What Goes into Anthology Editing? What Should You Be Aware of?

Sometime in the next week or so I’ll post some thoughts on editing anthologies.

But I thought it would be interesting to get some feedback from readers first, in answer to any or all of the following questions. You can note whether you’re referring to original or reprint anthologies if that’s important for context.

(1) What do you personally look for in a fiction anthology?
(2) What do you feel are the top five constraints on anthology editors when putting together an antho?
(3) What do you think is the toughest part of putting together an anthology?
(4) Do you think it’s easier or tougher to edit an antho now than, say, 20 years ago?
(5) Do theme anthologies attract you more than general fiction anthos?
(6) If you were able to edit an anthology, what would be your dream project? (You can be vague if you like.)

Feel free to add any general observations, too.

I’d prefer it if existing anthology editors didn’t respond to these questions. I’m interested in responses from non-editors.

Comments

  1. says

    Theme anthologies either leave me cold or make me definitely want to buy. I’m more likely to buy a themed anthology if I like the theme than I am a non-themed one, but I’m far more likely to buy a non-themed one than a themed one where I don’t like the theme. I expect stories in an anthology to be varied in length and point of view, but I do kind of like a common ‘mood.’ so if the mood is relatively grim I find it tough to read just one story that is humorous. I’ve edited some of my own anthologies/collections for publication and the hardest part for me was arriving at a satisfactory order so that the stories complimented each other.

  2. Chuck says

    Apart from the obvious answer to (1) (good stories!), the main thing I want from an anthology – and the main area in which I feel many anthologies stumble – is coherence of tone/theme. A good anthology, in my opinion, has a well-described purpose, and the stories all work together to create a whole, rather than being a collection of arbitrary stories that were thrown together for vague reasons. Too many anthologies seem to be not much more than an excuse to put one or two well-known authors’ names in big type on the front, and then fill the rest with enough material to fill the book out to publishable length. I know nothing about editing anthologies, but I would imagine that this would be one of the most difficult parts of putting together an anthology!

    This is why I loved The New Weird; it flowed well from beginning to end and the stories all shared a common point-of-view. It’s also great to see an anthology serve as a statement of purpose for a genre (eg Splatterpunks as well).

  3. Zippa says

    General response to the last three posts: “Beware, fools and evildoers, for VANDERMEER HAS RETURNED.”

  4. John C. says

    (1) Comprehensiveness. Not in the sense that a “best of” will contain all of the best stories of a given year/decade/movement, but that it will provide a representative sampling of the higher quality work from that year/decade/movement, etc. I’m also looking for an antho to pull from less well-known, even obscure sources. For instance, I expect Dozois & Hartwell et al to pull from Asimovs & F&SF (and I’m happy they do because I have never been able to read each story in each magazine every year) but there is quality work going on in less trafficked corners, and it’s nice to see that the antho spotlight will sometimes fall on those places as well.

    (2) In no particular order: budget, time, page limit, self-imposed criteria, and cooperation of writers or their estates for rights.

    (3) No idea – all the reading? Because I imagine it’s a certain structured type of reading editors need to do, weighing each story against all that they’ve read before and measuring it up against the stated criteria. I can make long lists of stories I love, but unless the antho is Stories I Love, I imagine that I would need to divorce my tastes from the reading process to some degree, which seems like a very difficult thing.

    (4) I wasn’t reading antho’s 20 years ago (Hardy Boys books were about my limit back then) but it must be more difficult now because a mountain of fiction has come into being in the past two decades, a lot of it quite good.

    (5) No.

    (6) Riot Stories (fiction that has sparked or abetted political upheaval). I can’t think of any in particular but I’m fascinated with the idea of fiction’s role in political movements.

  5. says

    (1) What do you personally look for in a fiction anthology?
    To discover new writers or read unfamiliar stories by writers I already know.
    (2) What do you feel are the top five constraints on anthology editors when putting together an antho?
    Language (i.e. not having access to foreign languages), length, copyright, willingness of living authors to dish out their work, publishing houses that need to lock in big names in order to make sales.
    (3) What do you think is the toughest part of putting together an anthology?
    Getting authors/copyright holders to let the work be published; reading through a lot of uninteresting material in order to find something good; finding hard to find material.
    (4) Do you think it’s easier or tougher to edit an antho now than, say, 20 years ago?
    Easier because research is easier.

    (5) Do theme anthologies attract you more than general fiction anthos?
    If you mean “style” (ie decadent) then yes; if you mean something like “Best Bi Tadpole Stories” then no.

    (6) If you were able to edit an anthology, what would be your dream project? (You can be vague if you like.)
    Foreign language fiction from the past.

  6. says

    (1) I’d like to recognise some (but not all) of the authors and I’d like there to be a decent amount of stories in the antho – one of my favourites that I’ve re-read many times is the Penguin Book of Vampire Stories with c.32 stories in it. (http://www.iblist.com/book47867.htm) It introduced me to a lot of authors I hadn’t come across (in 1988) and though I didn’t like all of them there was a good enough spread that sent me looking for books by a lot of those authors.

    (2) I imagine constraints would be: soliciting stories on the theme you want, especially if you’re operating on an invitation only basis. People may drop out or the stories they do for you may not be suitable so you end up having to do another call for work. Maintaining a good spread of authors across the genre you’re theme is in – and deciding whether to go for the really well known authors in that field/ going for a few well known and then some less well known authors. Which order to place them to maximise the reading experience. Also, determining the length of the stories you’re going for – do you want a short TOC with longer works or a longer TOC (and possibly small print) with a mix of story lengths.

    (3) Herding cats? Er, authors?

    (4) Technologically it’s probably easier because you can have the stories e-mailed to you & they can be edited online instead of on paper. Revisions can have a quicker turnaround etc. *Practically* it’s probably no easier than before. The editing/ collation/ organising of everything etc. still has to be done and there isn’t a machine yet that will do it for people. :P

    (5) It depends. I will read SF/ F/ H anthologies that could cover any type of story within those broad categories, but I’ll also go for more specifically themed anthologies if they include an author whose work I like/ love e.g. Powers of Detection – fantasy/ urban fantasy stories with a crime aspect – I bought it because it had a story by Anne Bishop in it, but I liked most of the stories in the antho and would read those authors again because of it. If it hadn’t had an author I recognised in it I probably wouldn’t have bought it. (Unless an author whose work I liked recommended it. Although if they sold me a pup I probably wouldn’t trust them again as far as recommendations went.)

  7. says

    1) The specific anthology. I can enjoy individual bits of Richard Ford’s Granta Book of American Short Story, for instance, but the wide, unspecified nature of the antho makes it fall apart on the whole. In comparison, a laser-beam focused antho like the “Year’s Best Science Fiction” will generally be excellent because of the narrow focus of a single year of really good stuff. Things like “Living Dead” anthos and “Federations” or Nick Gevers’ Steampunk antho are also, to me, very enjoyable because they have that editorial focus that accepts a need to hone down to a single theme or idea. A specific anthology is generally more enjoyable to me as anthologies than something like “Trampoline” by Kelly Link that reads, to me, like a very thick literary magazine of this, that, and another thing.

    2+3) The perfect balance of ideas and marketability and contracts and deadlines and quality, as a kind of amorphous jellyfish of tentacled constraints? I suspect it isn’t really that there are only five things that are constraining. I suspect it is that there is a balance between the constraints, and finding that magic balance between the constraints is very challenging.

    4) I suspect in this day and age it is much easier to acquire slush, contacts, a publisher of any sort, access to a venue wherein such anthologies can be marketed and sold, so I suspect it is easier. I think the actual editorial work is no harder or easier than it ever was, merely provided with better tools.

    5) Themed anthologies definitely attract me more. I do consider a “Year’s Best” a themed antho, though, so your mileage may vary.

    6) I bet Jeff knows this one already: “I’ve Lived in the Labyrinth All My Life” – stories set inside various visions of a giant maze, wherein there is no known exit and no known entrance. Everything in the fiction only knows the maze, and nothing else. What has gotten stuck in the maze does not leave the maze. Also, find a diverse range of authors of varying levels of narrative and density of language such that the early stories are not too difficult or inaccessible, but things get denser and weirder and denser and weirder until someone like a Hal Duncan or Michael Cisco closes out the antho with incredible complexity. In this way, the reader experiences getting lost in the maze. Had some interest from some people on this idea – some of it serious – but nothing ever came of it, alas.

    6)

  8. says

    1) Theme, editor, authors. In various combinations. If the theme is really cool, the rest doesn’t matter. If it’s a certain editor, I’ll probably get it anyway. If there’s one really cool author, there you go. But usually it’s a mix of the three. Enough kinda, sorta cools will get me to buy it. If it’s a best of the year, with no particular theme, then I’m less interested in general.

    2) Top five constraints? Well, length of the story, number of stories, getting authors to submit on time, getting permissions for reprints, and um.. deadlines?

    3) I bet the toughest part depends on the type of person you are. For me, it would be all the correspondence.

    4) Easier now! You can get faster responses from people. It’s easier to find old stories for a reprint antho. You don’t even necessarily have to have a publisher backing you.

    5) Definitely yes.

    6) Oooo. Um.. well, I could edit one if I wanted, couldn’t I? (Not necessarily well..) I’d go for a theme I really like that I think other people would like too, that I feel is underrepresented. That’s the vague answer. For a concrete answer, I think it’s time for some Peter Pan anthologies.

  9. says

    (1) What do you personally look for in a fiction anthology?
    As Chuck said, a coherent tone/theme. Even if that theme is as simple as a big name putting together an anthology of their favourite stories. I also really appreciate a strong introduction that isn’t only about the editing process (which, in my reading experience, usually amount to little more than ‘these stories are great!). Something fairly academic and incisive that goes into some depth about the tone/theme, like the intro to The New Weird. Lastly, I tend to go for original collections. Unless it’s well put together with a strong intro, it kinda feels like double dipping.

    (2) What do you feel are the top five constraints on anthology editors when putting together an antho?
    Access to particular stories; making sure the stories fit the tone/theme; juggling issues of author gender, country of origin etc vs. good stories; having to include a couple of big names to sell it, even if their stories don’t quite fit.

    (3) What do you think is the toughest part of putting together an anthology?
    The reading/selection process.

    (4) Do you think it’s easier or tougher to edit an antho now than, say, 20 years ago?
    I think it’s easier to put out any old thing, but tougher to put out a genuinely good anthology, to make it stand out from the rest.

    (5) Do theme anthologies attract you more than general fiction anthos?
    Yes to theme anthologies. At least it feels like there’s a purpose to the book. And as comprehensive as possible – sort of a ‘one stop shop’ for whatever theme is being dealt with.

    (6) If you were able to edit an anthology, what would be your dream project? (You can be vague if you like.)
    I’d like to see more Japanese anthologies in English. Haikasoru are bringing over some great novels, so maybe some anthologies are on the cards?

  10. says

    Some other thoughts:

    * I don’t like an introduction that tells me about the stories I’m about to read. That’s spoiling, and I don’t want to be spoiled. Which also means if there’s an intro before each story, don’t spoil! If you want to talk about the stories, do it at the end of the story, or the end of the anthology.

    * Author bios are good! Authors talking about the story is good too. Or, well, _can_ be good. But, again, not before I’ve read the story!

    * I prefer shorter stories in anthologies. If there’s a novella or a novelette, I’m either going to save it for last or not read it. Unless it catches me right from the start. If I wanted to read something long, I wouldn’t be reading an anthology.

    * I don’t like novel excerpts!! Award anthologies do this, to show the novel they gave an award to. I’d rather have someone talk about the novel (without spoiling too much) and why it deserved the award. Something to make me want to read it.

  11. says

    (1) What do you personally look for in a fiction anthology?

    I like to find new writers and stories that are new to me. Unlike others who have answered this question, I not only don’t demand coherence, I sort of don’t want it, except in the most general way. I hate reading an anthology of stories that simply ring the changes on a single theme; if you’re going to do an anthology of, say, zombie stories, I want them all to be as different from one another as possible.

    (2) What do you feel are the top five constraints on anthology editors when putting together an antho?

    Having watched my husband assemble a textbook and edit it four times with new readings, my guess is that getting permissions is by far the most difficult constraint there is. The others are length, whether a selection would have a wide appeal rather than appealing only to the editor, translations and cost.

    (3) What do you think is the toughest part of putting together an anthology?

    Getting permissions, as noted above. Finding material that hasn’t been published and republished and re-republished, but is still really top-knotch stuff. Doing all that reading and still being able to bring a fresh eye to the project each time you pick up a new story.

    I also think deciding how to arrange the stories is a harder task than one would first think it is — you have to read a lot of anthologies to see this, but you can, after a while. Almost my only complaint about the Clockwork Phoenix anthologies, for instance, was the arrangement of the stories. They tended to flow thematically — one story set in the Far East would be followed by another story set there, so all those stories tended to form an arc that made them almost indistinguishable from one another. I know a lot of people don’t read anthologies straight through, one story after another (my husband always just flips through until he finds a single story that catches his imagination), but I do, and I assume that anthologists arrange stories for readers like me. And that seems very tricky.

    (4) Do you think it’s easier or tougher to edit an antho now than, say, 20 years ago?

    Tougher, because the amount of available material seems to increase exponentially every year — not just with new material, but with translated material and the reemergence of older material through the magic of the internet. Even greater access to old books through tools like ABEbooks.com would make it more difficult; if before you were limited to what you could find in your local used bookstore, or even all used bookstores within a 500 mile radius if you were really ambitious, you’re not now — now the world’s your oyster.

    (5) Do theme anthologies attract you more than general fiction anthos?

    If it’s a limitation by genre (like weird fiction, say, or sword and sorcery), no. If it’s a limitation by a tighter theme, i.e., cat stories, you’d better be Ellen Datlow or someone I trust equally (like, say, Jeff and Ann VanderMeer).

    (6) If you were able to edit an anthology, what would be your dream project? (You can be vague if you like.)

    I’d love to do an anthology about how the law has been treated in SF, fantasy and horror. Now *that* would play to my strengths!

  12. says

    I’m only sort of an editor. I edit a very small magazine and I’ve only done one issue thus far, so hopefully my responses still count. I’ve never done an anthology before (we are doing a themed issue of the magazine, though).

    Here are my responses:
    (1) What do you personally look for in a fiction anthology?
    Good stories and, if relevant, accurate, detailed, and well-written articles about genre (subgenre, and so on). Beyond that, most of what I want are superficial things (a nice cover, for example). Yay for vague answers.

    (2) What do you feel are the top five constraints on anthology editors when putting together an antho?
    a. Getting submissions or getting authors to say yes to a reprint or to a request for a story.
    b. Coming up with good ideas for new anthologies. We’ve got enough “best of” anthos out there and some of the themed anthos are getting a little repetitive for me.
    c. Getting the word out.
    d. Finding the right balance between reprint and original. For me, I’m very unlikely to buy a reprint anthology unless I know I don’t have those stories already (such as with your New Weird and Steampunk anthos with Ann). If an anthology is mostly reprints, I won’t buy it. If it’s mostly originals, then it’s likely I’ll put it on my list for consideration.
    e. Understanding the market and responding to it appropriately.

    (3) What do you think is the toughest part of putting together an anthology?
    Probably (e). The market is unpredictable, it’s easy to offend people with your selections these days, and so on. I don’t think it should be that way, but, that’s the way it is.

    (4) Do you think it’s easier or tougher to edit an antho now than, say, 20 years ago?
    I think it’s harder, partly because the short fiction market is not what it once was (still good, and getting better thanks to the net, but still not as vibrant as the golden age). Plus, now the Internet provides a place for people to essentially say whatever they want without repercussion and without a need to think through a response, and this can be problematic for editors who are trying to put together something that the market will like, partly because of all the stuff I mentioned earlier in that top 5 thing, and partly because the market is really difficult to predict.

    (5) Do theme anthologies attract you more than general fiction anthos?
    Now they do, but only because I have enough general fiction anthologies now that I pretty much own every story out there, with some exceptions, obviously.

    (6) If you were able to edit an anthology, what would be your dream project? (You can be vague if you like.)
    Aside from actually getting to do it? Because that would be a dream enough for me…

    I’d love to do something with cyberpunk, but not old cyberpunk. New stuff. Web 2.0 cyberpunk. Post-cyberpunk (there’s already one out there, I know). One I’d really love to do is an anthology of “literary” SF. I mean SF that plays with style, language, and so on, not just stories that are taught in schools and what not. Or an anthology of stories that look at what small towns would be like 50 years in the future. They’d have the Internet and a lot of great technology, but small towns are always a little behind the cities (I grew up in a small town, so, intimate experience here).

    Now you have me all excited to do this. Thanks a lot, man.

  13. says

    (1) What do you personally look for in a fiction anthology?

    Something with a different spin on a familiar topic. I own anthos with things like Lovecraft/Holmes crossovers, stuff like that. I also look for anthos in the genres I’m working in. I write a weird western story, I look for weird western anthos, etc. I like to see if my piece could stand along side any that I’ve read.

    (2) What do you feel are the top five constraints on anthology editors when putting together an antho?

    Theme: What it is they want to say by the pieces they chose to print. Marketing: Are the pieces going to appeal to the intended audience? Size: Will the page count be right to make the antho thick enough for readers to feel they get their money’s worth, and that the publisher will see a profit? Flow: Making sure that the story placement is in such a way that the reader continues to read and is drawn deeper into the overall arc. Fun: The reader should have a sense of carthesis at the end.

    (3) What do you think is the toughest part of putting together an anthology?

    Chosing those last few pieces to go in. Having to make the hard call between two equally good stories.

    (4) Do you think it’s easier or tougher to edit an antho now than, say, 20 years ago?

    Both: With the internet, it is easier to communicate invites, deadlines, and edits. The processes have been streamlined. It is also easier to advertise to niche markets. The thing that is more difficult is the glut of anthologies that have come out due to both electronic and POD publishing. 20 years ago, an anthology of vampire humor would have stood out, but now it’s on a shelf with a dozen others.

    (5) Do theme anthologies attract you more than general fiction anthos?

    Yes, because, again, due to the micronization of specific tastes. I have a friend that writes gay space pirate stories. She has a nice following. If she put together a GSP antho, it would appeal to her fans. I’m of a similar mind. I think regional and specialized anthos give me exactly what I want to read, and as an editor, I try to find a hole that has not been done to death. General fiction anthos only appeal to me if I’m getting an untold tale from an author I like, especially if it’s a side story or prequel for a series I already enjoy.

    (6) If you were able to edit an anthology, what would be your dream project? (You can be vague if you like.)

    Hard Boiled Future Noir (i.e. Blade Runner-esque) Give me a detective, a dame and a galaxy to play in and you’ve got my attention. I was offered it once, but I ended association with the publisher.

  14. says

    Since the constraints part is foremost on my mind right now, I’ll address only that at this time: Constraints I’m finding include time (deadlines), length (some excellent stories are more novellas than suitable anthology pieces), “fit” (some stories are great, but don’t fit well with other selections), permissions (although I’m not handling that aspect directly), and brain-numbing (after a while, certain types of stories just blend into one another, creating a beige effect that never stands out like I would prefer the story to do).

  15. says

    (1) What do you personally look for in a fiction anthology?

    The first thing I look at is the editors and the contributors. If an antho is edited by someone reliable (you and Ann, Strahan, etc) then you can pick it up and rely on the quality. There are many popular editors (Dozois, Sorrentino) whose tastes clearly don’t match mine and who I find uneven at best, so if I see their name on the cover of an antho, I avoid it.

    Contributors is also important of course; I know I want to read stories by Kelly Link or Jonathan Lethem or Amy Bender or Jeffrey Ford or Elizabeth Hand or a number of other people whose short fiction I like a lot.

    (2) What do you feel are the top five constraints on anthology editors when putting together an antho?

    I’m not sure why I would enumerate the constraints like this. Anthologies need to have good stories by good contributors. That’s the primary constraint to me. (Though it may be a naive oversimplification.)

    (3) What do you think is the toughest part of putting together an anthology?

    Making sure all the stories are consistently good, being willing to reject a bad story by a good (or well-known) writer.

    (4) Do you think it’s easier or tougher to edit an antho now than, say, 20 years ago?

    I have no idea.

    (5) Do theme anthologies attract you more than general fiction anthos?

    I care much less about theme as about contributors and editors, as I’ve said. With the right contributors, you can give me any theme, and with the wrong contributors I don’t care what the theme is.

    (6) If you were able to edit an anthology, what would be your dream project? (You can be vague if you like.)

    I would probably put something together that made up a kind of aesthetic statement about what I think is good short fiction, and I would bend over backwards to get the contributors who I like the best. I would only want to do it though if I had the financing to attract the best contributors.

  16. says

    Actually, this is a smidgen disingenuous:
    “I care much less about theme as about contributors and editors, as I’ve said. With the right contributors, you can give me any theme, and with the wrong contributors I don’t care what the theme is.”

    For example, I never read your Steampunk antho because I’m so crazy tired of Steampunk and I’m just not that interested anymore. So I suppose some themes do turn me off. Other themes turn me on too, but only when pared with a good editor(s) and contributors, as was the case with say, Feeling Very Strange, the Secret History of Science Fiction or The New Weird.

  17. Daemon says

    (1) What do you personally look for in a fiction anthology?

    A solid theme, and at least one or two names I already know that I like – especially if the stories aren’t already included in some other anthology. If the editor is a name I recognize and like, there will be some bonus points, but in most cases it would only serve to tip the scales at most.

    (2) What do you feel are the top five constraints on anthology editors when putting together an antho?

    Budget, time, cat-herding, the publisher’s idea of what will sell,

    (3) What do you think is the toughest part of putting together an anthology?

    Cat-herding

    (4) Do you think it’s easier or tougher to edit an antho now than, say, 20 years ago?

    The communication aspect would certainly be easier and faster. Even just the ability to email manuscripts… Though I’ve heard that anthologies don’t sell as well as they used to, so it might be harder to convince a publisher to run with it.

    (5) Do theme anthologies attract you more than general fiction anthos?

    It depends. If I don’t already know the authors, or at least the editors, then an interesting theme will be what makes me pick it up and look at it. Of course, if the theme is too narrow or overused, I might give it a pass.

    (6) If you were able to edit an anthology, what would be your dream project? (You can be vague if you like.)

    Off the top of my head, Gaiman/DeLint style urban fantasy – obviously, with their work in it.

  18. says

    (1) High quality fiction, obviously but aside from that–I like diversity. Ex: Ekaterina Sedia’s new anthology “Running with the Pack” pleased me because it, while themed, had stories about queer characters, character or color, men and women, old and young, by writers of all varieties. I like a broad slice of world in my anthologies, no matter how narrow their actual focus.

    (2) Perhaps not top five, but I assume space is the top concern all around. Page limits can be tight. Otherwise–people not delivering stories on time. People bailing at the last minute. Being unable to get a story you really wanted for some reason or another.

    (3) Making a coherent but still varied and exciting whole, without stories next to each other that clash too much.

    (4) Easier, because the internet allows networking with authors on a much grander scale that relies less on who-you-know and more who-is-out-there-that-has-a-story.

    (5) I was going to say no, but then I looked at my shelf and realized the only non-theme anthologies I tend to buy are the various best-ofs, which are kind of a theme too. Hm.

    (6) Queer urban fantasy stories, probably.

  19. PhilRM says

    1) Great stories by a wide range of authors – one of the things I love about anthologies is the opportunity to discover great writers I’ve never read before. These days, I’m mostly interested in original anthologies, aside from various “Year’s Best” compilations, although I’ll make exceptions for collections that have a lot of stories I haven’t encountered before.

    2) Um – getting enough “name” authors to convince a publisher your anthology is viable. For original anthologies, getting the right mix of authors to sign on. Budget, budget, budget. Page limits.

    3) Keeping writers to the deadline! (I think “herding cats” has appeared a couple of times already.) Telling one of the writers you were counting on that his story isn’t any good.

    4) (a) Easier, in that the internet has made communication much less of a headache, and there are probably more writers producing great short fiction now than there ever has been; (b) harder, in that the publishing climate is terrible. I would guess that (b) outweighs (a).

    5) Mostly, no – I prefer unthemed anthologies. (I don’t really consider “Year’s Best” or “A Treasury of Great…” to be themes), although a broad theme and the right group of authors can be great, e.g., Terry Carr’s “An Exaltation of Stars” (from way back in 1973) – no one is going to confuse the Silverberg, Zelazny, and Pangborn stories with one another.

    6) A collection of novellas by 8 or 10 of my favorite authors, writing about whatever they damn well pleased. Unlike somebody above, I love novellas – I would happily buy (and have bought) anthologies of nothing but.