How to Do an Anthology
It's a like a party in a book
Several readers have asked that I write about how to put together an anthology, and here we go! This is not going to cover every. single. thing. you need to do, because tbh that would take like six newsletters. But this will get you started and point you away from the most common pitfalls.
You need a topic.
This is obvious, right? But this is the most important part (aside from the legal + money side of things, which we’ll get to in a sec). You can get together the most famous writers ever and if the concept is vague or amorphous or boring, it’s not going to sell. There have been a lot of anthologies in the last few years, so you need to do your homework and make sure (as much as you can) that it hasn’t been done already. Your topic should be defined, but not too specific. (Yep, that’s hard!) You personally might be interested in an analysis of cheerleader representation in 90s movies, but is anyone else? And is there a whole anthology worth to say about it? You might think it’s better to give your contributors free rein to write about anything related to X broad topic, but if you do, how are you going to pitch it? What’s the common thread? Writers Talking About Pain is too broad. This is a tough needle to thread, but without it, you don’t have a book.
You need writers.
Anthologies are sold on the strength of their topic and their contributors. If you want big names, you’re going to have to go out and ask them. This is not for the faint of heart. It’s hard and scary! A lot of people are going to say no! Or never respond! And a lot of people are going to ask for details you do not have, such as when do you need the story/essay by? and how much are you going to pay me for this? You aren’t going to know those details right away. You will not be able to get some writers to sign on for this project until you have that info (and yes you may not be able to sell it unless you have X, Y, Z writers signed on. Yes, that is annoying. No, there’s not much you can do about it.) The bigger the name, the more likely they are going to be too busy or too expensive to participate. That’s just the way of the world.
Make sure, too, you haven’t just asked a bunch of nice, white ladies from Brooklyn. I mean, we’re nice and a lot of us are writers! But your anthology should be inclusive not just because you need to tick that box and you will get dragggggggged on Twitter if you don’t, but because it will suck if it’s not. Because one point of view is boring and dumb. (Don’t forget it’s not just about race and gender and orientation. Are all your contributors able-bodied and neuro-typical? Why?)
You need a contributor contract.
The contributors to your anthology need to sign a contract with YOU, not the publisher. YOU sign the contract with the book publisher, and in that contract YOU promise the book publisher that you have the right to re/print all these essays/stories. YOU pay the contributors, not the publisher (most often). (And your agency may not want to pay each contributor either, because that may be a lot of extra checks to cut, so talk that over with them.) The questions you need to ask yourself (and the contributors) as you draw up the contract (which you should do with a professional) are:
What rights are the contributors giving me? (If they don’t give all the same rights—audio, translation, first serial, et al—then the you can’t give those rights to the publisher, and that could effect the anthology’s saleability. There won’t be an audio edition if three writers won’t grant you audio rights.)
Has the story/essay been published anywhere else, and if so, does the contributor have permission to let me print it?
How much am I able to pay the contributor? When will they get paid? Will the contributors get royalties if the book earns out? How much? Who will administer those payments? What if the payment due is $1.14? Who will keep track of it all?
How long will the story/essay be exclusive to the anthology? Can the contributor publish their story/essay elsewhere after a while?
Who is going to send the contributor a copy of the book when it comes out?
Will the contributor participate in promoting the book? How?
When will the story/essay be due? Who will edit it?
Who will own the copyright of the story/essay? (It should be the contributor, but sometimes it’s not!)
You have to figure out the money.
The contributors should be paid. You might be able to get some to agree to do it for exposure but you shouldn’t do that. Pay. Writers. Cash. Money. And you’re going to have to do some ballpark math until you get the actual book deal. You can do this several ways. With your agent, if you have one, working from an estimated advance level, and telling writers this is what you’re aiming for and asking they have patience with you until you get the real number. Or, you can say you’ll definitely pay X amount and just deal with it however you can when the advance comes in. Or you can say you’ll divide it evenly after you get the deal. But you have to pay writers.
You also have to pay taxes on your advance. Yep! You’re the editor of the anthology and all the money (likely) flows through you. (Again, your agency may be able to handle the payments, but it’s not guaranteed.) Here’s how that works—possibly, depending on your tax situation. (I am not a tax accountant and this is not tax prep advice!) Let’s say the publisher pays you $10,000 for your anthology about ocelots. (Go with me here.) You have 10 contributors and you’re paying them each $500, half when you get the signature payment and half when you get the delivery payment. Let’s say all that money will come in in the same calendar year. At the end of the year, you will owe taxes on $10,000 (maybe $2500? $3000? Your taxes will vary.) and you should be able to deduct the contributor payments and your agent’s commission as business expenses. You individual tax situation may make this very different! If you can deduct the contributor fees as expenses, you’ll be taxed (likely) on the net number there. $10,000 advance - $1500 commission - $5000 contributors’ fees = $3500. Taxes on that might be $875-$1000(ish). Big difference!!! But you need to know what it it means for you come April 15th.
Anything left over if what you get for doing the anthology. Don’t forget to pay yourself.
You have to be able to handle the admin.
Doing an anthology is a lot of administrative work. Contacting contributors, negotiating contracts, getting all those contracts signed. Getting everyone to deliver their stuff on time. Edits. Copyedits. Design. Contributor copies. Promotion. Royalties. Questions. You’re in charge, and while you may have an agent to help you, YOU are still in charge of YOUR anthology. It’s a lot of work. If handling dozens of tiny details is not your strong suit, you may want to get more help, or choose another project.
And you need a proposal to sell it.
When you have all the details lined up (though maybe not all the contracts signed. A verbal agreement to participate is good enough to start.) (Publishers understand the line-up might change a little bit between sale and delivery.) you need a book proposal. It looks a lot like a non-fiction book proposal, even if it’s a short story anthology, which means you need some sample stories/essays. Which means someone is going to have to write that for you on spec (for free, unless you pay them out of pocket up front). Some writers may not want to do that. Some might. You can be one of the sample stories/essays for sure. But your proposal should include all the people you’ve gotten to agree so far, a list of others you want to approach (if applicable), and general or specific notes on what each contributor is going to write about. The editors need to know what’s IN your anthology to know if they want to buy it. Again, semi/famous people writing generally about something vague is not an easy thing for most people to sell.
I’m sure I’m forgetting something (and tbh I could write a whole thing about the rights issues involved with anthologies alone) but this will get you started if this is what you want to do. Anthologies are a LOT of work. They can also turn into beautiful books.
Thanks for reading, friends. If you know someone who wants to do an anthology, will you share this post with them? Or tweet about it? Or maybe another of my greatest hits? I would so appreciate it if you helped spread the word.