How Not to Treat a Writer (and a Bonus Guide on Building Good Anthologies)

Let me tell you a story.

On December 19th, I received an email through my website contact link suggesting that I might submit a story to an upcoming anthology of “dark and speculative fiction.” Okay, I thought. Sounds like me. Reprints were okay (if the work was requested, and it appeared that mine had been), and there was actually money involved. The stated theme of the anthology was vague and used the phrase “we may be looking for…” But I’m always game for submitting work, and women’s sexuality was one of the mentioned subjects. Okay, I thought. That sounds like me, too. Knowing that the publisher was a legit literary fiction house, I clicked through to the open call for submissions page.

I don’t want to embarrass anyone in this story, so I’m not going to get specific about all of the submission details. The story I had in mind was one I had published in Patricia Abbott’s Discount Noir, and I had long thought of expanding it. I was pretty sure it fit the women’s sexuality/female protagonist bill. Except: The deadline was to be December 30th. Yes, twelve days after I received the email, and only eighteen days after the date on the submission page.

Twelve days! It’s madness to think anyone but a few very motivated writers could put out a finished 2-5K word story in that brief amount of time. Still, I had the story on hand and was thinking of adding only a thousand words or so. As I said, I’m game. Christmas got busy, and I put it on the back burner. After a very relaxing holiday, I worked on it on the 29th and 30th. I’ll confess that I submitted it after midnight on the 30th, but it was still the 30th in Alaska, so I figured I was good. And, if not, no big deal. It was a fun exercise to work on the story.

I received the acknowledgement immediately. All was well. Then, later that same day, the 31st, I received a polite form rejection email.

There’s nothing like receiving a rejection for a story on New Year’s Eve. It was disappointing, as all rejections are. I had a lot of confidence in the story, so it was a little surprising. I went through six stages of story rejection grief, and enjoyed the seventh (an extra glass of wine), and decided the story would be a good addition to the ebook short story collection I want to do later this year.

But, wait! Less than an hour later, I received an email that I had been sent the wrong form email. They actually meant to send the one telling me they were considering the story and would get back to me in a month. They were sorry for the confusion, they said.

Ha! Ha! said I. And forgot about it the very next day.

This past Monday, nine days later, I received my response. They “love” the story, but “have since decided on a theme” that this story doesn’t quite fit. Oh, by the way, maybe I have another one that would suit their newly chosen theme? They only need it by January 16th.

*sigh*

There are so many possible responses. But the one that immediately comes to mind is a less lovely version of WTH? (That’s not the one I sent.)

My work has been in quite a few anthologies the past few decades, and I’ve edited five and published two of those myself. Yet I have never been involved in such an unprofessional exchange.

Publishing isn’t, “Hey, kids! Let’s put out a book!” Well, it can be, but the process needs to stay professional. And it would seem to me that a primary tenet of professionalism would be: Try not to alienate prospective writers.

Here’s a handy list for creating an anthology:

  • Define your theme. Make it broad, or make it narrow. Be flexible enough to push the boundaries a bit if you need to. The narrower your focus, the smaller your natural audience will be.
  • Put together a budget. Will you pay the writers in cash or copies or both?
  • Get a few writers on board that you know well so that if you will be going to a publisher, you have committed work from writers they recognize.
  • Write a proposal whether you will be shopping it to publishers or not. It will give you good guidelines against which you can measure submissions.
  • Find a publisher or, if you’re game and have some knowledge of publishing, put it out there yourself. How will it be distributed? Through regular distributors? Online vendors?
  • Decide if you want all original work or reprints or both.
  • Plot out a schedule backwards from your desired pub date. Give yourself three-four months before the actual pub date to assemble, edit, copyedit, and format the stories. Writers often miss deadlines. Build in an extra month for dawdlers or disaster. Allow writers three to six months for writing. It might as well be three because 90% of them will write the story in the last available month.
  • Scheduling six to nine months to put the whole thing together is reasonable. This is variable of course. Using all reprints may be faster—but often the writer will need to get permissions from another, larger publisher. And the larger they are, the slower they are. (It took seven weeks to get permission from one publisher for a Surreal South anthology, and we almost had to drop the story.)
  • Establish who will be the contact for all authors. Who will do the mailings and keep track of the files?
  • NOW open submissions for your slush pile, and give folks a few months to come up with stories and write them. If you have a solid core of committed writers, you have a head start. If you give everyone three months to write and submit, you’ll have plenty of time to read and choose.
  • Acknowledge submissions.
  • Get someone working on the cover art.
  • Draw up a contract. Do you want exclusive, or non-exclusive rights?
  • Choose the stories. Have a couple runners-up in case some submissions get pulled.
  • In the name of all that’s holy, send the appropriate rejection and acceptance emails to all of the writers.
  • Assemble the manuscript. Make sure all the rights are covered.
  • Plan advertising (or work with marketing dept.)
  • Write cover copy.
  • Have someone write an introduction that teases the theme and mentions all the accepted stories by name.
  • Make any necessary edits and okay them with the writers.
  • Copyedit the stories, send the manuscripts back to the writers for approval. Give them a deadline for getting back to you.
  • Get a blurb or two if you can. Put galleys up on NetGalley, etc. to encourage reviews.
  • Format, print, distribute.

NOTE: This is not a hard and fast schedule for every anthology. Big ones will take longer. Working with inexperienced writers will take longer. If you’re doing an ebook anthology of reprints or one that is very small, you may be able to do all this stuff in a few weeks.

Lisa Morton, Carolyn Haines, and I all wrote our stories for Haunted Holidays: Three Short Tales of Terror and had the book out in paper and ebook on multiple platforms in three months.

 

The point is, take your time. Think it through at the beginning of the project. Be friendly but professional in your communications with your writers. Admit it if you screw up, but don’t set yourself up for failure by setting unrealistic expectations for yourself and everyone else involved.

As a writer, what’s the worst submission experience you’ve ever had?

Have you ever put together and anthology? How did it go?

 

Laura Benedict is the author of the Bliss House trilogy of novels. She blogs daily at her website. Visit her on Twitter, too.

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About Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict is the Edgar- and ITW Thriller Award- nominated author of eight novels of suspense, including the forthcoming The Stranger Inside (February 2019). Small Town Trouble, her latest book, is a cozy crime novel. Her Bliss House gothic trilogy includes The Abandoned Heart, Charlotte’s Story (Booklist starred review), and Bliss House. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and in numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and St. Louis Noir. A native of Cincinnati, she lives in Southern Illinois with her family. Visit her at www.laurabenedict.com.

22 thoughts on “How Not to Treat a Writer (and a Bonus Guide on Building Good Anthologies)

  1. Not quite the same, but the latest RWA magazine has an excellent article on joining (or not joining) boxed sets. A few horror stories in there, too.

    • I can imagine that a boxed set project could become very contentious since everyone has a stake it its success. The phrase herding cats comes to mind. 🐱

  2. I’m involved with a trilogy of anthologies (RUN, SCREAM, DIE!). The deadlines always seem to creep up on me, even though we know in plenty of time. They’re a lot of fun, and we have a great group of authors who signed on for all three books. Thank you for the list of tips. I’ll pass along this post to our group.

    • A trilogy of anthologies? What a good idea. I’m with you on the creeping deadlines. Setting them and honoring them makes all the difference–and sometimes it’s hard to get everyone to play along. It sounds like you’ve got a great system.

  3. I’m working on a story for a boxed set now and have been part of an anthology in the past. It’s hard work as both are Indie pubbed, but well worth it in my opinion. Thanks for the tips. Saving them for future reference.

    • Isn’t it wonderful to have all that control in an indie project, Patricia? No hidden deadlines or agendas to deal with. I guess the drawbacks are the headaches and the oops moments. Still, they’re a fun challenge.

    • Good question, Joan. I simply responded that I didn’t think I had anything that would suit their new purposes, and wished them luck. It was the only professional response. They seemed to be a very sincere pair, and I genuinely do wish them luck. They’re making things far harder on themselves than they need to. My guess is that they are inexperienced, though I could be wrong. (Which is why I didn’t want to hare off and lecture them. They didn’t ask for my advice, though I really, really wanted to give it! : ) Anyway, they gave me a good reason to codify my approach to building an anthology, so I call it a win.

  4. Sorry about that. I’ve had a few annoying experiences, too, with both boxed sets and anthologies. And you’re right; no matter what, you have to be professional when you reply. Live and learn, I guess.

  5. As a newbie author and trying to get any kind of published work out there. You can easily bump into this… a lot.

    In my experience it’s frustrating and sometimes devastating because you think it is the norm for the publishing world to have short deadlines and inconstant responses. Being a professional person already, it is even more irritating. In the publishing world, I expect professionalism in return.

    It might be something that members of guilds can bring up, try and discuss, bringing awareness in great blog posts, such as these!

    • Hi, Melanie. You’re right to expect professionalism. But the publishing landscape is so vast, now, that there really aren’t that many “norms” anymore. And if people start out with unprofessional habits, yet get stuff out there anyway, they are unlikely to change. Writers end up being whipsawed because they want to be published. Another good argument for putting up one’s own work.

  6. I’ve sold 1,200+ short stories, many of which appear in anthologies (and, yes, it is possible to write a publishable story in 12 days or less), so let me add one more item to your handy list:

    Check email junk folders on a daily basis.

    I have too often had editors find my submissions in their junk folders after deadlines have passed, and have had others complain that I failed to return contracts or revisions or copyedits that turned out to be sitting in their junk folders.

    • Hi, Michael. I agree–lots of people do write short stories in an even briefer period. Personally, I like to carry an idea around in my head for a month or so, then write it all out in a day or two.

      Great point about email junk folders. They are pernicious culprits!

  7. The very worst experience? It wasn’t mine. Back in the days, I attended a writers conference in which a writer of oil and gas news told of his friend whose book manuscript was shredded by mistake. There was absolutely NO hope of reassembling it. (The shredding process involved one of the olde tyme machines that took sections of the MS and rolled them through a pressure wheel that punched holes in the sheet of paper. The result was hundreds of thousands (I presume) of paper punch hole-sized circles of paper in the bin.

    Of course, the publishing house reimbursed the writer–I have no idea what the terms of that reimbursement was.

  8. Oh man, sorry about your experience, Laura. During the holidays, no less! I’ve had nothing but good experiences with every anthology or group project I’ve been involved with. *knocking on wood.* Geez…

  9. Worst experience was with a magazine article. I was going to be at the event and contacted the Editor and he said, “Not interested.” I go anyhow, shoot far fewer photos than I typically would (since I’m on my own time, no assignment) and get home to an email from the same idiot editor (and owner of the magazine in question) who has changed his (little) mind. And he needs photos and story sent FedEx the next day.

    Fine, I’m a pro, stuff happens. You suck it up and do what ya gotta do. Film goes off to a pricey pro shop for expedited processing; I stay up late pounding out the story. FedEx gets the package and I pay the overnight fees.

    This is all in anticipation of the usual $500 fee I’d gotten before from this same publication for work of this nature.

    Idiot editor — I know him, so that’s a description, not an off-handed dig — and he doesn’t like the photos. I send him the rest of the limited number, another FedEx fee, and he doesn’t like those either. Not good enough for the two-page article he’d planned on a whim. My fault apparently for not anticipating that he would change his mind.

    Then he stiffs me on payment. Like completely. Not even my expenses for FedEx and of course not for the film processing.

    Obviously, this was a few years ago. I’m still pissed enough about it that I’ve never done anything for him since. Thing is, I have several stories coming up that are perfect for his magazine and may offer them to him. It bothers me. I hate to admit that I’m a hack and in it for the money. But then I remember that Shakespeare would also fit that description. Sigh.

    • Mark, what an awful thing to happen. And that the guy is still in a position to buy work–ugh. Don’t apologize for being in it for the money–everyone has to pay the bills, and it’s not like you’re doing something illegal! I say offer a story to him and get the money issue straightened out in the first email, if possible.

  10. I’m a newbie, so the only thing I’ve had published so far is a short story in a holiday anthology a few years ago. I was having trouble with last minute changes and the editor agreed to fix it for me right before it was published on Amazon. When I read it, I found that he had fixed it, but several other areas had typos in them that were correct, to begin with! I have the rights back now so I may rewrite and publish it as a short story.

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