A few months ago, I attended a convention panel on the resurgence of the anthology in which the panelists asked attendees what motivated them to buy anthologies. Answers ranged from famous contributors, to well-known serial publications, such as L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future. This highlights a huge problem that I see in anthology collections: it is difficult to page through them and purchase them on a whim.
At Phoenix Comic Con this past weekend, Del Rey publishing house had a display copy of Rogues, a new anthology boasting short stories by such famous authors as Patrick Rothfuss (The Name of the Wind), Neil Gaiman (American Gods, Sandman),Joe Abercrombie (The First Law trilogy), Scott Lynch (The Lies of Locke Lamora), and edited by George R. R. Martin himself—much to the chagrin of his fans, who would prefer that he finish the next installment of his A Song of Ice and Fire series. I was interested in this new anthology, but didn’t pick up a copy myself, because, to be honest, the only short story in the bunch that I was interested in was the one written by GRRM. Purchasing the book would have meant dropping roughly $30 for about twenty pages of content that I actually wanted to read. I don’t say this to indicate that I dislike the work of other contributors to this collection. On the contrary, I have the utmost respect for all of them (remind me to tell you about the time I bumped into Patrick Rothfuss at PHXCC). Instead I use this anecdote to illustrate one truth: anthologies are difficult to market.
Long ago, when paper publishing was at its peak, the anthology was the best way for an author to market a short story. There were few alternatives—at best, a short story might also work as the epilogue for another similar novel length story. Now, anthologies are making a comeback, in large part driven by the ease of self publishing. Another big drive behind the new popularity of these collections is funding by Kickstarter and other crowd sourcing websites. Much has been made of these phenomena, so I won’t dwell on them. Primarily, I want to point out two changes I want to see in how anthologies are assembled and marketed in order to warrant the new popularity, and maybe even become as interesting (and worth purchasing) as novels.
First, I would like to see individual contributions to anthologies become part of a larger cohesive story. Much like chapters in a book, characters or incidents from one story could appear briefly in another story with the same theme, or set in the same city. An excellent anthology that is based on a single theme is Water, by Robin McKinley and Peter Dickinson. Although the stories never cross, they are all about mythical water creatures, such as Kraken and Mermen. The two authors alternate short stories in the book, which is one of the few anthologies that I consider a prized possession.
Secondly, and this stems from my dislike of the $30 price tag for a collection of stories of which I want just one, I think that in the modern era of electronic books, the short stories in an anthology collection should be for sale individually. This may be difficult to achieve in the physical copy, but at the same time, music has already made this switch to MP3s readily available from iTunes and other online retailers. The desire to buy an entire book (hardcover or not) for one story just no longer exists in an age where everything is available individually in a digital medium. Why should publishers be loathe to embrace this digital age? Amazon and Barnes and Noble already have proprietary e-book readers, as well as apps for other tablets, so this should not be a technology issue.
Ultimately, the day of the anthology as we have known it is long past. Publishers should not be printing these collections in hardcover at all, since the sticker price is far too high for the one or two stories the consumer actually purchases the book to read (even if they read the rest later). With just a couple of modifications in how these anthologies are published and marketed, these books and the short stories they contain may continue to exist for years to come.