The idea flashes across your frontal cortex: ‘Why don’t we …?’
It only takes a second to get a bright idea. One of these came to me in January 2020, in the midst of the devastating bushfires that were raging around Australia. As expected, artists of all persuasions began responding; an outpouring of words, pictures and music resulted as we came to grips with the catastrophic fire events that filled our news channels. It felt important to find a way to record these flashes of insight in a more permanent way.
I love the richness that reading an anthology provides; I have many such works in my library, from small books of haiku to more weighty tomes. I still love dipping into my much-loved 32-year-old copy of Seven Centuries of Poetry in English, edited by John Leonard – a remnant from my university days. The diversity of poetic voices in a combined work delights my senses, feeds my soul. Reading from a polyphonic work, I feel part of something much larger, I imagine I am travelling across time and space into strange new worlds (I may be paraphrasing John Keats, who ‘oft … travelled in the realms of gold’).
Creating a poetry anthology was, therefore, a simple decision to make. I always prefer to collaborate on a large project. Although we had not met in person, I approached Denise O’Hagan (who lives in Sydney, while I am in Victoria). As poetry editor (Australia/New Zealand) of The Blue Nib, Denise had invited me to submit to that poetry journal, and from my dealings with this wonderful woman I knew she had the credentials to complement my own experience. To my utter delight, Denise immediately agreed to become involved. What happened from that point on has been a journey for both of us; bringing Messages from the Embers: From Devastation to Hope to life provided us with a wonderful opportunity to connect meaningfully with other poets, to develop a keener understanding about the bushfires and their impact, and, ultimately, to raise funds for a charity – BlazeAid – to support their bushfire relief programs.
Of course, an anthology might be a collection of poems, short prose, or a combination of these. It may contain artwork and/or photos. The editor/s usually decide on the type of content they wish to include at the same time, or shortly after, the light bulb moment. The impetus for creating an anthology might be, simply, to collect work from a local group and to share it among those members. Or, it might be larger in scale, involving the broader literary community, with the aim of publishing nationally or globally. Obviously the latter can seem a risky endeavour; fears arise as we step out into the unknown. Will there be enough submissions? Will the quality of the submissions meet expectations? Will we be able to do a professional job? Will the book be well-received? Will it sell?
‘Feel the fear and carry on regardless’ has always been my mantra. As it turned out, Denise and I had no need for any of these fears; Messages from the Embers has been a success on quite a few levels. I always felt that this book was bigger than us, bigger than all the contributors; it was an eager child just waiting to be born. All we needed to do was dedicate our time and effort over the nine-month gestation period, and at the end, despite my high anxiety just prior to launch, we proudly delivered a beautiful baby.
From start to finish, creating Embers was an amazing experience. Early on, we were delighted with the quality of poetry we were received, written through a wide array of lenses, experiences and attitudes to the catastrophe, its causes and effects. Later on, I was able to realise a long-held dream to self-publish.
Of course, committing to this kind of endeavour means being prepared to take on all the roles that were once distributed into many different hands. Doing it all yourself can seem daunting, even overwhelming at times. Fortunately, we spent time at the start laying the groundwork. Denise has a background in commercial publishing, so knew about all the steps and microtasks involved. Together we set a realistic timeline, which we were able to meet, follow and finalise before the publication date without compromising the quality of the work. (I have found, almost exclusively, after working on several anthologies, that from end to end the process will require between six and nine months.)
If you have a bright idea, and would like to create an anthology, I encourage you to do so. However, before you step off that cliff, here are key things to keep in mind.
Firstly, don’t be afraid to seek advice from others who have trod this path before. There is a wealth of knowledge out there, and the road to success may simply be a matter of posing a timely question to your community. There is no point spinning wheels, and believe me (because I tried), you probably won’t find your answer on Google!
In practical terms, the process of creating an anthology can be viewed as five stages: preparation, submission receipt and decision, content management, pre-publication and post-publication. These stages are sequential to an extent, but there are overlaps. For example, the cover design is part of the content management stage; but getting onto this early means you can begin marketing in advance. Ditto for printing and distribution. Of course, within each of these stages there are many tasks and microtasks, these will vary in depth and number according to the complexity of the anthology.
Develop a production schedule including all the steps in advance – putting out the call, selecting work and announcing successful submissions, organising an internal page design as well as a cover design, obtaining ISBNs and barcodes, commissioning someone in the field to write a foreword, checking page proofs (first, revises and final) and collating any last-minute changes, signing off on final proofs, organising a launch at publication, sending any gratis copies to key contributors as well as to libraries as a requirement for legal deposit, marketing the anthology on social media, and seeking reviews, then marketing those reviews for continued exposure of the anthology and monitoring sales figures.
It is also important to draw up a budget, and I don’t mean counting the royalties or profits. This budget is what will get you to publication stage. It is possible to produce a body of work on a minimal budget, but this still needs to be established before progressing the project. Will you be paying successful contributors? Will you need to charge an entry fee? Answering these questions will ensure you have sufficient funds to see your project through.
Aligned with this, you may need to pay for some professional support during the production process. Take inventory of the ‘in-house’ skills and expertise, and ascertain the costs for the components you need to buy in.
Unless you already have the content you require, you will need to call for submissions. Nowadays, social media makes this a lot simpler. Make sure you are clear about the kind of publication you are creating and your requirements: make your theme broad enough to create interest, but tight enough that you are not wading through irrelevant submissions. Set boundaries around number of entries per poet, maximum length of individual pieces. You also need to be clear about whether successful submissions will receive payment, and whether there is a fee to enter. Will you accept previously published work? Also state clearly if successful submitters will receive a free copy of the anthology, or whether they will be expected to pay for it.
You will need to give potential contributors enough time to polish up their work and submit it to you, but not too much time or they might delay or forget all about it. It is important to be clear about where and how submissions should be sent, and the date you need to receive them by. (Note though, that even if your message is crystal clear, you will still receive submissions that do not comply, or which arrive well after the closing date.) In general, you will need to put out weekly reminders throughout the submission period.
Deciding which submissions to accept can appear daunting, so devising a clear criteria for selection will make your job much easier. In the case of Embers, we made decisions on the basis of how well poems related to the theme. (You might be surprised to learn that many people send off their work without any care as to whether it is relevant.) Artistic merit was a huge consideration for us, and unique perspectives were also viewed favourably. On occasion, we accepted a brilliant poem with a unique perspective that exceeded the stated line limit – but this was rare. Diversity was also a key component, as we wanted to include a range of perspectives and to represent poems of all ages and differing contexts.
Review your production schedule regularly, to keep you on track, and ensure each component of the project is receiving due attention. Don’t be afraid to step back from time to time to get a longer view; when embroiled in the details, such an endeavour can become all-consuming on the one hand, and seem impossible on the other. I would be lying if I said there weren’t times Denise and I didn’t wonder what we had got ourselves into – the end seemed far away and the tasks required appeared monumental. What got us through the challenges was our utter belief in the project, mutual respect and regular communication. Underpinning all of this sits passion – for us, without passion for the project, I don’t know that success would have been possible.
The available themes and topics for anthologies are limitless, and, thanks to modern technology, they can be presented in myriad ways. I look forward to adding more anthologies to my library, and dipping once more into the power of many new voices. Like ours, they are just waiting to be born.
Note: For further information on Messages from the Embers: From Devastation to Hope edited by J Kaylock and D O’Hagan, please visit: https://blackquillpress.com/messages-from-the-embers-2/