Monday, December 12, 2011

“Why doesn’t every writers group put together an anthology?”

The question took me by surprise. I was standing on the second floor of the Plaza Hotel in New York City the evening before the opening of Book Expo 2010, when literary agent Gareth Esersky inquired, shaking her head. I was there representing the Bethlehem Writers Group in accepting two Next Generation Indie Book Awards--Best Anthology and Best Short Fiction--for our anthology, A Christmas Sampler: Sweet, Funny, and Strange Holiday Tales (available from IndieBound, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble).

My flippant answer was that there are laws against homicide.

If I hadn’t been so surprised by the question, I might have given a more thoughtful response. After considering the matter a bit, I think the answer is that putting together an anthology requires a great deal of dedication and patience, a variety of talents, and hard work by every member of the group. It isn't easy.

Authors of A Christmas Sampler
Standing: Emily P. W. Murphy, Paul Weidknecht, Will Wright,
Cindy Kelly, Ralph Hieb, Carol L. Wright, Courtney Annicchiarico
Seated: Jeff Baird, Carol A. Hanzl Birkas, Jo Ann Schaffer,
Sally Wyman Paradysz
Our group had already beaten the odds by thriving for over three years. Many writers groups find it hard to sustain a compatible and dedicated membership for such a long period of time. Our group included writers of various genres and levels of experience--hazardous to a group’s long-term success according to conventional wisdom. We were at various stages of life--from recent college grad to retired--and our personalities didn't always mesh well, but we'd found ways to reach accommodation. Through our biweekly meetings and group challenges, we'd established a rapport, a friendship, and a group identity. We were a family of writers. Publishing an anthology didn’t look like such a big leap for us . . . until we got started.

We decided to go for it in the summer of 2008, setting a publication goal of September, 2009. We thought we had plenty of time. Our first task was selecting a theme. But how do you create an anthology that incorporates children’s stories, sardonic satire, paranormal, fantasy, literary fiction, mystery, memoir, light romance, and more? 

Ultimately our location in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, nicknamed “Christmas City, USA,” gave us the direction we needed. We would compile Christmas stories. With that decided, we went to work writing our stories, each following his or her own muse. 

We brought early drafts of our stories to group meetings. Some went for a sentimental approach.

“Too schmaltzy,” one member complained.  

“But it’s a Christmas book,” the author argued. “It’s supposed to be sweet.”

“That doesn’t mean it has to be saccharine,” the first lobbed back.

When another author brought a cynical Santa story, and a third offered a vampire tale, our children’s writers must have wondered whether their stories would make the cut.

Somehow, by early spring of 2009, we had twenty-three stories of various lengths that the group voted to include in the anthology—with every author represented.

Then came the task of finding a title for such an eclectic collection. After about a hundred suggestions, we finally settled on A Christmas Sampler: Sweet, Funny, and Strange Holiday Tales. (And we all knew which ones were strange.)

We celebrated our accomplishment, not realizing that the hardest work still laid ahead, requiring talents most writers don’t possess. These included copyediting, layout, cover design, bookkeeping, and the author’s least favorite: marketing. At times it seemed overwhelming.

We were lucky that two of our members had publishing experience. One did copyediting, while the other had the artistic talents, and the required software, to create our cover and do our layout. (She even made the quilt in the background on our cover.) Time was short, and there was more to do than we realized. Tempers frayed as we tried to learn new skills and create a professional-looking product. After a lot of hard work, trial and error, doing and re-doing, we sent our files to the printer in June. By the middle of August, we held the book in our hands.

We sent copies out for reviews, but learned that many places required a review copy three months ahead of the publication date or payment of a fee. We were too late and too broke by that point to get pre-publication reviews. Undaunted, we determined to create our own buzz.

With the help of friends in newspaper publishing we put together a marketing plan, press releases, and promotional materials. We started to see some interest through online retailers, but we had gone with print-on-demand, and found it next to impossible to get our book into the chain stores, even though our group then held its meetings at a Barnes and Noble.

Undeterred, our authors spread out, setting up dozens of book signings at libraries and independent bookstores. We became our own distributors, dealing with deliveries, invoices, and discounts, but we didn’t get any returns. With many authors we could be in several places at once. One indie bookstore had us back for three signings in our first holiday season. And we knew that a Christmas book was something we could continue to market year after year.

We entered two contests, the Indie Book Awards, where we won for best anthology and best short fiction, and the DIY book awards where we won honorable mention in the anthology category. It was a delight to update our cover to include our gold award seal.

Since then we have continued to come together for our regular meetings, and welcomed new members into our group.  For some of our members, publication in A Christmas Sampler satisfied their writing goals, and they have moved on to other pursuits. For others, however, the anthology was just a step in their writing careers. Will Wright, has a fantasy novel and short stories published on Smashwords ( Carol Birkas has published a children’s book that her daughter illustrated. Several others have full-length manuscripts that they are ready to shop to agents. Still more have added short stories, articles, contest wins, and writing awards to their credits.

As a group we have expanded our endeavors to include publication of a literary magazine, BethlehemWriters Roundtable, to enhance our platform and offer members and nonmembers an opportunity to publish short stories. Continuing our goal of encouraging writers both locally and beyond, we are offering a Short Story Award with cash prizes and offers of publication for the winners. 

The publication process was stressful, but what might have torn some groups apart, drew us together. In 2010 we once again launched a group effort to promote our book at book signings and author events, and repeatedly heard another surprising question: “When is your next book coming out?”

At first the idea sounded more like a punishment than an opportunity, but time has passed. They say that parents have their children two or more years apart because it takes that long to forget the pains of sleepless nights and endless diaper changes. It has taken us three years to decide that our anthology needs a younger sibling. Having forgotten the pain and remembering most of the joys of the past, we are currently developing a new anthology—this one is for any time of year. It is tentatively entitled Seasonal Pursuits: Sweet, Funny, and Strange Tales, and has an anticipated publication in the fall of 2012.  Like many second-time parents, we’re doing things a little differently, and hopefully even better this time around.

Now in the 2011 holiday season, we’re again enjoying book signings while meeting deadlines for submissions for our new anthology. We’re very busy, but perhaps that’s part of why we’re still here. Our authors are continually engaged.

At this point, we don’t know how many “children” we’ll choose to have, but we expect to enjoy them all, and hope that readers will, too. 

(A version of this blog entry was originally published on