After I published two successful young adult nonfiction anthologies – with work currently underway on a third – one of the questions I receive most often is at once the most basic and the most challenging: How do you create your anthologies?
My first anthology sale was the thing of dreams. I tweeted about an idea I had for a collection of feminist essays geared toward teens, and an editor reached out to me to talk. I got on the phone with her, as well as another editor at the publisher, and we brainstormed what such a project could look like. The next steps, though, were entirely on me and involved crafting a proposal for the book.
Proposing an anthology requires creating an in-depth outline for the collection, if it’s not being submitted as a full manuscript for consideration. It can be overwhelming to think about, especially if you are working on a large and nebulous topic – mine were on feminism and mental health! – but spending the time to create a solid outline pays dividends not only for selling the concept to an editor but also for you in curating it. To develop the outline, start with a larger idea of what you hope to accomplish, then winnow down how you plan to succeed with the key features of the collection through the following: a short synopsis of the book’s purpose, the need for it, and comparative titles; an introduction; a table of contents; a potential contributor list; a sample inquiry letter for contributors; and, optionally, your personal contribution (essay, story, art, etc.) to the work.
For all of my anthologies, the synopsis was the best tool I had in shaping the entire proposal. Being succinct with the synopsis and keeping it at about a page long ensured I could quickly and easily explain the project to anyone who asked. It also gave me a blueprint for homing in on the more granular aspects that constitute the big theme of the collection.
I like to include in proposals what I’d use as an introduction to the anthology. Though the introductions I crafted for my proposals were not published in the final version, including them in the proposal – and writing them more broadly – provides an opportunity not only for further focusing on the theme of the collection but also for defining the overall editorial tone and style. Will it be serious? Will it contain levity? How the topic will be covered throughout may change piece by piece, but the editorial voice prepares readers for what to anticipate as a whole.
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The table of contents is probably the most important part of the proposal, despite being the most nebulous. Without a fully completed manuscript, especially for collections with multiple contributors who’ve yet to submit work, you cannot know what a table of contents might look like. But this is the space to dream. I build my contents with as many topics that relate to the book’s theme as possible. I think about the various intersections of those topics, too, and then I find a way to collect them in logical sections. These will change throughout the process as contributors choose what they will explore in their work, and sections might change as different pieces offer perspectives that emerge when read back-to-back. In some cases, the proposed table of contents has shifted my entire introduction and even parts of my synopsis, as I’ve found better ways to really elucidate what I hope the collection says and does.
In building a contributor list, you may find it’s worth putting together two lists. One, a list of potential contributors you suspect might be interested or that you absolutely plan to reach out to. How you curate this list will depend upon the themes or goals of your anthology, of course. The second list is the dream list: who, given limitless budget or access, would be someone amazing for the collection? Not only does the possibility of nailing down a dream contribution exist when you put it on paper but, also, it gives your mind an opportunity to consider other voices you might not include on these initial lists but discover while editing.
I’ve never reached out to the people on these lists prior to including them in a proposal. This is a tool meant to clarify who you’d like to work with and one that helps you align your goals within the synopsis and the table of contents with those individuals who might reach them. The time and effort put into developing contributor lists will pay off significantly once the project begins. Like the table of contents, this doesn’t need to be set in stone.
Developing a letter of solicitation for contributors and including it in an anthology proposal further hones your book’s purpose and goals while also giving you the template for reaching out to the potential contributors upon selling the book. The letter should include who you are, the tentative name of your collection, a brief explanation of the collection (you can winnow down your synopsis into a couple of sentences here, which also will be immensely useful as an elevator pitch down the road), and what your expectations are regarding length, compensation, deadlines, and potential topics.
I always leave it open to contributors to write what they like for the anthology – it shows in their work whether they’re passionate or not – but noting precisely why you chose them demonstrates that you’ve done your research into what they have to offer a collection like yours. (Though the letter of solicitation will be a template included in the proposal, you will customize each person’s prior to sending it out to pinpoint why you seek their voice.)
The final aspect of a proposal may be your own contribution to the book. I debated whether or not I wanted to have an essay in my first anthology and did not include one as part of a proposal. For my second anthology, I included an essay I’d written for a different outlet that captured the proposed tone of the collection, though ultimately I wrote something fresh to include. My third anthology proposal included a piece I wrote specifically for the collection, and it’s one I plan to include. The essay was vital here, as it best conveyed the overall tone of the book, which was less clear-cut in the synopsis than I’d hoped. Showcasing it with my own writing helped make the proposal clearer, and it gave me something to offer potential contributors seeking a sample essay for the collection.
Once all of these pieces are complete, you’ll have a sharp proposal that will also serve as an outline to pulling a collection together as smoothly as possible. Like anywhere in publishing, there are no guarantees, and some agents or publishers may prefer a different format. But no matter what, these are crucial components of refining an idea for an anthology into something actionable.
Kelly Jensen is a former teen librarian who worked in several public libraries before pursuing a full-time career in writing and editing. Her current position is with Book Riot (bookriot.com), where she focuses on young adult literature. Her books include Here We Are: Feminism for The Real World and (Don’t) Call Me Crazy, a collection of art, essays, and words to launch an important conversation about mental health. The latter was named a best book of 2018 by the Washington Post and earned a Schneider Family Book Award Honor. Body Talk, her third anthology, is due out in fall 2020 from Algonquin Young Readers.