Monday, 29 December 2014

Why I don't, as a rule, do anthologies anymore (aka, the death of the anthology)

Since my last post, I got food poisoning, so this is the first day I feel mostly clear, though my stomach is still delicate (read: I'm clutching inoffensive teas like peppermint and other herbal stuff). I'm hoping to venture out today to post some paper contracts and pick up a parcel from the post office.

Elsewhere, somebody asked why there were fewer anthology calls. And yeah, some of the most prolific/inventive anthology callers among publishers have closed their doors, gone inactive or stopped doing them. I think it's a good question, and shows the effect of several changes in the current market.

Publishing in the age of tighter budgets

Personally, I think many publishers have realised that you can't make a decent profit from an anthology. All anthologies I was involved in sold abysmally (exception is Another Place In Time, which is a charity anthology and arguably an "all-stars line-up" and "invitation-only" - more about those further down). But generally, the economics just don't work out.

To produce an anthology costs at least as much as producing a full-sized novel, but sales are usually much lower. So many publishers used to offset that with lowering their costs - say, authors don't get paid at all and only receive contributor copies. I never got paid for my contribution to "Illustrated Men", for example, and we only got actual paper copies after personal intervention of the artist. That experience told me that I'm never again working for free.

Mind you, some publishers pay a token amount rather than royalties (because doing, say, 12 royalty payments for one book is work intensive and generally a pain), so may will pay something like $25 or so for a short story.

In this market, short stories are valuable

Now, paying token amounts used to work, because it was common knowledge that short stories "have no market" or "have no value." In a world of easy self-publishing and the overall resurgence of the short form (novellas and shorts do sell, if less than novels), this is no longer the case. Authors quickly realised that you can now make a LOT more than $25 off a short story. (Even my weakest shorts have made me $250 a piece - and I've had short stories that made me much, much more than that over a couple years.) 

Against that background, the established authors tend to no longer sub to anthology calls - it makes no financial sense. Therefore, you tend to end up with a) authors who can't sell their work on their own, b) complete newbies, or c) authors who haven't crunched the numbers. The first two won't do anything to up sales, and the third group is thankfully getting rare.

All work, no gain

As somebody who's compiled multiple anthologies over the last 15 years or so, if you do an open call, you get maybe 2 good stories, 2 mediocre ones, and 2 shitty ones you can polish up enough to be publishable. This is out of up to 200 submissions, which all need reading, email confirmation, email rejection, etc. Of course, getting 200 submissions is a brilliant success - in about half the times I was involved in anthologies behind the scenes, you don't get any submissions, so you start begging your friends and family and run with whatever they give you. With all the drumming up of interest and just dealing with submissions/acceptances/rejections, I'd estimate an anthology is roughly 5-10 times the work you'd have to put into processing a novel or novella submission. And it'll likely make less money.

Considering how reality is stacked against anthologies, why are they still happening?

A way to try out a publisher

If you do submit a short story to an anthology call, negotiate either a royalty payment (no token payment!) or non-exclusive rights. By which I mean standard royalty (split among authors) or the right to keep using the story and self-publish it. (Some anthology publishers will accept only signing "rights as a part of a compilation", which leaves you single-release ebooks, for example. Many out there accept "print-only" rights, which is cool, too. I've recently done an exclusive deal, but it's only exclusive for 6 months, after which it turns non-exclusive. The very day that exclusivity period ends, that short story it hitting the market on its own. 

Always negotiate your rights. It's good practice with a short story - it'll help you so much when you negotiate terms for a novel. 

DO NOT submit anything to unpaid anthologies. You might be giving away hundreds, possibly thousands of dollars over the lifetime of that story. I was in a position once where I was desperate for exposure, so I gave publishers short work for basically free, and I've signed some shitty contracts. In hindsight, those did nothing for my career, and I've regretted practically all of them. Do get paid for your work. Always.

Trying to find new talent

Many publishers try to find new talent via anthologies. It's a time-honored way of especially smaller publishers that may or may not struggle to attract longer submissions (which is where the money is). Sometimes they can be hobby horses of an editor at a house, who'd really like to see "more X", and hence write up a call for "more X". The idea is simply - attract new authors, find talent, get to know them (always better to see how an author behaves in edits when it's just a short story), hopefully build a relationship, publish something longer that makes more money for all sides. It can be a win.

The problem: reader "meh"

From a reader's point of view, anthologies are unattractive. Very often, they know and like maybe one or two authors, but the rest are unknowns. Still, they are asked to pay the price of a novel for those one or two shorts. Why not buy a novel from the same author? It's a LOT more bang for your buck. I've had readers approach me and tell me that they'd really like to read my short story in anthology X, but weren't willing to pay $6 for it, as they didn't care for the other stories.

Reviews bear this out. There's one cliche phrase in reviews for anthologies - that it was "a mixed bag", which is a polite way of saying, "I enjoyed 1-2, found most kinda meh and several shorts were WFT". Going back over the anthologies I've read to completion (most I simply give up on or end up skim-reading), that's exactly my experience.


I don't do anthologies anymore unless I have a very, very good reasons. Even getting paid royalties isn't very attractive because overall sales are lower, and I might get paid only pennies per sold copy, with a lot less copies sold than I would hope/expect to sell on my own.

If I do do them, the reasons have to be compelling. I'd be happy to do single-author anthologies (which really count like normal releases, just bundling a number of shorts or novellas so readers get a better deal). A variation on that is bundling with 1-2 other authors who have very similar readerships/themes.

Charity is a big reason for me. Readers are fundamentally generous and if you raise money for a worthy cause (ideally one that's tied to the theme of the anthology in some way), readers will consider buying the anthology essentially a donation - getting one or two good stories out of it is a bonus, but the satisfaction for the reader is in "helping". Getting the book is just like the free pen you get when you donate blood - it's no longer really the point of the transaction, but it makes everybody feel better.

I've donated a story to the Another Place In Time anthology, and all proceeds go to, which organizes global campaigns to support GLBTQ rights. I've wanted to donate to them for a long time, but by donating a story, we raised several thousand dollars - which is vastly more than I could have raised, pro rata, on my own. I'd do charity anthologies again, and hope to donate more money next year to GLBTQ homeless charities.

Another way to overcome "reader meh" is the all-stars anthology - in other words, ensure that all stories are good and/or by established names. All of those anthologies are internal affairs, often driven inside a publishing house or a circle of writer friends. It eliminates the need to drum up submissions, deal with entries that are not up to par, and about 90% of the total workload. If it's invite-only, you can judge much better what you're getting.

But obviously those won't help you find talent, and new authors might struggle to get in there unless they know people or have somebody vouch for them.

It does look a lot like new authors getting screwed - there used to be plentiful calls and at least they got exposure, some argue, and many were hoping to get into an anthology with a "big name" or "headliner" who'd sell it, and maybe their readers will discover the new writer and turn into a fan that way. 

I think that's possibly still true, but has moved from anthologies to boxed sets, which means bundling full novels and novellas rather than short stories, and these are often priced so cheaply (read: free or $0.99 for the whole lot) that tens of thousand of copies would get sold. I'm not sure how efficient they are - financially, they were more or less a bust, but they still used to be done to get every participant the coveted "New York Times Bestseller" bit before their names. But then the NYT changed its rules, so even selling a huge amount of copies doesn't guarantee anybody bestseller status these days.

I'd argue that the authors who could "headline" anthologies don't anymore, and in general, releasing a short story on its own makes more sense. I strongly doubt anybody can build or has ever built a career out of low- or non-paying anthologies, and exposure tends to happen over time, with more stories out.

There are many better ways to piggyback on established authors (network, people!) and make a bit of money from writing.

I do hope to blog about those at some point, but generally, I'd argue that the standard open-call, commercial "mixed-bag" anthology is dead and hasn't served any real purpose for authors in years.



  1. I'd love to leave a long comment debating the merits of anthologies, but I can't find anything to disagree with here.

    I submit to anthologies like Mammoth for the sake of friendship and being in a book with other writers I admire, but I haven't submitted to one in over two years now. And I don't plan to.

    1. I could see the value of Mammoth because they have really good brick-and-mortar presence (The Mammoth Book of Erotica - or whatever - they're basically everywhere). In the case of small-time queer writing/queer erotic writing, I think they're in 99% of all cases complete wastes of time for everybody, plus no good for the authors and low value for readers.

  2. I very seldom buy or read anthologies. The last I read I was given as a review copy but I elected not to review it. As you suggest above, it contained one memorable piece of semi-autobiographical narrative, two pretty good tales and a lot of filler. Nor do I contribute to them. Alas, it takes me 5000 words to clear my throat. At this point in my life and career, novels work best for me and, I hope, for my readers. If there's a groundswell of demand for shorts, of course I'll listen.

    1. I never buy them - the ones I end up with are copies given to me by friends in those anthologies or stuff I end up proof-reading, or anthologies I helped put together/edit (pre-Riptide - I'm no longer involved in the production process). And yes, there's usually one stand-out piece, very often from a no-name, actually (at times, the one "big name" seems to have tossed the piece off in an afterthought or handed off a chewed bone), then two or so that were decent, and the rest is "filler" (my term would be less charitable).

      I've been involved in enough anthologies that I KNOW that the people behind the scenes KNOW that those stories are filler/garbage, and they publish them ANYWAY- to meet wordcount so they can charge the same price as a novel, say. The only solution is to get rid of the filler and apply extremely strict standards. Nobody likes filler, it's a false economy. I recently read a queer horror anthology where the last half was taken up by an incoherent rambling treatise on the horrors of civil war in Africa... it wasn't even a story. The book went into the recycler, and it was a goodie bag stuffer from a convention I attended.

      And yes, shorts take a different skill set and focus - and many authors have no idea how to build them, and it shows. I have only a number of short stories (Skybound, Deliverance, and soon two more), but there's so much work in there I wouldn't dream of tossing them out to a non-paying market or for a token. My natural length is about 60-90K, to be honest... I need the space for worldbuilding and characters.

      I think there is a demand for short stories - more than there used to be, as people are more willing to read short forms. Or maybe they're more willing to also buy shorts written by the authors they follow anyway - it's hard to tell the difference from here.

  3. Based on my experience in the indie section there's definitely a demand for shorter stories and I actually like reading anthologies. Although, now that I'm thinking about it, I like reading fantasy and horror anthologies and those usually include several of my favorite fantasy writers. I'm not that interested in m/m anthologies even though I've read a few. With m/m I generally prefer at least novellas if not novels. At least when it comes to romance. Erotica is once again a completely different field and that's where short stories are currently really blossoming.

    At lot of people argue that ebooks make short stories now more attractive because that's like getting a shot or a quick read during the commute. Which does make some sense. Reading novels during the commute was often frustrating as one usually had to get up by the time things started to get interesting. Short stories work better for that.

    Of course, now more short stories become available outside of anthologies and instead of having to buy a whole book to get the two stories one wants to read one can now very often simply buy the stories from that one writer. Or if one is willing to wait for a few months, there's the option of buying a collection from that specific author when they decide to bundle some of their short stories.

    KU also works great for short stories.

    1. Alix - Absolutely. Erotica especially can be VERY lucrative, so I see no reason why not put a sexy sort up yourself and reap the rewards. And many people find romance *shorts* somewhat unsatisfying - the short novel (40-55K) seems the natural length unless there's an outside plot going on, which, incidentally, is basically the length of a Harlequin category romance (which run to 45K).

      And I absolutely agree - shorts a brilliant if you don't have the time/focus required for a longer work. And a well-written short story can be very satisfying, so I'd push for these getting valued properly and not just shunted off for minimal or zero payment and hidden away in anthologies that tend to sell miserably.

      And yes, KU is probably a great development for self-pubbed shorts (I have no experience there yet...).

    2. I've experimented with erotica a bit with a different pen name and reworked some of my fanfiction and the results were not too bad, definitely better than short stories in general. I've also published some fantasy under my real name. Since a good friend of mine works as an editor we trade skills my investment costs were minimal.

      KU turned out to be 2/1 (KU/sales) in most cases, though some did better in KU than others so I was quiet pleased with the result. The exclusivity does bother me though.

      Even with my more general fantasy stories I've seen some accetable result, definitely more money than I would have made had I subbed them to an anthology here in Germany (the German short-story market is the kind where you can be happy if you get a contributor's copy). These days I only sub if the editor is a friend of mine (and in that one specific case he's trying to make sure that all contributors get at least a percentage of the profits and a proper contract with limited rights).
      Of course I've also made beginner's errors with anthologies though none that bound my rights in all eternity. And I've seen short story contracts with rights grabs and even non-competes and first-look clauses. Absolute no go.

      I have some friends who are still very focused on the traditional market and when I see how much time and energy they but into sometimes brilliant short stories for which they'll only get a pat on the head and a contributor's copy? That just makes me sad.

      It's even worse when the publisher is the paper only kind. And no, I'm not paying 17 € for the paper copy an anthology where I'm only interested in one of two stories and that I have to order directly from the publisher.

  4. Newbie being brutally honest! I don't really find anything to disagree with here. I've got a short contracted out to an anthology, which will be published in a couple of months. Apparently, 8 of the 12 stories accepted were authors new to the publisher. For me, it was a 'shoe in', a way to get some experience and to get some professional feedback on my writing. Finding people to beta read when you don't know many writers/readers, who'll be really harsh and pick something apart, isn't easy (even paying someone is a crap shoot). For me, a rejection of a short story or a novella, seemed like a gentler way to break myself into the inevitable (as it happened they were both accepted, but subsequently the editorial feedback was invaluable) than to start with a novel. So, for me it's part of a game plan. At the moment I'm more concerned about putting out something good than making huge sales. When I'm more confident and established, of course, my motivation will change. In your shoes, I wouldn't submit to an anthology either.

    1. Hi Lane - this is a good place for brutal honesty, so don't worry.

      And yes, you're mentioning a very real problem - the lack of reputable (!) help for newcomers and newbies and even beginning writers (what I affectionately call "baby writers"). It's one of my ventures for 2015 to try and help a bit with that problem - mostly, I think, the "traditional venues" can help - crit groups, peer-reader/writers, professional-grade editors (they exist, but they cost), writing coaches (again - the problem is that every failed writer can hang out his/her shingle and charge), how-to books, and lots of practice.

      Because I remain to be convinced that the editing in most of these calls is any good or even what I'd call professional. Many publishers are under-funded, cut costs, and employ amateur editors - who are all willing and enthusiastic, but often not very skilled/experienced and they are definitely vastly underpaid. I've seen anthologies "edited" by such people/houses that even got the absolute craft basics wrong, and I shudder at the thought of these people providing training to the new generation of writers, to be honest.

      I'll write some more about where/how to get help, but it comes down to networking and putting in the effort as you're most likely going to trade your time/effort against theirs.

      But yes, I agree that anthologies can form part of a game plan - but still make sure you don't sign your rights way forever, that you get fairly paid and that the story will revert to you or that the contract isn't exclusive. This can usually be negotiated - if the publisher won't negotiate, don't sign with them.

    2. Eee, sorry I didn't reply sooner. I didn't check the 'notify me' box.

      I remember KJ's talk on contract negotiations, from the UK Meet. Definitely something that can't be said enough times, so duly noted.

      I'm not surprised about the editing. I've read my fair share of poorly edited fiction, published via a publisher. I'd be prepared to suck up the cost for a professional edit during these early days and treat it as an investment. My concern is finding someone reputable who will actually tell it like it is. (It's one thing to be able to copy edit to perfection, but quite another for an editor to say, for example, 'Your story would be better if it was half the length, because x, y and z parts are totally irrelevant to the plot', and so on. I've read too many 80k+ novels this year that should have been novellas. That problem is just one example of many but perhaps not in the interest of an editor to point out if they want that person to use them again? Cynical of me, I know.)

      It seems every facet of the writing and getting published journey requires one to 'proceed with caution'. But isn't that like any business? Like you say, you have to trade your time and effort.

      I'll look forward to what you have to say going forward. Thanks for taking your time out to do this much. xx

  5. I've been in a couple of anthologies this year, but I'm not a natural with short stories. I just happened to have a couple that fit the calls and did want to see what working with that publisher was like. There was a flat one off fee for them, and I think that gives one a certain detachment from the anthology once it's out. Different from something you know you're earning royalties on every time it makes a sale.

    1. I wish you success and I hope you get the rights back quickly. :) I really think we're devaluing our short stories by giving them away for free or nearly for free to be included in books hardly anybody reads anyway...

  6. I think anthologies with very specific and narrow subject matter can still have an audience, but no one is really putting them out anymore. For example, tentacles. I'd love a good tentacle antho. Unfortunately the last publisher I followed for this type of subject matter has a bad reputation these days. (But also, perhaps, the audience is as narrow and specific as the books. I don't know.)

    1. Agreed! Tentacle porn would be a classic one for anthologies. (I also think they could do well as singles - that's where good shelving on Goodreads and keywords on Amazon come in -to help people find the short, very specific stuff.)

    2. The problem is, that Amazon makes it really hard to find tentacle porn. You can mentioned them in the keywords but putting them into the descrition can back fire and you end up in the "Adult Dungeon" which reduces visibility to almost zero.

      Haven't tried goodreads yet for that. Might have to take a look :-D.

  7. I admit I don't sub to anthologies any more for precisely the reasons you state, although I will consider "specials" that I want to be part of, like your Charity calls, and - for me - the Lethe Press Poe anthology. I've always received a one-off fee. What I do like is the Dreamspinner model for their twice-a-year Daily Dose, where the stories stand alone and are contracted for royalties as any other work, but are ALSO sold as a package, usually for a set fee to the author (if that model still stands, I'm about to submit for 2015 and find out!). To me, that's always been a good 2-way return, plus a chance to work with DSP.

    1. Yes - Somebody also mentioned Cleis, and I would be game myself for Cleis, provided it's a print/anthology-only deal or non-exclusive, as they are very good at getting their books into brick-and-mortar stores. There *is* a strategic use for some anthologies, say, to take advantage of a current craze or a very specific kink (say, above, tentacles), but I'd still try to keep my rights/get good terms. Does Dreamspinner by now publish short stories on Amazon as well? They didn't use to, which, considering that Amazon is about 90% of everybody's sales, strikes me as ... problematic, money-wise.

  8. My personal experience as a reader - totally agree. I'm not really a short story reader I go for epics and series in many genres. If I'm choosing from shorter (30-50k) romance books I'm likely to go for a series not a stand alone. In fact, I read stand alone /shorter stories by writers such as you after loving the longer stuff you have published, Aleks

    I have bought a few erotica short anthologies and discovered some excellent authors this way, but as you suggested I'm not willing to pay much for these books and I don't expect much from them. A good story could get lost in there.

    A different kind of anthology would be the M/M military bundle published by Cat Grant earlier this year. Only available for a few months, with rights then reverting back to the authors and the stories were about 25-30k, so novellas rather than short (surprised you did not contribute). From a reader's POV it was an excellent way to try out various authors, based on reading that I've bought everything published by Keira Andrews! I understand the aim for the authors was wide exposure to find new readers, it will be interesting to find out if that paid off for them in the long run. Brit Boys, published today, is on the same basis I believe.

    1. Helen - I agree. I do likely sell a lot of my short stuff to my "core readers" (those who buy everything or pretty much everything I put out) - many of them are completists or trust me enough that they take a punt on a short work. Short stories happen to me against my will - I have no influence over those. I write them to get them out of my system, mostly.

      I'm definitely moving away from "shorter" (up from short stories say at under 15,000 words and below full novels at about 55,000) towards longer work of 55,000 words and up - my natural length seems to be 70-90,000 words, and readers really, really like novels, so I'm trying to deliver as many of them as I can, even though they are much more complex and much harder work compared to novellas (I'd estimate 2-3 times the work for those $1-2 more).

      Erotica shorts can work, but again, the problem is that a well-written erotica short story can make a writer thousands of dollars. I'm not going to brag, but just my half of the payout of Quid Pro Quo is four figures. Just a few years ago, I'd have given that one up to an anthology for token payment or a couple copies of the print book (and they often try to stiff you out of those copies in the end). There's a valid market for short stories, and getting enough quality from an open call to fill a full-sized book seems to be extremely hard if not impossible, or we'd be seeing anthologies that are actually of decent quality throughout - but I don't. Happy to be pointed in their direction.

      Yes, the bundle I thought was a good idea - typical example of shooting at the "NYT Bestseller" title. I actually invited myself into it when I saw Cat Grant's call, but I had to bow out because of something. I think it might have been that ill-dated two-month day job... I just had nothing left and no compelling idea.

      But yeah, that's a different (and IMHO superior model). It has a specific purpose, nobody ties up their rights for long, and people get the stories back so they can make some money. And they're dirt cheap to accelerate sales. Everybody's happy - hell, I bought a set myself. :)

  9. Thanks for sharing your long experience as writer/ publisher.

    1. Just trying to have a discussion that I think might be useful for some writers. :)