How and Why to Edit an Anthology: Addressing the Naysayers

how and why to edit anthology

Today’s guest post is by Margot Kahn, who is co-editor, together with Kelly McMasters, of This Is the Place: Women Writing About Home (Seal/Hachette).

Two years ago, a friend and I signed a contract to edit an anthology. Criticism for the book started pouring in before the ink was even dry. It was not for the nature of its content or the quality of the writing that we took the hits; it was for the form. Anthologies don’t sell well. The writing is uneven. People don’t like reading collections. These were the words of the naysayers, and there were many. “Don’t do it,” my friend’s agent said to her without pretense. “Editing an anthology is a heroic amount of work for very little payoff.” We began to think that anthology was a dirty word, and not in a good way.

To be fair, the naysayers weren’t all wrong. Two-thirds of the people we asked to contribute to the collection turned us down, some with encouragement, some with silence, and others still with unsatisfying explanations. (A well-known writer: “Anthologies just aren’t my thing.”) Of the writing that did come in, it was uneven. Younger, little-known writers sent us finely honed gems and established writers—writers with powerhouse agents and award-winning books—sent us essays that needed many revisions. And while I wouldn’t call the work a “heroic” effort, I would say it’s been consuming. I haven’t written much of my own work in the past year, and neither has my co-editor. But the book we have created—this anthology—has turned me into an ardent advocate for the form.

Maybe the word anthology sounds too much like an intro-level college course to be alluring, and for anyone who took ninth-grade English it may forever trigger terrors of the old doorstop Norton. But the basic idea of the anthology is grand: a curated collection where each work plays off the ones beside it to produce a swirling, thought-provoking mix of many voices. Liken it to visual art and the idea becomes commonplace: if a short story collection is an exhibit of one artist’s work, an anthology is most every other room in the museum—a presentation of works by various artists in engaging, enlightening juxtaposition.

Last year, Jesmyn Ward’s The Fire This Time was a “surprise New York Times bestseller.” Why should it be a surprise that a beautifully conceived collection of excellent writers writing on a topic at once timely and historic, of universal and imperative concern, should reach a wide audience? To its credit, the word anthology didn’t appear on this book’s front cover. But perhaps most importantly, and unlike most other anthologies, reviewers weren’t afraid to give it some coverage. Maybe this will be the beginning of a new-found interest on behalf of acquiring editors, writers and readers. In the hopes of advancing the case a step or two further, I’ll take our naysayers’ issues and address them in turn.

“People don’t like reading collections.”

Stop now and imagine the most interesting dinner party you’ve ever been to: each guest is beguilingly beautiful, fascinating, and unique, and every one of them lends something to the conversation. This should be the experience of reading a great anthology. Perhaps more to the point: Attention spans are short. If reading a novel is like watching a movie, which hardly anyone does anymore, reading a collection is akin to watching a 30-minute episode (insert your current Netlix/Amazon Prime/HBO series obsession here). Any collection of episode-length writing should be an easy sell.

More importantly, an anthology has the power to bring a diverse group of voices together. The anthology can expose readers to voices they might not otherwise have found, and it can raise up young or disenfranchised voices alongside the “big name” writers who lend their voices to the cause. Further, the anthology has the ability to reveal trends, themes, and conflict from multiple perspectives, either in a singular moment or over time, and to capture the zeitgeist in a way that any single-authored work cannot.

“The writing is uneven from one piece to the next.”

It would be a simple thing to find a number of stories, essays or poems that hew to a theme and bundle them together into a book. But this should not be the goal of the anthology, nor should it be the norm by which all are judged. Just as a collection of short stories is crafted and curated by an individual author (and, it should be noted, these are often uneven, too), an anthology can be a thoughtful work of collage. It’s the editor’s job to make sure that pieces are of consistent quality, as much as possible.

That said, any collection of many voices will by its very nature vary—likely by a wider margin than for a single author—from piece to piece. This should be embraced. When we look for ways in which to understand the divergent perspectives of others, there’s no better book form than the anthology. This is the town hall bound in pages, to be held, discussed and reflected upon.

“Anthologies don’t sell.”

Blanket proclamations on the salability of any given genre elicit my most exasperated argument. At the end of the day, editors and booksellers report that there is little surety about which books will be break-out bestsellers, which authors will have sure-fire careers, or what the next literary trend will be. But any book that’s not given sufficient attention from its editor, publisher, and author will languish, and the bulk of this work falls mostly to authors.

In this respect, anthologies may, in fact, be harder to sell. Advances are small, editors are often working simultaneously on other projects, contributors who are minimally paid will have little stake in the sales of the book, and branding a collective group is probably harder than a single author/personality. The onus falls to the anthology editor to both prepare for a marketing campaign and to create amongst her contributors a worthwhile network that encourages everyone’s participation in taking the book to market.

Considering all of the above, I would offer the following pieces of practical advice for writers and editors considering taking on an anthology of their own:

  • Sign with the right press. This almost goes without saying for any project, but perhaps particularly for an anthology because the reputation of your press will make an impact on writers you solicit who don’t know you personally. More than a few times we heard from writers that they were honored to submit to our collection, even though they didn’t know us, because they thought highly of our imprint. And since the book will be a hard enough sell as it is, be sure your press is behind you. For a collection of Native American stories, for example, a university press with a Native American studies department might be the perfect fit; for our collection of women’s voices, we chose a press that’s been devoted to publishing women writers for more than 40 years.
  • Cast a wide call and leave yourself plenty of time. Writers are busy and scattered creatures. They are often away on assignment or residency, or working on their own deadline. Some writers will say yes and then have a baby or move to a new city or take a new job. Your top wish list of contributors will soon be whittled down considerably if you don’t have much flexibility in your timeline. Furthermore, gathering diverse voices takes time, especially if your network is limited. Reach out through organizations like Cave Canem, Kundiman and LAMBDA, but also ask the people who turn you down for recommendations. In our case, Celeste Ng was too busy with Little Fires Everywhere but suggested we try Naomi Jackson and Hasanthika Sirisena, Daisy Hernandez recommended Jennifer De Leon, and so on.
  • Count your pennies carefully and know your price. We took a risk and paid out the entirety of our advance to our contributors. The reprint rate of two contributors who we desperately wanted set the bar, and from there we decided to pay everyone an equal wage. This decision may prove foolish on our part, as we’ll need to earn back our advance and then some before we get paid, but we firmly believe in paying writers for their work. Other jobs have kept us afloat in the meantime.
  • Be organized. Editing an anthology is half editing and half program management. If you are using original work as opposed to reprints, you will spend at least as much time emailing, negotiating contracts, keeping track of contributors’ mailing addresses, updating bios, writing checks, and attending to other paperwork as you will actually editing. If you’re using reprinted material, virtually all your work time will be paperwork. Keep a spreadsheet of your contributors with all the details you’ll need: their contact information and that of their agent, whether or not you’ve received their contract and if there were any changes made to it, where their contribution is in the editing process. And photocopy or scan all contracts before sending to the publisher in case they get lost. (A friend told me about losing the ability to sell foreign rights to her anthology when her publisher couldn’t find the contributor contracts—they’d fallen behind someone’s desk and were found years too late).
  • Know what you’re willing to fight for. Your publisher is going to want to hold first serial rights to every piece in your anthology, but any writer with a serious agent will not let them get away with that. Before you get into negotiations, know where you stand: Are you going to fight for the rights of your writers, or stand with your publisher?
  • Prepare to have some hard conversations. If you’re commissioning new work, chances are good that you’ll ask some writer friends, colleagues, even your literary heroes, to be a part of your book. And chances are that you’ll have to turn one or more of them down. The work may wind up being not quite what you expected, or it might overlap too closely with another contributor’s work, or a piece may get hung up in legal review and jeopardize your whole production schedule. This was, without a doubt, the most challenging part of our process. But this isn’t a solo show; it’s a symphony.
  • This Is The PlacePrepare to be the face of the book, its lead champion, publicist, and marketer. While selecting contributors with great networks isn’t a terrible idea, the onus of promoting an anthology will fall to you, the editor. If the purpose of your anthology is to give yourself a bridge between personal projects or put another notch on your tenure resume, the marketing needn’t be much of an issue. If, however, you want your book to have some exposure, you will want to make time for marketing. For me, promoting the work of 29 other voices is both a joy and, as one of our contributors noted, a form of activism. But be realistic about your time and priorities before you commit to the process.
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