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Lessons from Experience with Anthologies

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Lessons from Experience with Anthologies

by Kimberly A. Edwards

When Suzanne Kamata talks about anthologies, she cites conventional wisdom: Anthologies are a tough sell; readers don’t buy them; reviewers avoid them; agents don’t gain; and publishers retreat. Nevertheless, requests for anthology submissions flourish, according to Kamata, editor of three anthologies (the latest, Call Me Okaasan: Adventures in Multicultural Mothering from Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing).


[Soliciting stories for her anthologies from writers she’s discovered in journals, at conferences, in publishers’ catalogs, and at libraries, Suzanne Kamata finds that even well-established writers are generous and cooperative.]

As dissemination portals expand and publishers think more about repurposing content, compilations draw breath in fresh places. Boutiques, restaurants, airports, hotel counters, and Web sites offer lodging to anthologies.

Attracting Wider Audiences

In San Francisco, Quiet Lightning has its own angle. “We are building community,” says Evan Karp, founder/president of the nonprofit that publishes sPARKLE & bLINK, a script of submission-based readings performed each month. “I surmise that the largest benefit for a small publisher is the potential to build an audience. With more people involved, you increase the opportunity for word-of-mouth exposure—by far the best endorsement. This also helps establish a platform that features assorted styles, widening the range of future participants.”

Francine L. Trevens, editor of Short Plays to Long Remember: 27 Plays by 14 Award Winning American Authors (TnT Classic Books), relishes the chance to select works that merit inclusion and to solicit contributions from authors whose works the publisher already issues.

Kate Farrell, editor of the just-released Wisdom Has a Voice: Every Daughter’s Memories of Mother (Unlimited Publishing, LLC), seeks “built-in marketing with multiple authors who are invested and promote the book to friends and family and within the niche market,” noting that this kind of marketing works especially well with themed anthologies.

Author Maxine Thompson recalls that when she first approached her publisher about an anthology, “he said that anthologies don’t do well, but he bought the manuscript.” Secret Lovers (Urban Books/Kensington Books) not only was picked up as a Black Expression’s Alternate Choice, but earned more in royalties than Thompson’s mass-market titles.

“The anthology can be strategic, especially when a writer teams with others with good distribution legs,” Thompson says. Her first anthology, All in the Family (Dreams Publishing), includes stories from various family members’ points of view by her and two other writers, while Secret Lovers contains three novellas, each by a different author addressing a common theme.

Thompson reports that bringing diverse writers together helps assemble different audiences; facilitates cross-promotion in different genres; serves as a marketing handle, especially in genres such as romance, sci-fi, and mysteries; and spurs sales of other books by participating authors.

Themes to Tie Things Together

Kamata suggests finding an idea, “original, but somewhat obvious.” The idea for an anthology about raising a special needs child was distinct, she notes, because the collection was to include both poetry and fiction. “I solicited comments via my blog to show that eager readership awaited,” she explains.

She adds that she pitched her next anthology—“based on another timely concept, mothering across cultures”—to an independent specializing in nonfiction on motherhood. “Within a week, I had a contract,” she reports.

Byron Merritt, a member of a group of writers who decided to self-publish, told Amy Lou Jenkins of Anthologies Online, “Find a theme. We stuck with the Monterey (CA) Peninsula. There is something interesting in your section of the world. Dig up the dirt.”

“People in Hawaii are passionate about the aloha lifestyle,” says Barbara Santos, talking about Practice Aloha from Mutual Publishing. “When they heard about our Web site, they started sending stories. A friend has a Maui radio show, and we did several interviews. Celebrity chefs in Hawaii had huge databases and fan bases of folks who love Hawaii. The newspaper covered our efforts since we were donating some proceeds to Punana Leo (a Hawaiian-language preschool), and many famous folks had already signed on. The topic—living life with aloha—struck a chord. The book exceeded expectations when the first printing of 5,000 copies sold out in two months.”

Laurel Snyder, editor of Half/Life: Jewish Tales from Interfaith Homes (Soft Skulls Press), notes that “luminaries” will help sell an idea: “Sometimes hot contributors will jump in when others sign on.”

Award-winning science fiction and horror anthologist Ellen Datlow agrees that anthologies should land a few big names; at the same time, quality must remain the foremost consideration.

Amassing Material

Farrell recommends “clear submission guidelines; targeted niche market for the call for submissions; careful editing according to the guidelines.” Working with a team of three freelance editors, she served as the only contact with 25 authors. “Direct and personal contact is vital,” she says.

“Seek simple and consistent format, not fancy text,” says Danny O. Snow, managing partner of Unlimited Publishing, LLC, which publishes Wisdom Has a Voice. “In today’s tech world, taking material from people with different operating systems can make for a giant mess. Best solution: Rich Text Format.”

Most of Kamata’s stories came from direct solicitations to writers she discovered in journals, at conferences, in publishers’ catalogs, and at libraries. “I’ve found that even well-established writers are generous and cooperative,” she reports. “Some will ask about the publisher, the print run, and who else is included. Others will ask about money.”

Farrell notes that researching the right (niche) market is vital; you need to identify the email lists, newsletters, blogs, e-zines, networks, clubs, and associations that would be interested in reviewing the book and whose members would be interested in both submitting and purchasing.

Cautions Trevens, “Don’t let it get away from you. Ask too many people to contribute, as I did, and the book goes from under 300 pages to over 400 in a flash.”

A good anthology is focused, yet spans viewpoints and topics, says Kamata. Her first one offered stories ranging from post–World War II to the 1990s written by men and women, members of minority groups, and people of different nationalities. Her second had poetry, fiction, and essays on a range of disabilities, from birth to adult, with fathers represented. In her third, she “included essays by expatriates, adoptive mothers, and women married to men of a different culture. Mothers represented different religions, ethnicities, and nationalities.”

Procedure Points

Never rush, says Trevens. “I ask authors to rewrite portions and to re-edit several times,” she says. “I edit three times as we progress. I send them proofs to edit, then I re-edit.”

Datlow, editor of Omni and Scifiction for almost 25 years before she went full-steam into anthologies, observes that unedited anthologies are second-rate products. “This hurts anthologies in general,” she says, “as a perception develops about the quality of the form.”

Santos recalls the organization required “to get the puzzle pieces to fit. If you think it will take a couple of months, double it.” Another caution: legal concerns. “Have documentation that verifies permission and approval of any substantial edits,” she warns. “Use a spreadsheet to track permission forms sent, signed, and received. Create a timeline working backward from your deadlines, and double or triple the time you think the work will take.”

Farrell’s authors signed an agreement transferring all rights to her for five years, which she then transferred to the publisher. Trevens’s authors signed a release covering first North American rights for original material and provided evidence of rights to previously published material.

Marketing Moves

Merritt told Amy Lou Jenkins (Anthologies Online) that sending galleys is an excellent way to get back-cover blurbs: “If you’re writing on development of airplanes, it might be nice to contact the Wright family and see if someone would be willing to give you a blurb. Be selective. Don’t just send galleys to the New York Times. We tapped into local fiction writers (Thomas Steinbeck, son of John Steinbeck; Brad Herzog, Pulitzer Prize–nominated author), and they came back strong for us.”

Trevens reports that she did some hometown stories for her “authors from all over,” and that she contacted libraries and colleges to which authors had a connection.

For the launch of Call Me Okaasan: Adventures in Multicultural Mothering, Kamata had a reading/dinner at Tokyo’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club, since she and some of the contributors live in Japan. She also lined up reviews and sent out early copies, and she did a blog series on a day in the life of mothers around the world.

“If an anthology is too general, it gets lost,” Katama says. Smaller, specific markets rouse more attention: “An anthology of poems about bears might be marketed to nature lovers via wildlife publications and National Parks gift shops; to poetry professors and students; and to general interest publications in areas where bears reside. For Love You to Pieces, I targeted parenting publications, magazines and Web sites on disability issues, and universities with disability studies programs.”

Andi Marquette, whose Skulls and Crossbones: Tales of Women Pirates was released by Bedazzled Ink Publishing, sums up a strategy for sales: “It’s about buzz, and the sooner, the better. The buzz starts when you post the call for submissions—in places where authors and readers can see it.”

Kimberly A. Edwards writes regularly on publishing, travel, and cultural trends. A member of Northern California Publishers and Authors, she will serve as editor of the 2012 California Writers Club, Sacramento Branch, anthology. To reach her, email kimberlyedwards00@comcast.net.

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