Come Antho With Me

Sometimes I find myself in the company of young writers. Defined as people who are young/just starting out in the craft. Though there are a number of them who qualify on years too.

Yes, I know it’s not a good thing when this happens. It’s like having the old, grizzled battle veteran come into the kindergarten class for show and tell. I want them to keep their starry eyed innocence and hope as long as they can. Heaven knows it doesn’t stick around for long in this field.

But while I’m showing them peg leg (The Ace incident of 2003) and the hook hand (Bantam 2011), they sometimes ask pertinent questions and perhaps my answers even provide some illumination in the way ahead, that might save them some scars of their own.

One of those questions is “What about anthologies? Are they even worth it? Do the ones with no money upfront eventually pay anything?”

And there was a lot of “I heard–“

Some of the kids had gotten hold of some bad information. Not precisely intentionally wrong, but out of a date. Kind of like a snickers bar forgotten on the back of a drawer for the last 10 years. At one point it was tasty and relatively wholesome, but now if you eat it, it won’t taste good and it might give you a really bad case of indigestion.

The answer they got was “If you don’t get paid up front, you’ll never see a cent. In fact what you get upfront is probably it.”

Ten years ago, I’d have told you that myself.

And I can’t remember how I got to writing stories for anthologies with no payment up front. Some were favors called, and some were friends in need, and some I just found the theme funny, and some… well, you know? I have no idea. Like my highest grossing indie anthology story to date (3k and counting) I did because the person who contacted me (and who was adjacent through three groups, but whom I’d never met) ambushed me late at night on facebook and reminded me I’d agreed to do this story, and I was pushing the deadline. Did I? It’s possible. This was a few years ago, and life was more complicated than it is even now, with half the house still packed. Or it’s possible she’d asked to a friend, and understood I’d said yes. Or — it’s entirely possible — she took advantage of the fact I was in the middle of a project and forgetting my own name. And yes, this method works to get me into anthologies, but think about the karmic debt.

Anyway, so I panicked, and wrote the story and sent it in, and then realized I was in an antho with a bunch of names, and it just kept selling and selling and selling and selling–

I suspect I got trapped into other anthologies by similar methods. Ping me late at night and say “Sarah, the story is due in two days. Have you written it? You promised.” And put a summary of guidelines below, and I’m likely going to try, unless it’s physically impossible.

Anyway, here’s what I found:

About five years ago, anthologies suddenly started earning out, and then paying out checks, sometimes pretty big checks, pretty much across the board, from traditional to indie.

Even indie anthologies with no names, no particular house behind them, usually pay me, over time, the 6c a word that traditional pays.

So, why do anthologies: Most of all, other than the money (look, for me short stories are fairly trivial. But if they took a lot more work, it might not be worth it for the money) it’s the fact that it’s a mini-billboard.

It’s advertising. Say I’m in an anthology with Margaret Ball — hi, Margaret, would you like to be in an anthology? How about Regency? Fantastic — and you’ve never heard of me, but you read Margaret. You buy the anthology for her, and now that you’re reading it, you read my story. It knocks your socks off. So you put your socks back on (go lighter on the sulfur next time!) and go looking for other stuff by me.

The number of readers who tell me “I first read your story in x anthology and then went looking” is not trivial.

Also, short stories, once you master the form, give you an opportunity to try out new things. Say you want to write a massively unreliable narrator, and still have the reader get a full story… Well, 6k words is a much lighter investment than 120k, should the idea you have for doing it not work as planned.

I’ve used short stories to experiment with voice, narration, strange characters, etc. in the past.

Now, when are anthologies not worth it?

When it’s going to take too long. I’ve been invited to shared world anthologies that are either so complex, or (if based on books) where I’ve not read the books. To get up to speed would take me a week or a month, during which I could be writing something of my own, like perhaps a short novel.

When the theme just doesn’t thrill you. Suppose I was invited to a “Movie Star Magic” anthology, where the whole point was to have real walk ons by thinly disguised celebrities… It’s doable. I’d just have to ask Dan. But since I don’t really give a hang about celebrities, and remember characters, not actors, it would be pointless. Anything I could do would not be my best.

When someone involved in the project is someone you don’t trust or even cordially dislike. It happens, and when it happens there is a non-trivial chance that he/she/it is going to find a reason to reject you, or cut you down to a quarter, or something of the kind.
PARTICULARLY when dealing with someone who’s stung you in the past, it’s not worth the aggravation and pain of giving the critter another bite. Don’t do it. For a novel, you might have to, depending on how much you’re making indie. For a short? Not worth it.

Signs you should run away as fast as your peg leg will carry you:

Contracts where the publisher claims ownership of any part of your setting or idea, including characters (unless it’s shared universe, and even then, not unless they made the characters.) (I lost a short story forever to one of these, and it was the “favor to a friend” type. Yeah.)

EVEN worse, contracts where the publisher claims ownership of — say — all you’ll ever write in that genre. (Yes, trust me, they’re out there.)

MORE IMPORTANTLY anyone who ask you to pay to be in the anthology. Yep, even if you’re a no-name. Even if they say the money is for “editing fees.”
Don’t pay to be in an anthology. Chances are they’re making the money off the writers, and it will only sell by accident (Same as any vanity publisher.) In indie shared royalty, the house usually takes 50% of the earnings. That’s enough to pay an editor. And if they don’t have money (or volunteers) to front, they shouldn’t be publishing the anthology.

As my mentors told me, long ago: Money flows to the writer. Maybe not up front. And maybe the earning will be slow. (And some anthologies will be duds, though so far I haven’t been in one, yet) But if the money flows the other way, run way.

Some projects are not worth it.

And now get going with you and have fun anthologizing. (And yeah, there will be some anthology announcements here, real soon.) Just not until we get some legal stuff squared away from moving. I hope sooner than later.

50 comments

  1. So, I take it your submission for “The Flatulent Boar” is going to be late?
    (Looks innocent)

  2. A big question is also, do you want to make short fiction a significant part of your writing career? I’m a bit of a throwback in that way, since short stories are all I do these days. I can afford to be published in non- and low-paying markets because I will republish the stories in my next collection.

    If you are primarily a novelist and looking at short stories simply in terms of first publication, then your standards will be different. (Although it should be mentioned that most novelists have the odd short fiction collection.)

    One thing that I have seen a lot is novelists who write short fiction that features the characters and settings of their novel or series of novels. While that is not inherently bad in itself (and can grow into collections like Jim Butcher’s Brief Cases or Ben Aaronovitch’s Tales Of The Folly) it’s important to make the story accessible to readers who have no knowledge of or interest in your series world.

    I have seen authors submit alleged short stories that were literally the first chapter of a series novel. Don’t do that. It makes editors unhappy. Tie in short fiction should be self-contained, giving the reader all they need to know to follow that particular story and ending with a satisfying conclusion. A note at the end saying “More adventures of Ellen The Talking Llama can be found…:” is fine, but if the story hinges on a knowledge of the novels, don’t submit it to an open anthology. Save it for a coda if one of your series novels comes up short.

      1. It’s a technique that’s fallen out of favor, but used to be a lot more common. I did it myself with Bad Dreams & Broken Hearts, but most of my collections are unrelated stories.

        1. Time was you could sell all the short stories for reasonable money and then create the fix-up and sell it. The decreasing chances of the double-dip probably killed it.

      1. It might be an interesting exercise. I’m of the opinion that a lot of entire novels could be condensed into short stories without losing anything significant.

        1. And here I’m wondering if I can build a novel out of a series of chapters that are effectively short stories. I.e. In this chapter/story she negotiates with one of the enemy spy masters to get him sprung from a POW camp.

          I do wonder if that would end up being too disjointed though.

          1. It’s helpful to have a framework to tie the stories together. With Bad Dreams & Broken Hearts the stories are all stand alone (two of them were previously published). But all of the stories are cases worked by my detective narrator, and they follow a similar formula. The stories don’t all relate to each other in the way chapters in a novel do, but there are recurring support characters and one big plot that runs through several of them.

            Also consider that a large number of novels in the SF genre were adapted from short stories, sometimes by expanding the original story but often by adding material in front and behind the original story and leaving the middle much as it was originally published. (Heinlein and Niven both did that.)

          2. Fix-ups are a grand tradition of the genre. You should read some and see how they work. Generally they tend to be more episodic than the usual novel. But you get such works as Operation Chaos.

  3. One thing I do when I review anthologies is mention the contributors in the review. If there is a new writer with an outstanding story (Joelle Presby’s “Obligated Service” comes to mind) I highlight it in the review. If I know the editor or publisher I will drop them an e-mail saying “so-and-so’s story in “X” was excellent. Keep an eye on him/her, That writer has promise.”

  4. I agree that one should write what one wants to, regardless of the form or length or genre (or, at least, I seem to be incapable of being more professional (writing-to-demand) about it myself). I do see the point about seeking out anthologies for many reasons, but it’s very peripheral to my own processes.

    I’m a long-form writer at heart, and series at that (so really long form). But I know how to produce a short story (for a type comfortable to me, anyway) — it’s just that I don’t do very many.

    The ones I’ve had most fun with were 5 unrelated adjuncts to a 4-book series, covering scenes/events that were (for good reasons) offstage for the primary series, either before the first book, or in between books, or just minor-character-focused tales.

    In thinking about it, I realized I just relish the full character impact of the larger form, and the shorts done for the series allowed me to have my cake and eat it, too. I got to use the depth of known characters in a short work that couldn’t otherwise be easily accommodated in the long books, and provide a story collection to accompany the series. That doesn’t make those stories “stand-alone”, however, so it’s hard to use them in an anthology (though by removing a frame, I was able to fit one of them into one of Cedar Sanderson’s Hunting anthologies. Yippee!)

    My other shorts aren’t useful as advertising material being SciFi, since they can’t directly tease readers to seek me out for my novels/series (all Fantasy), and so I use them to indulge solipsistically in the SciFi side of my SFF interest. Wouldn’t mind anthologizing them elsewhere (one was actually published in Strange Horizons (https://hollowlands.com/2015/07/my-story-the-visitor-is-now-available-in-strange-horizons/) — my only such acceptance! — but it will never be a significant part of my output. I’m one of those “novelists with a few shorts” writers, and at this point I don’t see that changing.

  5. I like anthologies. My favorite part is reading amazing stories by fantastic new authors. That’s my favorite part of editing them, too.

  6. I would like to write short. It would be good for me to be able to learn to craft more engaging openings by doing so more than once or twice a year, eh?

    On the other hand, when I try to write short, I end up with a novellette… or another novel.

    On the one hand, happy readers. On the other, I’m doing it wrong!

    And on the gripping hand, I refuse to drop this WIP when I’m finally making forward momentum in order to try to beat my head against the learning curve of shorts. After the story is done, I keep telling myself, and watching the deadlines for antho after antho close as I struggle onward in the novel.

    1. It can be learned. I’ve been working on it for almost a year now, and I’m at least getting better at it. At some point, I might even write up what I’ve learned: “How a novelist who has never managed to wrap up a narrative in less than 20,000 words finally managed to write some complete 4000-5000 word stories that were actually pretty decent.”

      However, I definitely agree that when you’re making progress on the novel is not the moment to take up a new art form.

    2. I hear you. I tried to write short, and wound up with 30,000 words. Tried another story, and wrote 14,000. That’s just how many words it took to tell the stories properly. I’ve written 12,000 word chapters.

  7. “Money flows to the writer”

    I first heard that from P.N. Elrod at a con in 2000. I think it was “someones” “law” anybody knows who’s law?

    As for anthologies, the only ones I’ve bought in recent memory (the last decade at least) had a short by someone I was reading. Either Jim butcher, Ben aaronovich, or Larry coria. Those are the only current names that motivate me.

    I bought an audiobook Anthony not too long ago that had a story by Larry coria about MHI’s agent Frank’s. I was listening as I mowed a lawn and there was another urban fantasy story that was fantastic. I thought “I need to look up this author, he must have 10 novels about this character” it was that good. Turns out it was Larry Corian son. His first published piece. I promise you, that kid is going places.

        1. His name is Portuguese, so to me it’s obvious, and I’m being driven insane by the misspelling.
          Also Hinkley is his daughter. Or as we joke, my older son’s sister. (They look more like each other than like their siblings. It’s weird. That we know we’re NOT related.)

          1. Maybe I read “Hinkley” as “Henry” or just assumed that was a boys name. I’ve never met anyone with that name.

          2. I’m guessing Hinkley was named after Gordon B. Hinkley, one of the previous Latter-day Saint prophets.

  8. Hey, could we get an “open thread” here every once in awhile?

    I’ve got questions and don’t want to get too off topic.

  9. Oh, so that is what the promotion I got through Amazon was about!

    I got a suggestion to get $5 off an anthology that was I think 350 pages.

    ….the ebook was $12. Even after the discount, that’s over-priced for something where I don’t know/trust all of the authors.

    Poking around, even physical short story collections are closer to $6-8 for twice the page count.

    The exception being the new short story collections from Tradpub in e-format…..

    As a reader, a short story collection can be a great buy, because you pay a bit less, get a bit more, and you MIGHT find your new favorite author.

  10. So if we get lawdog and the BBESP snookered at the same con we talk him into a new anthology…completely composed of stories by the BBESP. All in favor?

  11. Anthologies DO get you visibility outside your normal readership. Every antho I’ve done or been in has seen jumps in sales (not necessarily a big jump, but a jump) for all the authors.

  12. Somewhat of a side question, if you were *starting* and do not have any books published, would you go for an anthology? Or hold off on that until you have more of a back catalogue to point to?

    1. *shrugs* There is no one right way. If you want to just go ahead and get short stories out there, and you have an opportunity? Go for it! Sure, it won’t sell the back catalog you don’t have… but not doing the short and writing that back catalog instead of taking the opportunity to be published, get live feedback from real readers and/or editors, start getting your name out there… means you don’t get the opportunity for progress on those fronts.

      There are lots of areas for progress as writers, and every opportunity has multiple benefits and multiple costs. So take advantage of the opportunities that best help you develop the situation on the ground toward your goals.

  13. Anthologies have introduced me to new to me writers. Grabs a stick. But there are too freaking many of you. I can only buy a read a limited amount. Last year it was an insult in my reviews of Anthologies when I said “No new authors for me.” Now it just crying,.

    1. I feel your pain. For me, time is in shorter supply than the pool of people I want to read. In the 90’s and 00’s, I was crying that there was nothing I wanted to read. Now, it’s like I wished for a crust of bread an was handed a banquet…

  14. I’ve sent stories off to anthologies. Usually stories I dashed off in a fit of inspiration and had lying around. The revenue has been variable. Some were close to pro rates. One royalty share deal returned about a tenth of a cent per word, which feels . . . unprofessional. But hopefully it brought me some new readers.

  15. For green-as-a-whip writers, or even those who’ve just never broken into paid work before, anthologies may be a good way to get your feet wet and remind yourself (that you know how) to do quality work. I dropped a novel in ’07 through a POD vanity press, and it never sold out (for various reasons, including the First 1000 Words rule); my next publicly-available story and the first piece published externally for pay was in the 2018 Superversive Press anthology (re-launched by Tuscany Bay two years later) called Planetary: Earth. Sometimes it makes all the difference of a pair of jumper cables on the highway ramp.

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