“Why doesn’t every writers group put together an anthology?”
The question took me by surprise. I was standing on the second floor of the Plaza Hotel in New York City one day before the opening of Book Expo 2010, when literary agent Gareth Esersky inquired, shaking her head. I was there representing the Bethlehem Writers Group in accepting two Next Generation Indie Book Awards for our anthology, A Christmas Sampler: Sweet, Funny, and Strange Holiday Tales.
My flippant answer was that there are laws against homicide.
If I hadn’t been so surprised by the question, I might have given a more thoughtful response. After considering the matter a bit, I think the answer is that putting together an anthology requires a great deal of dedication and patience, a variety of talents, and hard work by every member of the group. The process doesn’t always run smoothly.
Our group had already beaten the odds by thriving for more than three years. Many writers groups find it hard to sustain a compatible and dedicated membership for such a long period of time. Our group included writers of various genres, which can make it harder for members to get informed critiques. Our authors ranged from those with a great deal of writing experience to those with very little—also hazardous to a group’s long-term success according to conventional wisdom. We had members of all ages from college to retirement, and personalities that didn’t always mesh well, but we had found ways to reach accommodation. Through our biweekly meetings and group challenges, we had established a rapport, a friendship, and a group identity. We had become a family of writers. Publishing an anthology didn’t look like such a big leap for us .
. . until we got started.
We decided to go for it in the summer of 2008, setting a publication goal of September, 2009. We thought we had plenty of time. Our first task was selecting a theme. But how do you create an anthology that incorporates children’s stories, sardonic satire, paranormal, fantasy, literary fiction, mystery, memoir, light romance, and more? Finding common ground in such a diverse group wasn’t easy.
Ultimately our location in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, nicknamed “Christmas City, USA,” gave us the direction we needed. We would compile Christmas stories. With that decided, we went to work writing our stories, each following his or her own muse.
We brought early drafts of our stories to group meetings. Some went for a sentimental approach.
“Too schmaltzy,” one member complained.
“But it’s a Christmas book,” the author argued. “It’s supposed to be sweet.”
“That doesn’t mean it has to be saccharine,” the first lobbed back.
When another author brought a cynical Santa story, and a third offered a vampire tale, our children’s writers must have wondered whether their stories would make the cut.
Somehow, by early spring of 2009, we had twenty-three stories of various lengths that the group voted to include in the anthology—with every author represented.
Then came the task of finding a title for such an eclectic collection. After about a hundred suggestions, we finally settled on A Christmas Sampler: Sweet, Funny, and Strange Holiday Tales. (And we all knew who the strange ones were.)
We celebrated our accomplishment, not realizing that the hardest work still laid ahead, requiring talents most writers don’t possess. These included copyediting, layout, cover design, bookkeeping, and the author’s least favorite: marketing. At times it seemed overwhelming.
We were lucky that two of our members had publishing experience. One did copyediting, while the other had the artistic talents, and the required software, to create our cover and do our layout. (She even made the quilt in the background on our cover.) Time was short, and there was more to do than we realized. Tempers frayed as we tried to learn new skills and create a professional-looking product. After a lot of hard work, trial and error, doing and re-doing, we sent our files to the printer in June. By the middle of August, we held the book in our hands.
We sent copies out for reviews, but learned that many places required a review copy three months ahead of the publication date or payment of a fee. We were too late and too broke by that point to get pre-publication reviews. Undaunted, we determined to create our own buzz.
With the help of friends in newspaper publishing we put together a marketing plan, press releases, and promotional materials. We started to see some interest in online retailers, but we had gone with print-on-demand. It was next to impossible to get our book into the chain stores, even though our group held its meetings at a Barnes and Noble.
Undeterred, our authors spread out, setting up dozens of book signings at libraries and independent bookstores. We became our own distributors, dealing with deliveries, invoices, and discounts, but we didn’t get any returns. With many authors we could be in several places at once. One indie bookstore had us back for three signings in our first holiday season. And we knew that, as a Christmas book, it was something we could continue to market year after year.
We entered two contests, the Indie Book Awards, where we won for best anthology and best short fiction, and the DIY book awards where we won honorable mention in the anthology category. It was a delight to update our cover to include our gold award seal.
Since then we have continued to come together for our regular meetings, and welcomed new members into our group. For some of our members, publication in A Christmas Sampler satisfied their writing goals, and they have moved on to other pursuits. For others, however, the anthology was just a step in their writing careers. Will Wright, has a fantasy novel and short stories published on Smashwords. Carol Birkas has published a children’s book that her daughter illustrated. Several others have full-length manuscripts that they are ready to shop to agents. Still more have added short stories, articles, contest wins, and writing awards to their credits.
As a group we have expanded our endeavors to include publication of a literary magazine, Bethlehem Writers Roundtable, to enhance our platform and offer members and nonmembers an opportunity to publish short stories. Continuing our goal of encouraging writers both locally and beyond, we are offering a Short Story Award with cash prizes and offers of publication for the winners. (See http://bwgwritersroundtable.com)
The publication process was stressful, but what might have torn some groups apart, drew us together. In 2010 we once again launched a group effort to promote our book at book signings and author events, and repeatedly heard another surprising question: “When is your next book coming out?”
At first the idea sounded more like a punishment than an opportunity, but time has passed. They say that parents have their children two or more years apart because it takes that long to forget the pains of sleepless night and endless diaper changes. It has taken us three years to decide that our anthology needs a younger sibling. Having forgotten the pain and remembering most of the joys of the past, we are currently developing a new anthology—this one is for any time of year. It is tentatively entitled Seasonal Pursuits: Sweet, Funny, and Strange Tales, and has an anticipated publication in the fall of 2012. Like many second-time parents, we’re doing things a little differently, and hopefully even better this time around.
As we go into the 2011 holiday season, we’re again gearing up for book signings while facing an impending deadline for submissions for our new anthology. We’re very busy, but perhaps that’s part of why we’re still here. Our authors are continually engaged.
At this point, we don’t know how many “children” we’ll choose to have, but we expect to enjoy them all, and hope that readers will, too.
Carol L. Wright is a fiction and nonfiction writer. As an attorney, pre-law advisor, and adjunct college professor, she has written many articles relating to law and pre-law advising, as well as the book, THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO LAW SCHOOL ADMISSION.
The Bethlehem Writers Group, LLC (BWG), is a community of mutually-supportive, fiction and nonfiction authors based in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, “Christmas City, USA.” The members are as different from each other as their stories, spanning a range of genres including: children’s, young adult, paranormal, humor, inspirational, mystery, science fiction, fantasy, women's lit, romance, literary fiction, and memoir. In addition BWG publishes a monthly literary magazine, BETHLEHEM WRITERS ROUNDTABLE and is sponsoring a SHORT STORY AWARD competition. Submission deadline for the latter is January 31, 2012. See more about BWG at their websites: http://bethlehemwritersgroup.com and http://bwgwritersroundtable.com.
Christmas is a time for love, laughter, and wonder. A Christmas Sampler: Sweet, Funny, and Strange Holiday Tales, is a compilation of twenty-three stories from the Bethlehem Writers Group to capturing all of Christmas’s myriad possibilities.
Paul Weidknecht’s “Those Things Remembered” is about a long-time mall Santa who realizes he has forgotten a child’s name. Courtney Annicchiarico believes against all evidence that she is pregnant in “Mis-conceptions.” Hilarity reigns in Headley Hauser’s explanation of a bachelor’s Christmas traditions in “A Modern Single Holiday.” In Carol L. Wright’s “You Better Watch Out” a small-town lawyer takes on a mystery when Santa falls from her roof three weeks before Christmas. In “Walter and Stella,” by Ralph Hieb, Walter finds himself dead on Christmas Eve, but refuses to leave his beloved alone for the holiday. And in “The Perfect Gift,” Emily P. W. Murphy explores that moment in a relationship when one partner is ready for marriage, and the other seems not to notice.
This premier anthology also features stories by Jeff Baird, Carol A. Hanzl Birkas, Cindy Kelly, Jerome W. McFadden, Stanley W. McFarland, Sally Wyman Paradysz, Jo Ann Schaffer, and Will Wright.
These heartwarming, hope-filled, and hilarious tales will delight readers of any age.
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