The More The Merrier: J.T. Ellison on Publishing Anthologies

photo by krista lee photography

Author J.T. Ellison doesn’t just write USA Today and New York Times bestselling novels, and short stories. She’s also co-host of an Emmy-winning literary television series called A Word on Words, and is the owner of the independent Two Tales Press.
She’s wearing her publisher/editor hat on her visit here today. In addition to publishing a large number of her own new and backlist short stories at Two Tales Press, she’s edited and published two themed, multi-author, short fiction anthologies–DEAD ENDS and A THOUSAND DOORSthat contain the work of some pretty incredible writers.
J.T. and I debuted at ITW’s Thrillerfest together about a million years ago, and haven’t lost touch since.
Welcome, J.T.!
Given that you’re widely and prolifically published with traditional publishers, what led you to start your own press?
Honestly, you did! I loved what you and your husband, Pinckney Benedict, were doing with your small press anthologies. I was honored to participate in 2 of them, and I saw just how cool the process was. I had a number of short stories, published and unpublished, that I had the rights to. I pulled them together in a small collection, made a cover, and published it on Amazon. It was never really meant to turn into a side project, it was simply a way to monetize some creative. I was surprised by how easy it was, and how quickly it sold. I fear I am an impatient sort, and I greatly dislike rejection, so instead of submitting subsequent stories to the normal channels, I just started popping them up for sale.
Then, I had a standalone novel that didn’t sell, and I had to think long and hard about this process. Indie publishing was taking off, and since I’m the entrepreneurial sort, I decided to publish it myself.  I also began the process of revising my first, unpublished novel to appear in a bundle put together by the divine Brenda Novak, with the express thought that I would eventually publish it myself as a prequel to the Taylor Jackson series. I hired an assistant, knowing it was going to take a lot of effort to put out two novels myself. We started building the major and necessary infrastructure — accounts with Ingram and Baker & Taylor for printing and distribution, online accounts with all the channels, establishing library contacts, finding editors and artists.
Of course, the universe is a funny place. During this process, the standalone received interest from a traditional publisher, then my publisher expressed an interest in the series prequel. I am always going to default to traditional publishing for novels, and so I accepted both offers.
But I had an infrastructure built, and nothing to publish. I debated opening Two Tales for submissions, and quickly walked away from that idea. I know there is awesome work out there that deserves a home, but I want to be a writer, not a publisher.
Anthologies, though, don’t pose the same commitment as being responsible for someone’s livelihood. I knew I could raise awareness for some underrepresented voices as well as share the stage with some major talent. It felt like a good fit, a win-win for all involved.
It’s not about making money for me. It’s about how I can help raise awareness for a multitude of voices at once. It’s my way of giving back.
You’ve done two anthologies, DEAD ENDS and the newly-released A THOUSAND DOORS. Tell us where the ideas for each came from.
DEAD ENDS came out of a class I taught several years ago. I gave my students several photographs as writing prompts, and one was this über creepy house. And I’ve always said you can give ten writers the same concept or photo to write about and get ten different stories. I set out to prove my thesis. Every writer was given the same photo, and there were two rules — the house had to be in the story (the story didn’t have to be in the house) and it had to be set in the south. No story was alike; it was absolutely perfect!
A THOUSAND DOORS was different. Since 2007, I’ve been carrying around the concept of a young woman who is murdered, and as she dies, experiences all the lives she could have led. I’d planned on writing it myself, but something always got in the way. I finally realized I needed help, and the idea for the anthology — which is really a novel — was born.  The structure of the main character living multiple lives lent itself perfectly to having multiple authors on the project. It’s like a TV show — I was the show runner, and the authors my writing room.
I built some parameters for each story (specifically that the character, Mia Jensen, was a certain height, a certain natural hair and eye color, that she had to make a choice in the story, hear a loud noise, and have a ringing phone, all of which tied specifically to the real life she was living), shared the series of lives I’d envisioned but also opened the door to other ideas, and boom goes the dynamite.
Did you consider a traditional route for your anthologies?
For DEAD ENDS, no. It was meant to be a jumping off point for Two Tales, especially if I changed my mind and decided to publish other authors (which I’ve considered several times, but see being responsible for livelihoods, above.)
For A THOUSAND DOORS, I debated it. My assistant had moved to another position and I was left to do all the heavy lifting myself. In retrospect, I probably should have all-stopped and given it to my agent to try and sell, but I’m stubborn, and I thought I could do it. I didn’t realize just how much work it would entail, because the scope of this one is bigger than anything I’ve ever attempted myself, but every time I see the book reviewed, every time I see it on a shelf, every time it pops up in a Twitter feed, I feel a deep sense of satisfaction that I truly made something from scratch. It’s a very powerful feeling.
How did you select contributors for each of your anthologies?
I am blessed to be surrounded by incredibly talented friends. I’m also a big reader, and there are writers I absolutely love who I wanted to participate. For DEAD ENDS, I reached out to some people who’d given me a break when I was first starting out, begged some friends whose profiles were high enough to make an impact, and asked for stories from a couple of new to me authors, too.
For A THOUSAND DOORS, I went top shelf, all the way. It’s such a high concept, I knew I needed exceptional authors  who were also bestsellers to help me realize the goals. The story was so close to my heart, and I wanted it to feel as real and organic as possible. I tapped an all-female team of powerhouse writers and upcoming stars, and I felt like the voices all meshed perfectly.
What do you enjoy about editing anthologies?
Having a concept executed by authors much more talented than I. But it’s more. There is nothing I love more than a reviewer who says they’re going to go try the authors in the anthology, or they hadn’t ever heard of this writer or that one before but plan to fix that. I love introducing my readers to new books by great writers — these are the ultimate sampler albums.
You’ve done audio for both anthologies. How did that work?
I actually wasn’t planning to do audio for DEAD ENDS,  but a narrator who’d read it reached out and offered to work with me on it. She even went so far as to record two stories for me as a sample of her work. We then worked in ACX to get the entire manuscript recorded. It was a lot of fun. I did another project with her through ACX, too. Only one problem. Audio is expensive! Really, really expensive. And ACX sets your price, so the controls you might have with another format are gone. It makes it less-than-cost effective.
Knowing I was going to have a hard time putting together an audio budget that would work for A THOUSAND DOORS, I opened the door with my agent to a traditional audio sale. Happily, Brilliance Audio bought the rights and we will be releasing early next year. I can’t wait to hear Mia come to life.
What is the most challenging part of being a small publisher?
The time it takes to make sure all the details are handled. Every day, something pops up that I need to handle. When there’s a full publishing team, each division has its responsibilities and you can manage those aspects easily. When you’re the publisher, and you’re a one-woman shop, like I am, it’s all up to you. You are all the departments — editing, marketing, advertising, art, sales, distribution, PR, oh, and writer, too. To do this properly–and I refuse to do anything less–means sinking a lot of time and money into the project. I love the control, but I don’t love how much time it takes away from my work.
*Since you’ve been in the driver’s seat on anthologies before, Laura, I’d love to hear your side of this process as well. What do you think worked well for A THOUSAND DOORS? What advice would you give to authors who want to try putting together anthologies?
Thank you for having me back to THE KILL ZONE! It’s always a pleasure.
TKZers! I’ll address J.T.’s question in the comments. Have you contributed to, edited, or published anthologies? What was your experience? As a reader, do you enjoy sampling stories by many writers in one book?
New York Times and USA Today bestselling author J.T. Ellison writes standalone domestic noir and psychological thriller series, the latter starring Nashville Homicide Lt. Taylor Jackson and medical examiner Dr. Samantha Owens, and pens the international thriller series “A Brit in the FBI” with #1 New York Times bestselling author Catherine Coulter. Cohost of the EMMY Award-winning literary television series A Word on Words, Ellison lives in Nashville with her husband and twin kittens.
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Use Your Writing, Editing, or Reading Skills to Make a Difference in the World

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E-book is 99 cents today!

By Jodie Renner, Editor, Author, and TKZ Emeritus 

Have you thought about using your skills to help the less fortunate? Here’s a project I decided to try, and an easy way that you can help, too, if you’re interested.

I’ve been a freelance editor since 2007, when I retired early from a career as middle-school teacher and school librarian. Over the nine years since, I’ve continually increased my editing skills, and about a year and a half ago, I started thinking about how I could use those skills to give back, to help victimized people in the world, especially children.

I was doing a Google search when I came across the true story of a young Pakistani slave worker who was murdered for daring to protest against the inhumane conditions of Asian child laborers.

In 1986, when Iqbal Masih was four years old, his father sold him to a carpet weaver for $12. Iqbal became a slave, a bonded worker who could never make enough money to buy his freedom. In that carpet factory in Pakistan, this preschool-age boy began a grueling existence much like that of hundreds of thousands of children in other carpet factories in Pakistan, India, and Nepal. He was set to weaving rugs and tying tiny knots for more than twelve hours a day, seven days a week, with meager food and poor sleeping conditions, while being constantly beaten and verbally abused.

Six years later, at the age of ten, Iqbal managed to escape and was fortunate to be able to attend a school for freed bonded children, where he was a bright and energetic student. Iqbal began to speak out against child labor. His dream for the future was to become a lawyer, so he could continue to fight for freedom on behalf of Pakistan’s seven and a half million illegally enslaved children. One day, while riding his bicycle with his friends, Iqbal was shot and killed. He was twelve years old. It is widely thought he was killed by factory owners for trying to change the system.

Even though Iqbal’s story is over two decades old, conditions haven’t changed much for impoverished children in developing countries since then, as I found out through more research.Even today, throughout Asia and elsewhere, children as young as four or five are routinely forced to work seven days a week, for twelve to sixteen hours each day, in factories, quarries, rice mills, plantations, mines, and other industries, many of them hazardous, often with only two small meals a day. Most are not allowed out, and they often sleep right where they work. When inspectors come, the children are quickly hidden or told to lie about their age.

Not only are these children denied a childhood and schooling, so most are illiterate, but they very often end up with crippling injuries, respiratory disorders, and chronic pain.

I decided to use my background as teacher of children aged 10 to 14 to organize an anthology of stories aimed at that age group, in hopes that librarians, teachers, and students could influence others to take action. All net proceeds would go directly to a charity that works to help these children regain their childhood and a much better future.

As it would be too difficult to find or write true stories about any of these children, I decided that the best approach would be to organize a variety of well-researched, compelling fictional stories that would appeal to readers from age 12 and up.

To find writers, I called for submissions through my blog, Facebook, and emails. I was extremely lucky that one of the first people I contacted was Steve Hooley, whom I’d first met through TKZ, then in person while presenting at a conference organized by Steven James in Nashville. Steve is an active member of the TKZ community, a talented writer, and an all-around awesome guy! He helped get the word out to others, including the ACFW. Steve also researched and wrote three fabulous stories for the anthology, depicting South Asian child workers in different situations – a 9-year-old boy who works in a carpet factory, a 12-year-old welder who comes up with an ingenious plan, and a girl who works in a clothing factory that collapses.

Story ideas came in from writers across North America and also from Europe, Australia, and India. Caroline Sciriha from Malta, an educator for whom I was editing a story, got on board early on and contributed two stories and has helped spread the word to educators in Europe. Both Caroline and Steve also acted as valued beta readers for stories from other contributors, helping me decide which to accept and which needed revisions. Steve also talked The Kill Zone’s Joe Hartlaub into reading and reviewing the anthology. TKZ founder Kathryn Lilley was also kind enough to read the stories and write an endorsement.

I was thrilled by the quality of stories submitted by talented  writers from all over. Other story contributors include Tom Combs, MD, thriller author, also a regular reader/commenter here at TKZ, and award-winning international journalist Peter Eichstaedt, whose contribution is based on true events he encountered. We were also fortunate to entice prolific, talented author Timothy Hallinan to write a powerful Foreword to the book.

Other talented contributing writers not already mentioned above: Lori Duffy Foster, Barbara Hawley, D. Ansing, Kym McNabney, Edward Branley, Fern G.Z. Carr, Eileen Hopkins, Sanjay Deshmukh, Della Barrett, E.M. Eastick, Rayne Kaa Hedberg, Patricia Anne Elford, Hazel Bennett, Sarah Hausman, and myself.

My challenges as organizer and editor included helping with research to make sure the stories depicted real situations in a broad cross-section of labor sectors where children are used as slave workers. And, for the stories to get widely read, I needed to make sure that, although true to life, they weren’t all depressing. The talented writers created characters that came to life and found a variety of realistic ways to insert hope into each story.

The stories needed to be evaluated and edited, with versions going back and forth several times. The contributors, besides having an opportunity to be published in a high-quality anthology, all gained by working with a professional editor and receiving advice that would improve their writing skills in general. Our dedicated, talented beta readers included other contributors and volunteer readers from South Asia.

Surprisingly, one of my most difficult tasks was to find a charity that would allow us to use their name on the book in exchange for donating all net proceeds to their cause. Having a specific, respected charity on board of course increases credibility and sales. Many charities, such as GoodWeave.org, replied that they just didn’t have the personnel to read the book carefully to make sure the children’s stories were handled appropriately and sensitively. Fortunately, we were finally accepted by SOS Children’s Villages, a highly reputable charity that helps impoverished and disadvantaged children all over the world.

As a writer, submitting to an anthology, besides an opportunity to work with an editor to polish your writing and get a story published, can also broaden the scope of your writing, let you experiment with different voices, and, in the case of an anthology for a good cause, provide you with a great way to make a difference in the world.

A little about this project:

Childhood RegainedStories of Hope for Asian Child Workers aims to bring to life some of the situations children in India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh still face today, in 2016. The captivating, touching stories, each told from one child’s point of view, depict situations for children and young teenagers in garment factories, stone quarries, brickyards, jewelry factories, carpet factories, farms, mines, welding, the service industry, hotels, street vending, sifting through garbage, and other situations. The book also includes several appendices, including factual information on each topic and story questions and answers, as well as lists of organizations that help these victimized kids to regain their childhood.

How you can help child laborers in developing countries: Spread the word about this anthology, especially to teachers of 11- to 14-year-olds and school librarians. I’ll be glad to send a free PDF or e-copy of this book to any interested middle-grade or junior high school teachers, other educators, or librarians. I’ll also send out free sample print copies to educators and librarians in North America. Please have them contact me at: info@JodieRenner.com. We’re in the process of creating a MIDDLE SCHOOL EDITION, so we especially welcome feedback from middle-grade teachers. Thanks for your help!

For more information on Childhood RegainedStories of Hope for Asian Child Workers, go to its page on my website or on Amazon. The e-book is ON SALE for $0.99 today through Monday.

imageJodie Renner, a TKZ alumna, is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources, Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage, and has organized and edited two anthologies for charity: Voices from the Valleys and Childhood Regained – Stories of Hope for Asian Child Workers. You can find Jodie at Facebook and Twitter, and at  www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, or her blog, Resources for Writers.

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