Now Iâ€™d like to further bore you into submission by talking about anthologies from a writer’s point of view. Or, more accurately, from this writer’s point of view. I’m not going to claim to speak for anyone else, or to be proposing anything with regard to anyone else. Also, I am speaking about approaches and kinds of choices that may only be possible because I’m a mid-career novelist with a following (a rag-tag, rebel-led following, but a following nonetheless).
One caveat: most anthology editors are great to deal with, but for purposes of talking about this subject, I may emphasize the negative…
Before the intertubes, I much preferred anthology publication to magazine publication. For one thing, anthos tended to get more review coverage, and especially before I had books out this meant I was more likely to garner some shout-outs that could be valuable career-wise. It meant I was less likely to be potentially be considered for awards, because Asimov’s, F&SF, etc., tended to dominate the categories. But since being up for those awards was never a career goal (nice, but not a goal), this never bothered me (the value you put on them may be greater, of course).
In recent years, the nature of internet has meant it’s easier to get awards and review attention if you publish in the more prominent online magazines, but some of the allure of anthologies still holds for me. A good anthology is a kind of battleship, a tangible expression of a point of view or of a theme. Magazines quickly get pulped or consigned to the closet rather than the shelf. Internet sites can become backwater archives or disappear, and donâ€™t have the cohesion of print mags in terms of how stories speak to one another.
What do I consider when accepting or rejecting an invite, or deciding whether to submit to an antho with an open reading period? I tend to avoid very restrictive themes or themes that seem to require a traditional approach, since I know I’m more than likely to go off on some tangent or do something odd structurally, if I even wind up being inspired in the first place; most of the time Iâ€™m trying to place stories Iâ€™ve already written. When I have the choice, I try to diversify my portfolio by picking my spots in ways that accentuate the strengths of this strange, lurching career of mine; I do best when a mix of mainstream and genre readers find my work.
Does payment matter? Itâ€™s certainly a factor. A lot of people say you can’t make money from fiction. Well, even the difference between $200 and $500 is important to a freelancer, not to mention the difference between $200 and $4,500 (the most I’ve ever been paid for a story). This means I’m usually reluctant to get out of bed for less than a certain amount unless a venue has some additional value to me. It’s nothing snobbish, just simple economics, even though I sometimes get push-back from editors who think I should be doing everything for the greater good. (Something to consider: a decent percentage of what I bring in, except in times of cash flow issues, does get allocated in a paying-it-forward manner—loans to other writers, buying a start-up publication I couldnâ€™t otherwise afford, supplementing the budgets of our own anthos so we can afford that story by that unknown writer who isnâ€™t going to help sell the book, etc.—so the more I get paid, the more leeway I have to put it back into the system.)
There are factors other than money. Some editors I’ve worked with before, and trust. Some editors Iâ€™ve worked with before and itâ€™s not so much that I trust them as I know their quirks and prefer dealing with those quirks than some unknown entity. Sometimes I’m too busy—committing to what you canâ€™t deliver is stress for both parties—or just not interested in writing short fiction at the time. Sometimes, too, an editor’s prior projects make me wary, even if all theyâ€™re asking for is a reprint.
For example, thereâ€™s the â€œhey, I thought Iâ€™d edit an anthology because itâ€™d be coolâ€ approach, for which I donâ€™t have much sympathy, since it tends to manifest in other ways as Amateur Hour, meaning Iâ€™m going to suffer as a contributor. Either correspondence/contract will be a pain or something else will rear its ugly head. Iâ€™m not talking about experience editing anthologiesâ€”Iâ€™m talking about the difference between people who are professionals in their daily dealings and bring that to antho editing, and those who are not. By now, I can usually suss this latter type a mile away. (This sixth sense, which is just a function of having a career long enough to go through every possible situation, also gives you an idea of what anthologies and other publications are likely to be successful and which not. Sometimes you still go ahead because the upfront money is good, but you donâ€™t hold out hope otherwise.)
Another way of putting this: not everyone should be an editor, and some editors good at picking stories are terrible at dealing with people.
Other times, an editor may be professional in their dealings but still put you in a bad spot for other reasons. To use a recent example, I’m less likely to sign up for an antho edited by the guy who put together Before I Was a Giant (really crap title, btw, with the emphasis the wrong way round) without certain assurances. Why? The anthology came under fire because he had one female writer and yet a broad theme that could, without any effort, support a more balanced selection (as opposed to, say, â€œThe Mastodon Tome of White Guys from the 1950sâ€). Even worse, the theme spoke to canon, and such anthologies must be held to a higher standard. There are a few historical anthos that may by their nature include fewer women, but this was not true in this case. (Example: our own Steampunk anthology had three female contributors because we were covering a particular period when few women wrote in this subgenre, while Steampunk Reloaded, mostly covering the last ten years, is about 50-50.)
Looking at this example from on high, how did it occur? (Letâ€™s assume some male bias, but think about it process-wise.) It occurred primarily because the editor had no vision beyond â€œwriters I likeâ€ and no methodology beyond what appears to be the most rudimentary research and outreach. This, and seemingly limited reading experience, resulted in a book that might include some interesting stories but strikes me as a bad, potluck kind of anthology.
You may ask why this analysis isnâ€™t in the upcoming post about anthologies from an editorâ€™s point of view. (It will be, from a different perspective.) Why does this impact the writerâ€™s approach to anthologies? Simply put, I am not sympathetic to editors who place me, as a contributor, between a rock and a hard place. For example, I much prefer to be in anthos that are not the equivalent of the milkman scene from Monty Python: a bunch of sweaty white guys in a locked room staring at each other and wondering with a vague sense of guilt how they all got there.
Indeed, I’ve politely turned down invites where it was pretty clear that was how it was trending, and in other cases suggested other writers who might provide greater diversity. This hasnâ€™t stopped the odd case of opening an antho Iâ€™m in to the TOC page and finding it rather more uniform than anticipated. (Iâ€™ve stopped short of saying point-blank â€œno women/minorities and Iâ€™m out,â€ for reasons that should be apparent in the forthcoming â€œanthos from an editorâ€™s POVâ€ section, but I approach submitting to anthologies assuming diversity–and it may still come to that.)
When I do receive an anthology, my hopes are close to those of me as reader: I want to be surprised and moved and entertained. I want to discover a writer Iâ€™ve never heard of before. I want a scarred dreadnaught in late career to pull a rabbit out of a hat. I want to learn something about technique. In short, I want it all, even if thatâ€™s impossible.
Now it’s your turn: Writers, what’s your experience with anthologies?