EDITING A “BEST” ANTHOLOGY, by Jon L. Breen
For two years, I edited an anthology selecting the best mystery and crime short stories of the previous year. That sounds like an enjoyable job, and for the most part, it is. Reading and selecting the stories is a pleasure. Having the opportunity to honor (and pay) one’s colleagues gives satisfaction. But some other aspects of putting the collection together are less enviable.
In the year my Mystery: The Best of 2001 was published, two other American volumes were devoted to selecting the best of the year, one edited by Ed Gorman and Martin H. Greenberg, the other by Otto Penzler and James Ellroy. Perhaps surprisingly, there was very little agreement among the three volumes. What is best is, after all, a matter of individual taste, and other factors enter into the selection process.
The anthology editor must look for variety as well as quality. A book representing the broad range of the crime fiction field shouldn’t be overloaded with police procedurals or private-eye stories or spousal murder case histories or code-breaking spy stories or any other subcategory. Also, if the stories designated best are all by little-known writers, the publisher won’t be happy. While keeping an eye on the budget, the editor must also be on watch for big names. My best-of-2001 volume included Ruth Rendell, Loren D. Estleman, Dana Stabenow, and Edward D. Hoch; 2002 had Hoch again plus Clark Howard, George P. Pelecanos, Ed Gorman, James Sallis, and Donna Andrews.
My first “best” volume had another factor to consider. Since it was to be published first as an audio book, with the paperback version to follow, I looked for stories that would read well aloud, usually ones that followed a central character throughout for the reader to identify with. Stories with multiple narrators or difficult structural devices I tended to pass over, regardless of their quality. Ironically, the audio publishers did not get enough advance orders, and the audio version was never produced. For my second volume, suitability for reading aloud was not a consideration.
One advantage of a best-of-the-year volume is that the authors are usually alive. Any anthologist will tell you that, with few exceptions, dealing with the living is preferable to dealing with agents for the dead. My wife and I edited American Murders (1986), a collection of short novels published in the American Magazine between the early 1930s and its demise in the mid-1950s. The then-living authors, including such major names as Hugh Pentecost and Mignon G. Eberhart, were quite willing to have their stories returned to print in this labor-of-love anthology for no advance but a share of subsequent royalties. Only the estates of two of the deceased writers required payment up front, which our publisher came up with but, of course, subtracted from the first royalties due us.
There were no deceased writers in my first two best-of-the-year volumes. But in the first year the agent for one well-known writer held me up for an advance payment about three times what the other authors were getting – I would have happily dropped the story, but unfortunately the manuscript had already gone to the publisher, who was not willing to lose a big name from the table of contents. The second year, I learned my lesson and made sure all agreements were in place before I gave any names to the publisher. (On the down side, the fact that no names other than mine were featured on the cover undoubtedly hurt sales.) This time around, one author’s agent turned me down completely, for reasons I can’t imagine.
Anthologists who are also writers face the question of including their own work. When Ed Hoch edited an annual best anthology, he almost always included one of his own stories, and rightly so. Who could possibly put together a short-story anthology without Ed Hoch? But for those of us of lesser stature, picking ourselves as “best” may seem egotistical and normally I would not. For my first best volume, though, I included one of my own stories, really a critique of trends in the mystery field in the form of fiction, so that if the collection ran long, I could drop my own story and would not have to disappoint another contributor. After the fact, the publisher criticized me for this decision, said I was damaging my credibility. The second time around, I did not select one of my own, and when the publisher decided he wanted a shorter book than originally projected, I did have to drop a very good story by a well-known contributor.
No, it wasn’t always fun.
This article was revised from a column originally written for the Japanese mystery magazine Giallo. It was subsequently published online on November 7, 2004, on Ed Gorman’s blog at edgorman.com. It then appeared in print in Mystery*File 47, February 2005. The anthology series discussed, though of estimably high quality, ended after two volumes because of poor sales.
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