of the most amazing things I’ve ever done,” says JCA, a recent law school graduate who blogged her entire law school experience from the LSAT to the California Bar Exam, at her blog, Sua Sponte.

Ana George, a scientist-by-day who writes under a pseudonym, says, “I actually have two blogs; one under this name and one in the name of someone who started out as a character and became an alter-ego. The character blog won for me the love of my life, rather to the surprise of both of us. The character blog sometimes includes incidents from my real life, and my partner is sometimes amused to find her words in the character’s partner’s mouth.”

As well, numerous bloggers have obtained book deals because of their blogs. Many writers find a blog a good way to nibble away at a manuscript a little at a time—and it has the side benefit of winning you fans before your book ever hits the shelves.

But if you’re writing things about people that you wouldn’t be comfortable having them see, things can get ugly. Heather Armstrong of Dooce lost her job because of what she’d written on her blog. Armstrong, who has been interviewed about a million times about “getting fired for her website,” has admitted that she was naĂŻve and even stupid to post as freely as she did about both her family and her job. Like many bloggers, she didn’t think that anyone—or at least anyone she was writing about—would see her blog. What actually happened was that not only did her brother find Dooce, creating a family furor, but someone e-mailed copies of her posts to every vice-president at her company—and she was fired.

More Fired Bloggers

So while it’s true that you don’t have write for anyone but yourself, before you leap into the blogosphere, or the world of creative non-fiction in general, you should take the time to weigh the risks. Ask yourself:

  • Am I defaming anyone or disclosing information that should remain private? If you are, you could be sued.
  • Am I criticizing my employer, boss, or co-workers? If your employer becomes aware of your negative statements, you could be fired.
  • Have I said anything about my family and friends that I wouldn’t say to their faces? If you’re not prepared to lose them, think again.
  • Am I comfortable with anyone knowing this about me? If you’re not, consider an offline journal instead.

Most bloggers are selective about what they share online. “I never blog about anything uberprivate,” Mari says. “Suffice it to say, my personal homelife isn’t up for public consumption.” Instead, she saves the private stuff for a hardbound journal. Shizgirl, who keeps a personal blog under a pseudonym, agrees: “I don’t talk about my personal life, because it’s nobody’s business. I don’t talk about my past, because it’s too weird and painful.”

Writing about your life can be a weird balancing act. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, writing about your own experiences necessitates writing about other people—people who may not like the way you portray them.

Augusten Burroughs, author of the memoir Running With Scissors, is currently being sued for defamation, invasion of privacy, emotional distress, and fraud by the family of the psychiatrist he lived with as a teenager. His memoir recounts the family’s bizarre antics, and, although he changed their names, his detailed descriptions leave no doubt of whom he wrote.

Defamation (known as “libel” when it’s in written form) is an untrue publication that injures a person’s reputation. “Publication” means communicating the defamatory words to at least one other person aside from the person being defamed. A “reasonable person” must believe that the statement refers to the person claiming defamation.

One way to avoid getting yourself in hot water is to make sure you present statements as your opinion, not as fact. This may come into play in Burroughs’s case, because memoirs are generally accepted to be one individual’s interpretation of his or her history.

A statement must be untrue to be defamatory, but just because something is true doesn’t mean that you can write about it with impunity. Assuming that Running With Scissors is factually correct, the family would not have a case for libel. It may, however, still have a case for invasion of privacy.

Four types of invasion of privacy are generally recognized. You can invade a person’s privacy by intruding into his/her solitude, by publicly disclosing private facts about him/her, by placing him/her in a false light in the public eye, or by appropriating his/her name or image for your commercial interest.

In Burroughs’s case, due to his detailed descriptions, apparently anyone familiar with the setting of the book can identify the family’s house. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that readers might start showing up on their doorstep. But more significantly, the family didn’t expect what they did behind closed doors to be shared with the world. While Burroughs has a right to write about his own life, that has to be weighed against other people’s rights to privacy.

But privacy is not just a legal issue, it’s an ethical one.

You may want to use nicknames, initials, or pseudonyms when blogging or writing creative non-fiction out of respect for others’ privacy, even if you’re not saying anything negative. Your friends and family members would probably prefer that your blog not show up as the #1 search result when their bosses Google them. For “friends in real life, I use their first initial only. This is something I discussed with them beforehand and they were adamant about remaining anonymous. I respect that wish,” Shizgirl says.

“I don’t include people’s names (or my own), either. The site I’m on has a custom of registering under handles and pseudonyms anyway, so referring to people by those makes sense. Or making up names for nonmembers,” says Ana.

Remember, though, that changing names won’t prevent people who know you from figuring out who you’re writing about. “I use one pseudonym on my personal blog,” Mari says, “and honestly, it’s the man’s first initial. I do it mostly for his own privacy—although for people who know us, they know who it is when I mention him, usually.”

And as the Burroughs case shows, changing names won’t prevent people from taking legal action if they take offense at what you wrote. And it won’t prevent you from being fired.

If your work-related blog is found, it doesn’t matter if you don’t identify yourself or your employer by name. Heather Armstrong didn’t. It doesn’t matter if your posts consist of harmless fluff a la Nadine Haobsh, who lost not one, but two jobs, when her blog, Jolie in NYC, was discovered in July. (Although, it’s worth noting that in the blogosphere, things have a strange way of turning around. Just this week Haobsh announced on her blog that she has a two-book contract. And she’s far from the first blogger to lose a job and gain a book deal.)

It doesn’t even matter if you work for the company that owns the blogging service you’re using. Mark Jen was fired by Google after he blogged about his first month on the job. Jen’s short-lived blog described orientation and the company cafeteria, not exactly topics that you’d list off the top of your head as “dangerous” ones.

What it comes down to is that your employers may simply be squeamish about the idea of their employees keeping a blog, no matter how innocuous the topics you’re writing about, or how positive you are about your workplace. As JCA says, “Employers are risk-averse
 They don’t trust people who don’t keep quiet.”

To Blog About Work—Or Not

One thing to keep in mind is that even writing about subjects unrelated to work carries with it some risk. While it’s unlikely that you would be fired for blogging about your hobbies, if you’re a regular employee, hired “at will,” and not subject to tenure, or a union or other contract that specifies under what conditions you can be let go, know that you can be fired for pretty much any reason (aside from those protected by anti-discrimination laws), regardless of how trivial, or for no reason at all, i.e. “without cause.”

However, if you think you’ve been wrongly dismissed—let’s say you’ve been fired because you wrote about going to a Star Trek convention and your boss thinks Star Trek is silly and the fact you dress up as Spock on the weekends makes the company look ridiculous—you may want to consult an employment lawyer. If a court finds you were fired without cause, you won’t necessarily get your job back, but you could get severance pay in lieu of notice.

If you know—or suspect—that your employers (or anyone else) would be unhappy if they found your blog, anonymity may be the way to go.

Shizgirl says, “I do post about my job and at times (ok, most of the time) I’m not very complimentary. However, I have never named the company I work for, nor used any co-worker or supervisor names. The company does not know about my blog and I’d like to keep it that way.” When asked what her bosses’ reactions would be if they read her blog, she says, “Not good.”

Being truly anonymous requires more than simply using a nickname; you need to start fresh with a new identity that’s not linked to anything else you do online or off. Additionally, if you wish to remain anonymous, you can’t give away any identifying details that will connect your blog to your offline life. This is easier said than done, and if followed to the extreme can render moot the point of posting.

If you have your own web site, you can register the domain privately, so no one can see your WHOIS records. If the main purpose of your blog is communicating with friends and family—and you really want to tell those work stories!—password-protecting your blog may be the way to go. If you don’t have your own site, LiveJournal offers the option of designating posts as “friends only.”

There are further, more technical, steps you can take to hide your identity, such as using anonymizing technologies that hide the IP address you’re posting from (see the links below), but it’s questionable whether it’s worth it to go to such an extent unless you have something more significant to share than a few stories poking fun at your boss.

Anonymous Blogging

In some cases, the risks outweigh the rewards of blogging.

JCA, who started clerking at the beginning of September, has ceased blogging at least until she’s finished her clerkship. When her judge offered her the job, he had a single reservation: her website. “Such blatant open-air publicity gave the court heartburn.” It turned out he meant an older website, not her law school blog, but she didn’t doubt “that he would wish Sua Sponte to trail off equally gently into the ethers.”

She’s philosophical about the constraints on her public voice. “I went to law school to be a lawyer, and I don’t want to put that investment at risk, if this is in fact what I’m facing.” She’d love to try to publish Sua Sponte in book form, but is concerned about the potential impact on her legal career.

But not every employer is anti-blog. Some don’t care, and others even encourage blogging. Occasionally, people get hired to blog.

Blogging is Good

Whether writing about your life is an acceptable risk for you really depends on your own situation and goals. Many bloggers wouldn’t give their blogs up for anything. “Would I cease blogging if someone asked me? Nope. They can have my blog when they pry it from my cold, dead fingers,” Mari says.

But whatever your situation, it’s not a bad idea to view your blog—even your personal blog—as an extension of your resume, in the sense that all your published writing should reflect an image of yourself that you would be happy to have anyone see.

Final Poll Results

Five Quick Tips for Entering Contests

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

You’ve already chosen your contest and written your story, article, or poem. You have your entry ready to send. Before you hit “send” and cross your fingers, take a few moments to run over this quick contest checklist.

Background Image: rauter25/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

  1. Send your entry in the right format. Some judges want Word or text document (Notepad) attachments; some want your entry in the body of the e-mail. The contest rules will tell you how to send your entry. If not, there should be a contact address or message board where you can ask. Unless attachments are specifically requested, it’s best to assume they’re unwanted.
  2. Send your entry to the right e-mail address and title your e-mail properly. Very often there is a special e-mail address for your contest. Sending it elsewhere will not get special attention; it will get your entry lost (and it will peeve the judges). If you’re entering a contest via landmail, be sure to follow any special requirements, such as writing “re: Spring Contest” on the envelope.
  3. Put contact info where the editors request it. Very often contests are “blind-judged.” This means someone removes contact info and everything else (like cover letters) from your entry and forwards it to the judge(s). When there are several entries, the forwarding person needs to move quickly and if the rules say “put your contact info at the bottom of your entry,” that’s what you should do.
  4. Respect the word limit. Don’t go over, whatever you do, and don’t come in way under either. Aim for 80-100% of the word count (on a 5,000 word limit, that’d be between 4-5K). Pay attention to the pacing of your story. Judges can tell if you were just writing merrily along and realized “oops—I’m kissing the word count” and tacked on an ending. Once you hit that 80% of your limit, start to wrap it up.
  5. If there’s a theme, genre, or other requirement, use it. If the contest is for a western, don’t take liberties and write a “space western.” If it’s for non-fiction, don’t fudge your facts. If the contest uses a theme, like Toasted Cheese’s contests do, use the theme. Don’t get too clever with the theme; 90% of the entrants who use it will have the same idea. For example, at Toasted Cheese, we get a lot of “he doesn’t know he’s dead” entries for our annual “Dead of Winter” contest. We call it “The Sixth Sense Syndrome.”

If you follow these tips, you’ll be well ahead of at least 10-20% of the entrants. I’m always a little surprised when someone doesn’t follow one of these simple guidelines when entering our contests. Unfortunately no matter how good some of the entries are, we can’t consider them because they didn’t use the theme or were sent to the wrong address.

Final Poll Results

Timing is Everything

Absolute Blank

By Lisa Olson (Boots)

Many thanks to Latrina and Talis, members of the online role-playing group Themiscyra Amazons, who allowed use of their excerpts in the following article. A community of all women, the authors are also the characters in an ongoing story all 34 of the members write together. Themiscyra encourages creativity in its members, but also edits for better writing ability as well. Boots has been a member for five years.

In writing, timing can be critical. If your story goes too fast, your readers could miss important details. If your story goes too slow, your readers could become bored and put the book away. Keep your writing balanced and you’ll keep your readers interested.

Background Image: Zan C/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Speed Writing

It’s important to remember that readers aren’t with you when you’re writing. They don’t know what you had in mind, or where you were going with your story. All they can do is guess what you meant and follow your words to a logical conclusion.

If you skip words, phrases, or actions that are important to the story, you might leave your reader behind, confused. Instead, lead them along step by step, doling out information along the way.

Here’s an example of what can happen when writing is too quick:

Latrina felt like she belonged in the tribe as she had helped them set up for the talent show and it had been a long time since she felt that. Even after she had been cured from madness, it seemed very right to be part of the talent show.

The writer, Latrina, didn’t go slow enough for the reader to keep up. This paragraph reads like a dream, where little makes sense and where nothing is in order. It’s simply a jumble of thoughts that poured out of her mind and onto the page.

You can tell Latrina is trying to show the feelings of the character today compared to those of her past. She meant to work in a piece of the character’s recent past—the madness. She wanted to tie it to the happenings of the character’s present—the talent show. Latrina presents everything, but she should have had it all laid out for the reader, from beginning to middle to end. Instead, she forces the reader to straighten out the ideas for themselves.

When edited, the paragraph became two paragraphs that explored the depths of the character. It’s clearer and more concise, and a lot easier for the reader to understand.

Since being cured of her madness, Latrina had felt a distance from the tribe. She knew what she’d done, and they knew she’d done it. They’d all been sympathetic, of course, and understanding. Almost too understanding. It was like she walked around the village with a sign on that said, “Be nice to me, I’m sick.”

But today, as she’d prepared for the talent show, she’d felt part of the tribe. Her sisters had forgotten to treat her as if she were fragile and had instead given her hard jobs and playful jokes as they’d worked. It had been a long time since she felt so good about a day’s work. She smiled to herself as she thought about the warm friendship she’d enjoyed.

Let’s look at a paragraph where the story unfolds slowly:

The fish was heavy and slipped from her grasp, landing on her foot. The fish’s mouth plopped fully open. The sun was now higher up in the sky and its light made something gleam inside the fish’s mouth. Noemi peered down and gasped. She brought out her knife and dislodged from inside the fish’s mouth a gemstone, as large as a robin’s egg, smooth and perfectly round. She held it up to the sun. A rainbow of colors swirled within. Noemi stared at the gemstone, a wide grin spreading across her face, for she could scarcely believe her good fortune.

Here the writer, Talis, leads us along slowly, showing us what’s going on in the scene. We have a feeling for the boat, the fish, the sky, the water, and the gem. There’s a flow here that’s missing from Latrina’s original paragraph, a sense of story.

Slow Motion

While too little detail can confuse, too much can bore. While it’s important for the reader to know there is flickering candlelight, it’s not important that they know it’s a white candle with long drips of wax down the side and a flame that’s more yellow than orange. Sometimes, less is more.

Over-explanations detract from the story and can become too distracting. It’s not necessary for us to know the history of candle making to see the one in your scene. It’s more important to blow up the mood of the scene and play up the shadows and the tension.

Let’s explore an example of slow writing:

The horses, along with the rest of the livestock being taken on the voyage, were lowered into the hold. A net of strong rope was brought under their bellies while another rope ran around their chest and another around their rump under their tails, to keep them from sliding either forward or backward. Two thick ropes attached the net to a pulley. The horses were lowered in one by one, Halken first, then Ponzol, followed by Nexus and then Zara. They went calmly, their legs hanging limply till their hooves touched the floor, then they neighed for their mistresses. They were the last of the animals to be lowered into the hold, for all the others had been taken down before the group had even arrived.

The writer, Talis, said everything she needed to say in this paragraph, and conveyed it well. However, the reader doesn’t really need to see all the details of the rope and pulley system in this scene. The importance should have remained on the animal’s nervousness, and the owner’s worry. It would have kept the action moving and the reader reading.

In her rewrite, Talis changed her paragraph to:

Talis kept her eyes fixed on the man who brought a net of strong rope up under the belly of her horse. He cast a glance at her as she watched him run a rope around Zara’s chest and another around her rump under her tail, to keep her from sliding either forward or backward. When he had finished, Talis brushed him aside. She tested the firmness of the ropes by pulling on them. Then she tugged on the two thick ropes that attached the net to a pulley. Satisfied they were strong enough, she stepped back and motioned for the man to continue. Catching the irate look he flashed at Talis, Kiran hastily spoke to the man.

“What did you tell him?” Talis whispered, waiting for her companion to translate the Latin.

“I reminded him that these horses come from the Royal Stables and that their safety was paramount to us,” Kiran replied. Then she rubbed Talis’s shoulder. “Relax, Talis. They may be Romans, but they know what they are doing.”

Talis caught her breath. Then she gave a slight nod. She did not interfere any further, but Kiran knew without looking at her that Talis was still holding her breath as Zara was slowly lowered into the hold.

As you can see, the rewrite is more engaging. The focus is on the characters feelings and worry instead of on the nuts and bolts of the rigging. Talis left in the how, but changed it so it was interesting and part of the story instead of apart from it.

Details don’t always have to slow you down. Here’s an example of great timing:

After a few seconds, a cloaked and hooded figure entered and slowly descended the steps. He was bent over at the shoulders and hung his head forward. He made his way towards the hearth where he stopped. Extending his hands out, he rubbed them together as he warmed them. Then he reached up and slid back his hood, revealing a head of gray hair. The man reached out his hands again over the fire and stood warming himself when both Kiran and Talis saw him do a double take. Talis caught her breath as the figure picked up the torch Talis had laid on the edge of the hearth.

Here, Talis’s details flow naturally and build tension. The slow reveal of the man, the little facts that give him instant character and definition. Nothing here is boring, and everything builds toward a tense moment. Talis did a great job not over-explaining the moment while still showing incredible detail.

Pace your writing correctly if you want your reader to hang around until the last word. Go too fast, and you’ll leave them behind. Go too slow, and they’ll leave you behind. You’ll find a devoted reader if you can keep the right balance.

Final Poll Results

Automatically Yours: Introduction to Copyright

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

Several years ago, when I first started volunteering online, I noticed that some people spelled copyright “copywrite.” My first reaction was amusement; the mistake was perhaps understandable, given that it was a writing community. Once I thought about it, however, my amusement gave way to concern, because the spelling betrayed a lack of understanding of what the word means. I started looking into copyright to in order to rectify the many misconceptions surrounding it, and ended up hooked on the subject.

Copy. right.

Right to copy.

Copyright refers to the rights that the owner of a creative work has, not to writing.

However, as a writer, copyright affects all aspects of your work, and so it’s a good idea to have a basic understanding of what it’s about. Here, then, is an introduction to copyright.

Background Image: Daniel Kulinski/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

So, what I want to know is, how do you get it? Don’t you have to register or mail your story to yourself or something?

© Copyright Protection is Automatic

To begin at the beginning, there are two principal copyright conventions: the Berne Convention and the Universal Copyright Convention (UCC). 159 countries, including Canada and the US, are parties to the Berne Convention, and 98 countries, including Canada and the US, are parties to the UCC.

These treaties give the citizens of each country that is a party to them reciprocal rights in the other member countries. In other words, an American author has the same copyright protection in Canada as a Canadian author does, and a Canadian author has the same copyright protection in the US as an American author does.

Of the two treaties, the Berne Convention is the more important. It’s the Berne Convention that makes copyright protection automatic. Because of the Berne Convention, any original creative work—including writing, music, art, computer programs, etc.—is copyrighted from the moment of creation, that is, the moment it is set down in a fixed form, e.g. on paper, disk, audio- or videotape, canvas, etc.

There are two caveats to automatic protection, both of which are understandable:

The creative work has to be “fixed,” i.e. saved in some way. Reciting the epic poem you wrote in your head on the ascent of Mt. Everest as you stand on the peak with only the sun and the snow as witnesses wouldn’t copyright it. Reciting it into the digital recorder you just happened to have tucked in the inside pocket of your parka in case inspiration struck, would.

It has to be original. Shouting the words to the Tennyson poem you memorized while trapped in a snow cave for three days would not give you copyright in Tennyson’s words. (However, if your performance—intonations, gestures, movements, etc.—of the poem was sufficiently original, and it was fixed in some way, let’s say on your climbing partner’s cell phone, then you would have a copyright in your performance of the poem.)

Because of the Berne Convention, your work does not need to be published for it to be copyrighted; unpublished work has the same copyright protection as published work. In fact, even work you have no intention of ever publishing, such as personal letters or e-mails, is copyrighted. Further, you do not need to display a copyright notice or register your work with a copyright office.

I believe the misconception that you have to “do something” to “get” copyright persists because the US didn’t become a party to the Berne Convention until 1989 (Canada has been a party since 1928). Prior to that, the US only belonged to the UCC, and that treaty requires notice with the © symbol in order for copyright to be secured, e.g. © 1946 Madeleine L’Engle or Copyright 1932 The New York Times. If you didn’t place a copyright notice on all copies of your work, you risked losing your copyright!

Since the US joined the Berne Convention, it is no longer necessary for those writing or publishing in the US to comply with the UCC’s formalities.

While you can still register works with your respective copyright office, there is no need to do so to obtain copyright. What registration does is make it easier to prove that the work is yours should you ever launch an infringement suit against someone. If you publish a book, the publisher will probably register your copyright for you. Since unpublished works sitting in your files are unlikely to be infringed, there is really no need to register them.

Similarly, while copyright notices are still very popular, they are not required to obtain copyright, and today are used as more of a courtesy—a quick, familiar way of letting readers know: “This is mine. Please don’t steal it.”

Speaking of stealing, what’s the difference between copyright infringement and plagiarism? Six of one, half-a-dozen of the other?

© Copyright Infringement vs. Plagiarism

Copyright infringement and plagiarism are similar and related. The difference is that infringement is a legal breach, while plagiarism is a moral one.

Copyright is a sole or exclusive right. That means that only the copyright owner has the right to say what can be done with a work. No one else has the right to do anything with your work—including publish it with full credit to you—without your permission. Note, however, that permission can be implicit as well as explicit. For example, if you submit an article or story to a magazine, it’s implied that you’re giving the publication permission to publish your work.

Plagiarism, on the other hand, is passing off someone else’s work as your own. Plagiarism can be intentional and blatant, e.g. placing one’s name on an essay someone else wrote without changing a single word in the text. More often, it’s unintentional or accidental, e.g. neglecting to credit a source or forgetting to place quotation marks around a quote. This is a particular danger when citing a number of different sources and working with copy & paste. Make sure to use care when doing so.

Of course, infringement and plagiarism overlap and it’s possible to both infringe copyright and plagiarize a work in a single instance. But it’s also possible to plagiarize a work, but not infringe copyright, if the plagiarized work is in the public domain (no longer copyrighted).

For example, if I wrote: “There was also a Beaver that paced on the deck or would sit making lace in the bow and had often (the Bellman said) saved them from wreck, though none of the sailors knew how.” without crediting Lewis Carroll, I’d be plagiarizing “The Hunting of the Snark.” I wouldn’t, however, be infringing copyright because the poem has long been in the public domain.

Additionally, it’s possible to infringe copyright without plagiarizing, for example, if you scanned the entire text of a copyrighted book and uploaded it to your web site, with full credit to the copyright owner(s), but without their permission. This wouldn’t be plagiarism, because you’re not passing it off as your own work, but it would be infringement, because posting the entire work could not be considered fair use / fair dealing.

Posting an entire book is an extreme example, but I’m sure everyone has seen lyrics posted online, whether it be at a dedicated lyrics site or on someone’s blog. Legally, anyone who does this—reprints an entire song—without asking permission first is infringing the songwriter’s copyright. On the other hand, quoting a line or even a verse, in the context of explaining why you like the song, would be acceptable.

Wait. So, how much of someone else’s work is it okay for me to use, and why?

© Fair Use and Fair Dealing

Most people are aware that it’s generally okay to quote a portion of another work in their own, as long as proper credit is given to the original author. If this wasn’t possible, it would make it extremely difficult for students to write essays and columnists to review books, amongst other things, because they would have to ask for permission to use each excerpt they quote in their piece.

In Canada, this doctrine is called “fair dealing” and in the US, it’s called “fair use.” It allows people to use “fair” portions of others’ work in some circumstances without infringing copyright. Fair dealing is limited to the purposes of research, private study, criticism, review, and news reporting. For criticism, review, or news reporting, the source and name of author must be mentioned. Fair use is a broader concept that allows for other uses; for example, parody is an accepted use in the US, but not in Canada. Fair use includes purposes “such as [emphasis added] criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research.”

There is no set amount of text that is considered “fair.” If infringement is alleged, the court will decide if the use was fair based on the specific circumstances of the case. Factors Canadian courts will consider in determining fairness are the purpose, character, and amount of the dealing, the nature of the work, whether there are alternatives available, and what the effect is on the work used (See CCH Canadian v. Law Society of Upper Canada). In the US, factors are similar and include the purpose, character, and amount of the work used, as well as the nature of the work, and the effect of the use on the work (See 17 USC 107). Use your best judgment: quoting 200 words from a 100,000-word book is unlikely to be a problem. On the other hand, quoting 200 words from a 500-word essay might be.

If you’d like to use more of a work than you think is fair or if you’re not sure if the use you’re contemplating is fair and you’re concerned, you should ask the copyright owner for permission to use the work.

Permission? How do I go about that? How do I find out who owns the copyright?

© Assignments & Licenses

Finding the copyright owner is usually just a matter of knowing whom the author of a work is. Generally, the author of a work (the creator) is the first owner of the copyright. If two or more authors have created the work together, they are “joint authors” and all own the copyright together. (It’s worth keeping in mind that if you ever write anything jointly with another writer, you should ask his/her permission before you do anything with the work, including placing it on your personal web site.) So, in most cases, you would contact the writer or writers directly, let him/her/them know how you want to use the work, and ask for permission to do so (it gets a bit more complicated when the writer is deceased).

The main exception to this rule is where a work has been created in the course of employment. In the case of “works made for hire,” the employer, not the employee, is considered to be the author, and is therefore the copyright owner. So, if, for example, you write tech manuals at work, you couldn’t place those in your online writing portfolio without getting permission from your employer. If an employer is the owner of copyright, you’ll need to ask the company for permission, not the writer.

A copyright owner may assign or license his/her copyright in whole or in part, for the whole term of the copyright or a portion of the term. If you are granted an assignment or license to use a work, you may have to pay the copyright owner royalties (compensation for the use of the work).

An assignment is a transfer of all or part of your rights to another party. For example, you may have noticed when submitting that many publications will ask for “first serial rights,” meaning the right to be the first to publish the piece. This is a reasonable request. Beware if a publication asks for “all rights.” It means just what it sounds like. If you’re going to assign all your rights in a work to another party, make sure that you’re adequately compensated up front. Also, understand that if you give up all rights to a work to another party, you won’t be able to reproduce it yourself, so if you have an online portfolio, you wouldn’t be able to include it there.

One thing to note: for publications such as a newspapers and magazines that are compilations of articles, photographs, etc., the individual authors generally retain the copyright in their own work, while the publication has copyright in the compilation as a whole. This means that a magazine publisher has the right to reproduce an issue of the magazine in its entirety, without asking the authors of each individual component for permission. This is true even if the republication is in a different format than the original. For example, all of the issues of The New Yorker will soon be available on a set of DVDs, with each page rendered exactly as it originally appeared. (More sticky is the issue of whether such publications should be able to make individual articles available in databases without the writers’ permission.)

A license is permission for someone else to use your work for certain purposes and under certain conditions, i.e. there is no transfer of rights. Good examples are the Creative Commons licenses that are becoming popular with bloggers. These licenses allow creators to retain their copyright, while allowing everyone to use their work in certain ways, i.e. it’s a way of giving others permission to use your work up front. For example, a Creative Commons “Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs” license means that anyone is permitted “to copy, distribute, display, and perform the work” for non-commercial purposes. However, they must give you credit (attribute the work to you) and they are not permitted to create derivative works based upon it. If you want to place some clips of your published work on your web site, this might be the license you choose.

I like that copyright protects my rights, but having to ask for permission to use others’ work all the time is a bit tedious. How long does copyright last anyhow?

© Duration of Copyright

The Berne Convention stipulates that the minimum term of copyright is life of the author plus 50 years (this is currently the term in Canada). Countries that are parties to the Convention may have longer terms of protection, but not shorter. In the US, for works created on or after January 1, 1978, the term of copyright is life of the author plus 70 years. (Note that how the duration of copyright is calculated for works with corporate owners or those where the author is unknown is different.)

All copyrights terminate at the end of the calendar year (i.e. December 31) regardless of what day the author actually died. In cases of joint authorship, the term is measured using the life of the author who dies last.

Because the duration of copyright varies from country to country (some countries have even longer terms of copyright than life + 70), works can be in the public domain in some countries, but not others. Take, for example, an author who died on April 16, 1954. His or her work entered the public domain in Canada on January 1, 2005. However, it won’t enter the public domain in a “life + 70” country until 2025.

If you’ve ever looked at one of the Gutenberg Project sites (sites that put public domain books online for free), you may have seen a note that says something like “not for US use” or “no US access” beside some of the book titles (See, for example: Warning! Restricted Access!). This indicates that the e-book is hosted in a country where it is no longer copyright-protected, but that it is still under copyright in the US.

The good thing about the “life plus” system is that all you have to know to figure out if a work is still copyrighted is 1) when the author died, and 2) what the duration of copyright is where you live. You can find this out by contacting the copyright office in your country (they probably have a web site); links to the Canadian and American copyright offices are below.

The old US system was more complicated. Prior to 1978, the duration of copyright was based on the publication date of the work. The first term of copyright was 28 years, and copyright could be renewed for a second term (total of 56 years). In 1978, the second term was extended to 47 years (total of 75 years), and in 1998, to 67 years (total of 95 years).

Works published before January 1, 1923, fell into the public domain before the end of 1997, so all works published in 1922 or earlier are in the public domain in the US.

If a work was published in 1923 or later, and the copyright notice was properly affixed (required until 1989) and the copyright renewed as necessary (required for works published until 1964), then that work will still be protected by copyright in the US. If you live in the US, or you’re writing for a US-based publication, it’s best to assume that anything published post-1922 is still under copyright until you investigate further. (See Circular 22 at the Copyright Office web site for information on how to investigate the copyright status of a work.)

The earliest date any new works will enter the public domain in the US is January 1, 2019 (with the possible exception of some never-published works). For a really clear breakdown of what is and isn’t in the public domain in the US, check out this chart: Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States.

That’s all really interesting, but I still have more questions.

© More Information

Copyright Office: A Guide to Copyrights
Copyright Act & Regulations

US Copyright Office: Copyright Basics, FAQ
US Copyright Law & Code of Federal Regulations

Disclaimer: This article is intended for informational purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice. If you need legal advice, please consult a lawyer.

Final Poll Results

Been There, Zine That

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

Looking for something fun and different as a spring project? Feel crafty? Want someone to read your stuff? Why not create a zine?

A zine? What’s a zine?

edenzine cover

Physically, a zine (pronounced like the end of “magazine”) is handmade publication, a small journal, that averages about $0.50-$3.00 to buy but that you could have acquired through a trade or from a pass-it-along. It is, above all, a labor of love. A kind of craft project with greater purpose. Art within art, so to speak.

Think of craft and art projects you did in elementary school. I attended a lot of different elementary schools and at all of them we made our own books from scratch. Covers, content, photos and all. Condense those to about half or a quarter their size and you have a zine.

Anyone with a passion she wants to share can do so with a zine. The most popular topics of zines are writing, photography, and art. As Toasted Cheese is a writing site, this article approaches zine creation from the point of view of a writer. You can always add other media, like photos, to your zine but a writer’s zine concentrates on the written word.

The best way to discover what a zine can be is to read some. The zine community is open and welcoming. You can order (or trade) zines for next to nothing. Check out the sources at the end of the article for “distros” or distributors of zines and the section “How do I get my zine out there?” for possible sources in your town.

There is no set of rules for a zine. Zines can be done entirely by one person or they can be made by a collective. You can have a theme to your zine, a theme for each issue or no theme at all. You can collect your fiction and your travelogues into an issue. You could have nothing but poetry cover-to-cover. Just do original material, which is what you want to put out there anyway—being the creative person you are, and you can’t go wrong.

There is no age limit for creating a zine. The “zine scene” is not reserved for “young hipsters” nor is it something exclusive for “established” artists to create. All you really need is something to write on, something to write with, and something to write.

Been There, Zine That

Can I read zines online?

Technically an online publication, like Toasted Cheese, is an e-zine. A zine is tangible. Some zines may have an online version as well or the author/creator may have a website that is a separate creation from the zine. Many zines, like Artitude have a website from which you may order copies or view the most recent content. The website does not replace the zine.

I think what defines a zine is that it is a physical, one-of-a-kind tangible item. Some zinesters might disagree and that’s what makes a zine a great project: it’s what you decide it should be.

edenzine inside

What do I put in my zine?

Zines are all about content so this should come first, not what kind of cover you want or how much money you think you’ll make off your zine.

Let’s go through the process with an imaginary wannabe-zinester named Cindy Jones who will show us what one person might do.

Cindy asks herself, “What would I like to publish? Short stories? Poems? Essays? Rants? Reprints of my blog entries? Recipes? How-to articles? Political opinion?” She decides to publish some of her short fiction-writing exercises that read like complete stories. She thinks they’re entertaining but maybe not what she wants to send out for publication credits.

What else is in the zine besides stories/poems?

Besides the entertainment content of her zine, Cindy might wants to include contact information about herself—be smart when deciding what kind of info to include in your zine. Since Cindy intends to produce several more zines and to try to make a small profit, she rents a P.O. Box to use for her contact address. In the zine, she includes an e-mail address she intends to use for a long time. Cindy also adopts a pen name, “Cinda Smith,” for fun and for privacy reasons.

Include a table of contents, an issue and volume number, a title and a copyright date. There is nothing special you need to do to copyright your zine or anything you write. Once you’ve created it, the copyright is yours. You might want to steer clear of using copyrighted images in your zine. When in doubt, use clipart, “public domain” images or images you’ve created. If you have questions about copyright, check out our links section.

Everything is ready for printing
 or is it?

Use online communities like Toasted Cheese or one that is zine-specific to get ideas for your content if you’re not sure where to start or what to include. Post a couple of stories and ask what people think. In general, zinesters are open to constructive critique. There are zine review resources (also great for publicity) and zine events open to anyone in every part of the world, many of which are listed online.

It sounds like fun, but I could use a couple of ideas

Okay, how about starting with a topic or a theme that links the content? Here are some possible topics and/or themes for your zine:

Union Change Elements Seeds
Pink Hometown Market Pets
Family Names Sin Envy

Anything can be a theme or a topic. Consider grabbing some existing pieces you want to include and see if they have a common thread; if you don’t see anything in common, ask a friend for an opinion. Of course, you don’t need to have a theme or a topic for your zine but it can be a good way to get started.

How do I physically create the zine?

Once she’s selected and edited her stories, Cindy gathers them together and arranges them in Word, deciding which stories best follow others and how they fill the pages, using a template to lay out her e-zine. She picks up her copy of Stolen Sharpie Revolution by Alex Wrekk and checks out these templates:

Stolen Sharpie Revolution

Most of Cindy’s stories are flash, so she uses a quarter-size template, with some clip art and doodles to fill in the spaces. She edits the stories and tweaks them until she gets them how she wants. She prints them out on her computer printer.

Cindy has her friend Ellie glance over the manuscript for typos and other quick-edit help. She includes her contact info and prices her zine at $0.65. She bases her price on her production cost and on the length of her zine. The highest-quality and/or most popular publications fetch more than $2.

Cindy finds a deal on pink copy paper at her local office supply store and uses it for her cover. On white paper, she creates a cover with the title, issue and volume numbers, her pen name and a photo and copies it onto the pink. Then she assembles 20 copies of her zine, with Ellie’s help and a large stapler. She adds a colorful rubber stamped image to each cover, adding another layer of personality.

How much does it cost to make a zine?

As Cindy discovered, you can copy your pages for less than $.05 per page at places like Kinko’s, Staples, Office Max, or any local copy shop. It’s easy to go crazy with making your covers (and envelopes) and spend more than you intend to on the presentation but if you’re doing a zine for the physical creation as well as the content, it can be a fun hobby. Check out scrapbook stores for some interesting papers and for design help, including templates, stickers, diecuts, dimensional pens, and all kinds of goodies. Even a drop or swipe of your trademark nail polish (or a lip print in a favorite color) can add a “bit o’ something” to a zine cover.

How do I get my zine out there?

Never comfortable approaching strangers, Cindy decides to go the “distro” route. A “distro” is a distributor. They work kind of like clearing houses or middlemen in the zine chain. How did Cindy get her zine to the distro? Like this:

  • Same as she would with a journal she would submit a story to, she checks to see that the distro is accepting submissions. If so, she follows all the guidelines for submitting her zine.
  • Cindy noted whether the distro sends zines to prisoners. That’s not something she’s comfortable with, so she told her distro (there is more information about this in Stolen Sharpie Revolution, a must-read for anyone considering doing a zine).
  • She set a wholesale rate, for distros or stores buying several copies of her zine. This should be around 50% of the cover price.

Ellie was so inspired that she also creates a zine but she decides to use her people skills to go straight to the sellers in her town. She takes her zine to independent bookstores, music stores, the place where she buys her incense, anyplace that seems to have a clientele interested in her zine’s content.

A small bookstore agrees to take ten copies on consignment. This means that they take the zines and pay Ellie nothing. She gets paid if/when a copy of the zine sells.

Ellie writes up an invoice for the store which says that she will check back every thirty days for any sales. She and the shop owner agree to a 60/40 split with Ellie getting 60% of the cover price of any sales of her zine. Other selling options might be payment upfront (you get $X and the store/distro gets the zines to pass along), trade or credit.

There is a lot of work involved with the business end of your zine. To go over all of it would take a separate article. Consult the resources at the end of the article for more “how-to” about marketing your zine.


That’s exactly what Cindy and Ellie said. As a writer, you’re familiar with the idea that difficult work can be highly rewarding and enjoyable. You’re also a creative person. Putting your skills together to create a zine is one way you can express yourself while trying something new.


DIY, the Zine Community and Etiquette:


Final Poll Results

Struggling With Plots

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)

I’ve long been aware of the need for a good plot—a good story is more important in some ways than good writing. I am convinced that one of the reasons books and movies with boilerplate plots do so well is exactly because they have boilerplate plots. They have a basic story that resonates with their readers or viewers over and over again.

I’ve always considered plot to be my weakest link in my writing skills. I can’t seem to get my stories off the ground. I know the basics, I’ve seen Aristotle’s Incline, I’ve taken apart books I love. I still can’t move my characters from point A to point Z.

Background Image: Hans Watson/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

In desperation, I’ve even tried lifting plots straight out of mythology. My NaNoWriMo story last year was a retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice. I figured if I lifted the plot, developed my characters, and got them started, the rest would come. I was wrong. Even when I was starting with a well-formed skeleton, I could not seem to construct a living story out of it.

After my NaNo debacle, I went to look at books on plot. One, 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them by Ronald B. Tobias caught my eye. I knew that the stories that resonated the most and attracted the widest audience all pulled from classic plot structures. Consider the similarities between “Star Wars” and the Harry Potter series, for example. Here, I hoped, was the “magic plot bullet” I was looking for.

In his first chapter, he talks about the problems with using the “plot as a skeleton” metaphor. Plot is diffusive, dynamic, not a static object like a skeleton. It isn’t just something to stick text onto. Plot is a process. Tobias describes plot as being a dynamic force (he compares it to electromagnetism) rather than a static structure. He then goes on to describe the different classic plots in terms of characterization and action. Some plot types have more action and less character development, others more character development than action. As I was reading, the whole thing reminded me of how energy is often described in science textbooks.

There are two basic types of energy: kinetic energy, the energy of motion, and potential energy, the energy something has because it could move if some force weren’t preventing it from doing so. If that preventative force is removed, the object starts moving, converting its potential energy to kinetic energy. For example, a book on a table doesn’t fall because the upward force from the table prevents it from doing so. Remove the table, and the book falls, gaining speed as it falls. Its potential energy converts into kinetic energy.

A new paradigm developed in my mind. I started to think of plot not as a skeleton-like structure, but as energy conversions between action and characterization. In a story, action is like kinetic energy, and characterization is like potential energy. It is the potential of the character—how the character reacts to forces acting or failing to act on him or her—that determines the action that follows.

Consider the plot of Hamlet. Hamlet has the potential to act on the news of his father’s murder shortly after he learns about it from his father’s ghost. However, he resists acting out of a sense of fairness that is a deep part of his character. He wants to be sure his uncle is truly guilty. As the forces that keep him from acting are slowly removed, the action of the story starts to pick up, just as a book will start slowly to fall to the floor when you release it. Once the process starts, the action in the play continues to its inevitable end, and the potential of character rushes Hamlet into the frantic action of the closing scenes.

As I thought about the force-energy paradigm of plot, I found more parallels. While there are only two basic types of energy, kinetic and potential, they are often found in standard combinations that are commonly called forms of energy. These include nuclear energy, chemical energy, and mechanical energy.

The “master plots” that Tobias refers to can be thought of as common combinations of characterization and action. They are comparable in some ways to the forms of energy. Each has specific combinations of character development and action. Each has “rules” that it relies on to convert its initial energy into the final climax of the story.

For example, the basic adventure plot is pretty much all action. The goal is the adventure. This type of plot is common in many children’s books, such as the Nancy Drew mystery series. Nancy Drew doesn’t change throughout the entire series of books. She doesn’t even age. Her character takes a back seat to the mystery she is solving. A quest plot, on the other hand, is similar in that it involves adventure, but also involves far more character development. The adventure is secondary to the growth of the person on the quest. The hobbit characters in The Lord of the Rings each change and grow as a result of the quest to destroy Sauron’s ring of power.

How does all this help me with developing a plot? What happens if I start to think of plot as something other than the basic outline of the action, if I think of it as the conversion between character and action, if I think of situations and character flaws as the forces that cause the conversions? Instead of a lifeless skeleton waiting for meat to be put on its bones so that it can be a lifeless body, I have a story with energy. I have a story where action follows from characterization, and character change follows from action in a natural way. I have a way of thinking that helps me figure out where I need to add a situational force to increase the characterization potential, or where I should increase the speed of the action. It also lets me think in terms of wasted energy—what things aren’t contributing to the conversions I want?

Does the new paradigm work? I don’t know yet. It’s still new, and I haven’t had the chance to apply it. Tell you what. Why don’t we both try it and see what happens?


Final Poll Results

Creating An Online Portfolio

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

Once you have some stories or poems to share, you might want to create a website to use as a portfolio where you can gather your work and review it, share it or simply keep track of it. You can think of it as anything from a professional file folder to a fun scrapbook.

If you’re applying for a job where your writing skill is a plus, saying, “You can view my work here” will be a boon. Your prospective employer might also be checking out your computer skills (HTML coding, graphic design, layouts, etc.) so you want the most appropriate website for your writing.

I’m not addressing certain types of writing, such as a weblog or fan fiction. Neither of these is generally the type of thing you want to share with employers, agents, friends or family as your writing sample. Would you take your diary to a job interview or sit down to share it with Grandma Agnes?

If you write fiction, poetry, creative non-fiction or straight-up non-fiction, having a website is a good way to showcase your hard work. There’s no need to hire a professional when you’ve already got the talent to create. Here are a few simple guidelines to follow when creating a website-as-portfolio.

Background Image: Gustavo Peres/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Where to do it

Find a host. You can use free webspace at a site like Geocities, Bravenet or Tripod. The upside is the cost (i.e. nada) but the downside is that you must have their ads on your pages in return for the free hosting. At free host sites, your username will be part of your URL (e.g.

If you don’t want ads, webspace doesn’t cost a whole lot. Supernova, webhost for Toasted Cheese and for my personal website, has packages that begin at $9/month. Another plus to paying for webspace is that you get your own domain (e.g., Domains shouldn’t cost more than $25 or so. Your domain will be renewed every year for you by your webhost, probably at the same time as you are charged for the webspace. Buying your own domain and webspace has perks like personalized e-mail addresses (e.g.,

Some say that a simple domain name is best ( but I see nothing wrong with something unusual (and memorable) like or If you’d like to use this webspace for something more than your writing portfolio, you’ll probably want a more creative, less writing-specific name. Mine is “,” for example.

You could use your name, nickname, an aspect of your personality or anything you find interesting for your portfolio domain. Please leave “author” “writer” and similar out of your domain; you can have a page with that title if you like (e.g. and title the page “Saffron’s Writing”) or a subdomain (e.g. writing/ Don’t make your domain the title of your unpublished masterpiece (e.g. If you decide to abandon the story or retitle it, you’re still stuck with the domain, which is then meaningless (and a little silly). One place to find inspiration for your domain name is in favorite quotes. My domain is a combination of two nicknames; it has no real meaning to anyone outside my household but I liked the neutrality of it and it has a memorable appeal.

How to do it

  • Learn some HTML (hyper-text markup language). I taught myself via Geocities and by doing a “view/source” on pages I liked. Now I do all my own hand-coding in Notepad. You can use webpage design programs like NetObjects Fusion or create a page using something like Word (with which you’re probably already familiar), “save as HTML” and then upload it. This method is good for converting long documents (like stories) to HTML quickly because it saves you from manually adding paragraph breaks.For my time and trouble, I prefer doing it without a program. I can keep my layouts simple and uncluttered. Knowing simple HTML can allow you to create tables, frames and other nifty tricks that will allow for easy navigation. More on that later.
  • Pick a pleasing color scheme. Since your pages will be text-heavy, I recommend a light background with dark text (e.g. black on white—Toni Morrison’s Nobel Prize page). You’ll probably want to be a little more adventurous than black and white though. Pick colors you like and keep a similar color scheme throughout. A good place to try colors together is the VisiBone Color Lab. Get ideas for color combinations from other webpages (or from your wardrobe, wardrobe, even your kitchen pantry, if you’re adventurous). An example of a writer-centric page using a bit of color (pretty taupes and shades of sage with mostly black text) is Anne Frank The Writer via the American Holocaust Museum’s website.When you get feedback on your portfolio pages, ask about the color scheme in particular. You don’t want readers to have to highlight your pages in order to read them. Remember: red is very hard on the eyes when reading and yellow is the hardest color for the eye to see—probably two shades to avoid for pages dependent on readers.
  • Test your finished page in different browsers. Popular browsers include: Internet Explorer, Netscape, Opera and Mozilla. You might also want to check screen resolutions while you’re at it. Just look at the taskbar on the very bottom of your screen. See an icon shaped like a computer monitor? Right-click on it and choose a resolution (800×600, 1024×768, 1280×1024, etc.). You can always return to your favorite resolution.
  • Ask a friend what she thinks. Have someone surf to your website with fresh eyes and ask for brutal feedback. After all, this is representative of you and if it makes your visitors flee, that’s not a good sign. Ask her to click all the links, proofread all the stories and give you an overall assessment. You’re a writer—you know how to accept critique.

Designing your webpage portfolio

Make your index page as simple as possible. There’s no need to put everything in the world on your introductory page. No one should have to scroll more than three times down your front page. The length of your story pages depends on the stories and is hard to control but readers expect to scroll in order to read articles and stories. Try a small graphic, a basic site map or a “welcome” message with some links. I created an example of a bad intro page here but even Geocities’ Pagemaker program wouldn’t allow me to make the page more than three scrolls!

If you have several pages, create a “site map” or “navigation” page for visitors. Toasted Cheese’s site map is here. This will be especially handy if you use the site for more than your writing portfolio.

Frames can help with navigation. Most everyone should be frame-compatible by this point. I use a frame on my writing portfolio page. Some people don’t like frames because you cannot bookmark the framed page and inexperienced web designers have a tendency to cause links to pop up within the frame, creating a frame in a frame in a frame

If you’re experienced or have someone to help you code and you’re using your portfolio only for stories, I see nothing wrong with using frames. Just watch your link coding and be sure to include a “back” or “home” link on the pages within the frames. If you’re unsure, stick to frame-free browsing.

Tables also keep a page looking neat and no one need know you’re using tables to do it. Toasted Cheese’s index page uses CSS, which looks like table columns. Either method keeps a page looking neat and adjusts for different screen resolutions. Tables are also nice if you’d like to use an unusual background color or a background graphic.

There are several sites where you can learn about creating tables or frames. I have listed some at the end of the article. Just use Google or another search engine to find more free coding tutorials. If you see a page that inspires you, click on “view” and then check out “page source” to see the coding for the color, font name or whatever it is that you’d like to replicate. You can read and copy the HTML coding and play with it on your own pages; just don’t outright steal the coding for yourself. Most of what I know about coding, especially how to do frames, I learned from reading page sources.

Keep your graphics to a minimum for your writing pages. A set of graphic buttons or a tasteful logo would be okay but sparkly dancing unicorns are right out. After all, this page is about your writing: stick to text.

Using the same graphics on each page would be okay, since the reader’s computer will cache (i.e. remember) them and it won’t take long for the pages to load. Using your bumblebee graphics theme on page 6 and your ladybug layout on page 7 will cause even broadband users to tap their fingers (and scratch their heads, once the page loads).

If you’d like to use tasteful, attractive graphics but don’t know how to make them, Full Moon Graphics is a good place to start. You can download free graphic sets, many of which work well for writers, themewise. While there, check out Kitty’s advice on creating webpages and her resources for webmasters. I learned a lot there myself when creating my earliest pages and I still check the site often for ideas and advice.

Create a writer biography. One of our Pen In Each Hand exercises accompanying this article is to use our template to create a writer bio or “artists statement.” It’s not about how many stories you’ve published or how many contests you’ve won. It’s about sharing your artistic vision with people who are interested in reading your work. Try it and see!

Include your contact info. You need an e-mail address just for business purposes (i.e. your submissions). Gmail, Yahoo and Hotmail provide free e-mail addresses and you can have as many as you like. If you set your page up at Geocities, you also get a Yahoo e-mail address (e.g. and Again, please avoid using “write” or “author” or similar in your e-mail address. As I wrote in a previous AB article, “Stick with something like your real name, like sarahjessicaparker or sjparker or sarahjess.” When we’re selecting our e-zine picks, we refer to the author’s last name in our editorial communications. Make it easy for editors to remember your name.

You also want the address you send from to be yours and yours alone. It can be confusing for editors looking for the “Sarah Parker” story when the sender line reads “Matthew Broderick.”

If you use an AOL address, I highly recommend that you do not use it for your submissions, queries or other writing business. AOL truncates (i.e. cuts off) paragraphs, often in mid-sentence, once they reach a certain character limit—very bad for writers submitting prose. AOL also lists the sender as something like “jrpvegan1974” instead of “Joaquin Phoenix.” Editors and agents like the convenience of knowing which e-mail is yours by a glance at “sender.” AOL also identifies some organizations as “spammers” when they are not; Toasted Cheese is one of the literary journals wrongly identified this way. If AOL bounces the acceptance e-mail for your story, it’s possible the editors could move your piece to the slush pile in favor of someone they can contact.

Your portfolio

Back in the old days (okay, the mid-90s), I would take my yellow writing portfolio from interview to interview so potential employers could glance over my articles, news photos, poems and short stories and get an idea of my skill level and experience. If I were interviewing today, my resume would include a URL that an employer could check out even before calling me for an interview. The convenience on all sides is much improved.

Up to this point in the article, we’ve talked about the look and layout of your portfolio—the “yellow folder” aspect. Here’s where we talk a little about what’s inside the yellow folder.

  • Published stories/poems. Anything you’ve published, online or in traditional print, should be on your website so long as you have the rights. Sometimes it’s hard to find a copy of an old print article or your college lit journal but it’s worth a try, especially if you’re a little low on more current credits. If you can’t find the story, you can just include a mention in your writer bio or on a list of “published work.” Additionally, this is a place for you to gather and show off your stuff—you’ll want as much as possible!
  • Excerpts from longer work. If you’ve finished or are working on a novel, why not include an excerpt from what you’ve finished? Don’t worry about whether it’s considered “published” at this point; a small excerpt or first chapter won’t matter. If you have a longer short story published, putting a teaser on your page might be more fun than including the whole story. Get your visitor interested in reading the other samples on your site. If you’re uncomfortable sharing an excerpt, write a synopsis of your novel. It’s good practice for your query letters.
  • Unpublished work? This is a tough question and I think it’s best left up to the author to decide if she wants unpublished work on her webpage. I have a few unpublished flash pieces in one of my writing portfolios (more on that later) because they’re quirky and were specifically written for a publication that no longer exists. Instead of shoving them in a drawer, I added them to my page. Remember: unpublished doesn’t equal unworthy. Academic writing (essays, papers, an unpublished thesis, etc.) can be helpful in demonstrating your areas of expertise or your skill at non-fiction writing.
  • Non-fiction—what do I include? Most articles should be included, especially any about writing. Don’t include letters to the editor unless you believe they are exceptional pieces of writing. Avoid articles about religion and politics on your portfolio pages; if you like, you can categorize them and visitors may have the option of reading them that way. If you plan to share this URL with employers, it’s a bad idea to put your personal convictions on display. The exception would be if you intend to get work in a religious or political field, where these would be appropriate. Use your best judgment.
  • To blog or not to blog? If you plan to use your portfolio professionally, I would keep the personal weblog out of it. If you have a “writing blog” where you blog about your submissions, rejections, acceptances, setbacks, triumphs and other aspects of your writing life, it could be fun to link to it from your portfolio. A rule of thumb is: link if it’s relevant and if you wouldn’t mind your employer finding out all about your personal life. Sure it’s writing but is it the kind of writing you would include with your resume? Remember: unless your blog is password-protected there’s always a potential that your employer might find it and you can be “dooced” (i.e. fired for your weblog).
  • Splitting genres If you write in several genres, you might want to split them into sections (mainstream fiction, sci-fi/fantasy fiction, poetry, articles, etc.).If you write erotica or fanfic, give these their own separate portfolios (or subdomains or domains)—make them “their own thing.” You can follow the same page template, for continuity, but not everyone wants to read these genres (if your prospective employer wants to read your erotica
 what’s the starting salary and is there a dental plan?)I recommend a “click if you’re 18” front page for your erotica (or slash) portfolio. It’s not foolproof but it helps cover your butt. You can always include a link from your “vanilla” portfolio to your erotica or fanfic portfolios. Don’t forget a reciprocal link; your erotica and/or fanfic portfolios will get many more hits than your mainstream portfolio and you can draw visitors from them.
  • Non-writing creative work? Photos and other artistic expressions can enhance your writing pages, so long as the pages load quickly and the layout is good. If you are looking for a job as a reporter, for example, an editor might be interested to see your photography skills at work (and your eye for a layout). When I was a stringer for a weekly, I was sent on photo-only assignments as often as writing-with-photo plus writing-only. If your paintings, beadwork or sculpture are relevant to your professional writing life, include images with your stories. If they aren’t or if you feel you’re stretching their relevance to make them fit, give them a separate section. Your site map will point people toward what they want to surf. Besides, if people like your writing, they’re very likely to seek out what else you create.

Nifty add-ons

Sound files Writers and poets who read work aloud could always include a list of clickable .wav files of readings (live readings in front of an audience would be a great idea). It would probably enhance your webpage to allow visitors the experience of hearing you read your work. Allow these readings to be an option, not a requirement for your visitors. Use Google to find information on how to create and upload sound files.

Unless you are Anne Rice: no music. Unless a site is music-related, I don’t like to hear anything when I surf to it. Don’t make people click away or lunge for their volume control when a midi of “Everything I Do (I Do It For You)” comes wafting from your webpage.

Custom 404 pages We’re all familiar with a 404 page. Why not make yours a little bit fun and quirky? TC’s 404 page lets you know that the page was “eaten by a boojum.” My personal website’s 404 page is text from 2001: A Space Odyssey, complete with HAL9000’s “eye.” Include a link to your index page and/or site map and an e-mail address so that vistors (hopefully) report the broken link that gave them the 404 error. There’s a step-by-step tutorial at HTMLSource that you can use.

Remember: it doesn’t matter if your web portfolio is full of fancy flash designs or it’s just black text on a white page. The most important aspect of the portfolio is its content. Don’t let your portfolio get stale—keep writing!

Some good how-to sites:
HTML Clinic
HTML Goodies
Web Pages That Suck

Examples of online portfolios:
Michael Noble
Ben Jordi
Chad Fasca
Amy Parkison
Elizabeth Pena
Kelly Rothenberg
Timons Esaias
Leila Eadie
Tara Lynn Johnson

Final Poll Results