The Editing of Book Anthologies (1997)

I’ve been editing books of criticism and imaginative literature for some three decades now and have evolved some practical rules perhaps worth sharing. The first involves inclusions. In my experience, an anthology—by definition, a collection of flowers—should have a concept so strong and definite that it automatically excludes everything except what belongs. If the anthologist’s definition of what he or she plans to collect is firm and clear, he or she will have no trouble fending off the designs of colleagues, friends, lovers, and others who might want to hoist (or foist) their work aboard. It should become quite clear that anything fundamentally different from the clear mandate of the book will look curious, if not suspicious. If that might happen, the anthologist would, in truth, be doing her or her friend/lover/colleague a favor NOT to include it. (I once had to warn a particularly persistent supplicant that, if his inappropriate work were included, readers might conjecture me his lover or dope supplier.)

Conversely, one private test of an anthology of mine is whether it includes selections from people I personally dislike, even some who might have once done me dirty, simply because their work fits better than anything else. Another move new to me, which I hope is accepted elsewhere, is putting the contributors’ names under mine on the book’s title page, if only because they are, literally, my co-authors; recognition in the book’s table of contents (and perhaps its biographical notes) is not enough.

A second rule involves getting permissions. I think it better that I obtain them, with a permissions form that is returned to me; so that everyone is accountable to me as the book’s editor (and my money), rather than some publishing factotum (with someone’s else money that is customarily charged ultimately to me). This is not hard to do, if you write a friendly letter that can be easily countersigned and set aside a single file in which to collect responses. I always send the permissions forms initially to authors, if they are alive and can be found, in part because I prefer to deal with colleagues rather than conglomerates, but also because, if their publisher controls reprint rights, the authors can advise of their wish to appear in the book. Even though some friends will give you permissions gratis, out of respect for you, I customarily send a check anyway, out of respect for them. The cancelled check also becomes evidence of compliance should, say, the author’s estate snap at your tail.

A third rule involves the distribution of money. Assuming that copyright to all (or nearly all) the contents of the projected book belong to other people, I announce in my permission form what the total advance to me is and then explain that two-thirds of this sum will be divided evenly on a per-page basis among the book’s contributors or their agents, with no exceptions. So, if the advance to me is $7,500 and the book has 250 pages, two-thirds of that sum, or $5,000, is then divided evenly at $20.00 per page. A contribution ten pages long therefore gets $200.00; one five pages long, $100.00. Since the permissions agreement is made with me, I draw the payment checks myself, noting at the bottom the per-page rate and the number of pages.

One charm of this principle of equal division is preventing unnecessary negotiations and other time-consuming nonsense. A subsidiary advantage is that I can’t make any exceptions for anyone without getting into trouble with everyone else. I really can’t, because if anyone discovers that an exception had been made my reputation for fair dealing would be blown away. If someone persists in requiring that his or her permission should be higher than everyone else’s, I explain that to honor their request, “intrinsically acceptable though it would be, would violate my agreements with the other contributors and that while you might like the idea of an anthology containing only your own work, you can understand why my publisher would find such a book unsatisfactory, canceling the contract to the detriment of us both.”

From time to time, someone will insist that his or her work is worth a certain sum, say $40.00 per page, as it might have been for a previous anthology. If he or she persists in requesting a sum that is, say, twice the anthologist’s budget, ask them what they would think of someone who wanted $200 for a household job, such as fixing a toilet, for which they were prepared to spend $100, a price acceptable to most plumbers. They’d conclude the high bidder didn’t want the job. It is similarly reasonable to conclude that anyone making excessive demands finally didn’t want to appear in the book, any palaver to the contrary notwithstanding. Just recently, a publisher waited five months to demand nearly all of my budget for just two essays by a has-been composer. My assumption was that its permissions person was trying to impress its arrogant author with his avarice at the same time he was keeping him out of the book, Lord knows why, rewarding both them and his company with nothing.

In an anthology done for a new division of an established conglomerate, the permissions person was charging more than twice my budget to reprint from books previously published by the division when it was independent. That means not only that the conglomerate permissions person didn’t have respect for the size of the new division’s advances, but that, since the prices were unacceptable, he was keeping the division’s own authors out of its own books. Since the division’s chief was unable to change the permissions person’s mind, my hunch was that someone was turning corporate screws that had nothing to do with me and thankfully moved on. Whenever a publisher charges a price that is obviously unacceptable—that keeps their work unreprinted—you have reason to question how well it is representing its authors. I guess no one so aggressive gets terminated for returning from a financial opportunity with empty hands.

From time to time, a contributor or, more usually, his publisher wants to put a limit on the duration or the number of copies available with his or her permission. Some even want a share of the royalties. While such requests are superficially reasonable, the problem here is that, especially if an anthology has many contributors or the anthologist has many books, it is almost impossible to keep track of special individual deals. I’m not a financial institution that is organized to send various dividends at various times. Furthermore, I may not always know in advance when a publisher reprints a book beyond different arbitrary limitations in the number of copies. (From time to time I wonder if people demanding such variable limitations can keep tract of them as well.) I also know that removing an essay from a book already in print entails needless expense that the publisher would probably charge to me. Therefore, any anthologist accepting such limits is inviting extortion. If someone insists upon my agreeing to limits, I usually ask whether, if he goes away for a week, he leaves the door to his house unlocked?

The fact that some people don’t respect the anthologist’s principles, alas, is one reason to tell your publisher, when you propose the book or sign a contract, that you can deliver only the best materials available within a particular concept—you cannot promise to deliver every item in the original proposal. To do otherwise is another sure device for inviting extortion. My own sense is that promising in advance to deliver a complete table of contents is strictly for assistant professors who don’t mind going into hock for a publication credit; it is not for professional authors and thus that publishers demanding such promises should be avoided.

Sometimes authors whom I have approached first insist that their publisher won’t “come down” from their exorbitant fees (and at times renewal stipulations). Instead of giving up, as they usually do, such authors, if they have respect for my anthology-in-progress, the principles outlined here, and their own work, should consider interceding with the publisher to make up on their own all differences between the publisher’s demands and my per-page fee, in effect paying for their publisher’s avarice. Half of these receipts should come back to the authors at royalty time. (I could imagine situations where I would do this to get my own work into anthologies where I thought it belonged.)

In my own experience, very few prospective contributors (no more than one or two) refuse to go along with the principle of equal division, once they understand it. From time to time I’ve written a letter saying that my publisher and I argued over whether or not XYZ belonged in the book; by asking for funds beyond our means, XYZ (or his representative) has settled our argument negatively. Make people responsible for their own greed. You’d like to think the people had enough respect for their own (or their client’s) work to want it to be where an anthologist thinks it belongs, but sometimes they don’t. And there is nothing you can do about such people; my degrees are not in social work.