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.