Anthologies: A Writer’s Point of View

Last month, I talked about fiction anthologies from my perspective as a reader, as well as soliciting information from others about how they view anthologies.

Now I’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 don’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 I’m trying to place stories I’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? It’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 couldn’t otherwise afford, supplementing the budgets of our own anthos so we can afford that story by that unknown writer who isn’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 I’ve worked with before and it’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 can’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 they’re asking for is a reprint.

For example, there’s the “hey, I thought I’d edit an anthology because it’d be cool” approach, for which I don’t have much sympathy, since it tends to manifest in other ways as Amateur Hour, meaning I’m going to suffer as a contributor. Either correspondence/contract will be a pain or something else will rear its ugly head. I’m not talking about experience editing anthologies—I’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 don’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, “The Mastodon Tome of White Guys from the 1950s”). 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? (Let’s assume some male bias, but think about it process-wise.) It occurred primarily because the editor had no vision beyond “writers I like” 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 isn’t in the upcoming post about anthologies from an editor’s point of view. (It will be, from a different perspective.) Why does this impact the writer’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 hasn’t stopped the odd case of opening an antho I’m in to the TOC page and finding it rather more uniform than anticipated. (I’ve stopped short of saying point-blank “no women/minorities and I’m out,” for reasons that should be apparent in the forthcoming “anthos from an editor’s POV” 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 I’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 that’s impossible.

Now it’s your turn: Writers, what’s your experience with anthologies?


  1. says

    Good and interesting post.

    At one point I would submit to just about anything, but in the last couple of years I think I have submitted to only two or three anthologies. Mainly it has to do with a lack of trust in the projects. I have had too many editors accept things and then not follow through on some level. The most common is that they will publish the material, but not put it in front of an audience. Which means I have made a tiny bit of money (maybe) but it hasn’t gained me any readers.

    That is actually I think the most significant factor in the anthos you and Ann have put together: they will be read and reviewed by people, and for the writers in them, it is a guarantee that it will help them in whatever “careers” they have, whether they are well known or not. At least that is how I look at it.

    Many times one story in a good anthology is worth 50 in not so good anthologies. Or worse still, a story in a not so good anthology could potentially be damaging.

  2. Barbara Roden says

    As both an editor of anthologies (occasionally), and a writer, I read your post with a lot of interest, and spent most of the time nodding my head in agreement (when I wasn’t nodding in agreement it was because I was sipping coffee). Very much agree with the following: ‘There’s the “hey, I thought I’d edit an anthology because it’d be cool” approach, for which I don’t have much sympathy, since it tends to manifest in other ways as Amateur Hour’, which seems to have its corollary in your later statement ‘The editor had no vision beyond “writers I like” and no methodology beyond what appears to be the most rudimentary research and outreach. This, and seemingly limited reading experience. . . .’

    I’ve seen this time and again in anthologies (mostly small press ones): a wannabe editor who is often – but not always – a writer himself (it’s usually a man), and who approaches other writers whom he knows in the old Garland/Rooney ‘Hey, let’s put on a show!’ tradition. Since the writers he knows are usually very much like himself – white, male, all appearing in the same publications and writing in much the same style – the result is often an anthology which does at least have a consistent, if limited, vision, but effectively keeps out anyone not in the editor’s immediate circle of friends and acquaintances, at once reinforcing the idea that publishing is a closed shop, and that if you’re not a certain type of person (white, male) you’re going to have a tough time of it getting in.

    I remember you saying, Jeff, back in 2006 – when we were both lamenting the poor crop of recent anthologies – that a lot of them were not so much ‘edited’ as ‘compiled’. That’s another interesting point from a writer’s perspective, I think. A fair number of people ‘editing’ anthologies these days aren’t doing anything of the sort. As a writer, I will always try to submit the best possible story I can, but that doesn’t mean my story is perfect, or that a good editor won’t be able to make it that much better (anyone who’s ever worked with, say, Danel Olson will know how invaluable and helpful his editorial comments are). Unfortunately, I see far too many cases of ‘editors’ who will not, I know, do anything to a submitted story other than accept it with enthusiasm, bang it into whatever desktop publishing programme they use, and be done with it. If a story of mine is to appear somewhere, I’d like to know that a) the editor will work with my story, and me, to ensure it’s as good as it can be; and b) my story will be appearing alongside other stories that have been similarly treated. You’re only as good as the company you keep, after all.

  3. says

    Yep, I agree with all of that.

    Ann and I tend to come down on the side of not taking stories that need work, but in a few cases have accepted stories on the basis of revisions, and always do a thorough copy-edit. But I’ll get into that in the next post on this subject, and perhaps you can add to that one, too. Thanks!

  4. Mace Feriere says

    I have been in an anthology where I felt one other story ruined the book as a whole. I’ve never been sure if I or that author (who has gone on to write fairly decent books) should be more embarrassed, but it ends up being an anthology in which I don’t really advertise my presence.

  5. says

    I’m fairly new at this so what I have to say is from that perspective. I’ve been in one anthology (so far) and it gives me a sense of permanence mixed with a sense of disposability. A story on the internet is always around (as long as the zine keeps it up, that is) and is easily linked to and sent around. But there’s a tangibility to a book. I can hold it and put it on a shelf. I can open it and smell the pages. The idea of it being purchased in a bookstore or on the internet somewhere thrills me. I feel like I joined a team of writers and we are linked a little bit just by being in this collection. We did something special together even though we’ve never met. There is a completeness to an anthology. I feel it both as a writer and a reader. Especially, when the anthology is edited well. But then there’s that sense that it can be forgotten, as most books are, and become a rare item that no one remembers or cares about. That the work in it can get lost and not be seen again.

  6. Laird says

    “Writers, what’s your experience with anthologies?”

    Magical. Several by Ellen Datlow; Mike Allen, a couple of others I musn’t reveal. Turned down some I wished I’d been able to submit to, some that weren’t such a good bet. I think turning down the poor bets is as important as anything else.

  7. says

    I’ve been in some very good small press anthologies, and I loved being a part of them. As primarily a short fiction writer, I think they’re often a good move for just the reasons you state above: readers can find something new, and maybe that something is YOUR story. :)

    It’s a good lesson to learn though — ALWAYS look before you leap. Earlier this year an editor tried to get me in an antho for publicity only — no contributor’s copies, no royalties, no payment of any kind other than free advertising, though it would be sold through major distributors. I declined, and I’m glad I did — a different small press picked up my story and gave me a way better deal to boot.

    Great article!

  8. says

    My work has appeared in several anthologies and is scheduled to appear in several more during the coming year; includes work in multiple genres (and both fiction and non-fiction); has appeared in original, reprint, and best-of-year anthologies; has been published in anthologies from small presses, major publishers, and everything in-between; has been been submitted by invitation and through open calls; and has generated compensation ranging from “thanks and here’s a copy of the book” on up.

    I don’t approach writing for anthologies any different than I do writing for periodicals–write the best story (or essay) I can within the parameters of the publication–and I can’t recall ever considering the potential diversity or lack of diversity in the TOC when considering whether or not to submit.

    My primary concern is whether I have an existing story or have an idea for a story that fits the anthology’s parameters. Compensation is important but not critical. Also important: my previous experience with the editor/publisher and/or the editor’s/publisher’s reputation as best I can determine.

    There are a few editors I’ll not intentionally work with again. There are a few I hope to work with again. Most fall in the gray zone between.

    I’ve also sat on the other side of the desk as editor of five crime fiction anthologies. Published by a small press and with no advance offered to the contributors, I filled each anthology from open calls for submissions. I worked with some writers on revisions, asked for minor corrections or alterations from some, and published a few stories exactly as submitted. Even though none of the anthologies has sold particularly well, several stories published in them were short-listed for major awards and/or were listed among the year’s best by the editors of the year’s-best-mystery anthologies.

    I hope the writers I worked with on those anthologies would consider me an editor they’d be willing to work with again, and if I ever have another opportunity to edit an anthology, I hope I’ll be able to offer advances or some other form of compensation up-front.