The Political Economy of Anthologies

13 Oct

When I was applying for a scholarship to go to university, I was asked to write a thousand word essay as part of the application (even though I was planning a degree in Chemistry and Math). I began the essay with a quote from Samuel Johnson: “None but a blockhead writes except for money.” My argument must have worked as I was awarded the largest scholarship the university gave – it covered tuition, books, room and board and about $100 left over for incidentals. All I had to pay for during my first four years of school was beer, music and the occasional pair of pants. To this day, I believe writers should get paid for their work – despite the frequent requests to do it for the honour or for ‘exposure.’ If I want exposure I can go to the park.

The Strange Bedfellows anthology recently closed for submissions. Final choices haven’t been made but will be soon. Throughout the process I noticed some interesting patterns. The guidelines said:

We are considering stories in the 2000 to 7500 word range with a definite preference for 4-6000 words.  Shorter and longer stores MAY be considered but no more than two stories shorter than 2000 words will make the book and no more than one over 7500 (hard maximum 12K). Payment is 5.5 cents per word (Canadian funds) on publication, plus one contributor copy.

To me, this was pretty clear. I wanted stories for the most part in the 5000 word range, plus or minus a thousand. There is even a hint that shorter is slightly preferred to longer. While I didn’t keep exact stats, I did find an inordinate number of stories in the 7000 to 7499 range – much more than you might expect from random chance. I even received more than fifteen stories over 7500 words in length. There were perhaps 7-8 stories shorter than 2000 words.

The economics of this seem pretty simple. If you did succeed in selling a 10K word story it’s a pretty decent payday. For some people, that higher payday was worth the increased risk of not making a sale at all. After all, if the chance of selling a story is only 1 in 17 (5000 words out of 84000 in the anthology) anyway, why not go for the gold even if your odds are now one in 271? Others tried to limit their risk while maximizing their payday – coming in that magic range of 7000 to 7500. Not that I think people deliberately aimed for that length. Rather, they probably had longer stories and stopped editing as soon as they fell below the threshold.

And there is the problem for me as an editor. A flat 5.5 cents a word encourages people to do the least work possible. Why edit your story to the proper length if it means you will make less money? Clearly that is not in your economic self-interest. Except, of course, a bloated over-written story is less likely to be chosen in the first place. The more experienced the writer, the less likely they are to make that mistake. Making a story exactly as long as it has to be – and no longer – is one of the hallmarks of good writing. Hemingway is famous for saying: Write drunk, edit sober. What that really means is write with abandon and edit with care and thought. The real way to maximize your income is to actually sell the story.

I did think that I could offer a graduated scale: 2 cents for the first 1000 words, 3 cents for the next 2000, 9 cents for the next 3000, then 1 cent for every word above 6000. But despite having a minor in math, it seemed like an awful lot of arithmetic just to make the free market work as it should.

A Belated CanCon Report

It was a great Con.

I guess I could add a few details. I was editor guest of Honour at Cancon in Ottawa. With a table in the Dealers Room, a party on Saturday night and MCing the Aurora Awards on Sunday – along with regular programming, I was kept pretty busy. One highlight for me was my joint interview with Robert J. Sawyer where he revealed he won’t have a book next year (don’t worry he’ll be back in 2015) and that he recently signed a deal to write a screenplay of Triggers.  My big news is that Rob and I will be guests at Northwords Writers Festival in Yellowknife next June. An even bigger highlight was awarding Rob his lifetime achievement Aurora on Sunday morning. You can read his acceptance speech here. And you can see pictures of the Con here. Oh yeah, I won an Aurora, too. For editing Blood and Water.

My third big time highlight was launching Tom Barlow’s first novel, I’ll Meet You Yesterday, coming in November to a store near you. Tom gave a great reading at the party and we all had a great time until a grumpy neighbour complained and had hotel security shut us down.

And we actually sold a lot of books.

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