MIND MELD: Behind the Scenes…How the Hottest Short Fiction Anthologies Are Created (Part 2)
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.
Continuing from Part 1 last week, we asked a handful of Editors the following question:
Read on to see their illuminating responses (and check out Part 3 when you’re done!) …
We have edited three reprint anthologies; the genesis of each was different. Jacob Weisman at Tachyon Publications approached Jim to do a slipstream book and he enlisted John as his co-editor; the result was Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology. We proposed a book about post-cyberpunk and Jacob greenlighted Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology. And it was Jacob and the perspicacious Bernie Goodman who suggested the idea for The Secret History Of Science Fiction; the book is due out next month.
We’ve a long history of collaboration and we’ve shared a similar vision for these reprint anthologies. In each of them we were trying to put forward an argument about the recent history of the genre. So we first had to gather our thoughts about slipstream and post-cyberpunk and the divide between mainstream and genre sf. Creating reprint anthologies like these involves figuring out what we think about a subject, or what we can credibly say about it. Selecting the stories has involved a couple of methods: (1) we decided on who we wanted in the book and then read intensively for stories that best illustrated our thesis, and (2) we decided what kind of stories we wanted and then cast the net widely to see who might have written the sort of thing we needed to support our thesis. In each of the books we have had some disagreements that have involved negotiations between us, and the final table of contents has been affected by practical considerations that made the end result different from our initial intentions.
Perhaps the hardest part was writing the introductions. We knew that that stories we were selecting were strong; that was the point of the project. But what could we say about what the stories had in common that would do them justice and would also withstand the slings and arrows of reviewers and critics? A feature that we hit upon was that in addition to our introductions and the stories themselves, each of the books includes a series of comments by other writers about the themes of each of the books. We’ve drawn from blogs, personal correspondence and interviews – more reading and research for us, but worth it, we think.
The tables of content of both Feeling Very Strange and The Secret History include many authors not normally associated with our corner of literature. We found that the rules were a little different in the mainstream; some of our writers did not control the reprint rights to their own stories! And yet we were often surprised and gratified to find that Big Name mainstream writers would go out of their way to get their stories into our books. And for very little pay – but let’s not go there.
While our first two books have done well enough in the marketplace, there is not enough money in editing to make it anything more than a side project for both of us. More important than the money, however, is the discussion that has attended publication of each of these books. Of the three, we expect that The Secret History of Science Fiction will be the most controversial, since it seeks to expose the prejudices that exist on both sides of the genre divide. We hope that people who tend to sneer will be discomfited by the stories we’ve chosen in the new book. And if they want to talk to us about it, so much the better.
With Clockwork Phoenix, the first questions, really, were who would publish it and how would it be paid for? (I suspect most anthologies begin with that question, or if they don’t, if it doesn’t arise and get answered early on, you’re probably looking at a book that’s on the wrong track.) In this case I pitched the idea to Vera Nazarian at Norilana Books and she was crazy enough to go for it.
Then, and this has been true of all three books in the series to date — I’m counting the one currently in progress — there’s two parallel processes that start rolling. One involves extending invitations to writers who’ve caught my interest, who I think write the sort of thing that can fit within the parameters I have in mind, and who won’t mind playing in a small press arena. The other involves setting up the window for unsolicited submissions, composing and adjusting guidelines, getting the word out as to when the window opens, and recruiting help to weed through the flood of manuscripts that pours in.
Clockwork Phoenix is basically an anthology for off-beat stories told in off-beat ways. I treat the anthology as an artistic composition — I select stories so that, with help from Anita (my wife), they can be arranged into an organic whole, so that the stories don’t just stand alone but also work with and play off of one another. To make that possible, I need a really wide net, and a mix of both solicited and over-the-transom submissions in the catch. Even then, because of the somewhat rarefied nature of what I’m seeking, if I read a manuscript that I think is not just in the ballpark but close to a home run — yet still needs help getting across the plate — I’m often willing to work with the writer to get the story the rest of the way home. But I’ll only do that if I can see exactly how to get the story where I want it to go. Some of the stories in the books have a lot of input from me. Some have none. Most have a little.
The hardest part emotionally comes after the close of the submission window. The publication schedule is such that I don’t have a long time to ponder what the final lineup is going to be, and usually, I have a group of stories I’ve hung onto that I consider strong candidates for the book — inevitably, more than what I have space and money for. So then I have to decide which of these stories that I really, really like won’t be in the book. My father has shared tales with me of his life on the farm, and having to bring favorite animals in for the necessary slaughter. This may be a bit fanciful, but I tend to think the feeling this part of the process engenders falls along that same continuum.
And even then the job might not be done. After I had picked the final stories for Clockwork Phoenix 2, I still felt something was missing. I went to a writer whose work I was interested in but who wasn’t in the book — a story I would have taken got snatched up elsewhere, the next story submitted didn’t quite fit — and asked for a new story, due that week. She came through and the lineup was complete.
Once that magical order for the stories gets set, the rest of it is more mechanical: writing an introduction, proofreading, layout, turning the book in soon enough to print timely advance reader copies for reviews, proofreading again in hopes of fixing all the remaining problems before the official release.
And then comes the next phase: promotion. I have to thank Ekaterina Sedia for giving me a number of excellent tips on how to promote a book that’s available almost entirely via Internet. Basically, you have to be willing to give in order to get — offer PDFs to folks if they’re willing to blog reviews. Arrange giveaways. Give interviews. Let people see sample stories. When a review comes out, even if it cuts a bit, do your best to make sure people see it — sometimes it’s the cutting ones that spark vital debate.
And then, when doing an annual series like Clockwork Phoenix, odds are that you’ll find you’re starting to lay the groundwork for the next book while you’re still doing promotion for the one that just came out. At least, that’s how it works for me.
I’ve only done one anthology so far-I’m still in the thick of it-so I’m not sure if my experience here is typical. In short: you start this new project full of enthusiasm, then encounter many problems: some small, some threatening the project. Many of these problems are within your power to solve, some are not. Nevertheless, you grin and bear them and try to pull through. It’s been a wild ride so far, and not for the faint of heart. I certainly hope most anthologies go smoother than Shine.
The long of it; there are, I think, four important processes in compiling an anthology:
- Conception: the original idea the editor has-especially for a themed anthology-worked out into an inspiring and saleable concept;
- Preparation: two pitches: one to publishers to sell it, then one for authors as a guide for the type of stories the editor needs. Guidelines (if the anthology is open to submissions), an internet presence (website, blog, LiveJournal, Twitter, etc.) with eventual updates;
- Production: with this I don’t mean the actual book production (proofreading, typesetting, cover art, internal & external design and such), but making a selection from the stories that have been sent in, doing rewrites (when required) and minor polish-ups, writing (an) introduction(s), and putting the stories in such an order that the anthology as a whole provides a satisfying reading experience;
- Promotion: bringing the anthology to the attention of a wider audience through the above-mentioned web presence, official announcements and press releases (mostly through the publisher), doing interviews and work along with publicity items such as this Mind Meld topic, holding a release event and much else that helps promote the anthology (this summing up is far from complete);
These processes are not mutually exclusive: they influence each other and often happen at the same time. More on that later.
For Shine I both solicited stories and held an open reading period. This whole process was plagued by what I would call both internal and external problems.
The main internal problem was that the majority of SF writers are either unwilling (or uninterested) and/or not capable of writing either near-future or optimistic SF, let alone the combination (near-future, optimistic SF). Obviously, this was also the challenge, but it proved to be more challenging than I expected, even more than I feared.
Two examples: Tor editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden tried to get an anthology of optimistic SF called Up! off the ground back in 2002. It never materialised because-I’ve heard at the last WorldCon-he couldn’t get enough optimistic stories. Also Kim Stanley Robinson-whose fiction is mostly upbeat-guest edited eight flash fiction stories for this week’s (I’m writing this on September 19) sci-fi special: the fiction of now of New Scientist. ‘Eight leading British SF authors’ (as quoted from the New Scientist website) wrote flash fiction about the world 100 years from now. The results: only one is-very cautiously-optimistic, the two satirical ones have a strong downbeat undertone, and the five others are either dystopian, apocalyptic, or both.
These are two telling examples that the utmost majority of today’s SF writers do not want, or cannot write near-future, upbeat SF stories. Also the excuse that ‘editors don’t want optimistic SF’ is nonsense (see also Patrick Nielsen Hayden’s effort mentioned above). Lou Anders asked me at Anticipation: “Jetse, tell me how to get authors to write more exuberant fiction.” Sheila Williams wrote in the July 2009 Asimov’s editorial: “I know that it will be hard for writers to resist turning inwards and that there is great value in holding a mirror up to our lives, but I’d also like to see stories that uplift us, show us some way out of our current circumstances, and offer us some grand new vistas of the future.” Gardner Dozois wrote in the July 2009 Locus: “…although I like a well-crafted dystopian story as well as anyone else, the balance has swung too far in that direction, and nihilism, gloom, and black despair about the future have become so standard in the genre that it’s almost become stylized, and almost default setting, with few writers bothering to try to imagine viable human futures that somebody might actually want to live in.”
So editors most certainly want to see more optimistic SF: most writers simply aren’t delivering it.
The main external problem was that Shine‘s publisher, Solaris Books, went up for sale in March 2009. While on the one hand I was assured that things with Shine were ‘business as usual’, it’s not a very encouraging thought that the anthology might be the penultimate, or even the last book being released by a publisher when it can’t find a buyer. Promotion efforts from the publisher’s side will then probably not be massive, to say the least. It also doesn’t encourage authors-especially well-known ones-to submit to an anthology from a dying publisher.
These problems converged: while I had emailed, and talked to (at several conventions) a lot of well-known authors, more and more dropped off as they either didn’t have the time (fully understandable: almost all of them have novel deadlines), did not or could not write a suitable story (some weren’t feeling optimistic, some couldn’t get the ‘near-future’ part to work and some tried but weren’t happy with the result). As I was sending out reminders I also had to tell that Solaris Books were up for sale, which may not have helped matters, either, but I prefer to be upfront with such things (rather than being accused of withholding important information).
Still, I commissioned a piece of promotional artwork from Vincent Chong and kept on promoting the anthology, both online (via the Shine website and social networks like MySpace, FaceBook and Twitter) and on conventions (I distributed Shine flyers at WorldCon and HAR, and have plenty left for World Fantasy).
Then the open reading period started, and the utmost majority of the stories I initially received were just not what I was looking for. So, apart from the ‘Crazy Story Ideas‘ and ‘Optimism in literature around the World, and SF in particular‘ pieces that I was already featuring to provide guidance and inspiration (apart from the guidelines, obviously), I had to explain more carefully exactly what I was not looking for, and also posted a provocative piece to challenge writers, all in the hope of generating better, and better-aimed, stories.
One of the things that proved to be a boon was @outshine, the Twitterzine I started as a promotional and inspirational tool. It served (and serves!) as a good example of what I’m looking for in miniature (140 characters or less), but also brought me into contact with several writers I was not aware of, some of which have even found their story in Shine (either in print or online: I’ll get to that).
On top of that, July and August were also extremely busy: at the day job I was preparing important new training sessions (the credit crisis hasn’t hit there, yet: rather the contrary) while I also witnessed the August 1 solar eclipse in Wuhan (China), attended Anticipation (the Montréal WorldCon) and HAR (Hacking at Random: a hacker’s conference in my home country). Everything was happening at the same time, making July and August a crazy, stressfull time and yet also a happy haze.
Eventually, I did get enough stories of both the type and quality that I was looking for. Actually, as I feared for the worst, at the end of the reading period-which I even extended, also in an effort to get those great stories-I had a small but impressive embarrassment of riches. Like I hoped at the very beginning I had to turn down some very good stories. I liked some of them so much that I decided to buy them (out of my own pocket) and put them online, in a further promotional effort for Shine.
First online story will appear on Friday October 2, and then bi-weekly on Friday until the Shine anthology appears (maybe even a few after that: depends on the precise release date). I’m busy setting up a separate website for them (directly linked to from the Shine website when I’m ready).
Selecting the stories from the best ones you received and putting them together in-what you hope is-an organic whole is a whole different matter. For one, while the theme of the anthology is (relatively) narrow, I tried to aim for a maximum of variety within it. Or, as I mentioned in my rejection letters: “I’ve been walking the tightrope between selecting the most suitable stories with regards to quality, diversity, suitability, sensibility and compatibility (how the separate stories function as a whole) and in this minefield of tough decisions I gave preference to other stories”. I can’t be more honest than that.
So the final ToC (Table of Contents) for Shine reflects this: near-future stories that run the gamut from cautiously hopeful to upbeat to gloriously optimistic; settings and characters from literally all over the world (and some in space) with a good balance between western and non-western locales and points-of-view; and even a few-if never quite enough-non-Anglophone authors.
However, work with the anthology does not end after you deliver the final MS to the publisher: in same places it just begins. Apart from producing the actual book and cover (in which the editor sometimes is and sometimes isn’t involved), there is the ongoing task of getting the word about the anthology out. In the old days publicity was mainly, or even exclusively, done by the publisher. Nowadays, I think it is important that the editor-and ideally also the authors-do a lot of promotion, as well. Which I certainly try to do.
Another thing was that the fate of Solaris Books was still hanging in the balance when I delivered the final MS. So there was no satisfactory glow after I sent it off, but rather a feeling of apprehension as I didn’t know what was going to happen. Thankfully it didn’t last long as the sale of Solaris Books to Rebellion was announced a week later. Now I’m in contact with Jonathan Oliver, the Abaddon Books editor who is now also the editor for Solaris Books, and we’re already working on the cover. So after six months of doubt, things are moving forward once again.
As mentioned, all the processes (conception, preparation, production, promotion) happen, if not completely simultaneously, often several at the same time, and they feed on, and feed back into each other. Conception and production tell you what you are promoting; a promotional tool (@outshine) can become a support for conception, preparation and production; During the preparation-and even the production-you find things that can both improve the concept and the promotion.
At least, that’s what I think as a newby anthology editor: I suspect more experienced colleagues might disagree. Nevertheless, I think the days of an editor delivering an MS and then letting the publisher sort out the publicity and promotion are over (if they ever existed). It reminds me of the very first panel I was on at Interaction (the Glasgow WorldCon) where my fellow panelists (editors of Del Rey Books, Hodder & Stoughton and Asimov’s) fully agreed, and emphasized that authors have to carry a large part of the publicity and promotion load when their novel is released. I think it’s no different for an anthology.
Finally, and hopefully, some of you may want to know what the final ToC of Shine actually is. I’m not telling you yet, as I’ll be holding a competition about exactly that in November, with some fine prizes, as another promotional tool to draw attention to the anthology.
In my experience, the process isn’t that different from one book to another. I’ve done — goodness, I’m up to fifteen — and all started with the same odd giddy hubris. Maybe that’s a requirement for editors, since we’ve not only to believe we’ve found an idea or niche no one else has filled, but also that we’re the ones to fill it. Then there’s the part about convincing a publisher to buy this fabulous concept. For DAW anthologies, for example, that means vetting ideas with Marty Greenberg and company (Teknobooks), who then pitch them to the publisher. Nothing’s finer than having Marty and gang love an idea — they’ve seen them all. For my DAW anthologies, I’ve thought of ideas that interested me, proposed them, and had about half accepted. For my non-DAW anthologies, I was pretty much starting a new niche: science fiction or fantasy that would fit into school curricula as well as be fun to read. Since no one (before I started) knew what that could look like, I had free rein to invent stuff. (The Wonder Zone and Realms of Wonder series.) Which was great fun.
Having conceived an idea that a publisher likes, it’s time for the work. That’s when I look at the schedule for my day-job, writing novels, and figure out when and how to make the anthology fit. It’s not all up to me. Anthologies are team efforts and the best of that is how much creativity and passion is poured into every one. The worst? How other people’s schedules, needs, Real Life issues etc have to fit too. The bulk of time must be reserved for the authors, the least (I kid you not) for the editor, with as much as possible for production. Schedule decided, it’s off to the races.
Aside: I’ve had the privilege of working with four different co-editors. That adds a wonderful dimension, but doesn’t halve the time or task, since you both need to be involved at all stages.
So … maybe this anthology will be the one where I invite fourteen authors (more on that later), everyone says yes (more on that later), and every story is right on theme (more on that later too) as well as schedule. Hey, I write fiction. I’m allowed to dream a bit.
Inviting authors. Every editor has their list of authors they’d love a story from, or whose voice interests them, or whose existing work fits the theme exactly. Within that list are established greats, reliable mid-list writers, and those you don’t really know much about, not yet. Greats tend to be too busy, unless they love the theme, but you ask anyway. I adore C.J. Cherryh and her work. While she’s never had time to write me a story, she has written me an introduction which I hug every so often (To my Explorer, just to drive biographers nuts.). Sometimes greats sneak up on you. I never thought Larry Niven would have time — too famous — but he actually asked me at a convention for an invitation next time. (He did a wonderful story for Jana Paniccia and me in Under Cover of Darkness.)
Aside: In case you’re curious why I said the number fourteen … it’s not out of a hat. Fourteen stories gives you about 80 000 words — a good size for an anthology, with loot enough for authors (paid first, by word) and editors (paid last, with what’s left).
Reliable mid-list writers are the bread and butter of anthologies. These are the talented pros who can produce a decent to fantastic story on deadline and on theme without fail. Trouble is, they become great quickly, and thus too busy. Editors must grab them while they can. Some do continue to love writing shorts and will do them regardless. If you see a writer’s name appearing in many anthologies, that’s why. They are the golden ones and we can always go to them.
My personal “thing” is to always include at least one story by a new, never-before-published author. Sometimes more. So I maintain an invitation list made up of any new writer who has contacted me asking to be on that list. You’d think I’d be inundated, but it’s the strangest thing about new writers. I give this information — and my email (firstname.lastname@example.org) — out at conventions and to every writer who attends one of my writing workshops. I’m lucky if two take me up on the offer a year. Considering I’ve bought over 60 such stories and at minimum critiqued whatever was sent if I didn’t buy it, why not try a story for me?
The invitation process is tricky, because in reality, not all authors who say yes will produce a story — at all, or to the theme. I’ll reject a perfectly good story from anyone (and have, many times) because it isn’t what I want for the anthology. Editor. Great cosmic power, itty-biddy living space. Besides, such stories will find homes elsewhere. Looking back over my numbers, I need to invite about 20% more authors simply to get enough stories to consider, then I’ve always needed to send out a second round of invites to fill holes. Thus, if you have a story that’s perfect for an anthology theme but you weren’t invited, it doesn’t hurt to mention your story to that editor anyway. You Never Know how desperate the editor might be for one more story. I once needed another story and posted on my newsgroup for submissions. I received over 40 by the next day. Not bad. I bought quite a few.
Rejection. I hate doing it. I do what I can to write something positive about improving the story or another market. Sometimes I’ll suggest a revision if the story was really close — if the author is willing, I’ll take another look. I won’t do that if it missed my theme. Why ask an author to change a perfectly fine story for that reason? (Not to mention there’s something … disturbing … about receiving a story that has nothing whatsoever in this or any universe to do with the theme. What does that author imagine the editor will do? Those rejections are easy.) Also, part of the role of editor is to impose personal taste. Otherwise, what does my name on an anthology mean to readers?
By this point, I’ve a set of stories. Because life is what it is, one or two will be jaw-droppingly wonderful, some will be fine, and the rest somewhere between. Because I view each anthology as a whole, with the stories as components, I spend a fair amount of time on the order of the stories. If there feels, to me, a need for more connection between stories, I’ll add something in the way of an introduction to each, or place them within “chapters,” or whatever works and isn’t too intrusive. Readers may or not care. I do.
From this point, it depends on the particular publisher and editor combination as to whether the anthology is sent piecemeal (here are the stories, put it together) or as manuscript ready for copyedit. Covers? I’ve been involved with most of mine, which is a privilege. I also do as much as I can to promote the anthology once it’s out. I’ll host a launch at a convention (Ad Astra in Toronto has held several) or bookstore. I’m always thrilled to gather the authors in the same room and I think the feeling’s mutual. I’ve had authors travel from Reno, Seattle, Vancouver, San Antonio, Montreal, and yes, Paris France.
I’d like to add, since you’ve indulged me this long, a couple of my own thoughts about the value of being in an anthology to authors. For established authors, there’s the challenge to create a story that you might not have ever thought to write. That’s been the case for me, and I’ve learned a great deal. For a new author, it’s a chance to be part of the book publishing process, from galley proofs to ARC to writing a bio and promotion, without the entire book riding on your shoulders. That’s a huge amount of practical experience, plus the credentials from being paid for your work.
As you can probably tell, I love anthologies. I’m grateful to DAW Books and Teknobooks for all they do to keep anthologies a viable, vibrant opportunities for editors, as well as authors. However. Right now, I’m not doing one. I’m not. I’ve a novel to write.
But … there’s always next year.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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