By Nikki Baird, Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Anthology Chair
Anthologies have experienced something of a renaissance, thanks to the indie publishing market. Lots of writers have short stories that they’ve written over the years, and in a lot of cases, the publishing rights to those stories revert back to authors fairly quickly, so there aren’t a lot of legal reasons that get in the way of republishing.
Plus anthologies can be great marketing tools. They can help promote a collection of authors by making the workload something you can share, and they can provide a way for readers to try a lot of new authors for a low entry price. For single-author anthologies, they can also serve as a “try before you buy”. Anthologies are also great books to give away for free when promoting a new novel, especially when they are stories you’ve already written.
So what goes into making an anthology? Well, a lot, trust me. But I’ll give you three big ones, with a primary focus on multi-author anthologies, since that’s where my experience lies.
A Theme. An anthology needs something to hold it together. For single-author anthologies, the theme is simple – it’s the author! However, even then, you might want to think about selecting a collection of short stories that relate to each other.
When you come up with a theme, probably the biggest challenge is to make sure that it is rich in possibility. The core conflict or tension needs to be easy to grasp and yet also deep and/or broad. Also, the theme should relate to your group. Sometimes this means genre – for example, you wouldn’t really want to throw a blood-and-guts zombie story in with a bunch of regency romance. But if you’re looking at a collection that crosses genres, then a core subject or theme becomes particularly important in helping readers understand what to expect from the book.
For the RMFW anthology, particularly because we chose open submissions, we put theme front and center: Colfax Avenue. We could’ve chosen Sunset Boulevard, or Madison Avenue, or some other historic/infamous street in America, but as we are the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, keeping the location close to home seemed important. Plus I was dealing with a precedent set by previous RMFW anthologies. Dry Spell and Tales of Mistwillow were both based on themes important to the Rocky Mountain region – water, and life in a (made-up) mountain town. RMFW’s third anthology deviated from this theme (Broken Links, Mended Lives), and we may stray from a Rocky Mountain angle again in the future, but this year the Colfax idea quickly took hold and became a slam-dunk.
A Submission Process. If you’re soliciting submissions, you need a well-defined submission process. We had to navigate several choices. Do you want to invite specific authors to contribute? Famous authors, when you can get them, can help sell the book. But their time is very precious, especially writing time. If you’re looking to hook a famous author, it helps to either have an existing relationship or to have a cause that they support as a beneficiary for anthology proceeds.
For Crossing Colfax, we opted to not pursue specific authors. One, people like Carol Berg, Mario Acevedo, and Jeanne Stein have already been very generous in the past. Two, we specifically opted to open submissions only to RMFW members in order to feature and promote the writing talent within RMFW. So it didn’t seem quite right to hold spaces in the anthology for select authors when what we really wanted were good stories no matter who they came from within our community. In the end, we had about the right mix: 3 stories from established authors (Linda Berry, Warren Hammond, and Thea Hutcheson) and 12 from newbies.
We held open submissions with only the membership requirement. We also had a blind reader panel, rather than a committee. There were a couple of reasons for that. One, not everyone was co-located, so trying to have meetings was going to be difficult. Two, and this one’s all on me, I liked the idea of getting basically as much reader input as I could. A small selection committee can fall into group-think mode, where everyone ends up reinforcing each others’ opinions, and radical new ideas get lost. With blind readers, this was in some ways like stopping people on the street who like to read and asking their opinions. Stories that I didn’t particularly like at first came back with thumbs up from readers, and stories that I loved didn’t do nearly as well as I thought they would. In the end, we ended up with a collection that I think is the better for it – with a wider appeal, and a more varied set of stories than we otherwise might have.
A Contract. This one’s always the fun part. The last RMFW anthology was published in 2009. That contract included no provisions for e-pub. In fact, that is why you don’t see any past RMFW anthologies in e-pub format in the market today, because we only have print rights to those books. Someday I’d love to go back and get the e-rights to bring the past anthologies online, but that is work for another day. Since we are writers helping writers, it seemed silly to have the kind of contract that makes agents wince, so we tried to be very open and fair. We asked for exclusive rights for one year, and perpetual rights to the story as long as it was published in the anthology. Outside of the anthology itself, RMFW has no rights. So after the year is up, the authors are welcome to publish their stories in other anthologies or stand-alone or however they choose. I will say, though, that we had our contract reviewed by Susan Spann, who volunteered her considerable legal services. And I would not recommend skipping that step!
Is it all worth it? From an editor perspective, you bet. It’s hard work, and multiplied because you’re working with multiple authors, but I get a smile on my face every time I see the Crossing Colfax cover. I’m so proud of the variety, the freshness, and the imagination that sits within those pages. Over the next year, I hope I’ll also be able to say that it was a valuable experience for our authors too – because, while a lot of the work is over, a lot more work has only begun!
You can find out more about Nikki by reading the RMFW Spotlight post from the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Blog.