Editing an essay anthology: Part 1

As you may recall, I’m working on a new essay anthology for TouchWood Editions about LGBT relationships and families. With the winter teaching semester over, I’m now turning my attention toward the book in order to have a manuscript ready to send to the publisher in the fall.

People often ask me how these books come together, so I thought I’d try to document the process this time around. While most readers have a sense of how a novel comes together (a writer holes up in his or her favourite coffee shop with a laptop and emerges a few months later, looking weary and rumpled with a first draft in hand), they have a more difficult time figuring out what goes into creating an edited essay anthology. I suspect the process is a bit different for each editor and each book, but here’s how it works for my books.

First, it’s important to realize that essay anthologies meant for a general readership, like mine, are different from those meant for an academic audience. Many academic anthologies are collections of articles that have already been published in journals and conference proceedings and the like. The academic editor’s job, then, is to track down articles around a particular theme, clear the permissions to republish them and write an introduction. The idea behind an academic anthology is to collect all of the current thinking about a given issue in one place, instead of having to search through hundreds of different journals for it.

Conceptually, the type of anthology I edit is quite different. Instead of being a textbook filled with scholarly research and thinking, it’s meant to be an engaging, accessible collection of essays about people’s lives that is meant for a general (i.e., non-academic) reader. It’s the type of book you’d pick up for pleasure reading, as opposed to a textbook. As such, this type of anthology is meant to feature entirely original material, not reprints of pieces that have already been published. So, a big part of my job as editor is to find the 20 to 25 original essays that will make up the book. If you think that sounds like a big, intimidating job, you’re right!

For my current project about LGBT relationships and families, I went about gathering stories in two ways. First, I commissioned original essays from writers I knew would have interesting stories to share. Some of these were writers I knew and had worked with in the past, while others were people whose work I’d admired over the years but never actually worked with or met.

At the same time, I wrote up a call for submissions explaining the project and the type of essays I was looking for. I then posted that call on my website, shared it on Facebook and Twitter and emailed it to every writer and writers’ organization I could think of. And then, I waited.

One of best aspects of editing a book like this is sending a call for submissions out into the world and seeing what sort of great, unexpected material comes back. But it’s also more than a little terrifying. During the submissions period, I lose a lot of sleep worrying that no one will send in an essay. But in the end, I had lots of submissions, many more than I could possibly publish, which lead to the unenviable task of having to decline some of them.

In most cases, I end up declining submissions because they don’t fit the mix I’m looking for. By mix, I mean the variety of topics, approaches and points of view. In a book like this one, every essay can’t be about lesbians looking for sperm donors or gay men looking for surrogates. The idea behind this book is to showcase as wide a range of experiences as possible, so a big part of my job as editor is to find the right balance of engaging, interesting stories without their becoming repetitive.

My deadline for submissions was January 2013. At that point, I started to read through all of the essays I had received in order to figure out which I could accept and which I’d have to decline. By mid-February, I was able to send out acceptance and rejection notes to everyone who submitted an essay.

These days, I’m editing the pieces I was able to accept. This is the bulk of the work involved in editing an essay anthology, as you might imagine, and I expect it will take me most of the summer. But I love it: getting to work with smart, talented writers to make their good writing even better is the best part of my job. Speaking of which, I should get back to it. In my next post, I’ll write about the editing process.