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In First Person: DIY Digital Publishing

By Kayla Allen

Editorial Introduction

Navigating the world of publishing in a digital age is a dance. Digital tools and distribution methods lower the barrier to entry, but as with most new technology, it's easy to lose touch with the humans on the other side of the devices connected to us, our products, and our projects.

In this In First Person article, Kayla Allen shares her personal journey to defining and running Sword & Kettle Press. She takes us through each of its iterations and offers her best practices for those looking to follow in her footsteps, touching upon digital communities like Twitter and the importance of considering the human experience of contributing writers and collaborators. Above all, she advises beginner publishers to enjoy the process.

DIY Digital Publishing

When I founded a small press, I didn’t want to be a professional editor. I liked the work of it—shaping stories, curating collections—but I wanted to do it on my own time, under my own terms.

I started the press in 2015, sitting at the kitchen table in my dorm with my laptop and a forgotten cup of tea. I lived in room 308, and I called it 308 Press. I didn’t want to pretend to be a professional; I wanted to state upfront that I was a college student lacking in experience, resources, and connections. I figured that the best way to confront my insecurities was to just own up to them.

Those insecurities never turned out to be problems, though. When I put out a call for submissions online, I received dozens of emails full of short stories and poetry from writers all over the world in response.

The problem was that I didn’t have a purpose; I didn’t focus on anything in particular. I published two print issues of a literary magazine, the first themed around “letters” and the second “found poetry.” I had an online magazine exclusively for flash fiction with exactly 308 words. I wrote a small collection of New Jersey-themed horror stories with a friend and posted a PDF of it. I had a million ideas bouncing around, but no way to organize them.

A year and a half after starting the press, I started a master’s program in English. I had written my application essay about my deep love of feminist fantasy books, but it wasn’t until I got into the classroom and had someone ask about my field that I realized fantasy could be my field. And then I realized: I should be publishing fantasy. I’ve been reading it for as long as I can remember reading. I know the ins and outs of the genre. I never, ever get tired of it.

I started rebranding and rebuilding the press right away. I changed the name to Sword & Kettle Press to give it a clear association with fantasy. I updated the social media pages, rebuilt the website, reformatted the previous publications. I wrote a new mission statement:

Our mission is to publish inclusive feminist fantasy & speculative fiction and provide an encouraging space for emerging writers. We look for the weird & witchy & wild & whimsical things in our world & in worlds beyond.

This one felt right. It expressed my purpose and clarified my focus, but still left room for me and the press to grow and change.

I published two more issues of the original print literary magazine with clearer fantasy themes, and then realized that by rebranding the press halfway through its run, I had made this magazine extremely complicated. Each issue had a coherent theme in and of itself, but it didn’t really connect to the other issues. I stopped its publication, and took some time off before starting anything new.

The only year-round project I run right now is so much simpler. Corvid Queen is an online-only journal for feminist fairy tales and folklore. Submissions are always open, and I publish a new piece every week or so. It’s so much easier to explain this project to people now, and it’s equally easy for them to read the journal and imagine their work fitting in there. I have time to focus on the things I love about editing: working with writers, shaping stories, curating collections.

I’ve put a lot of time, energy, and love into Corvid Queen, and I’m so grateful to see it reflected back to me. I’ve received so many unique and thoughtful and beautiful stories. I’ve been able to work with writers who are already well-known and writers who have never been published before. A few of the stories I’ve published have bloomed into other projects: chapbook Of Witches & Wolves and zine The Last Petal both grew out of Corvid Queen. I’m looking forward to publishing more fairy tales, forming more partnerships, and nurturing more projects.

I’ve learned a lot in my four years of working on Sword & Kettle Press in all its forms. If you’re thinking of starting your own magazine or press or publication, here’s my advice for you:

Read a lot. There are a million publications on the internet. Which ones do you like the most? What, specifically, do you like about them?

Have a clear focus. Now that you’ve identified what you like, how can you use that information to build your own publication? What will make yours different from the other ones you’ve read? Why should someone send you their work?

Give yourself time. You don’t have to have a strict publishing schedule to have a good publication. Give yourself a little more time than you think you need to collect and curate submissions and create your final product. When you’re the one setting the deadlines, you don’t want to put yourself in a position where you need to apologize for being behind on your work. It may feel like you have to constantly put out new material in order to be “productive,” but I’ve found that quality over quantity is the way to go.

Go with your gut. When I read a new submission for Corvid Queen, I usually know in the first ten seconds if I want to publish it or not. If something feels off about a piece, you don’t have to accept it; you don’t even have to pinpoint what exactly feels off. It doesn’t mean that the piece is bad; it just means it isn’t right for you. Send a prompt and compassionate rejection note, and keep waiting for pieces that spark joy.

Get on social media. Most of S&KP’s submissions and book sales have come from people who found out about us on Twitter. Although being on Twitter can become very draining, it can also help you get your work out there, find writers and artists you might want to solicit or commission work from, and connect with other editors.

Support your writers. I pay writers an honorarium of $5 for publishing in Corvid Queen. The first time I got paid for my art, it made me feel so validated as an artist, and that’s an experience I want to facilitate for others. Some publications pay professional rates, and others don’t pay at all but are great at promoting their writers on social media and at live events. Supporting writers in one of these ways will help you build stronger relationships, which is important when the community mainly exists online.

Give yourself permission to make mistakes. Imposter syndrome is real. When I was starting out in my master’s program, professors constantly implied that my field of YA fantasy (which has many female writers and readers) was juvenile, frivolous, and Not Literary Enough. I started to feel like maybe my press was juvenile and frivolous and bad; after all, I made mistakes, and I took a long time to find a focus, and I published inconsistently. When I was able to reframe my mistakes by thinking about what I had learned from them, it was easier to see that that line of reasoning was a bunch of bullshit. Mistakes are okay; mistakes are valuable. They don’t make you a bad editor or make your work meaningless.

Enjoy the process. I try to challenge myself to keep creating better art, but when I push myself too hard, I burn out on my projects and stop enjoying my work. When you’re beginning a new project, you don’t have to push yourself to be the best at everything right away, and you don’t have to compare your progress to others’. Create an environment for yourself where you can have fun with your work, and give yourself space to play around and experiment. Indie publishing is not a lucrative business; enjoy the process of publishing work that you love.

Further Reading:
How to Make a Zine by Emma Dajska for Rookie
Indie Publishing: How to Design and Produce Your Own Book by Ellen Lupton
12 Principles for Prototyping a Feminist Business from Sister
Manifesto by Chloe N. Clark for Cotton Xenomorph