On anthologies and writer compensation

I received a royalty check the other day for a short story in an anthology released back in 2004. It’s the best-selling anthology I’ve been in by far, the only one to ever earn, with royalties, more than $1/word. Over the course of two decades of writing short fiction, I’ve been in a couple of other anthologies that earned out and did well, though not nearly that well; and in far more anthologies that paid a few cents a word and never earned anything more. But because my contracts included a share of all royalties, if any of those books had earned more, I would have earned more, too. From the start, I had a stake in each anthology’s performance.

That’s important to me. I was a short story writer before I was a novelist, and I’ve always considered short stories as real a part of my career as longer works. More and more often, though, I’m seeing anthologies that don’t pay authors in a professional way. In the past year, I’ve walked away from one anthology that was offering a one-time pennies-a-word flat fee, with no share of the royalties the editor herself would be collecting; and another that was also offering an advance and royalties to its editors, but no pay at all to its writers.

I’m not categorically opposed to doing low-pay or no-pay projects that are either for a good cause or doing something cool and interesting that I want to be a part of, as time and inclination (but mostly time) allows. But if I’m going to invest time I can’t really afford into a for-the-love project, I expect the editor to be working as much for the love as they’re asking me to. This has indeed been the case with a small press anthologies and magazines I’ve contributed to, as well as with the Dear Bully anthology, where all of both the authors’ and the editors’ proceeds were donated to an anti-bullying charity.

What I’m not willing to do is put heart and soul into a work where compensation isn’t shared equitably between editor and writers. Compiling and editing an anthology is a lot of work, and most of the editors who do so are freelancers just as I am, and they deserve to be fairly compensated for their work. (They deserve far more than that. The editors I’ve worked with on anthologies through the years have been pretty awesome.) But the writers who contribute to anthologies also work hard, and that work deserves just as much respect–and compensation. We’re in this together, editor and writer, and I want my contracts to acknowledge that. I want a stake in the books I’m part of, a sense of ownership.

Here’s what I consider fair for an anthology being published by a major publisher and edited by a freelance editor, and what most of my anthology contracts have specified: a professional-level up-front payment, and then a share, split with the other contributors, of 50% of the book’s royalties, with the other 50% (and another up-front payment) going to the editor or editors.

Here’s what I don’t consider fair: Not being offered an up-front payment when the editor is receiving one. Not being offered royalties when the editor is receiving them.

I’ve been told, for projects that weren’t offering these things, that it takes too much paperwork to pay authors what are likely to amount to miniscule royalties. This is puzzling to me, because most of the two dozen anthologies I’ve been part of the past couple decades have managed to include a pro-rata share of royalties somehow, and many of them weren’t huge moneymakers; and also because however much hassle royalty-paying paperwork may entail, I doubt it’s more work than it is for me to write them a story in the first place. When my contribution isn’t deemed valuable enough for it to be worth doing the paperwork to pay me, I become uncomfortable contributing.

I’ve also been told that projects were worthwhile because they were offering me “exposure.” This is more actively frustrating, because generally, if an anthology is selling well enough to offer serious exposure, it’s also selling well enough to earn real royalties, and if I’m going to write a portion of the anthology, I deserve a share of those. While if the anthology isn’t selling well enough to earn those royalties, it probably isn’t selling well enough to offer all that much exposure after all. The more people who buy a book, after all, the more money it generally earns.

I have in fact gained exposure from anthologies. But they’ve generally been anthologies that felt they could afford to compensate me fairly, and none of them have ever actively mentioned “exposure” as a reason I ought to contribute. I’ve run into this as a non-fiction freelancer as well. Offering exposure as an up-front benefit is almost code for saying, “Because we can’t offer you the other things writers are usually offered for their time.”

Exposure is also, in my experience, a benefit that becomes less likely to materialize the more enthusiastically it’s offered.

I think anthologies have come to be seen, in some circles, as a matter of prestige: being included in one at all is an honor. And it is. I still remember vividly the thrill of my first anthology sale (for which it was only dumb luck that the terms were fair, because it wouldn’t have occurred to me back then not to sign it). I still feel a thrill when I’m invited to an anthology or else sell to one that puts out an open call. And like I said, I have tremendous respect for the amount of work editing an anthology requires.

But as we know from novel-length works, the way one honors a writer isn’t simply by offering to publish their work. It’s by offering to publish their work and then compensating them fairly for it.

Short stories, to my mind, aren’t any different.

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