The Resnick/Malzberg Dialogues #16: Anthologies

NOTE: this article first appeared in the pages of SFWA Bulletin 156, Winter, 2002.

MIKE: I seem to find myself back in the anthology business again this year, after a half-decade hiatus. I’m not quite sure how it happened. I know that in the early 1990s I edited more than 20 of them in something less than four years. Then — although a 3-year lag time on a pair of them would lead you to think otherwise — I was out of it for six years. And now, as I write these words, I’m editing four original anthologies.

And hearing screams of “Unfair!” from quite a few writers.


Because my anthologies are by invitation only.

Still why?

Because there’s a difference between charity, which is the way I view my editing gigs, and poverty, which is the way I (and my creditors) would view them if I edited open anthologies.

Maybe it’s time to discuss just what goes into putting an anthology together, and just how much money it costs the editor to pursue anthologies rather than more lucrative work (which includes writing novels, writing short stories, writing screenplays, writing articles, writing comic books, in fact writing just about anything but poetry.)

Let’s take a good, hard, honest look at it.

Let’s say an anthology I’m editing pays a $7,000 US advance, which is about par for the course for original anthologies these days. (Yes, I’ve written for some that pay far more, and edited a couple which ditto, but they are the exceptions, not the rule.)

Let’s say I decide to pay 6 cents US a word, which again is pretty much the average. I’ve paid more on a few occasions; only once — a current one with all kinds of complications — have I paid less.

Let’s further say that the contract calls for 100,000 words worth of stories, not including all the editorial introductions.

And let’s say that every writer delivers exactly the length I ask for, that none of them come in too long (which, I might add, has never happened; somebody, or usually a group of somebodies, always come in too long.)

Okay. I must pay out $6,000 US. That leaves $1,000 US for the editor. Except that it doesn’t. I don’t sell the anthologies; Marty Greenberg does. Marty is the man behind more than 90% of the anthologies that get sold in this field, even when his name doesn’t appear anywhere in the book. It’s his specialty, he’s damned good at it, and for his partner in a project there is an extra advantage: you get half the money up front and half on delivery, but your authors want to be paid now. Assume that you’re spending more than half the advance on stories — and you always are — and having Marty handle the money and paperwork means you don’t have to dig into your own pocket to pay for stories and then wait until they’re all in to recoup your expenses from the publisher.

Back to number-crunching. If everyone delivers the right length, Marty and I will make $500 US each.

It takes about 2 weeks of my time to do this — and that’s dealing with writers who hopefully don’t require extensive revisions. Two weeks for $500 US.

If I can’t make at least four times that much writing, I’m in the wrong business.

So I’m already taking a huge loss by editing an invitation-only anthology.

If it was an open anthology, I would do all that plus read maybe 300 to 600 slush stories, most of them terrible beyond imagining, for that same $500 US. At that point, it gives new meaning to the words “economically counter-productive”. And that is the reason almost all anthologies are by invitation only.

(Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean they’re closed to newcomers. Over the course of more than 25 anthologies, including the ones I’m currently editing, I have averaged four or five new writers in each. Which helps explain why I take such a financial hit to edit anthologies: my proudest achievement as an anthology editor wasn’t making a couple of Hugo ballots as Best Editor, or putting seven stories [including a winner] on the Hugo ballot; it was putting eight beginners [including a winner] on the Campbell Ballot for Best New Writer.)

You’ve edited 15 or 20 anthologies yourself. Are your financial findings different than mine? And have you any insights you’d like to share with an outraged public that knows beyond any shadow of a doubt that you edit by invitation-only for the sole purpose of excluding them?

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BARRY: You’re talking of original anthologies, of course. I’ve co-edited just two of those: Final Stage with Edward L. Ferman and Graven Images, also with him; these were invitation-only anthologies and the first of them was truly problematic. All of the others have been reprints (although my co-editors and I did put an original in Arena, another one in Dark Sins, Dark Dreams). So the problems you’ve incurred in the original anthology are not problems which I was forced to encounter other than on those two occasions, both more than a quarter of a century ago.

Fred Pohl once wrote — a long time ago — that anthologies were a misunderstood pursuit: they were actually quite easy to conceive and not particularly hard to put together; they were, however, quite difficult to sell . . . for every anthology idea or proposal which he had placed, there were several multiples of that which he had not been able to sell. Pohl edited the Star original anthology series, of course, eight or nine volumes through the l950s, the others were all reprints. He was a prolific anthologist and I think I know exactly what he means.

The economics of the original anthology, as you point out, are usually ridiculous . . . the anthologist’s share rarely recompenses the time, at least not at the level that one’s own work does. There are, as always, exceptions, there have been some original anthologies which have been startlingly remunerative for all concerned — Greenberg’s Tolkien tribute, After The King in the early l990s, of course, and Robert Silverberg’s first Legends anthology of original series fantasy stories (a sequel has been announced and is well in progress). But these are atypical and the more customary economics of the original anthology are relatively low; they are even lower if the anthology — like the old Orbit or New Dimensions or Nova series — are indeed open submissions. Screening and selection if one is being fair take a great deal of time. Where this is leading, I suppose, is toward the statement that for the functioning fiction writer, anthologies are no career, should not be a career . . . they have their purposes and audience and they can be fun, sometimes relatively a great deal of fun to edit. But no one — not Groff Conklin who was an editor at Collier Books for decades, not Martin H. Greenberg who was a full Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin/Green Bay — can make a career or a living from these things. Judith Merril might have been the only anthologist to have made a try at self-sustension from anthologies alone but she lived frugally and by l968, after a dozen years of her Year’s Best she had had more than enough.

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

MIKE: Okay, we seem agreed upon that. Hell, everyone who’s ever edited an original anthology must be agreed upon it.

So let’s get on to the next question: why must every damned anthology these days be based on a theme, some of them incredibly silly? I think I put out some pretty good anthologies, a lot of the stories won or were nominated for awards, still more have been reprinted here and abroad — but one was entirely about Kennedys, and another about dinosaurs, and a third about Sherlock Holmes, and a fourth about witches, and so on. And I confess that the whole time I was editing them, I was envying Robert Silverberg and Terry Carr and Damon Knight and Fred Pohl, who got to exercise a little more editorial taste and judgment.

You see, when you invite someone to, say, Alternate Secretariats, you are telling them to write a science fiction or fantasy story about a precise subject — in this hypothesis, the racehorse Secretariat. It is a story that would never have been written had you not assigned it. If you bounce eight or ten of them, they’ll of course be sent to the magazines — and how many Secretariat stories do you think Gardner Dozois or Stan Schmidt are likely to buy?

So I think the invitation-only editor has a moral obligation not to reject a story he assigns, a story that otherwise would remain unwritten. You can (and should) send the writer back to make it better if it’s not up to par, but in the end you either buy a not-quite-right story and bury it in the middle of the book (easier to do with a 25-story anthology than a 6-story magazine), or you pay a kill fee.

But it sure would have been nice to see the best each writer had to offer on any subject. Oh, it would still be an invite-only anthology, but without a theme. I’d invite 20 or 30 writers and say, “Let me have a look at your best work” (which is, in essence, what the magazine editors say to the contributors, albeit silently), and if I didn’t like it, why, I could return it with no moral obligation to buy it.

Do you know how long it’s been since such an anthology appeared? The four editors I named above didn’t just do it once; they each edited a series of them. How did we get from New Dimensions and Orbit to Alternate Secretariats?

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BARRY: I don’t know exactly how we got from Orbit and New Dimensions to Alternate Cat Stories or Future Impotence. The theme anthology did not overtake the market until the l970s, I suppose that we can thank Roger Elwood for that (and for so much else). But you can see the theme anthology foreshadowed early; Groff Conklin’s famous first three anthologies, Best of Science Fiction, Treasury of Science Fiction, Big Book of Science Fiction, were general anthologies but shortly thereafter Invaders From Earth and Possible Worlds of Science Fiction followed and Great Stories by Scientists and all the rest of them. William Tenn’s Children of Wonder was published in the early l950’s. I think that publishers—particularly those who were not familiar with science fiction, who were just entering the field—were more comfortable with theme anthologies, packaging was easier, targeting of the audience. Perhaps readers were more comfortable as well . . . if you wanted to read about cats, then a theme anthology brooked no surprises. (Surprise, as James Blish pointed out in The Issue At Hand almost fifty years ago, is among the lesser emotions the science fiction reader wants . . . the science fiction reader in the main wants her thrills pre-packaged and of the stimulus-response variety.) General anthologies — even best-of-the-year compilations — also tended to vary widely in the quality of their contents in a way that theme anthologies did not; or at least publishers so rationalized.

But the problem with theme anthologies is that the effect of stories can be lost. If — for instance — the surprise ending of a story hinges upon the fact that the protagonist is secretly a cat, the impact of that surprise will be considerably lessened if it appears — as Stephen Vincent Benet’s The King of the Cats probably has appeared — in an anthology of stories about felines.

Or, as Dave Langford, put it, and even more eloquently, consider the plight of the editor of an anthology called Great Vampire Stories In Which The Lead’s True Love Turns Out To Be A Vampire rereading a story she is about to include in the work and thinking, “Somehow the ending here doesn’t have quite the impact it had on me when I read it years ago in Infinity Science Fiction. ” The mere appearance of a story in a science fiction magazine assures that the denouement will be linked to something other than contemporary realism. (This for me destroyed the power of Reginald Bretnor’s The Doorstop, a story of alien intervention which appeared first in Astounding in l956; if it had been first published in Harper’s the ending would have been unexpected and far more powerful.) And the appearance of a surprise-ending cat story in an anthology of cat stories wholly undercuts not only the ending but the work itself.

On the other hand, theme anthologies are comfortable to read, certainly more comfortable to edit and work against precisely that Sense of Wonder which Blish felt so overrated among readers and writers of the genre. There were a lot of original series anthologies in the l970s — Orbit, Quark, New Dimensions, Universe, Chrysalis — so many that most readers felt that they would utterly displace the magazine; then suddenly in the l980s there were almost none at all. The original, unthemed anthology is never a series work now and these one-shots have not been successful. (The fantasy original anthology on the other hand has yielded at least one bestseller, Silverberg’s Legends and one near-bestseller, Martin Greenberg’s Tolkien tribute, After The King. )

Stories rejected by the original themed anthologies are difficult to place, yes. Editing Amazing/Fantastic in l968 I was gifted by a Fritz Leiber story which Sam Moskowitz had foolishly rejected for his original anthology The Man Who Was Poe—but that was Fritz Leiber . . . and his saver sale was for all of $0.02 US a word.

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

MIKE: I’d like to briefly address a point that writers ought to consider before blindly contributing to any anthology that asks.

You mentioned the Legends and After the King anthologies. There was another that made a mint, and that was the Batman anthology that came out to coincide with the release of the first Michael Keaton Batman movie. I was in After the King and I was in Batman, and while After the King still delivers a royalty check every six months come hell or high water and I haven’t seen a cent from Batman in about a decade, I think I probably made more money per word from the Batman anthology. Not up front, but when you added in the royalties, it came to something better than $3.00 US a word before the public moved on to the next movie anthology/adaptation. (Never saw a penny’s worth of royalties from the Joker or Superman anthologies. Go figure.)

So what’s wrong with that? Nothing, and I have no regrets about writing for the Batman book.

But when it came time to put together a collection of my short fiction for which not only that story and stories I did for the Joker and Superman anthologies would have been perfect fits, I ran into a certain voracious hunger on the part of the copyright holders — DC Comics and the book publishers — who insisted that I pay them for the right to reprint my stories.

Now, they had every legal right to request that (we’ll argue about moral rights some other time), but no one else whose copyrighted characters I had used (with permission, of course) from the Conan Doyle estate to the Chester Gould estate had ever tried to extort money from me for reprinting my stories. I refused to pay, and to this day the stories have never been resold, though my average story gets reprinted/resold from five to eight times here and abroad.

So when writing for sharecrop or shared-world anthologies, you might inquire on the front end what their position is on reselling your story.

Now, before we get too far along, I’d like to talk about the anthologies I most enjoy editing (and reading, too, for that matter) — and those are the reprint anthologies.

As an editor, I feel (and I’m sure the writers agree) somewhat constricted by theme anthologies — but even more to the point, when I’m editing a theme anthology, I have absolutely no idea what the stories will read like until they’re delivered. At that point, I may suggest that Author A tweak her ending a bit, and Author B lose the info dump, and so on . . . but they are essentially the stories that the authors wanted to tell, and only hopefully the stories the editor wanted to read.

But a reprint anthology . . . ah, that’s a whole different ball game. I am in essence saying to the audience: “I have been a devout reader in this field for half a century, and a professional author/editor for a third of a century. In that time, I have come across a handful of truly memorable stories that I want to share with you, stories you probably missed because demographics say I was writing this stuff before your father met your mother and I may well have been reading it just about the time your grandfather met your grandmother. No matter how well-read you are, you can’t possibly have read all these masterpieces, and now here they are, assembled with love from a reader and writer who wants to share them with you, and who envies you the thrill of reading them for the very first time.”

Name the great anthologies . . . and what you get are the early Astounding and F&SF and Galaxy anthologies, and the Groff Conklin and Healy & McComas anthologies. No Alternate this or Children of that. Just compilations of great stories.

Of all the two-dozen-plus anthologies I have edited, only five have been reprints. And two of those five are my two very favorite anthologies for the very reasons I mentioned.

I can’t be the only editor who feels this way—and as a reader, I can’t be the only one who loves to find truly brilliant stories I’ve missed along the way.

And certainly a reprint anthology—even a themed one—is far less expensive to put together than an original anthology, and will invariably have bigger names to put on the cover . . . so why are they so goddamned hard to sell?

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BARRY: They are so goddamned hard to sell for several reasons: one is that anybody conversant with science fiction can compile a good anthology; not everybody conversant with science fiction can write a good novel. There are very few people alive who can write a novel at the level of a Fred Pohl, but there are several thousand who could assemble an anthology just about as good. (Of course Fred Pohl’s anthologies will sell better . . . he has far more name value and recognition. But the quality of the book will not in any way vary in the way that the quality of a Fred Pohl novel and the quality of a novel by science fiction fan and scholar X are likely to vary.)

The competition is extraordinary for this reason and, in fact, it is for this reason that most reprint anthologies — not all of them, but a larger proportion than ever — are edited by writers of the first rank, who have modest fame. And of course editing a reprint anthology is easier than writing a novel. It’s even easier, most of the time, than writing a short story.

“Anything is better than writing,” Jimmy Breslin once said when asked why he was running a hopeless race in l969 for President of City Council. So editors wallow in anthology proposals, are sunk in them and of necessity gravitate toward the big name writers or the brand-name anthologists who they know will deliver good work with a minimum of difficulty. But even the ` brand-name anthologists like yourself are competing with the other brand-names; even famous writers like yourself are competing with the other famous writers.

(An anecdote in that regard: at the very beginning of his career as an anthologist, around l972, Marty Greenberg and his then collaborator, Joseph Olander, submitted a proposal and a proposed table of contents to Sharon Jarvis, the science fiction editor at Doubleday. Sharon told me what her response had been: “You people have great ideas but I can’t sell this. Find a big-name writer to be the third anthologist and I probably can get you a contract.”)

And then of course is the indisputable fact that anthologies do not sell as well as novels. Looking at the process of assembling a list, an experienced mass-market editor knows that a novel will sell perhaps twice as many copies as an anthology. Why publish the anthology at all? (This was Judy-Lynn del Rey’s theory of mass market publishing for the early years of her career, it was close to inflexible and it changed everything. Later on, as she became more secure, she relented a little.) Of course anthologies usually require slightly lower advances and are more dependable in their delivery than novels but not really enough to offset the balance.

And finally there is the simple and perhaps most salient of all reasons: after 55 years of furious anthologization in science fiction, beginning with Healy-McComas Adventures in Time and Space and Conklin’s The Best of Science Fiction in l946, after thousands of anthologies, the reservoir has been pretty well drained. There are only so many times one can reprint “The Cold Equations”, “That Only A Mother”, “The Tunnel Under The World”, and on and on, and indeed these stories have been reprinted within the borders of the field alone l5-20 times over those 55 years. The stock of masterpieces has long since been culled, and the near-masterpieces and the could-have-been masterpieces; a contemporary reprint anthologist is faced with a Hobson’s Choice: a) recycle the familiar, b) seek the non-familiar while understanding that there are pretty good reasons for this. There are very few buried masterpieces out there now. In l985, Greenberg, Piers Anthony and I compiled our Avon anthology, Uncollected Stars, and among some pretty good stories was Kuttner’s “Time Enough” but it’s now 17 years later. Yes, of course, stories are coming out all the time, it’s an ongoing, not a static, field, and 1,200 new short stories (according to one count) are being published every year. Some of them deserve anthologization, many of them do not, and the factor of recency works against them.

I wish the damned things weren’t so hard to sell but as Damon Knight once wrote more about writing altogether, “If it were easy, everyone would do it and you and I couldn’t make a living.” Got a good gimmick? Great Time Machine Stories About Cat-Vampires?

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MIKE: I like your Sharon Jarvis story — and for the one or two readers who don’t know how it ended, Marty found a pro named Asimov. And found him maybe 100 more times over the years as he established himself in the anthology market.

I’d take issue with a couple of your points, though. One is that the average anthology gets half the advance of the average novel. Given — and I don’t debate it for an instant — that an anthologist has to be a Brand Name to sell, I’d say that the average science fiction anthology gets an advance of between a quarter and maybe a twentieth of the editor’s novel advance. (We’re not talking Legends or After the King or, turning back the clock a bit, one of the Dangerous Visions books here, but rather the typical anthology). And, at between 5% and 25% of the editor’s novel advance, I don’t see that publishing an anthology constitutes that great a gamble. In fact, all credit to the ladies at DAW Books, who publish an anthology every month and don’t seem headed to the poorhouse because of it.

I do agree that the stockpile of unmined classics is getting awfully small — but here is where the theme anthology notion actually becomes useful and meaningful. When I edited Shaggy B.E.M. Stories, for example, a reprint anthology of science fiction parodies, I mined not only the prozines but also the fanzines and found some wonderful stories by fans who later became famous writers, including a kid named “Ego” Clarke who was knighted a couple of years ago.

I would further submit that some of the reprint anthologies I’ve done (and others as well; I can only speak authoritatively for myself) required such a specialized knowledge, or such special access, that not everyone could have done them. The parodies anthology and the recursive sf anthology, to name just a pair.

Back to the main point. The thing we always must remember is that you and I have about a century’s worth of reading science fiction between us, so yes, it’s pretty hard to come up with a brilliant story from history’s dustbin that we’re not acquainted with. But today’s average science fiction reader is under 30 years old, probably under 25, and is hardly as voracious a reader as you and I were and are. So most of the stories we know — this one that was anthologized a mere 17 years ago (when our hypothetical reader wasn’t yet ten years old), and that one that we got tired of when X and Y and Z all anthologized it during a 5-year period back in the 1970s — these are mostly unknown to those young men and women who form the bulk of our readership. Reprint the first Galaxy or F&SF anthology and you and I and most of the people we associate with will roll our eyes and say, “Good ghod, not again!” — but I’d wager that 90% of the contents of each would be brand-new to 90% of the people who keep publishers in business.

There’s one last thing I want to address, and that goes back to the impetus for this discussion: the feeling, on the part of newcomers and unknowns, that all invitation-only anthologies are closed to them.

Not so. I bought more than 40 first stories in a 4-year period in the early 1990s, as well as a fair batch of second and third stories. I’ve bought a batch more for the anthologies I’m editing right now. Seven of “my” discoveries made the Campbell ballot for Best New Writer — and you can’t do that if you’re not buying from new writers.

It’s really not difficult to find new writers. Let it be known that you’ve even considering editing an anthology, or that you’ve edited one in the past and may possibly edit another in the future, and you’ll be whelmed over with samples of their writing whether you want them or not. Teach Clarion or another of the better workshops, and you’ll find quite a few promising new writers. Talk to other pros who run workshops and you’ll get still more newcomers recommended to you. Or read some promising debut stories, and contact the authors and ask for more of their work; I’ve never come across one who said no.

I just wanted to note for the record, before we cut this off, that an invitation-only anthology is not a clubby way of excluding newcomers, but rather a way — to my way of thinking, the only way — of making the editing of the book an act of charity rather than economic insanity.

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

About my counterpart: Barry N. Malzberg’s Beyond Apollo was in 1973 the winner of the first John W. Campbell Memorial Award for the best science-fiction novel of the year; he twice won the LOCUS Award for nonfiction books of critical history and commentary on science fiction. Several short works have been final-listed for the Nebula and Hugo and Engines of the Night and Breakfast in the Ruins, the nonfiction works, were on the Hugo final ballot for Best Related Nonfiction as is his collaborative book with Mike Resnick, The Business of Science Fiction. He was sole judge of the 1980 Writers Digest Short Story Contest.

About Mike

According to Locus, I am the all-time leading award winner, living or dead, for short fiction. I have won 5 Hugos (from a record 37 nominations), a Nebula, and other major awards in the USA, France, Japan, Spain, Croatia, Catalonia, and Poland. I'm and author of 74 novels, over 260 stories, and 3 screenplays, and the editor of 42 anthologies. My work has been translated into 27 languages. I am currently the editor of the Stellar Guild line of books, and Galaxy's Edge magazine.
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