An anthology of short fiction can often be an odd specimen.
When the book is put out by a large New York publisher, the anthology editor usually works with a small pool of solicited writers. After pitching an idea and getting the book approved, the editor approaches these writers with the theme and asks them to submit either original or reprint stories inspired by it.
The result is typically a mixed bag. While some of the writers use the theme as a springboard to compose brilliant stories that might not otherwise have been written, others inevitably dig themselves into a rut. The end result is a narrative that seems forced, dragging itself through the entire plot until it lies flat between the book’s covers. Without digressing too far into literary idealism, it’s easy to tell that the author wrote the story because it was solicited, not out of some bout of inspiration. This is partially why book reviewers often select a few gems out of the table of contents and then remark that the anthology is “hit and miss” — a collection of failures and duds, a few mediocre page-turners, and one or two brilliant pieces that will go on to be nominated for awards.
Whether the newly-launched site Anthology Builder is the cure to this trend is hard to say. Launched late last year, it’s the creation of Nancy Fulda, a 30-year-old stay-at-home mom and fiction writer who lives in Germany. With the cost of book production steadily decreasing through Print On Demand, the company allows the customer to compile his or her own table of contents and cover art online and have it shipped in print form.
Fulda, who is also an editor for Baen’s Universe (a short fiction ezine), said that Anthology Builder was born out of her own frustrations as a beginning writer; she wanted to sample stories from multiple publications to get a feel for an editor’s taste, but buying sample copies is expensive. There was no way to pluck out a single story for a quick read without purchasing an entire issue.
“Later, when I started publishing stories, I realized how ephemeral the lifespan of a short story really is,” she told me last month. ” A story would appear in this month’s issue of a magazine, and by next month, everyone had forgotten it. It was old news, and three or four years down the line, there really was no way for someone who liked my writing to track down that story, even if they were willing to go through the effort.”
A few months ago Fulda became frustrated because she had a list of stories she wanted to read but no easy outlet from which to purchase and read them — especially since she lives in Germany. So she wrote and published a post on her blog expressing her desire for a “do-it-yourself anthology website.” Initially, she hoped that someone else would create this site, but after a rush of positive feedback she decided to make it a project of her own.
Anthology Builder’s submission process is designed in such a way so that only reprint short stories are accepted. “We only take stories that have been previously published in a paying market, and even those, I sometimes filter based on whether I think they’ll be a good match for our customer profile,” Fulda said.
Melissa Mead, a 40-year-old writer living in New York, has 11 reprint stories available at Anthology Builder. When I asked her how she originally became involved with the site, she replied, “Actually, I just thought it sounded like fun. I saw some entries about it on LiveJournal, thought it would be a nice way to get some reprints out there being read again, and gave it a try.”
Her marketing of the reprints so far consists of “shamelessly plugging it on my LiveJournal and a few boards kind enough to put up with me.” Like others I spoke to for this article both on the record and on background, she said that she didn’t expect to make much money off the site in the near future. “I think itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a fascinating idea with great potential that IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d like to help promote,” Mead said, “and because IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d rather have my reprints out being read than gathering metaphorical dust on my hard drive, whether I make money from it or not. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d love to see it really take off.”
At the cost of $14.95 a book the customer gets to choose 350 pages worth of fiction. For every book sold, the authors get a split of $1.50, the money divided between them based on the word counts of the individual stories. “I had a choice between charging $30 per book and snagging a quick easy profit and charging $15 per book and giving the site a chance to become truly popular, to really become a place where readers come when they want short fiction,” Fulda said. “That’s my dream — to have Anthology Builder become like a mini-Amazon. When people read about a book online and they want to buy it, they go to Amazon, and they find it. I someday want to have enough fiction on the site that when people read about a short story online, the knee-jerk response is to go to Anthology Builder and add it to their next purchase.”
But how realistic is this goal? As I previously documented in a Bloggasm article, short fiction is becoming increasingly hard to market, and few profitable online models have emerged.
Samantha Henderson, a secretary from southern California who has stories available through the company, told me that she didn’t know if the site would become financially viable for authors. “I think it’s a very small niche because the genre is a small niche,” she said. “If they could expand it to other genres — say mystery — as well as mainstream they might sell a lot more product, but I don’t know how difficult it would be or if that is their intent.”
But even Fulda acknowledged that any profitability would come later rather than sooner, and that she has a significant hurdle in marketing the site. “The whole thing is kind of a gamble that way, and we won’t know whether it will pay off for another two or three years,” she said. “But in the meantime, I’m having fun, and I’m providing what I consider to be a truly valuable service to the writing community.”