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Jay Lake
Date: 2007-10-02 10:39
Subject: [process] Editing the wild anthology
Security: Public
Location:Nuevo Rancho Lake
Mood:tired
Music:the morning outside
Tags:books, process, publishing, writing
A week or so ago I promised a post on the anthology editing process. Here goes a cut at it. As with all writing-related posts, your mileage may vary. In this case, assume I'm editing a commercial anthology on a pro-rate budget. This means I'm taking things like marketing impact into consideration, which is not always the case with editing projects.

First of all, there's a couple of distinctly different processes at the front end. If the anthology is open, as the Polyphony series was after the second volume, you have a potentially substantial slush pile. If the anthology is closed, as most New York-published anthologies are, you have only the invited stories plus whatever might have snuck in over the transom.

Anent open anthologies, I've written before about the process of reading slush and the "three-pile theory." I'll recap for discussion purposes. With variations, this is how most open anthologies and periodical markets are edited. Basically, omnia Gallia in tres partes divisa est.

The "A" pile is stories from people everyone has heard of, and regular contributors to the publication. There two criteria for landing in the "A" pile: the writer is a Big Name Author (BNA) who can be counted on to produce a story the editor will probably want to buy (whether or not they do), and/or the name of the writer on the cover will help in marketing the book. These stories go directly to final consideration, essentially.

The "B" pile is stories from people the editor has heard of or has been following the careers of, as well as occasional contributors to the publication. These are stories the editor will want to pay close attention to. (Sometimes the "A" and "B" pile are combined.)

The "C" pile is everything and everyone else. When I'm doing open editing, I always read the "C" pile first, and promote stories I really like to the "B" pile. One major goal of many if not most editors is to find a gem in the "C" pile. That's as much fun as finding a diamond ring in the surf (which I in fact once did), it just happens more often.

A casual assessment of my experience suggests that out of 100 stories in an open submission pile, 5 will be "A" pile, 10 will be "B" pile, and 85 will be "C" pile. If you're an aspiring or emerging writer, that's the hole you need to climb out of.

Trust me, there are much bigger holes. As I wrote last year:
I will make the educated guess that for the New York novel imprints in spec fic, it’s far less than one first novel published for every thousand first novels submitted.


Assume you've got everything knocked down to an "A" pile plus the cream of the "B" pile (including the promoted "C" pile stories). Either that or you've got your invited stories plus the transom sneakers. In either case, you probably have too many stories for your word count budget. At least, you should.

What's a word count budget, you ask? All print markets have these. Most electronic markets do, though the parameters are different. Basically, before the book goes anywhere in the publishing cycle, the publisher (who is generally not the editor except for some independent presses) decides how much money will be committed to the book, and how big the book will be. Those decision affect the production process, and they affect paid wordage. If the book is budgeted for 100,000 words at $0.06/word — a fairly typical DAW anthology looks exactly like this — there's $6,000 in the wordage kitty. That's it. Overages cannot be managed because they can't be paid, and besides which, it screws up the print budget.

This can get a little looser with independent titles. Print on demand or short run offset work doesn't have the same set of equations that trade hardback or mass market do. Editors may have some freedom to play with length after the budgets are set, if the publisher permits them to.

Say I have an anthology with a hard word count budget of 100,000 words, and a final consideration pile that looks like this:

AuthorStoryWord Count
BNA #1"Silence of the Clams"24,000
BNA #2"A Wereclam in London"11,000
BNA #3"Erectile Dysfunction Among the Dead"6,000
Classic Midlist Author #1"Pearls Before Pines"4,000
Classic Midlist Author #2"Limpets Discover Fire"8,000
Classic Midlist Author #3"Sticky Finders"6,000
Young Turk #1"Thin, Sticky Line"2,000
Young Turk #2"Diving Naked in Truk"6,000
Young Turk #3"Clams of Alcatraz"7,000
Young Turk #4"Geoducks on Parade"12,000
New Author #1"Molluscs on the Moon"10,000
New Author #2"The Unbearable Lightness of Captain Angstrom"4,000
New Author #3"Oyster? I Damn Near Killed Her."9,000
New Author #4"Into the Siphon Where Life is Hurled."6,000


That's 115,000 words to cram into 100,000. If any of the New Author stories are close in theme or plot to any of the BNA stories, assuming comparable quality I'm probably going to cut the New Author in favor of the BNA. If the New Author story is significantly better, I'll take it. Likewise, if I can cut one or two big stories and meet my word count, I'm quite likely to do that rather than whittle down a series of smaller stories. I also want stories of varying length and emotional impact, to give the anthology a sense of dimensionality and provide texture to the reading experience. If I had twenty stories of 5,000 words each, all with brightly uplifting endings, it would be a boring book.

Let's say here I cut New Author #3 and Young Turk #2. (In real life, there's usually more overage in the final consideration pile.) Assuming I contact all my "buys" and they all agree and everybody signs the contract (ahem, do not omit any of these steps, ever), I now have this final selection of stories.

AuthorStoryWord Count
BNA #1"Silence of the Clams"24,000
BNA #2"A Wereclam in London"11,000
BNA #3"Erectile Dysfunction Among the Dead"6,000
Classic Midlist Author #1"Pearls Before Pines"4,000
Classic Midlist Author #2"Limpets Discover Fire"8,000
Classic Midlist Author #3"Sticky Finders"6,000
Young Turk #1"Thin, Sticky Line"2,000
Young Turk #3"Clams of Alcatraz"7,000
Young Turk #4"Geoducks on Parade"12,000
New Author #1"Molluscs on the Moon"10,000
New Author #2"The Unbearable Lightness of Captain Angstrom"4,000
New Author #4"Into the Siphon Where Life is Hurled."6,000


How do I put them together? In my personal case, I rank the final selection stories on a scale of 1 to 3 or 1 to 5. This ranking is utterly subjective, but reflects my love for the story in question without respect to the marketing impact of the writer or other external factors. I'm looking at originality, language impact, plot, everything that contributes ot the reader experience. Bear in mind this is a process step — even a story I give the lowest rank to at this point has still made all the cuts. All I'm on about here is ordering.

Let's say I get a set of rankings which look like this:

AuthorStoryWord CountRanking
BNA #1"Silence of the Clams"24,0001
BNA #2"A Wereclam in London"11,0002
BNA #3"Erectile Dysfunction Among the Dead"6,0003
Classic Midlist Author #1"Pearls Before Pines"4,0001
Classic Midlist Author #2"Limpets Discover Fire"8,0002
Classic Midlist Author #3"Sticky Finders"6,0003
Young Turk #1"Thin, Sticky Line"2,0003
Young Turk #3"Clams of Alcatraz"7,0003
Young Turk #4"Geoducks on Parade"12,0001
New Author #1"Molluscs on the Moon"10,0002
New Author #2"The Unbearable Lightness of Captain Angstrom"4,0002
New Author #4"Into the Siphon Where Life is Hurled."6,0001


How do I arrange them? Here's some loose rules:

  • Opening story: One of the two best in the antho (ie, a rank 1); not so long that it discourages people from continuing with the book

  • Closing story: One of the two best in the antho (ie, a rank 1); ideally also not terribly long so there's a feeling of coda, very helpful if it has an evocative closing scene or closing line to provide a grace note to the book

  • Middle story: Another very good one (ie, a rank 1); not so concerned about length here

  • Don't put stories of nearly identical lengths back to back

  • Check to make sure that the closing line of each story doesn't interact strangely with the title or opening line of the next story

  • Vary theme and tone of stories; don't stack all the hard downers in a row; don't stack all the boy-gets-boy stories in a row


After that, it's pretty much by feel. In the above example, we might have this table of contents:

AuthorStoryWord CountRanking
New Author #4"Into the Siphon Where Life is Hurled."6,0001
New Author #1"Molluscs on the Moon"10,0002
Classic Midlist Author #1"Pearls Before Pines"4,0001
Classic Midlist Author #2"Limpets Discover Fire"8,0002
BNA #3"Erectile Dysfunction Among the Dead"6,0003
BNA #1"Silence of the Clams"24,0001
Young Turk #1"Thin, Sticky Line"2,0003
Young Turk #3"Clams of Alcatraz"7,0003
BNA #2"A Wereclam in London"11,0002
Classic Midlist Author #3"Sticky Finders"6,0003
New Author #2"The Unbearable Lightness of Captain Angstrom"4,0002
Young Turk #4"Geoducks on Parade"12,0001


That's it in a nutshell. Bismarckian sausage. Acquisitions editing, whether you're talking about novels, periodicals, or anthologies, is a creative process just as much as writing. There's a lot of intrusions from the marketing side, the production side, and so forth, but there's also a lot of judgment calls involved. That's where the editor's art lies.

Is it arbitrary and capricious? Certainly. I've said many times before, publishing is a meritocracy, but it's not a just meritocracy.

Are there other models than what I described above? Certainly as well. I am confident some of their practitioners will speak up here.

Comments? Thoughts? Follow-up questions? Things I should amplify (or retract)?
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Alex Dally MacFarlane
User: alankria
Date: 2007-10-02 18:06 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Check to make sure that the closing line of each story doesn't interact strangely with the title or opening line of the next story.

Now that's something I hadn't thought of all. I'll definitely be bearing that in mind.
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Swan Tower: *writing
User: swan_tower
Date: 2007-10-02 19:40 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:*writing
I've dealt with it when making soundtracks for games; I want one song to flow well into the next (or, alternatively, to create an interesting juxtaposition). But I hadn't applied the notion to anthologies, though I should have.
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Rafe
User: etcet
Date: 2007-10-02 18:11 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
New Author #47 here. *waves from behind the couch*

This is a really cool insight into the process.

To completely put the cart before the horse for a moment... how do you choose people to invite to the closed submission variant? Or is that a completely different type of clambake?
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-10-02 19:05 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
how do you choose people to invite to the closed submission variant?

That's a good question that probably deserves an answer of its own. Which I will do so at some not very distant future point.
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Kristine Smith
User: kristine_smith
Date: 2007-10-02 18:32 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
This is good stuff for the Memories bucket. Thanks.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-10-02 19:05 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
You are most welcome.
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Amy Sisson
User: amysisson
Date: 2007-10-02 20:02 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
This is more detailed (and useful) information than I've seen elsewhere on this topic. Thanks for taking the time to spell it all out!
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-10-02 20:28 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
You are most welcome.
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A large duck: bear headlock!
User: burger_eater
Date: 2007-10-02 20:55 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:bear headlock!
I'm heartbroken that you cut "Oyster? I Damn Near Killed Her."

I'm dying to write a story with that title, followed up with "The Unbearable Lightness of Captain Angstrom"

:7]
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-10-02 20:58 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
They are yours!
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manmela
User: manmela
Date: 2007-10-02 21:44 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Stupid Question #334 - Where does one get to hear about open anthologies? I've discovered new magazine markets from looking at places like Ralan and then hunting down issues, but unlike Polyphony a lot of anthologies don't have sequels, so how do you go about investigating the anthology market?
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cscole
User: cscole
Date: 2007-10-03 03:08 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Great question, and one I'd like to know the answer to as well.
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Edward Greaves
User: temporus
Date: 2007-10-10 12:34 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Well, Ralan and Duotrope both list anthology markets that are open. For closed markets (or better called invite only markets), I'd guess it comes down to who you know, and importantly who knows you. That sounds like where networking could help.
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Kelly Green
User: saycestsay
Date: 2007-10-03 02:49 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Assuming I contact all my "buys" and they all agree and everybody signs the contract (ahem, do not omit any of these steps, ever),

::snicker:: Hush, baby.
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Blue Tyson
User: bluetyson
Date: 2007-10-03 03:12 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thanks, interesting look at the 'Shell Games' anthology there.

:)
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Jason Erik Lundberg
User: jlundberg
Date: 2007-10-03 06:23 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
This is exactly how I edited Scattered, Covered, Smothered, although the graphs were more in my head than on paper.
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Jay Lake: writing-leopard_cow
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-10-03 12:52 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:writing-leopard_cow
I actually do the graphs in Excel, so I can do sort type stuff. It's very helpful for noodling ToC ordering, for example.
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Eric Marin
User: ericmarin
Date: 2007-10-03 18:38 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
That was a very educational post, Jay. I've been considering the idea of editing an anthology, and, after reading this post, I have the distinct impression that my speedy, seat-of-the-pants story selection process is not suitable for an anthology project.
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