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An author of no particular popularity

Jay Lake
Date: 2008-09-04 19:09
Subject: [process] The art of the single-author collection
Security: Public
Tags:books, process, publishing, stories, writing

An author friend of mine recently wrote to tell me they had been solicited for a single-author collection, asking if I had “any thoughts you’re willing to share about story placement, theme, story choice, mixing fantasy and SF, or any other topic I haven’t even begun to think of.”

That’s actually a pretty good question, albeit likely of interest to a fairly narrow set of people at any time. So I thought I’d give it a bit of a run.

About a year ago, I made a fairly detailed post on anthology editing. Much of what I said there applies here, concerning varying story lengths, making sure that closing and opening lines don’t create unintentional hilarity, that sort of thing. If you think about it, a single-author collection is after all essentially no different from a very tightly themed anthology.

My friend’s question presumes the collection is largely self-edited. This is not an unusual circumstance for collections, though sometimes a publisher will provide their own editor to go through a larger body of work. Generally one has to be rather famous, rather dead, or both, to receive this treatment. So we’ll assume self-editing for this discussion.

To their specifics:

Story placement

Much as with regular anthologies, place the heartbreaker right up front. Place the next strongest piece right at the end. Balance the rest as you fit, ensuring that length, (sub)genre, theme and topic don’t crowd too close together so the collection doesn’t read all the same of a sameness. If the body of your work is wide enough to provide a sort of thematic acrostic which can be adduced from the sequence of the stories, terrific. Otherwise, just go for variety.


Much like placement, theme should vary. This might not be true if you are an author noted for a specific, strong voice which the publisher would like to showcase. Likewise if all the stories are from a common continuity. However, for a true mixed anthology, spread ‘em out. You can have a metatheme to the book — my collections American Sorrows, Dogs in the Moonlight and The River Knows Its Own all have definite metathemes, but the stories in each book are varied in length, tone and individual theme.

Story choice

This is how you act on the two above points. There’s a couple of distinct arguments to be made here. If you have some pieces which were very widely read — published in major markets, reprinted in YB volumes — you can include them to attract readers with familiar, beloved work. Or you can exclude them on the grounds that readers have likely seen the stories before. My personal philosophy is to go with whatever I’ve got that I like, that hasn’t already been widely exposed. Maybe one or two “anchor” stories if you have an award (or award nomination) up your sleeve, but I’d go with new stuff. Another consideration is work which isn’t readily accessible. Maybe some pieces appeared in limited run small press editions which aren’t buyable anymore. The flip side of that is e-published pieces, which may be generally available in long term archives but don’t have the sense of object-permanence that a book brings. I’m also not afraid of sticking unpublished stuff in a collection, but a lot of publishers would prefer to see majority to entirely reprint work when they’re considering a single-author collection.

Mixing fantasy and SF

This one’s easy. Bust a nut, baby! Go crazy. Mix it up. A single-author collection is about an author, not a genre. This is almost opposite the advice I would give for most anthologies, but where else are you going to lay your zombie lesbian pirate kitten story alongside your singularity in a Klein bottle story?

I hope that helps, or at least is interesting. If you’re a reader of collections, what do you like to see? If you edit (or author collections), what are your experiences?

Originally published at jlake.com. You can comment here or there.

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calendula_witch: shoes
User: calendula_witch
Date: 2008-09-05 02:42 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I SO want to read your zombie lesbian pirate kitten story. Please advise.
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Peter Hollo
User: frogworth
Date: 2008-09-05 03:36 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
What I like to see in single-author collections is basically their existence. Things seem brightening up a bit mind you, but a few years ago I wrote to Al Reynolds asking why Gollancz had just put out two of his novellas in a book rather than doing a collection of his very find stories, and his response was that basically the big publishers weren't interested in short story collections by single authors, 'coz it's all about novels baby. (I may be paraphrasing - please direct all angry nitpicking at me, not Alastair...)

So yeah, I just want more of 'em! And I'm currently awaiting an Amazon parcel with all of James Patrick Kelly's collections from Golden Gryphon (heroes of the single-author collection it must be said) and Benjamin Rosenbaum's collection as well. The not-so-small presses seem to be picking up the slack well - Nightshade comes to mind too, although the recent Greg Egan collection was exceedingly thin around the gills considering the wealth of un-collected material since Luminous...
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Peter Hollo
User: frogworth
Date: 2008-09-05 03:40 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
"his very find" = "his very fine" of course.

And I guess I should add that a badly-thought-out collection, full of typos and clearly lacking in a proper edit, isn't necessarily what I'm looking for :) Author-edited collections can be a bit like self-published stuff - I've read enough drafts by excellend professional authors to know that the best authors aren't the best copyeditors of their own work, so I'd say that even if it's entirely reprints, hiring a copyeditor (if not an "Editor"), or seeing if you can get the publisher to do so, is really important.

And the other thing I do like in a single-author collection is at least a bit of new material. Your fans has most probably read the majority of the reprint material already, and while they'll probably buy the collection anyway, exclusive material is always an added encouragement... FWIW.
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Peter Hollo
User: frogworth
Date: 2008-09-05 03:41 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
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User: ext_56672
Date: 2008-09-05 12:18 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Unless the stories are part of a common continuity or milieu, I like reading a good mix of what the author writes. A few Isaac Asimov collections even include non-fiction essays along with the short stories. I completely agree with the sentiment, "Bust a nut, baby! Go crazy. Mix it up."

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