As a writer, my quest to become an overnight success began nine years ago. Since that time, I have written numerous short stories, flash fictions, blog serials, novellas, novels, and a tome rivaling in word count the Icelandic Sagas. My undeniably clever, witty, yet strangely unsuccessful query letters are probably well known to vexed agents and publishers alike. Soon, however, I may achieve a modicum of success, depending on how you define the term. The overnight part? Let’s move on.
How am I doing this?
One word: Anthologies. You know, anthologies: those collections of stories, poems, vignettes, and what have you from one author or many, and often self-published. These collective works traditionally receive an instant rejection from most literary agents, the high and mighty gate-keepers to the hallowed halls of literary fame and fortune. However, I have found a path to success through anthologies and without the help of an agent. But before you label me an industry neophyte, order another pumpkin spiced espresso martini and let me ‘splain.
Gone are the days of waking up at 907 Whitehead Street, dropping a Spanish onion into a glass of chilled gin with the requisite splash of vermouth, putting paper into the typewriter and cranking out an iconic piece of literature as a seven-toed cat wanders between your legs. Not anymore. Today’s writer must do it all: write something worth reading, sell it to an agent or publisher, create a business model and social media platform, market your work and you, sell again, this time to the consumer, and then deal with insurance and taxes.
Now you know why publishing houses have so many employees. Faced with such a daunting task, how can you alone break into the business and rise above the din without having written the next Harry Potter?
Yes, you got it. Anthologies.
When I researched agents, none represented anthologies. Too difficult to manage the legal and financial issues of multiple authors on one project. Didn’t fit the paradigm. Publishers were of the same mold. If the anthology contained only your works? No different. We don’t accept poetry, picture books, screenplays, or anthologies. I’ve seen that statement on many websites.
That was then. This is now. We are in a different world today. I pay three bucks for a fifty-cent cup of coffee. My phone has more computing power than Apollo 11 had in their command module. Agents still shy away from anthologies, but...and this is my point: publishers are now embracing them.
What kind of sorcery is this?
I’m not saying literary agents no longer have value. Far from it. Get one. Everyone else has one. All the cool kids have one. Agents bring a lot to the table. But an agent isn’t an absolute necessity for you to get a start as a professional writer.
Anthologies can give you that first bit of street cred. My first short story, The Crucible, was accepted for the premier volume of The World Unknown Review (WUR), edited by L.S. Engler. Was the story good? I thought so; still do. Was the anthology a runaway bestseller? No, for a variety of reasons. But friends bought it. I think it is still on Amazon if you are curious. Did my story gain me anything? No Pushcart nomination, perhaps, but this solidified in my family and friends’ minds that I was a writer and not a retired guy with a hobby. And L.S. paid me with a $20 Starbucks card.
WUR used a vetting process – some works were accepted, others not. Mine made the cut. Success. And what about L.S.? She created and sold the anthology into a series which is now collecting stories for a third volume. Her effort created enough credibility that, when coupled with her excellent writing, she has become a contributor to The Saturday Evening Post. And to think I knew her when. To push my point home some more: L.S.’s first book was an anthology of her own stories. Check out Bowl Full of Bunnies. It’s actually a very good read.
My story being in the first volume of WUR provided a nice bit of filler for my query letters. You are always asked to mention your previous success as a writer. Sure, it was just an anthology, but it proved I was serious about my writing. Effort goes a long way, even for writers.
My second (and current) anthology project has me intertwined with a cohort of 17 other writers. Many of these writers were in a local mystery writers club that had produced four anthologies earlier. The most recent book sold over 10,000 units, which for a regional book is amazing. I asked one of them how they went about creating the project, and seeing my interest, they asked me to submit a story for their fifth book.
Here’s where it gets interesting.
My story, Wyld Women and Wine, will be in their next anthology, titled 50 Shades of Cabernet. The regional publisher, Koehler Books, is taking on the project based on the success of the club’s previous efforts. They also admit the anthology having 18 sales agents, I mean writers, helps boost sales. As I said, today’s writer must do it all – including sell. This should not be a secret to anyone by now.
Before I committed to the anthology, I did my usual stalking, make that due diligence, and checked out the Koehler website. Turned out they had just put a notice up saying they were accepting unagented manuscripts. What the heck – what did I have to lose?
I sent in my manuscript, then received an email reply a few days later. I was to meet with Koehler’s chief editor, who called my writing quick paced, interesting, and very clean – meaning the text was in better shape than what he had seen from most first time novelists. After another phone call, this time from Mr. Koehler, I received an offer for publication next year. This deal comes with a content editor, copy editor, cover artist and book designer, and bonus: a marketing team. Haven’t signed yet, but we have the details pretty much carved in wood.
All this happened because of an anthology.
Will this happen to you? Maybe. Maybe not. Providence played a part in my success, I am sure. But like they say in the lottery business, you can’t win if you don’t play. So go find yourself an anthology, get that street cred, get those personal connections, learn more of the business of writing, and maybe, just maybe, your short story will lead to something else.
Where to find anthologies? I Googled Anthology Accepting Submissions and found 420,000 entries. Mystery writers can check out MWA – they have started a yearly anthology. Sci-fi writers have one, too. Even Carina Press has a call out for romantic/erotic stories for their new anthology. I found these with less than a minute on the Internet. If all else fails, start your own. L.S. Engler did and her career is taking off. In fact, if you have something now, her World Unknown Review is still accepting stories for volume three.
Anthologies. Give ‘em a try. You can’t win if you don’t play.
Safety tips when considering participating in an anthology:
Check out the other authors – and the editor. You can have a great story, but if the rest of the book is amateurish, you lose. Guilt by association as the old saying goes.
Get the money figured out. And written into a contract. Are you paid a flat fee for the use of the story? Are you going to receive royalties? Was there an advance on royalties? Who received it? How does it impact your royalties?
Know your rights. How restrictive is the agreement when it comes to control of your story? Never sign away the copyright (I don’t think any editor or publisher would even ask this.) Does the anthology have an exclusive on your story for a certain amount of time? What about other rights? Can you concurrently shop your story to Hollywood or Bollywood? My goodness, what about licensing action figures?
My experience: L.S. paid outright for the use of my story for one year while I maintained copyright ownership and all other rights. 50 Shades of Cabernet? My story is exclusive to the anthology for two years. I retain all other rights. Royalties are 50-50 between the cohort and the publisher. I get 1/18th of that 50%. That works out to about 50 cents per book sold. Doesn’t sound like a ton of money, but remember – their last anthology sold over 10,000 units. Five grand buys me and my wife a nice trip to the Bahamas. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
And finally, be prepared to make a few decisions by consensus. Be ready to have some decisions handed down to you by the editor. And expect to make other decisions on your own. In the business world this is called managing uncertainty.
Maybe that’s why the writing business is best described as a business.
Good luck. And keep writing!