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Submission Call: The Anthology Ponzi Scheme

Anthology Scam

Buckle up, buttercups. I’m about to show you a persistent and predatory publishing scam as old as publishing itself. I know nobody enjoys hearing unpleasant truths that shatter their hopes and dreams, especially not writers, but I feel obligated to share an exploitive pattern that decades in publishing has taught me over and over again.

The Short Story Problem

There is no good market for short stories. Period. Issac Asimov discovered this before I was born. Back in the day, he wrote for anthologies. A lot of writers do when they’re starting out. We’re told by gatekeepers that we need to stack bylines to get a book deal, and selling shorts is the quickest way. That’s still somewhat true for traditional publishing, but quickly becoming irrelevant in the days of self-publishing.

Let me ask you a simple question. If anthologies are the answer, then why did Issac launch Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine?

Back to Anthologies

A Quick Overview of Pyramid Schemes

First, we need to understand how pyramid schemesPonzi schemes, and MLM (multi-level marketing) schemes work. Click those Wiki links for in-depth explanations, but here’s the executive summary as it applies to anthologies: the person at the top of the pyramid, aka as the editor or publisher, is the one who benefits most from the entire publication.

Beware of Anthology Editors

The person at the top of the pyramid frequently features their own short story by putting it first in the anthology. Next, they reward their circle of writer friends (the next level of the pyramid) by placing their works near the front of the book. Finally, they finish out the collection with those writers who came into the project last via an open submission call (aka the bottom of the pyramid).

Many times this ranking of short stories is the only monolithic editing done for the entire anthology. I’ve read (and been published in) anthologies that didn’t even bother to proofread the submissions. Editing falls almost entirely on the writer, which is a real shame, because most aspiring writers submit to anthologies looking for helpful editorial feedback. Don’t expect to get anything except glowing compliments on your fantastic story. Little, if any, real story work will be done by the editor. Their real job is reading through the slush pile and sending rejection/acceptance emails.

Okay, so we’ve established that many anthologies are promotion vehicles for the person who created the project to elevate their work among a collection of others. Their name, their brand, and their work gets the spotlight. Now, let’s examine anthology marketing.

Lack of Paid Marketing for Anthologies

When was the last time you saw an anthology on NetGalley? Big House publishers might spring for this reviewer showcase, but this blog post is mostly directed at small publishers, many of which are straight-up con artists. Sadly, other innocent small presses just copy what they see working for scammers.

Nearly all small press anthologies rely on writers at the bottom of the pyramid to shill the anthology and boost the brand recognition of the writers at the top. Just like AmwayAvon, and Mary Kay, they enthusiastically congratulate those who got accepted into the collection, then immediately turn around and tell them to “help make our publication a success” by direct-selling the title to their friends, family, and readers. Sorry to burst your bubble, but you’re never gonna get the pink Cadillac, honey.

I saw the same thing in an NFT publishing project I once felt very enthusiastic about. If you ask about their marketing plan, and they tell you they’re relying on YOU and YOUR platform to make the project a success, RUN! RUN fast, because that’s an MLM scheme.

Okay, we’ve established the predatory marketing pattern of scam anthologies. Now let’s talk about the MONEY, because it’s all about the Benjamins baby.

Follow the Anthology Money

In the past couple years, I’ve seen pyramid tops launch Kickstarter campaigns to pay for their anthology projects. Many writers who still believe self-publishing is illegitimate will gladly submit to these self-proclaimed literary successes who, in turn, just self-publish the anthology.

One question: If the small publisher isn’t paying for a Net Galley (or any other big promotion sites) then why do they need to raise so much money?

Sure, they might pay for a gorgeous cover (and I applaud them for doing so because that’s an essential part of book marketing) but how much did the publisher pay the writer for their story? In most cases, it’s a one-time token payment along with being “featured” on the publisher’s website and email newsletter. Even if the small press offers pro rates, that’s only $200 for a 2K word story. Multiple that times a dozen or so stories in the collection, and that’s less than $2,500 + the price of a cover the editor/publisher has to invest in the book.

Where does the rest of the Kickstarter money go?

In the pocket of the person at the top, that’s where.

After publication, sales income will also go to them. The litmus test? Ask for a royalty split or profit share.

The biggest problem here is the person at the top of the pyramid already made their money before ever publishing the anthology, so again, they have little to no incentive to actually market and sell the book after it’s done. Marketing is real work, and it’s harder than grooming aspiring writers, so they just move on and churn out yet another anthology, starting the use-and-abuse cycle all over again..

This is the other big shame, because most writers want to be in anthologies because they believe it will help them find their audience and grow their platform. Many times, the writers actually published IN the anthology don’t bother to read the whole thing (or even take time to write reviews for it).

The Scummiest of Scum

What makes me most angry about this kind of anthology scam is that it’s a less transparent version of a vanity press where authors simply pay to be published. Money is supposed to flow to the writer. You are working to SELL your content. You are the talent. NEVER pay anyone to be published. Period.

Paying the publisher includes contributing to a Kickstarter (or any other crowd-funding campaign) for a project you hope to get into. You also should NOT have to subscribe to the editor’s paid channels or Patron or any of their micro-revenue streams to “get noticed” so they accept you. Honestly, you shouldn’t even have to kiss their ass on Twitter, but that’s whole other blog post.

Lack of Anthology Readers

So lets put all this shady shit aside and assume you’re submitting to a legit publishing enterprise. At the end of the day, the market for anthologies is abysmal at best. It’s a niche within a genre, so those agents who passed on your AOC or queer novel for being “too small a market” should be the first to agree anthologies won’t bring much of a return on your writing investment.

Even if you manage to negotiate a royalty share on your short story, after 30% goes to the distributor and another 50% goes to the editor/publisher you’re looking at getting <1/12 of <1000 books sold. Trust me, you won’t be able to live off that. Not even if you get published in a dozen anthologies every year for many years. You’d do better self-publishing (and marketing) your own novels.

Now, let’s add the sad statistic that the average American reads ONE book a year. ONE. That’s it. ONE – within all genres and categories. How do you think that small press anthology is going to do up against any novel on the NYT Bestseller List?

If you’re gonna gamble, at least play the odds.

The only writers making a living with anthologies are A-listers at the top of the food chain who could carry an entire collection of their own short stories alone. There are very few of those celebrity writers. And the sad truth is that anthology scammers love to point at them and feed your hope that you can do it too.

Getting Real About Anthologies

Put all the evidence aside. Ignore my argument. Throw out the math. Fine.

My final question: When was the last time you read an entire anthology (from beginning to end) that you weren’t published in?

Yeah, I can’t remember any either.