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.
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?