Thursday, June 28, 2012

Diagnosis Anthology

By W.D. Prescott

As a writer, I find anthologies invaluable. The reader in me finds them essential. But if you were to go to any publisher, you would find they tend to be hesitant with them. I know because I have an idea for an anthology and went around trying to get a feel for who could be interested and what I, as the editor, would need to do on my end. Let me tell you, if you thought being a writer was a tough job, look into being an anthology editor. Writing will seem like a cakewalk.

But why is there this near aversion to tomes devoted to diversity in literature? It's not just on the publisher's end, either. Writers and readers are giving up on anthologies just as e-books and self-publishing now allow better access to a wider breath of collections to choose. Let’s look at how an anthology comes together to find out.

Step 1 - The Idea: This is the real "make it or break it" part of the genesis. If you don't have a good idea, a gripping idea, it can be hard not only to sell it to readers, but to a publisher to publish it and writers to write the stories. If you look at those that sell well--relative to other anthologies--they are usually Year's Best of [insert genre(s)]. They work because the idea is simple and profitable: Take only the best of a genre for the last year and compile it all and sell them. This works for a publisher because there is little risk involved. All these stories have been published before. They tend to have a high concentration of well-known authors that can sell the book to their fan base. And they don't have to think of an idea for a sequel, they just wait for the next year's batch of tales. It's great for readers because, as it was mentioned, these are the most current stories that are considered the best by well-known editors in the business. A plethora of well-known authors haunt the pages, giving anyone new to the genre a place to start and find their way into it.

Any other kind of anthology becomes risky for a publisher because it involves stories that haven't been tested. They can't assume money will be made with any of those stories. If they can't make money, why make the book? But these are also where a lot of the innovation in a genre comes from. From sub-genre and niche sampler anthologies to character type anthologies to situational anthologies, these are we readers can delve into the creative chaos of any genre. When the submission call went out for Tainted: Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, the guidelines were simple: read one of 5 classic stories and write your own inspired by one of them. Inspired is a broad word for a writer. Is it a rewrite of the story? A continuation? A new story based on an element of the original? The answer was yes. Each author did what they wanted--I opted for the continuation--and eight stories were created through their experimentation and imagination. This not just a hallmark of anthologies, but the short form itself. The novel is great, but you are devoted to the ideas of that novel for hundreds of pages. Anthologies let you go through a whirlwind of permutations of one idea and the ideas spawned form them in the same time.

Step 2 - The Writers: Once the idea for the anthology is set, the hard part comes. Much of the reason that publishers are hesitant to publish anthologies is that writers are hesitant to write for them. The reason being is simple: What happens if the story is not accepted into the anthology? The quick answer is "send it into a magazine." If the story is exceptional, that might work. But the truth is that many of the anthologies have such a defining theme, it makes it hard to find magazine whose style will mesh with the theme of the story. Not only that, but a good editor will know of the most recent submission calls and will be looking for the rejects to be fill there inboxes. And just so it’s known, editors are not fond of anthology rejects. So, why would a writer want to spend the time on a story that may not get accepted and then have a harder time finding a home after rejection when they can write a novel or a short story specifically for a magazine during that time?

For a writer, new or established, it is something to promote. You hit a bump in your newest novel progress? Not sure how to start the sequel of the series? Things like this can stall the momentum of a writer and it can be hard to gain back anything lost--like readers--if it takes too long to publish something new. A short story in an anthology helps out in that you will have a new book to push as you recover on any lost time on your current project. And readers are more willing to pick up a book than a magazine--just look at how many magazine markets rise in fall in a 5 year period. For new writers, anthologies are a great way to start making a name for yourself. When it comes to publishing that first book with a press, small or large, having publishing credits on that query letter helps. Also, new writers really get the most out of it if there are well-known authors included, because they will have a fan base that will help sell the book and spreading the news about the anthology.

Step 3 - Selling the Anthology: You got the idea, you found writers that wrote great stories based on that idea, now how do you get it in the hands of readers? The better-known authors will help, but they don't get the same numbers of fans to buy anthologies as they do their books. Readers today are brought up on novels. The only time they are regularly exposed to short fiction is in school, and we all remember home much we enjoyed reading in school. And even those that get the anthology because one or more authors they like are in it, they may only read those stories, maybe a few of the others "just to see." And you can't blame them. The way they are sold to them is that the anthology itself is the product, not the stories inside.

Think of it in food terms. Would you ever go to the store and buy a bag of Doritos that have all the flavors combined in it? That is how anthologies are sold to people. Very rarely are you told anything about the stories in the anthology, just the theme of the collection and the authors inside. That's not how novels are sold. Anywhere you look: on the cover, author's website, promotional material, you have an idea of what's in those covers, just like you know what's in a box of cereal. An anthology should do the same thing. They have to sell like those variety packs of cereal you always wanted as a kid. You may only want 3 or 4 of them, but you still will eat the whole pack and enjoy them. Anthologies need to take the spotlight off the whole and focus each story inside. They have to be those little boxes of cereal that tempt the reader to wanting the whole thing. They will try it if they know what they are getting rather than betting on a mystery.

Anthologies have a place--a needed place--in literature. But it is going to take some reevaluations of the way we perceive anthologies for them to gain the place they deserve, from everyone in the circle of literary consumption and imagination.


W. D. Prescott is a good ol’ New Hampshire boy currently living in the swirling doom of New Jersey. He’s always been a little different. Loving writing and music equally, he dropped out of high school and pursued a B.A. in Creative Writing and Musical Theory and Composition at Bard College at Simon’s Rock. He went on to Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction Program for his M.A. and is returning to complete an M.F.A. He’s been published in Tainted: Tales of Terror and the Supernatural. Between that publication and now, he’s removed two organs from his body and replaced one. As he recovered, he started two projects from his bed: Eldritch Thoughts and The Non-Horror Reader Survey. Currently, he is the television columnist for InveterateMediaJunkie.com.