MIND MELD: Behind the Scenes…How the Hottest Short Fiction Anthologies Are Created (Part 1)
Short fiction anthologies come in many flavors: some contain original fiction and some are comprised of reprints; they can be themed or non-themed; they may restrict themselves to a certain sub-genre of speculative fiction… But one thing they all have in common is that it’s Editors that put them together.
This week, we asked a handful of Editors the following question:
Read on to see their illuminating responses…
This is a tough question, because almost every anthology I’ve done with Ann or by myself or with someone else has been different from the others. Even Steampunk and New Weird involved completely different methodologies–in the case of the former, we were trying to identify iconic stories and in the case of the latter we were mapping/documenting the legitimacy of a “movement” that I’d been around to witness the inception of. Our current project, Last Drink Bird Head, is a flash fiction antho for literacy charities with over 80 contributors. Fast Ships, Black Sails was a straightforward commercial pirate story anthology. The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases played around with the whole idea of what’s fiction versus nonfiction and indirectly charted the life of its titular character. The Leviathan anthologies focused on surreal and proto-New Weird or post-New Wave fiction, but each with a different theme and focus. Album Zutique was unabashed Decadent and Surrealist-inspired fiction. Being guest editors for Best American Fantasy was another kind of challenge, because we’d never done a year’s best before, and that carries with it a different set of responsibilities. Our upcoming Clarion charity anthology, The Leonardo Variations, is both an anthology of fiction and a teaching anthology that, through its stories and nonfiction in the back, should be of great use to beginning writers. That poses its own challenges. I guess the point is, behind the scenes each of these books has gone through a different process, both in terms of its creation and in terms of the process of preparation. This keeps things fresh and interesting–I’m not particularly interested in repeating myself with regard to books, whether my own fiction or the anthologies I create with Ann, and I don’t think Ann is, either.
That said, there are a few things that hold true, I think (Ann may have a different perspective).
- For us it’s a true collaboration on each anthology, with us both contributing ideas about the focus, form, and general content for a project. At the stage of thinking about story selection, if it’s reprints I’ll probably go out hunting and bring back a mess of stuff to toss at Ann’s feet, and she’ll go through it all and recommend what she thinks works best–not just the best stories, but what works well with other stories. In the case of Steampunk, what worked well was contrast–to try to show the variety of first-wave Steampunk stories (there cannot be two more different stories than the Joe Lansdale and Molly Brown selections in that antho).
- When we’re doing original anthologies, we try very hard to make sure we have an open reading period, unless the theme or focus is so narrow or so quirky that we’d feel guilty if writers who were rejected suddenly had this story on their hands that probably wouldn’t be publishable anywhere else. This is why the fake disease guide had no open reading. Even with the reprint anthos, we’re now finding ways to have open reading periods, because we think this is very, very important for the vitality of the field–for all writers to have equal access to markets whenever possible. It is true that an established writer may always provide a story that meets an acceptable level of quality, but because of the cult of personality, I think this aspect is probably accentuated a bit too much. The trick there is: you still have to sell the anthology, and, for better of worse, names sell books. So on anthos with open reading periods, we also do solicitations. I’m happy to say it’s worked out well, in that luckily the field’s wide enough that we’ve always been able to solicit from writers we really like a lot. So with the second Steampunk reprint antho we’re doing for Tachyon, for example, we will have an open reading period where anyone can send in their reprint for consideration. It makes a lot of sense, and just riffs off of something John Joseph Adams (a really stand-up guy) has been doing in compiling reading lists prior to making his selections for his anthos. When we do have open reading periods, we also prefer to know as little about the writer as possible–not even a bio note. We just want the story. If we could have people submit anonymously, we would.
- We spend a great deal of time talking about and thinking about things like story order, whether a particular antho needs story notes, whether the bio notes should accompany the stories or should go in the back, what the introduction should focus on, and even how to position the antho through the back cover copy.
- Putting together a reprint anthology is really easy compared to editing an original anthology. In most cases it tests an editor’s research skills and ability to mix-and-match effectively, but it doesn’t compare to the complexity of picking original stories, especially if you’re picking them off of a slushpile. That’s a totally different skill. (I don’t even think reprint anthologies should be eligible for awards in the same category as original anthos.)
As for marketing/positioning, we’ve had more than one conversation with both Jonathan Strahan and John Joseph Adams about possible competition. In all cases, things have been worked out in a harmonious way–there’s enough room out there for everyone. In one case, I even decided not to do an anthology after such a consultation. In another, I offered up an idea to a competitor. Sometimes you know when someone else is better suited for a project, too. The level of cooperation is high. Once we’ve determined a date for publication and have our roster, then we can turn our attention to things like identifying subcultures and groups on the internet that don’t self-identify as fiction readers but, because of the anthology’s subject matter, may well want to buy the book. With the pirate anthology, we teamed up with the official fan site for the Pirates of the Caribbean. For Steampunk, we plugged in to the Steampunk subculture.
The most important thing, of course, is picking good stories, and in that regard Ann and I have very different approaches. I often will do a kind of first skim and get a good instinctual feel for a story, while Ann does a thorough first read. I find unexpected stuff and crazy stuff, and then Ann keeps me grounded to make sure we keep our focus. It definitely helps the quality and internal integrity of the books for Ann to have me to bounce things off of, and vice versa. It also helps because her contacts are different than mine, and although our tastes overlap there’s definitely material she likes more than me, and stuff I like more than her. In those cases, we reach principled compromises that don’t hurt the anthology–usually along the lines that we can each have one story we feel strongly about even if the other hates it.
First I need an idea for an anthology – it has to be a theme (or genre) that I’m interested in. Then, I round up the “names”–the writers whose confirmed participation will help sell the book–to the publisher and in their opinion to the reading public. I draw up a wish list of who I’d like in the book-writers with whom I’ve previously worked, other established writers whose work I admire, and some talented newcomers whose work I’d like to encourage. But only the most recognizable names will actually be in the proposal.
If the anthology sells (and sometimes it doesn’t), I send out invitations providing more details–for a theme anthology, outlining the submission parameters– due date, and pay rate. I encourage potential contributors to work as broadly as possible within the theme. I (and most other anthologists) ask for more story submissions than I can publish because it’s a given that some writers won’t make the deadline, or won’t come up with an appropriate idea. Also, of course, I inevitably have to turn down some stories – not necessarily because they aren’t good, but sometimes because a story is too similar to one I’ve already bought. An anthologist’s task is to choose stories that go well together, making the volume work as a whole.
As I edit a specific anthology, what I’m looking for evolves. Initially, I’m wide open to a variety of types of stories. But as the anthology fills up, I start to weigh what I’ve got in terms of word length, theme, point of view, type of story, type of characters, voice, and structure. The needs of the anthology become narrower as I try to fill in the remaining spots with something different from what I’ve already bought.
Because I’m always aware of my deadline, I stay in touch with the writers to remind them of their deadline (at least a month or two before mine) and prod. As submissions come in, I’ll either read and reject the story outright, accept it immediately, or hang on to it because I’m not sure. When I accept a story I send out the contract and upon its execution (signed by the writer and by me), will pay the writer (until the money runs out from the initial “payment on signature” of my contract. The other writers must wait till the “delivery and acceptance” money comes in).
If I love aspects of the story but think it needs major revisions before accepting it, I’ll contact the author and work with her on it. Most stories I buy or want to buy need an edit– from a light line edit to a major rewrite. I believe I’ve published fewer than five stories in my career that were so “clean” that they needed nothing. I’ll often go through several revisions with writers if I like the story enough to begin with–this includes suggestions for consistency in character behavior, asking for clarification of paragraphs/sentences/phrases so that the reader can comprehend what’s going on –especially if the narrative is complicated and/or the language dense. I might suggest different wordings. If the ending doesn’t work the writer and I will discuss why this is so and try to work out a way to fix it.
Then the story will sit in my files until I’ve filled the book. This could take up to a year, which is actually a good thing because by that time the writer and I can look at the story one more time with almost-fresh eyes. Before the anthology goes into production, I give every story a very close line edit–that is, I go over the manuscript line by line and check for redundancy, inconsistencies, overuse of words, misuse of words, final questions on logic, and yes…if I happen to catch them–correct typos or errors in punctuation that I missed earlier.
At this point, I consider story order. There are several ways to do this but for an original anthology I think the best is to pick a strong story to open the anthology–one that isn’t too dense or too complicated in structure. You want to ease the reader into the anthology and not be too jarring. The last story is often the strongest –although I’ve occasionally had a very strong story next to last and then added a final story as a “grace note.” While ordering the other stories I consider what feels right: mixing longer and shorter stories, different tones, point of views, types of characters, and just how the stories read side by side.
After that, I put together the front matter that will be provided to the publisher. This includes the Table of Contents, with the stories and their authors listed in final order, a copyright page, possibly a dedication page and an acknowledgments page, individual author bios and my bio, possibly individual afterwords, and an overall Introduction to the book.
Then the anthology goes into production. A copy editor checks the manuscript’s punctuation, goes over it for consistency, spelling errors, and otherwise “cleans up the text,” hopefully catching anything the author and editor miss. The copy editor should also query factual or other possible errors. The anthologist then goes over the copy edit to ensure that nothing important has been changed without the permission of each author (some writers are easy-going about punctuation. Others don’t want a semi-colon touched). The manuscript– with my approvals or rejections of the copy editing marks based on consulting with each author– is then returned to the publisher. At this point the manuscripts goes into galleys, the stage in which the manuscript begins to look like a book, with design elements added, with the correct page numbering, running heads, etc. and a proofreader checks the galleys for errors.
If the editor is lucky, she has input into jacket art and can approve the copy that will appear on the finished book. I may also try to get a blurb or two.
That’s basically it, at least until the anthology comes out. But that’s another article.
A reprint anthology is a piece of cake. You sell the purchasing editor on the idea, then you buy the rights to the stories – there’s only one agent in the field who’ll ever give you a hard time, and most editors usually just avoid his clients – and you’re done.
With an original anthology, it’s pretty hard to sell without a theme. If you haven’t edited a lot of anthologies, you have to collect maybe a dozen commitments from Names you can put on the cover. In my case, some 40+ anthologies into my career, no one has asked for specific names unless it’s the rare big-budget anthology such as Stars, which I co-edited with Janis Ian, or the 6-novella anthologies I did for the Science Fiction Book Club.
I always make sure that I’ve held a few spots open for beginners – I may buy 20 or 25 stories, but they don’t all have to be by name writers (always barring big-budget books), and since you don’t really make any money editing these things, at least compared to what you can make writing, the least you can do is help some talented new writers get into print.
By this point I know all the established writers I’ll be dealing with, which ones want suggestions and which resent it. I assign the stories with or without input as required, and then I wait for them to come in. Rarely do I have to do more than line-edit the established writers’ stories, but if there are problems we discuss it and they do what’s required. Simple as that.
One point I should address: my anthologies are always by invitation only. It doesn’t prevent new writers from selling to me – I bought more first stories in the 1990s than the three digest magazines combined…but they came from new writers who I’d discovered at Clarion or other workshops, or online, or had been recommended by pros I trust. But the math requires an invite-only book. On a $7,500 advance, which was typical for years (and is actually high these days), if I’m to pay 6 cents a word, the absolute minimum required to get decent writers, and I’m to supply 100,000 words, usually the minimum required by the publisher, the editor’s share is $1,500. But 1) someone always has diarrhea of the keyboard, and 2) I’m usually spitting what’s left with Marty Greenberg or some other co-editor. So I might make $500 or $600 on an original anthology. For about 2 weeks’ work. I can make the same money writing a story in one or two nights. So editing an anthology can be viewed as my charity work. But if I open it to submissions, I’ll be flooded by 600 stories, most of them unreadable, and then it’s not charity, or even philanthropy, it’s insanity. And it doesn’t help the writers either. If I buy 20 Alternate Obama or Wyatt Earp In Orbit stories, how many of the other 580 do you think will sell anywhere in the world?
I guess I’ll talk about two: Spicy Slipstream Stories and Haunted Legends. With SSS the concept was the title. I sent Jay Lake an email that said “Spicy! Slipstream Stories!” and by the end of the day we had agreed to co-edit an anthology. Since we’re both neat egalitarian sorts, we though we’d simply whip up some confusing guidelines and see who bit. Indeed, many people did think the guidelines were some sort of joke, but we ended up with a bunch of submissions. Jay read them first and brought them to me at the World Fantasy Convention in 2005. I read them right there-many of them in the bar at the con, with the help of whoever sat down with me (Toby Buckell, Maurice Broaddus, a few other people). We had a TOC by the end of the con, and even got to tell David Schwartz of his acceptance in person.
We did have to change publishers; Lethe Press stepped forward and commissioned a cover, which went through a couple minor revisions. We sent out checks and used the old “start strong, end long” model of placing stories, and then we were off to the races. Most of the stories were only lightly edited as we were able to choose from a big pile of about four hundred. And then it came out! And you, yes YOU, can buy Spicy Slipstream Stories right now!
Haunted Legends was somewhat more interesting. The Horror Writers Association put out an open call for anthology ideas a couple of years ago and I came up with the idea for horror writers producing renditions of “true” regional ghost stories. I figured it was salable; it could be positioned as non-fiction or fiction, sold to a mid-level publisher, and those ghost story collections generally are perennial backlist sellers and show up on the seasonable table displays at the chain bookstores. HWA liked the idea but, apparently, didn’t think that anyone who wasn’t famous would come up with a good idea so asked me to find a co-editor. Of course I picked Ellen Datlow.
Then after doing some numbers, we saw that HWA would take a chunk, HWA’s agent would, a book packager would, and after paying the contributors Ellen and I would be pretty underpaid. We developed a solicitation list thanks to Ellen’s giant Rolodex, and tried to move forward. At any rate, HWA went ahead and sold Blood Lite to Pocket, and that freed us up to shop the book elsewhere. Ellen took it right to Tor as she has a long relationship with them, and they took it. We finalized the list of solicitations, which included very prominent writers like Joe Lansdale and new writers like Lily K. Hoang.
Then I decided to read some slush, which isn’t something a Datlow anthology ever had before, so I wrote up some guidelines and in two weeks got 250 stories, of which Ellen and I contemplated twenty-five seriously…we ultimately bought four stories from the slush. Interestingly, some of the authors who submitted to the slush were just as prominent as the authors we solicited. And of course some solicitation stories ended up being rejected, others needed significant line-editing. It was an interesting experience cutting 1,000 words from and asking for a new ending to a story by Gary Braunbeck, who has been one of my favorite writers for the last decade or so. Ellen did a bunch of stories as well, and a couple were just gems which required no editing other than “Thanks! Here’s your check!” Then I wrote a brief introduction and Ellen and I juggled the TOC, putting the creepiest tale last and starting off with a story with a straightforward structure so that the reader could ease in to the experience. Haunted Legends will be out in the autumn of 2010.
I may be very wrong about this, but I suspect that the various ways anthologies get put together are a lot more similar than the various ways that stories get written. Nothing a writer says surprises me anymore, not even if Jeff VanderMeer told me he did his first drafts while dangling naked upside from a coconut palm, writing in squid ink through the hollowed fingerbone of William S. Burroughs. (I’ve seen his handwriting, this might actually be true.)
Writers are constrained only by their creativity and the necessity of ultimately producing an intelligible manuscript. Editors, on the other hand, are constrained by a much larger set of requirements and assumptions embedded in the publishing process.
One of the two biggest questions an editor has to resolve that drives their anthology process is whether the anthology is open or closed. (The other big question is money, but for the sake of this entire discussion we’ll assume the Magic Publishing Fairy, or possibly Bill Shafer, has liberally funded the project under discussion.) A great deal of the rest of the process arises from this baseline.
A closed anthology is much simpler to manage, simply because the slush pile, while still non-zero, is typically no more than 150% of the final wordcount, and generally consists entirely of stories the editor is probably going to buy. We’ll start with that, then discuss the variations in an open anthology.
As an example, the first Polyphony anthology, edited by Deborah Layne and co-edited by me, was closed. We sat down with our budget (see parenthetical note above) for both wordage and publication costs and determined our final wordcount target. If memory serves, we were aiming for 100,000 words. Wordcount * pay rate = wordage budget, obviously enough. We knew we wanted stories in 4,000 to 10,000 word range, so we figured we had about 15 slots, assuming an average story length of circa 7,000 words. With that in mind, we knew we’d need to invite about 20 writers to submit.
This is a bit like airline overbooking. An invited anthology slot is still not a guaranteed buy. Even the most experienced pros sometimes turn in a story that just doesn’t fit the market, or editorial taste. Also, some people won’t make deadline, or even extended deadline, for any of the myriad reasons that writers clam up and miss their targets. So if we’d invited 15, turned down 2, and had 3 more drop out, we’d have been mighty short.
Furthermore, some people will write outside the length target. Too short, too long, a poem instead of a novelette, etc. So again, even with a closed anthology, the editor needs flexibility to jigsaw the “buy” pile into a sensible book-length manuscript.
Figuring out which writers to invite is part of the editorial art. This is true even in open anthology calls, where there are typically a handful of invited writers, serving as “anchor tenants” to draw in readers and generate what publicists like to call “cover pull.” You want to aim as high as you can hit, and correct up a little bit, to shoot for possible BNAs (big name authors). You also want attract a few of the current young turks, because they’re proto-BNAs. Ideally, you want a few emerging writers, both to leaven the table of contents way from the usual suspects, and to pay forward by featuring new entrants to the field.
Actually reaching those writers and getting their attention is also part of the editorial art. This is one reason you see certain editors attain prominence. They’ve gotten to know enough writers to be able to simply ring up or email with an invite. (Over drinks in a Con bar is favorite, too.) In any line of work cold calling is the hardest way to get a new business relationship started. All the more so in anthology editing where you’re competing for a writer’s time with their current contracted work, whatever’s already grappled with their imagination, their real life activities and all the other market opportunities that might be open to them.
Once you invite, you give loads of deadline lead time. Most writers can knock out a short story in a few weeks, if not quite a bit faster, but getting the story in the *right* few weeks is a trick. Give people at least three months, but probably not more than six. If the deadline is too far out in the future, it falls away. Email them gentle reminders as time goes by. Embed secret slack time in your deadlines for that great story that isn’t quite ready, but almost. Etc. etc. etc.
Eventually you have your reading pile, or most of it. You read. If something is radically off-base, you reject. If something needs a little work, you ask for a rewrite. You total up your wordcounts, panic at how short you’ve fallen, and invite a few “closer” writers who can produce good work quickly. (In my own writing career, I’ve produced quite a few last-minute “closer” stories to plug a late-breaking hole in a ToC. That’s fine with me, I’d rather be asked to the dance late than not at all, and the pay’s the same.) If someone has queried your closed anthology along the way, as Doug Lain did with the original Polyphony volume, and you told them to go ahead and send, as we did with Doug, you read their story as “B” slush, then either reject or drop it in the “A” pile with all the invites. As we also did with Doug.
At that point, you have about the right number of words, and are ready to begin actually editing the anthology.
Note that if your anthology was open call, there was the whole process of reading slush — about 500 manuscripts for most of the later Polyphony volumes — winnowing it into “A”, “B” and “C” piles, then winnowing again until you have a “A” pile as described above. If you’re not familiar with the three-pile theory of editing, “C” is stories you reject without further consideration, “B” is stories you want to buy but need to think about (including, typically, all rewrite requests), and “A” is the stories you’re probably going to buy. The art and science of that winnowing is yet another big part of being an editor, but it’s materially different than what was described above, relying on a lot of emotional and professional judgment.
So you have your “A” pile…
We’re assuming all stories are publication-ready, that the rewrite-and-resubmit part of the process is all done. You now look at the stories by length, by title, by plot or theme or whatever characteristics are relevant in your anthology. You want to sort the table of contents in a pleasing manner. Typically your strongest stories (or biggest BNAs) go in the first and last slots. The middle slot is a power slot as well. Then you want to distribute stories by wordcount so that length varies through the book, to avoid reader monotony. You also want to vary theme, so the three troll stories in the entire book aren’t back to back (unless you’re doing that on purpose, of course). You want to make sure the titles don’t step on each other, or create howlingly funny inappropriate blank verse in the ToC listing. You want to make sure that the closing lines and the subsequent opening lines don’t likewise interact in an unfortunate manner. You want to make sure that the up stories and the down stories are interwoven (again, unless you’re doing otherwise on purpose).
In other words, you’re juggling a hell of a lot of balls to put the anthology together in reading order.
Mind you, this is acquisition editing. Not production editing, or publisher/contracts stuff, or copy editing, or any of the other myriad things that go on in the process of assembling an anthology. I’ve edited or co-edited a dozen now, and each has been somewhat different in its own way. I really like open anthologies, because I can find stories I would never have known to ask for, but the overhead of slush reading is enormous. Everything’s a trade-off of time, energy, money and focus.
Here at Norilana Books I am in an interesting position of releasing numerous anthologies but never having actually done an anthology myself — until just recently, which I will explain in a moment — and basically delegating the whole selection process to my excellent anthology editors: Mike Allen for Clockwork Phoenix, Roby James for Warrior Wisewoman, Deborah J. Ross for Lace And Blade, Elisabeth Waters for Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Sword And Sorceress, Dave Hutchinson for Under The Rose, Rochelle Uhlenkott for Clothesline World, Michael M. Jones for Scheherazade’s Facade, and Lee Martindale for The Ladies Of Trade Town. Wow, that’s a whole lot of people and anthologies!
The editors have their own individual themes, tastes, and the story selection is done completely by them, independent of me. In fact, I don’t see the stories until they are accepted, edited, assembled in a preliminary manuscript, and turned in to me. That’s when I take over as final book packager.
A book packager, you say?
I format the manuscript in MS Word, based on house style, putting it into final book form, with small design variations based on themes, or series design, and a preliminary copyedit. I assign ISBNs to each edition (ISBNs are purchased in batches from a government agency). Depending on number of pages and edition (trade hardcover, trade paperback, and dimensions, usually 6 x 9), I set the retail price that includes the print price (what the printer charges for the manufacturing process), the author share, and the publisher share, plus a wholesale retailer discount.
Then the files are turned into special PDF format. The first limited edition becomes an uncorrected proof, a trade paperback ARC (Advance Reading Copy) that goes to the reviewers (such as Publishers Weekly, with a three month lead time before the release date, accompanied by press release descriptive materials and cover letter) and an electronic file goes to the authors for galley corrections.
For covers, I either do the cover image myself, or commission an artist. The final image I use to do the book cover design in Adobe InDesign CS4, using a special book cover template (based on page length, and including an auto-generated barcode based on the ISBN and price) from the printer company. Then I use the Adobe Distiller to generate the cover PDF.
The two PDF files are uploaded to the POD printing company to be set up for the short run paper editions.
After the corrections come back from everyone, and when applicable, third party copyeditors, I make the final changes and upload the revised and final book files, timed to be processed in time for the final release date.
The books are set up by the printing company and after I approve the final proofs, they enter into the global distribution channels — become available for sale worldwide.
I manually enter the book cataloging data into Bowker Books-In-Print, which is used by online stores like Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
I send out PRs to announce the book. Add it to the Norilana website, etc. Blog it on all the social networking sites. Make wild monkey noises. This is about the time that reviews and blog mentions start showing up, and ads in publications, if applicable. The buzz and word of mouth is rising like warm dough!
There is also about ten billion other little things I do: royalties, taxes, contracts, shipping, contributor copy fulfillment, publicity and promotion — such as this interview — but that would take a whole book to explain.
Such is the life of a busy bee publisher/book packager.
Oh, did I mention that until recently I’ve been delegating the story selection to editors? Well, I just did my very first anthology — putting the finishing touches on the ARC edition, in fact — on Sky Whales And Other Wonders. The release date is December 1, 2009, from Norilana Books Fantasy.
For this anthology I solicited authors for stories (by invitation) to complement a wonderful Tanith Lee story about flying pods of great whales in alternate SFnal Ancient Egypt, and build a general loose-themed speculative fiction anthology around it. Story selection was immensely gratifying, and yes I did ask for tweaks, revisions, and in some cases whole new stories. This is the very first anthology that I completely edited myself, from idea to inception, to the Table of Contents story order, to introduction, so I feel all grown up now, a baby editor is born!
How I did it, you ask? Oh, to be honest, in a nutshell, I have no idea. Psst — I think it’s just following my instinct, the same one that I use as a writer, the creator.
Well, the first step is to come up with the concept. I think about what niches in the short fiction field aren’t being filled, or haven’t been covered in a long period of time, or I think about what some of my favorite stories are, and has there ever been an anthology built around that theme. After selling my first anthology, selling the others became more of a collaborative process, in which I’d talk to my editor and together we’d figure out what’s the right project to tackle next.
But once you come up with your concept, the next thing to do is to sell the anthology–that is, find a publisher for it. When I sold my first anthology, Wastelands, what I did was I put together a proposal in which I explain:
- The scope of the anthology (a best-of post-apocalyptic fiction anthology)
- The market for the anthology (it’s a very popular sub-genre right now)
- The writers who will be included in the anthology
In this case, because it was my first anthology, I selected most (nearly all) of the stories for the book before I found a publisher, so the proposal was very complete in that it very closely described what the finished product would look like.
Once I sold the book, then I had to contact all the writers (or their representatives) to acquire the reprint rights to their stories. At that point, I also did some additional research to see if there were any stories I wanted to include that I had not thought of when I put the proposal together.
For the anthologies I’ve done since then, because I was able to sell the books without putting together a comprehensive proposal, what I would do after selling them is start doing vast amounts of research into the theme and vast amounts of reading.
For an original anthology, things are slightly different in that you’re not going to get the stories up front in most cases, because most writers are not going to write a story for your project if it doesn’t have a home yet. So, what you do is, you write up your proposal, describing the theme and marketing considerations, but instead of listing which stories you’re going to include, you have to go out and recruit writers to participate in the project–that is, get them to promise to write a story for your anthology. So you have to first sell your project to the authors, and then once you have several authors on board, you can then try to sell your project to a publisher.
Now, anthologies typically don’t sell as well as novels, so publishers are often wary about taking on anthologies. As a result, publishers typically want to see several popular authors in the book so that (a) bookstores will order it and stock it in their stores, and (b) readers will have extra incentive to buy it other than the theme.
Once you have a group of stories in hand, and you start selecting the stories to include in the anthology, then you have to start thinking about balance and diversity, because balance and diversity are two of the primary ingredients in any anthology. If you’re working on an original project, you’ll probably need to work with the authors a bit on their stories to make sure they’re the best they can be. From author invitation to deadline, you’ll need to keep tabs on the authors to make sure no one forgets about your project, or gets snowed under with other work and can’t contribute after all–so that at the very least you’ll know as soon as possible in that event.
In addition to the “picking the stories” part, the editor is also responsible for negotiating all of the story permissions and paying the authors; the editor receives an advance for the anthology, and then pays the authors out of that. In the event an anthology sells well and earns royalties, the editor is also responsible for disbursing those funds (and calculating each of the royalty shares, which are typically calculated based on word count, so a long story gets a larger royalty share than a short one).
The editor is also responsible for ordering the stories (which is probably more difficult to do than you might think), writing the introductory story notes (though not all anthologies have them), and providing the anthology’s introduction (though not always, and not all anthologies have them either).
Details vary from book to book, especially when it comes to the moment of inspiration and how you happened to get a publisher enthusiastic about a particular idea, but the broad steps in preparing an anthology for publication are the same: there’s the idea, the pitch, getting the stories, the editing and manuscript preparation, and delivery.
Beginning a new book always feels exciting and fresh, and in my experience tends to be unique to the project. When I sold my first anthology, The Year’s Best Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy: Volume 1, to HarperCollins Australia with Jeremy Byrne, it was because a few things happened to converge. I’d been co-editing a magazine with Jeremy for about five years focusing on Australian SF, and had been reading everything published. I had also developed a real interest in year’s best annuals. HarperCollins were starting a new imprint, Voyager, and were looking for new books. And, by chance, I’d become friends with Jack Dann, who knows everything there is to know about putting anthologies together. I mentioned the idea to Louise Thurtell, who was starting the Voyager imprint, and she liked the idea and wanted a ‘proposal’. I didn’t know what that was or what it should look like. Jack helped, I wrote something up, faxed it off and it sold overnight. I thought editing anthologies was a quick and easy thing to do.
The longest it ever took me for me, from inspiration to sale was almost ten years. I had the idea for The New Space Opera in 1998 as a book I’d co-edit with a friend of mine in Australia, Simon Brown. The idea came from me stumbling across an old Interzone editorial calling for a ‘radical new SF’ in the early ’80s, and Simon wanting to write a (still unwritten) big space opera. We couldn’t sell the book; I put the idea away until the ‘New Weird’ discussions on the TTA Press message boards in 2003 where the new space opera was mentioned. I had a lot more experience with selling books then, so I drafted a proposal. I approached Gardner Dozois to co-edit, he liked the idea, we sold the book, and it was published in 2007. The shortest time was the afternoon I sold Jeremy Lassen three book projects over beer on the back deck at Charles Brown’s house. It was that kind of afternoon.
The basics are constant though. I get an idea that I’m enthusiastic about. I think it through a little to see if you could make a book out of it. Then, and this is especially true if I’m at home in Australia, I write up a proposal. It’s usually a thousand words or so long and describes the inspiration for the book, who might be in it, and what it would be like. If I struggle to write this, then it’s my experience the probably won’t work, so it’s a good litmus test.
Roster selection is an interesting part of the process, especially for an original anthology. Depending on the book, you want a good variety of writers. For an historical/movement/theme anthology you want the principal participants in the book, along with any new proponents of the movement who might be doing interesting work in the area, possibly along with some left field selections. For an unthemed book, you want a good range of interesting writers. And you do need to have writers who range from having an established audience to hot writers of the moment to new writers who are doing exciting work. For The New Space Opera Gardner Dozois and I made an extensive list of the people we wanted to be in the book. It included the main originators of what we saw as the ‘new space opera’ like M. John Harrison, Iain M. Banks, Lois McMaster Bujold, C.J Cherryh, Vernor Vinge, Stephen Baxter, Paul McAuley, and Dan Simmons, along with writers like Charles Stross, Alastair Reynolds and so on, who had been doing exciting work in the early 2000s. We approached them all. Something like thirty writers. Of those a number weren’t able to be involved because of scheduling reasons or because, like Banks, they simply don’t write short fiction anymore. We ended up with a list of maybe two dozen writers, several of whom dropped out during the process. The final group of authors in the book was terrific, and I still think the book is one of the best I’ve been involved with, but you always get people asking how could we possibly have overlooked so-and-so (usually Banks)? The answer is we probably didn’t.
Once the contributors are all lined up things tend to quiet down. I usually try to give writers twelve months to deliver their stories. There are a lot of reasons for this, but essentially it gives everyone the most flexibility possible so that they can balance their schedules. During this time I’ll send out a few gentle, generic reminder emails so that no-one forgets that the book exists, what kind of stories I’m looking for are, or when the stories are due. Some stories come in fast — I had one come in a week after selling the book, mostly because I put an ambiguous delivery date in an email – but most come in during the last month or so. I try to get the stories that come in first line edited immediately, just so I can keep on top of things for later in the process. Then as the deadline approaches I keep an eye on the length of the evolving book, get edits done, and begin to work on story notes, intros and so on.
When the deadline hits we then hit the most nerve-wracking part of editing an original ‘invitation-based’ anthology. This is when you find out who is going to deliver stories, who isn’t, and work out what to do about it. Will your book be overlength, will it be short, and will the manuscript you assemble resemble the one you described in the proposal to the publisher? I’ve had 50% of the roster of a book – Eclipse One – drop out the week before the book was due. That was a nightmare. I negotiated an extra month from the publisher, as I recall. I then called everyone I knew and shook the trees as hard as I could to get stories. In the end it worked out well, but it put my blood pressure up. I’ve also had a couple books go overlength, but I’ve usually been able to work that out with the publishers.
Once all the stories are in, I work on sequencing the book. Every editor I’ve discussed this with has their own views on this, though they are usually roughly similar. I try to pick the three or four strongest stories in the book. I then look at them for length, for how well they address the theme of the book, and for how accessible they are. These stories will sit at the beginning, the middle and the end of the book. What I like to do is put the most accessible story at the beginning, the longest at the end, and the third story in the middle of the book. I do vary this. I’m currently assembling a book of dragon stories. I want the book opener to be unambiguously a ‘dragon’ story. I want readers to know what they’re getting from the beginning, and I want it to be really accessible or inviting. I want readers to want to keep going with the book. Now, once I’ve put those three main stories in place, I typically try to balance the remaining stories for tone, theme, and length. You want variety in all of these things, so your two ‘baseball comes to Mars’ stories don’t go together, nor do your two ‘dark chilling horror’ stories and so on. My own process for doing this is to put the list of stories into a spreadsheet along with word count and a brief description of tone and theme. I then shuffle them until it looks ‘right’. From there, I add the introduction and story notes and send the manuscript in.
There’s a lot that happens after delivery, of course. Things like acceptance, payments, and copyedits. There’s also cover consultation, promotions and marketing. I could go on and on, but there are a couple things I should touch on. A lot of what happens when I’m editing a book is organic. Get an idea, get other people excited about it, create the book, and get it out. The first bunch of anthologies I edited or co-edited had a simple form and didn’t require much in the way of looking at the market, competition or even philosophy. Between 1996 and 2006, they were all year’s bests (with the exception of The Locus Awards). While there are things you need to keep in mind when editing a year’s best, your main concerns have to do with reading everything you can get your hands on, forming as honest opinion as you can, and then getting the book together. Even though I’ve edited or co-edited close to thirty books of one kind or another (original anthology, reprint anthology, year’s best anthology, single author collection, career retrospective etc) I only edited my first original anthology in 2006 and as I write I’ve finished eight over the past three years. I feel like I’m still very much getting started.
What this means is that until the last two years my approach has been very instinctive, very much a reader’s approach. From The New Space Opera onwards, and most especially with the Eclipse series I’ve had to give a lot of thought to my approach to anthology editing, what I think about it, my philosophy. I’ve become much, much more aware of needing to read broadly and to expand my own tastes so that the books I do are as appealing to readers as possible. This means doing things like reading outside my comfort zone – something we all have – and doing what I can to be aware of writing I might not normally have picked up when I was just reading casually. That means I’m working, however slowly, towards being a more inclusive and aware editor. I still stumble – we all do – but it’s now a constant part of my approach to doing this.
The other thing I’ve become obsessed with is what I tend to think of as ‘honesty’ in assembling a book. It’s probably a poor term for it, but what I mean is making sure that there is a consistency between the title of the book, the cover of the book, the description on the outside of the book, the introduction and the stories. I feel a very strong obligation towards being honest with the reader about what they’re going to get. The New Space Opera is a good example of this, as is Eclipse Three (which I’ve just finished). The New Space Opera is a book of space adventure stories with a honking big space ship on the cover. Everything says ‘space adventure stories in here’. And that’s what it is. There is a variety of stuff, sure, but you know what you’re going to get. The same for Eclipse Three. The book has a terrific Richard Powers cover that is ambiguous, cool and different, while still feeling genre. That’s what the book is.
Well, I don’t know if that answers the question. I hope it does. Either way, I’ve gone on way too long. Which probably describes my process when making anthologies. It’s something I love doing and that I’m still learning about. I’d love to have discussed it with Damon Knight and Terry Carr. Now that would have been interesting.
For the most part, creating an anthology is great fun. It’s like putting a sports team together. The stories are my players while the themes act as the specific sports types. I want the best possible stories I can get for my collections just as coaches want the best possible players for their teams. I have a budget for each anthology just as coaches have budgets for their teams. Coaches want certain athletes to play certain positions. I also want my stories in certain positions in a collection. I select the stories I want to open and close an anthology with kind of like baseball managers select starting and closing pitchers for a baseball game.
Wow! These are certainly the best of times to be an anthology editor. I can’t remember a time when there was so much high quality short science fiction being written as there has been over the last several years. The science fiction magazines and original anthologies coming out today are putting out wonderful, high quality, stories, in a variety of subgenres, by a large number of authors. This gives an editor a lot to choose from as far as selecting themes.
When I’m choosing a theme for an audiobook anthology, several criteria need to be met. I want a theme that lots of listeners would be interested in. Maybe this theme hasn’t been done in a while. There must be several stories to choose from that fit this theme. I have to be able to acquire the rights to enough stories so that I can put together an anthology. The stories have to be appropriate for an audio format. The nice thing about doing audiobook anthologies is that they don’t need to have as many stories as printed anthologies. For me, sometimes having an anthology with twenty stories all on the same theme is a bit much. But an audio book anthology can get by nicely on just a few stories.
The actors enter the picture once the stories that are to be included in an audiobook anthology are finalized. They get the stories, read them, and then they usually ask lots of questions. Top of the list is typically, “How the heck do you pronounce this alien’s name?” What dialect or accent should we give the characters? How fast should the story be read? We also discuss how certain lines should be read and what the overall tone of the story should be. From here it’s a simple matter of going into the recording studio to record the stories. Once the stories have been recorded, including any necessary retakes, the sound engineer then edits and masters the audiobook.
Once the engineer delivers the production and duplication master copies, the duplicated CDs are put together with the artwork and packaging. Then the audiobook is put into production for distributors, retailers, and listeners. I finally breathe easier and my sanity starts to return at this point.
And then it’s time to work on the next collection.
I love this game!!!
Stay tuned for Part 2, coming next week!
Filed under: Mind Meld
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