I got involved in a conversation over on a friend’s social media this week. He’d referenced a memory, and commented that it had been 8 years since he’d been published in these anthologies, and he’d never seen any money from it. No upfront payments, no royalties, nothing. Now, it’s not that Jason Cordova is a bad writer. Far from it. And the man grinds at his work, he’s not lazing around waiting for something to hit big. But it rankled him that there had been big promises, brutally constrictive contracts and in the end… nothing. The conversation wandered from discussing, in veiled non-specifics, the publishing company that had burned him, to talking about how to find anthologies that actually care about the writers involved.
I was asked to write about how to find non-predatory small presses, and I’m happy to give my small insight into this, but I also reached out to a couple of people I know and trust who have been on the editing and publishing end of anthologies to ask them for their input. When I asked Jason about it, he encouraged me to highlight the warning flags. I have an odd position of having been in only three anthologies (that I’m aware of in this hour pre-coffee) and all of them were pleasant experiences. However, I was definitely in the ‘splash zone’ of the anthology fiasco Jason was caught up in, and have been shown some of the contracts and verbiage involved, so I have a strong idea of what should make you run.
A note before I dig into this. Anthologies, collections of short stories, whatever they are called in your particular situation, are very different than magazines, e-zines, or other short story website things. They usually revolve around some kind of theme, so it can be difficult to take a story you wrote to order for that, say, collection of purple-horned people eater stories, and sell it elsewhere. Before you submit to one, keep this in mind. Secondly, they may be managed by a publisher, an editor, or an Indie looking for a broader platform and inviting friends to come play in his world (the very best of my anthology experiences, but I got lucky). When you come across one and think “perfect!” I have just the right story for that! you’ll want to take some time and do some research before you take the plunge.
Warning Flag #1: The group of authors surrounding the publisher/editor in question seems oddly cultish. If they all have high praises to sing, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It could be a very good sign. But if they talk about how great it is to be mentored, and they’ve been mentored for years, and maybe this year one of their stories will make the cut/make money/sell elsewhere, it’s time to give the publisher a bit of a hairy eyeball and ask around outside the core group. Mentorship that lingers on and on can be a sign of a toxic relationship. Mentors, like parents, should have the ultimate goal of kicking their fledglings out of the nest, not cramming in more and more to make them feel like they are… well, I keep coming back to the cult analogy. I’ve run into this in a couple of situations, one with the anthologies my friends have never seen money from, and another from a writing group that was positively incestuous. Ew.
Warning Flag #2: No transparency about payment or royalties. Not all anthologies will pay up front. Some will pay up front but no royalties, and some will only pay royalties. You should know what to expect going into it. You should not be told ‘we’ll pay royalties after our costs are met’ unless you are also given some idea of what those costs are, and an accounting (and no, anthologies that are proudly using public domain art for covers should not be costing much to produce). Yes, I realize this isn’t ‘how the publishing business works’ which is bullshit, and the inherent corruption it opens up by playing along will only end when the authors stop allowing themselves to be milked without feed. I’ve taken part in ‘paid up front’ and one ‘paid plus royalties’ anthology, and they left me feeling happy and like I’d do it again. My friends who were told ‘we’ll pay you when we meet our costs’ are still waiting, years later. They’ll never see money. Which leads me to:
Warning Flag #3: Be aware of your potential partner’s fanbase. Do they have one? Is it one that will welcome your addition? Will it lead to you making more sales of your non-participating work? If not, why are you sending a story to this anthology? Keep in mind you aren’t going to make money from short story writing. You’re going to make money from novels, and the short stories are marketing tools. Putting your name in an anthology spreads your brand. Some fan will read your story, like it well enough to see what else you’ve written, and go get those too. Or you could be building a name still, but again, it’s part of a marketing plan, not an end to itself.
Do a Background Check: You would, I assume, do this with a potential life partner. Now I’m not talking a full-on professional dig for dirt here. But it’s amazing what you can find with some judicious google searches. If you type in the publisher’s name to the search box and the autofill starts adding words like ‘scam’ or ‘predator’ it’s time to cut and run. A great way to do this, as I just did without even trying, is to mingle at a con and chat with fellow authors. I talked with several who praised Joe Monson highly after working with him on the benefit anthology for LTUE, Trace the Stars. Now, this situation was a little different. None of the authors got paid, and none of them expected to. They gave their stories for the benefit of a great convention they believe in. But the experience, I gathered, made them happy and confident they hadn’t thrown their work in the dustbin. You can learn a lot by chatting with authors and listening carefully to who they suggest might not be the most pleasant person to work with. But do your homework before you sell that story.
Warning Flag (after the Play): Read the contract carefully. I know, we say this a lot. We say it over and over because if you are selling your work to someone else – or giving it, as the case may be – there needs to be a contract, first of all, and you need to know what you just agreed to. Ideally a contract is protective of both the author and the publisher. All too often, as they are drawn up by publishers, they lean more to the publisher’s interests. I could be very nice here and say this is normal bias. But unfortunately it’s not always ignorance and bliss. There are publishers who draft draconian, unenforceable, contracts, and then get sue-happy. Would you like to sign away not only the character you created for this anthology, but the right to use that setting? Ever? In this or any universe (don’t laugh, that last phrase came right out of a contract. For a short story. Ok, you can laugh, I did)? There are contracts that would basically prevent you from writing anything set in a particular historical era, using historical (and might I point out, public domain) characters, ever again. It’s one thing to agree to preserve a shared world. It’s another to restrict your work to the extent some of these contracts are asking for. It’s not worth it. Don’t be afraid to ask for revisions, if you think it’s just ignorance in the contract. And certainly don’t be afraid to walk away if it’s clear that it’s more than just ‘protecting their interests’ because you have interests, too.
Bonus Warning Flag: What will make me walk away from an anthology? Well, being invited, submitting a story after discussion with the publisher about it not being SFF, but definitely libertarian in theme (which is what was wanted), and assured it was fine… only to have the editor, someone I’d never heard of, come back and tell me she’d only be interested if I turned my wolves into werewolves. That’s not what the story was about, not why I sent the story to the publisher, and who the heck are you, anyway? I looked her up. She was barely out of highschool and had no publishing credits other than a piece of flash in the freebie ‘zine related to the one she was now editing. I politely declined to savage my story and walked. I have no qualms about editing my work to fit. I will happily rebuild a legitimate weakness. But if you’re asked to alter your work to better meet the editor’s internal voice, that’s a red flag. If they are doing heavy edits on your story, ask why they accepted it in the first place. I know all too well there are editors who are in this to massage their own ego. Don’t play.
A bit later I’ll have a guest post from an awesome anthologist who put some pretty pennies into my pocket. He gave me hope that short stories are worth creating, still.
(Header image: “Lavendar Fields” by Cedar Sanderson)