Storyville: How to Put Together an Anthology
Have you ever wondered how editors put together anthologies? Maybe you’ve thought about editing one yourself. Here are some tips and information about how I put together the anthologies I have coming out this year—The New Black (Dark House Press), Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press, with Chuck Palahniuk and Dennis Widmyer), and The Lineup: 25 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press)—as well as Exigencies (Dark House Press) in 2015.
This is a great place to start. What is your anthology going to be about? Are you going to focus on a particular genre—horror or fantasy or literary short stories? Is it going to be even more specific—post-apocalyptic horror or twins or maybe zombies? With The New Black it was about tapping into neo-noir, but that’s a broad definition, one I try to talk about in the introduction, and that Laird Barron did a fantastic job of explaining with his foreword. With Burnt Tongues, the theme was transgressive fiction, but it came out of the workshops at chuckpalahniuk.net, via a prolonged nomination and vetting process, which ended with Chuck picking the final stories. With The Lineup, I wanted to focus on an entirely female anthology that was comprised of edgy literary fiction, “provocative” in the sense that the stories provoked a reaction, and didn't shy away from challenging subject matter. If you’re trying to do some sort of a “best of”, that’s even more difficult, because you really have to read a lot, especially if we’re talking about Best Horror of the Year (Ellen Datlow) or Best American Short Stories (rotating editor). Most likely, you’ll pick a theme or focus or genre that is close to your own writing, your own tastes, a project you’ll love from start to finish.
This is where it starts to get tricky. Unless you are putting together a charity anthology, you’ll have to pay people. It’s pretty rare to find authors who are willing to donate a story for nothing, unless they really want to help a small, struggling press. The most common option is probably paying royalties, but even there it could be 5% of the list or 5% of the net, or 50% of eBook sales. Either way, it’s always “pro rata,” an equal share. Keep in mind, the difference between list and net is a big one. A $15 book (the list price) at 6% of list is .90 cents per book sold. NOW, divide that by the authors in the book—10, 15, 20, or more! Let’s say 20 to keep the math simple. That’s 4.5 cents per book, per author. If the press sells 1,000 copies, that’s $45 each. Just keep that in mind when selling a story. Hopefully the press sells a couple thousand copies, so that paycheck is more like $150 each. Or, if there are only 15 authors in there, instead of 20, you’d get .06 cents each, or $60 per 1,000, and $180 for 3,000. If it’s off the NET, then it gets worse. With a list price of $15, if you take away the cut for the bookstores or Amazon, for distribution, and retain 60%, and then take 6% of that, with a pro rata share, it dips even farther. Unfortunately a lot of small presses (including Dark House) have to do this because they don’t have the money to pay up front, or per word (we pay off of list price, right now).
Which leads me to the next way to pay—flat rate. You could just pay $25 or $50 or $150 per story. That caps it, but also means money up front, or at best, half on signing, half when published. And then there is the most ideal way for authors, per word. Professional rates are .05 a word, which sounds great. But even so, for a 4,000-word story, that’s only $200. I say that not to act like $200 isn’t a nice paycheck, but to remind you that you’re not publishing a story a day (not even Stephen Graham Jones is that prolific), but maybe a story a week, at best. And that’s still 52 stories a year, which is insane. I think my best year was maybe 22, and not all of those were for pro pay rates. Some places will pay even better with .06/word, or more. I saw Fireside is taking submissions right now and is paying a whopping 12.5/word, which for that same 4,000-word story, puts you at $500. I know it’s a complicated mess on both sides of the fence here, but just make sure you understand, as an author or editor, how this all works out. In my opinion if you can get professional rates, at .05/word, take it most every time.
You also have to consider if you want to have an anthology of reprints or original stories. We just got done talking about payment. I’ve seen reprint markets pay anywhere from .01-.05/word, but typically it’s .03/word. Also, most authors are more likely to give you a reprint for an anthology that pays either a lower per-word rate or royalties only. You may or may not have noticed over the years that many of my stories have been published several times. I try to get the best market and rate the first time out, but have no problem giving a cool market a reprint for little (or no) money if I dig the project. If an author has already published a story in a magazine and then in their collection and then in a “best of” and then online, they probably aren’t that attached to it anymore and don’t expect a major payment. Which is good for editors and small presses.
But wait, there’s more! What about the agents, the original publication or press? When putting together The New Black I not only had to get the authors to say yes (for royalties only) but I had to talk to a few agents, a few big six presses. A few stories I lost wanted $500, $800, or even $1,200 to reprint. I was lucky that I was able to talk most into waiving those fees, to help out a new, small press. But some were firm, and I had to pass. It seems the bigger the author, the bigger the press, the more people are involved, the more paperwork, and the greater chance of fees. If you wonder why there isn’t a story by Dennis Lehane in The New Black, or William Gay, or a few other voices, it probably came down to fees, legal issues, or no response. I almost couldn't get a story from Benjamin Percy. His collection Refresh, Refresh was amazing, and I wanted the title story, but we couldn’t afford it. I mean, even if it was only $200 per story, we couldn’t start the book $4,000 in the hole—and it wouldn’t be fair to the other authors. Luckily he suggested “Dial Tone” which was not in a collection, it only ran in The Missouri Review, and we signed for that one. And as it turns out, it was a perfect choice. Many big six presses were very nice, and willing to work with me, and for that I’m grateful. With reprints, one of the nice things is that you can go after the authors and stories you want, just make a list, and start sending out emails—no open call, no slush. You know what you love already.
If you want original fiction, you can definitely solicit, but most likely you’ll need to have an open call. There is nothing more awkward than asking for a story, especially from a big name author, and then having to pass. Yikes. With an open call, the authors expect competition—they expect it to be tough, that they may get rejected. For Exigencies, out with Dark House Press in 2015, I put together my FIRST open call and all original anthology. It was a ton of work, over 400 submissions, and I had to reject a lot of friends, some several times. Rarely was it because the writing was bad, just not a good fit. When the guidelines say “neo-noir” and talk about NOT wanting classic horror or classic noir, anything that ignores those guidelines will probably get rejected.
What I loved about reading new work was not only seeing familiar names and being blown away, or new names and being thrilled by the voice, but the variety of stories and genres. Even within neo-noir, for Exigencies, there were stories that leaned towards horror, fantasy, crime, magical realism, Southern gothic, you name it—all with literary voices—smart, layered, and emotional stories with impact. But, you never know what you’ll get in the slush pile—it’s always a risk. Be prepared for a lot of reading. And I’ll tell you this, authors, make sure that you edit the hell out of your story, that you have a hook, that you grab the editor right away. You may or may not know this truth—agents, magazines, journals, editors, publishers—they are all looking for a reason to say no. Myself included. I wanted to find brilliant stories, don’t get me wrong. At both ends of the spectrum the terrible stories were an easy NO, and the exceptional ones were an easy YES, but quite often, you read a ton of “good” stories, just waiting for it head in one of two directions—screw up, turn south, make mistakes so I can reject it, OR, keep going, tension increasing, lyrical voice and stick the landing, BAM, wow, out of breath, spent, what a story. All of the stories I took for Exigencies I read all the way through, some several times. Some I knew a page in it was a yes. Some I didn’t know until I finished. Some I set aside and came back to later, or showed to another editor, unsure if it was a good fit. I rejected stories based on horrible formatting, stories that were TOTALLY the wrong genre, and I rejected as quickly as one paragraph, one page, halfway done, and more. Some stories can be fixed, but most, they can’t. It’s a yes, or it’s a no. But that doesn’t mean the story isn’t right for another press or magazine or anthology. Like I said, most of the 400 submissions were good.
Hopefully if you’re editing an anthology, you have a publisher, but what if you don't? I didn’t for The Lineup, so I reached out to 10-15 authors, asked if they were interested, said it might not pay much (or anything at all), but I loved a particular story of theirs, and here are the names I’m talking to, are you interested? With reprints, like I said, it was much easier. If I’d asked for original fiction, it probably wouldn’t have happened. I put together a proposal, with a rough table of contents, the authors that were a firm YES, as well as some I hoped to get later, and shopped it around. I talked to a good 5-10 presses, and when Black Lawrence Press said yes, I was thrilled. I had just as much work selling Burnt Tongues to Medallion. But I was lucky to have the Palahniuk name attached, and it opened up many doors. We still got a lot of rejections, because it wasn’t his work, and because it was transgressive fiction, some pretty wild stuff, but in the end we had several interested parties, a bit of a bidding war, and we signed with Medallion for a variety of reasons—their love of the book, the compensation for our authors, and the ability to publish and sell overseas, as well as other secondary markets. But it was months and months of editing, tweaking the proposal, emails back and forth, and negotiations. It was intense. But it was also a blast.
THE ACTUAL BOOK
Once you have it all together, you have to do other things. What about the cover art, the layout, the order of stories? That’s the fun stuff, right? I’m really proud of all of the cover art that I’ve acquired for the three anthologies coming out this year (as well as the other Dark House Press titles) and it was so much fun to find artists, to work with them, to get it right—sometimes it was easy, sometimes it wasn’t. I’m lucky to have Alban Fischer at Dark House Press, he does a great job with layout and design. I’ve worked with photographers, such as Jennifer Moore (The Lineup) and Helena Kvarnstrom (Echo Lake), and they were great. I worked with designers and illustrators that were amazing, too—George C. Cotronis (After the People Lights Have Gone Off and The Doors You Mark Are Your Own), Jay Shaw (Burnt Tongues) and Luke Spooner for some awesome interior illustrations (The New Black and After the People Lights Have Gone Off). I think the way your book looks goes a long way towards impressing your audience, not just the cover, but interior, too. We have a brilliant copy editor at Dark House Press, Carrie Gaffney, as well as several associate and assistant editors that read to find those little things that I miss. All of this goes into your anthology. And what about the stories, the order? That’s important, too. I try to start and finish with two of the best stories, if I do nothing else. I also like to “prop up” the book with “tent poles” throughout, the next strongest stories—so maybe someplace around #5, #10, #15. But I also look for a mixture of male and female, first-person and third-person, long and short, so many variables. I started off The New Black with three strong stories, known as front loading, and they all had strong family ties—that was on purpose. I wanted you to CARE as soon as possible. I also try not to end a collection with the saddest or darkest story in there, mixing up the various shades of gray throughout, so it’s not one note, repeated over and over.
Editing an anthology is a lot of hard work, but it’s also an honor and a pleasure. Authors are trusting you with their work—so don’t screw it up. Be honest, be timely, be thorough, and be creative. Don’t just publish your friends, but don't turn them away simply because you know them—it’s always about the work, the story, the writing, that’s what you have to care about the most. You will make mistakes, but do your best to be humble, to have fun, and to really support the authors and voices that move you, that influence your own writing, and in the end, you’ll probably be okay. There is no right or wrong, only your perspective, and the voices that you love—so put it out there and celebrate the amazing writers that you see and read every day. We’re all out here in the trenches, so lift a few people up, and tell them you want to publish their work, that you love it—and you’ll find it’s a glorious feeling, my friends.
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