My Experience with The Best of Twisty Christmas Tales – Part One

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Our anthology, The Best of Twisty Christmas Tales, hit number 2 on the New Zealand AC Nielsen lists. Find out how below.

The Best of Twisty Christmas Tales was the brainchild of Peter Friend, Eileen Mueller and A.J. Ponder—three writers with previous editorial experience. A lot of authors consider putting together an anthology. However, there are roadblocks to publishing a good anthology, and a huge amount of homework before it can be successfully marketed. I’m Eileen Mueller, and today I’ll share how we created a strong anthology. Hopefully this will provide you with the motivation and skills to go ahead with your own collaborative projects.

Obstacles

Our biggest hurdles when we were planning The Best of Twisty Christmas Tales in early 2014 were:

  • Three editors (which led to three opinions about every submission)
  • An enormous workload
  • An extremely tight budget
  • A pessimistic local book-selling community telling us that, “Anthologies don’t sell,” and “Kids don’t like short stories.”

Most of these obstacles could be overcome with careful planning and by developing a robust editorial and marketing process, so we went ahead. We had a vision and could see tangible rewards, although we never realised how sweet those rewards would be.

Rewards

Peter, A.J. and I agree that our collection was worth the hard work. Our highlights were:

  • We never dreamed that in our launch week we’d hit #2 on the AC Nielsen Independent Bookseller’s Children’s List! The Best of Twisty Christmas Tales rated second only to Diary of a Wimpy Kid – The Long Haul.
  • We didn’t know we’d do three print runs in six weeks and sell out!
  • We made new relationships in our community of Twisty authors. Many of these authors went on to do other projects together.
  • The book helped raise our profiles in the local community among booksellers, publishers, schools and writers.

Surprisingly, one of the authors who submitted a story was also an indie publisher. She liked our editing suggestions so much that she invited me to work with The Fairytale Factory, writing for their You Say Which Way series. She has published my books Dragons Realm and Mystic Portal and two of Peter’s books as well. Dragons’ Realm won the 2016 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best Youth Novel.

Although we were enthusiastic, we couldn’t have foreseen these amazing benefits.

Tips for Creating a Strong Anthology

How did we do it? What are the nuts and bolts of getting a good collection together?

1. Select an Appealing Theme

We wanted a children’s anthology with a strong kiwi (New Zealand) flavour. Christmas celebrations in summer are uniquely kiwi. (Don’t let Australians tell you otherwise!) Kiwi kids enjoy reading about stories they can relate to, and kids from around the world are curious to learn about Christmas in the sun. (We actually have two stories from ‘Aussies’ in our collection!)

By selecting Christmas as a theme, we knew we wouldn’t have sustained sales all year round, and that our most intense marketing period would be from October to December. This wouldn’t suit most projects, but it worked for us. When deciding your theme, be aware of its appeal and limitations.

Please note that, although booksellers only sell Christmas books at Christmas time, kids love to read about Christmas all year around.

2. Know Your Market

Our primary market was local. We wanted to print and distribute paperbacks in New Zealand, so we could utilise the contributing authors’ local connections. We also uploaded books to Amazon and marketed them overseas, but the New Zealand print market was our primary goal. It’s important to understand your market when designing your marketing plan.

3. Choose Editors that Complement Each Other’s Strengths

Our team of three editors are good all-rounders, but we each have different strengths: Peter is a plot fanatic and a creative world builder, A.J. is great at story structure and a complete character buff, and Eileen loves action and emotional resonance. Among us, we have a broad range of humour and are experienced in writing for children. When analysing stories, we all brought these strengths to play. I won’t start rumours about the fun discussions we had, but I will say that none of us were afraid to voice our opinions!

If you’re going to partner with another editor or two, know their strengths and weaknesses.

4. Publicize your Call for Submissions Widely

Our required stories were in a tight genre (children’s speculative Christmas fiction, with a kiwi twist) so we knew we had to publicize our call for submissions widely. We contacted every writer we knew—then contacted those we didn’t, via writers’ organisations and online. Some of the channels we used were SpecFicNZ, NZ Society of Authors, Children’s Book Associations, blog posts, Facebook groups, other social media, email lists and online writing forums. We attended the NZ National Science Fiction and Fantasy conference to launch our request for submissions.

5. Pay Your Authors

We strongly believe that authors should be paid, even if that payment isn’t huge. This attracts a higher calibre of authors than when you request free stories. Everyone should be paid for their work. (This will affect your financial plan—more about that in part two.

6. Have the Courage to Invite Famous Authors to Contribute

Remember the advice we got? Anthologies never sell. Kids don’t like short stories. To sell our collection of quirky Christmas tales, we knew we’d need the credibility of top authors’ names. Several famous New Zealand and Australian authors contributed stories to The Best of Twisty Christmas Tales. Some of our other children’s authors had extensive experience writing for children in educational and commercial publications. But how did we achieve that?

Here’s how our three most famous authors jumped aboard:

Joy Cowley  is New Zealand’s top children’s author. With over 600 publications to her name, she writes extensively for kids of all ages, from tiny tots right through to teenagers. I’ve watched my children enjoy her work, even into their teenage years.

One day, I said to Peter and A.J., “If only we had a story from Joy Cowley.” Peter, ever flippant, answered, “Well, then ask her!” So I did.

I was managing a literary festival for kids and Joy was guest of honour. In between welcoming Joy and our Mayor, I asked her whether she’d be interested in contributing a story or a reprint to our anthology. For a long moment, while Joy considered my request, I thought I was going to be hung out to dry, but then she replied, “Yes, I believe I might have something appropriate that I can dig out for you.”

The result, Kiwi Christmas, is a New Zealand take on the Christian Christmas story, (which is also a picture book). Our readers love it, and we appreciate Joy’s gracious contribution.

joy-cowley

I met David Hill while participating in one of his writing workshops. He mentioned that, as well as books, he writes paid articles for magazines and newspapers. I approached him and asked if he’d like to do a paid foreword for The Best of Twisty Christmas Tales, telling him I’d send him the whole collection and he’d have right of refusal if he didn’t think the collection was up to standard.

When I sent David the finished anthology, I added a cheeky note, mentioning that if he had a story he’d like to include, we could consider it. He was thrilled at the standard of the collection and sent Keeping Afloat, about a Christmas parade gone wrong. It was a win-win situation. By the way, David’s foreword is hilarious, a great story in its own right.

Dave Freer, a top Australian Science Fiction writer who lives on Flinders Island among wombats and wallabies, was a guest of honour at the Science Fiction and Fantasy convention when we opened submissions for The Best of Twisty Christmas Tales. While talking about the value of supporting emerging authors, he offered to provide a story! We were thrilled with How to Train Your Princess.

With three well-known authors committed to contributing, we were confident we’d have a great anthology.

Do you know any authors who might provide a story for your collection? Remember that when you pay authors, even a small amount, you’re more likely to elicit a positive response.

7. Selecting Strong Stories

Apart from a few invited guests, during your submission process, blind submissions are best, so editors are influenced purely by the quality of the story, not who wrote it.

Sometimes you have so many submissions that you can pick and choose the best stories and only minimal editing is required. For other anthologies you may find that you don’t have a large submission pool and editorial suggestions may be needed to strengthen plot, character arc, or address world-building issues. Most writers happily take feedback and modify their work.

If you’re not pleased with the quality of the submissions you receive, you don’t have to go ahead.

The breadth of your collection will depend on your market. If you have a themed anthology, specify whether you’d like a variety of genres, themes and styles, or stories of a specific nature (e.g.: science fiction). If you’re selling to a wide market, ensure your stories present a diverse range of subjects within that theme. If you’re targeting a niche market, be very specific. For example, I know one publisher that only publishes military science fiction with monsters, and their anthologies and books rocket out the door because their customers love that genre.

It was important to us to have a well-rounded children’s anthology because kids’ tastes are varied. We selected fantasy stories, tear-jerkers, science fiction, mainstream fiction, a scary story and some funny ones. We even took a kiwi Christmas poem.

8. Fix Similar Stories

We selected three strong stories that featured naughty boys getting into trouble at Christmas. All three authors had a great premise, excellent stories and deserved to be in the collection, but we didn’t want so many similar stories in one collection. Instead of rejecting two of them, we asked one author to consider making the main character a girl—which worked brilliantly. Another author rewrote the ending—which turned out to be hilarious. The third author had no idea there had ever been an issue.

We were pleasantly surprised by the great attitude of the author who rewrote his story and we were all thrilled when it received rave reviews on a prominent New Zealand children’s book blog. Don’t be afraid to ask.

In summary, by defining your market, and selecting an appealing theme, you’re setting your collection up well. With a wide call for submissions from authors who expect to be paid, including a few stories from well-known authors, you should get a pool of quality stories to choose from. By working with editors who complement your strengths and by asking authors for required changes, the collection should be in good shape by the time you’re ready to go to market.

Following the eight steps above may not give you an instant bestseller, but they will help you create a strong anthology that appeals to readers in your market. In part two, I’ll discuss 7 Tips for Launching a Bestselling Anthology.

The Best of Twisty Christmas Tales is available on Amazon as an e-book and paperback, and is a great Christmas gift for 8-12 year-olds.

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Eileen Mueller
 

Awarded two Sir Julius Vogel Awards for Best New Talent and Best Youth Novel (Dragons’ Realm), Eileen Mueller lives in New Zealand with four dragonets and a shape-shifter. She has also won SpecFicNZ and NZ Society of Authors literary contests. Visit her website for free, non-stop fantasy action and adventures or her Amazon author page here.