Self-publishing doesn’t just make it easier to publish your own work, it also facilitates the publishing of anthologies, whether a collection of short stories or non-fiction essays. This year I put together an anthology of non-fiction writing for Ada Lovelace Day, the international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), which I organise.
I started Ada Lovelace Day in 2009 as a day of blogging about women in tech, and each year it has steadily grown. This year on 15 October we held our flagship science cabaret event in association with Imperial College London and the Biochemical Society, and there were well over 40 grassroots events in eleven countries, including Belgium, Brazil, Ecuador, Italy, Uganda and the USA. We also had masses of press.
But whilst events are fantastic for focusing attention, also I wanted to produce something that would last a bit longer and so A Passion for Science: Stories of Discovery and Invention, was born. It is a fantastic collection of essays examining the lives of some of the most inspiring women in STEM, including scuba-diving ichthyologist Eugenie Clarke, known as The Shark Lady, Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, whose discovery revolutionised our understanding of how stars could behave, and, of course, Ada Lovelace herself, the first computer programmer.
I learnt a lot doing it, so here are my top tips for a successful multi-author anthology project.
1. Invite three times as many people as you need
I invited 62 people to contribute to A Passion for Science, but in the end only 17 produced chapters (one brought in three other authors for her chapter), and four provided other contributions.
I had been hoping for 20 chapters, but 17 worked out well and we ended up with a nearly 70,000-word book. I had hoped to get an equal gender split amongst the authors, but it turned out to be much harder to recruit men than women and I ended up with just two male contributors. Next time, I will invite a lot more men to even up the numbers.
2. Give very early deadlines
If I learnt anything from my time as an editorial assistance in science journal publishing, it’s that no matter how long you give people to write something, and no matter how lovely your contributors are, they will miss the first deadline you give them. So give them a deadline that is at least two months before you actually need their contribution and start nagging them as soon as that first deadline has passed.
3. Have a house style
Your contributors may come from many different stylistic traditions, so be clear with them what you expect. British or American spelling? Do you spell out ‘million’ or not? What are your rules for capitalisation? I didn’t figure out my house style until I had my editorial volunteers on board, but I should have done it up front and given it to my writers so that they knew what was expected of them.
4. Get editorial help
If you have no budget, then recruit some editorial volunteers early on in the project and make sure you have a clear editorial process. My preference is for the first edit to be structural, making sure that the piece flows and fits in with the overall needs of the anthology; the second identifies inconsistencies and ambiguities; the third picks up typos and makes sure that everything fits house style. I also tried to make sure that every piece was edited at least twice, once by me and one by a volunteer, so that we stood a higher chance of picking up all the errors.
5. Provide author guidelines
This is one thing that I didn’t do, and regret because it made more work for me. I asked contributors to write something between 2,000 and 4,000 words, though was happier with longer pieces so several came in around the 6,000 mark. But what I didn’t do was suggest that contributors break up their chapters with subheadings, nor did I say what sort of subheadings work best, ie descriptive but not boringly obvious.
Although quite a few contributors naturally did that, not everyone did, so that meant I had to figure out for every piece where the breaks came and what a good subheading would be. It wasn’t hugely difficult, but it was just one more thing that needed to be done that took up valuable time.
6. Don’t be scared to give substantive feedback
I had a very clear idea of what I wanted this book to be, so when a couple of potential contributions came in that didn’t fit in, I found a way to explain to the author that either we needed to refine the piece, or that it really wasn’t going to work in the context of this particular book. It felt difficult to make additional demands on the authors, because everyone was donating their time and effort — all proceeds go to supporting Ada Lovelace Day — but you have to keep the reader in mind and make sure that the book hangs together in a cohesive way. Everyone was incredibly supportive and professional, and it was great to work with people who were willing to be flexible in order to make sure that their chapters fit in with the broader editorial vision.
7. Find a collaborative editorial platform
I had a look at some editorial platforms in an earlier post, but even if you just use Google Docs, make sure that your contributors and volunteers are familiar with how it works. Don’t assume that just because you know how to leave a comment, everyone else does too.
Also make sure that you are co-ordinating who’s editing what and when, so that you don’t end up with clashes. Google Docs copes well with simultaneous edits, but not every editorial platform does and in at least one case, my edits were lost because another volunteer was working on the same document at the same time. Next time, I’ll make sure that the platform I use can deal with, or prevent, simultaneous edits.
8. Give authors plenty of time to read their edited chapters
Once you’ve edited for fit, length, structure, house style and typos, make sure that your authors are given the time to re-read their chapters and suggest any further edits. In some cases, authors sent their chapters to the people they had written about, which resulted in some of the fine detail being tweaked and a much stronger chapter. That process took time, but everyone was fantastic at turning their chapters round very quickly. I would have liked to give authors a bit more time for this part of the process, however, as it gives them the opportunity to be more thorough.
9. Don’t forget to schedule in your beta readers
This was something we didn’t have time to do properly, but next time I will schedule it in. The authors were essentially the beta readers, but it would have been much better to get a half dozen people fresh to the project who could give objective feedback. Make sure that you leave at least a few weeks, if not a month, for this part of the process. It also serves to give you a break from the book so that when you assess the feedback and re-read the book, you’ll be much more likely to spot problems.
10. Don’t forget all the other self-publishing advice
Just because it’s an anthology doesn’t mean that you get to skimp on things like cover design, ebook testing, blurbing, and all the other things that go towards making a good book great! Remember, it’s not just your reputation on the line, it’s that of all your contributors as well.
A Passion for Science has been an incredibly satisfying project and I’m very proud of the book that we have produced. I’ve had the chance to work with some wonderful people and to learn about some really quite amazing women in STEM, and I can’t wait to start on my next anthology!