Colleen McKee, So You Want to Edit an Anthology?

29 Mar

When I took on the project of co-editing an anthology of personal narratives, Are We Feeling Better Yet? Women Speak About Health Care in America, I said yes because it sounded cool (after all, I do like women), and it was a dreary blistering summer, and I was underemployed. I have an MFA in Creative Writing, and I read the magazines writers are supposed to read, but it was only after I edited the book that I realized I had never read or heard any advice on editing an anthology. Yet it can be a more time-consuming, complicated process than writing one’s own book. For me, it was worth it—I have made terrific, smart friends across the country because of readings. And there is no greater pleasure than to hear an audience laugh uproariously at a black-humored essay, or have women tell me that the book has helped them feel supported as they navigate their own health care labyrinths. Still it is work, a lot of work. So here are some tips for anyone considering editing a creative writing anthology:

1. Make sure you have the time for this and you really want to do it. The creative, fun part–reading amazing essays or poems or stories, and doing readings in front of captivated, sexy audiences who all want to take you out for drinks afterwards—that is a very small part of the work. Unless you can afford an assistant or two, you will spend tons of time doing clerical and sometimes unpleasant things such as mailing off reject slips, updating lists of contributors’ addresses, sending out forms requesting reprint rights, etc. Between soliciting work, editing it, seeking a publisher, editing and proofing again and again, then promoting of the book, count on working hard at this for four or five years. If you’re a teacher, that’s like adding one or two classes to every semester for four or five years.

2. Don’t expect to make money at this. Maybe if your book has cross-over appeal as a textbook, and is published by a company who chooses to promote the bejesus out of you. Then again, my book is selling as a textbook, and my publisher is pretty supportive. My book did make a profit the first year, which is unusual. I made $75. What about an advance, you may say? Many small presses do not do advances, and if they do, you may have to choose between using it to pay your contributors and paying yourself. I think writers should get paid. I used the money to pay each writer a small fee.

3. Do not be shy about promoting your anthology. Carry your business cards and promotional postcards around (if your publisher won’t have them made, get them made yourself). Carry a copy of your book wherever you go and be prepared to talk about it to everyone. If you are a woman, this is probably going to feel really egotistical and weird. If you need to, tell yourself you’re not doing it for you; you’re doing it for your contributors. And remember that while bookstores are great, they are not your only friends. My contributors and I have read at universities (where we might actually get paid), an anarchist bakery, a synagogue, an acupuncturist clinic, an older women’s political action group, a women’s studies conference, bars, and even a few bookstores.

4. Travel cheap and travel wide on book tour. If you live in the Midwestern U.S., the Northeastern U.S. or Canada, or England, consider planning your tour around the Megabus schedule, the super-cheap yet comfortable, reliable bus. Don’t feel bad about asking contributors if you can crash on their couches. You can ask your publisher to pay for this, but she probably doesn’t have the money to pay for any of it. So make a low-budget adventure out of it, and have fun.

5. I could say a lot more, but blogs are supposed to be short. Have questions? Email me.


Colleen McKee is co-editor of Are We Feeling Better Yet? Women Speak About Health Care in America (Penultimate, 2008). She is also author of a collection of poetry about food and sex, My Hot Little Tomato (Cherry Pie, 2007). Her poems, essays, and fiction have appeared in publications such as Poetry Daily, Bellevue Literary Review, and Criminal Class Review. She will be reading memoir at the Meramec Writing Festival in St. Louis on Apr. 7th, and poetry at the Holiday Club in Chicago on Apr. 23rd. Colleen teaches English at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. You may virtually visit her at or email her at

4 Responses to “Colleen McKee, So You Want to Edit an Anthology?”

  1. jshdoff July 10, 2015 at 6:30 pm #

    I’m finding myself in the same position, co-editing an anthology whose subject matter is dear to my heart, but it started as someone else’s project. I want to make sure I have all my ducks in a row with a contract between myself and the other editor outlining credit, payment, liability, responsibility, etc. Can you point me in the direction of a good template?

    Thanks os much

  2. Ann February 1, 2013 at 3:26 am #

    So much hassle for a 2012 tasesl Twelve years of school and all I got was this lousy T- Shirt iGraduate Don’t Hate Us Because We’re Seniors, Hate Us Because You’re Not. Don’t mistake me for someone who is staying. When 2009 is dead and gone2010 will Party on2011 thinks they have classbut shh! 2012 will kick their a** (school version have a blast) Class of 2012 . They saved the best for last just a few to get you going :0

  3. Vizionheiry March 29, 2010 at 11:07 pm #

    @Lyle, I read that compiling a list of poems by others into an anthology is great preparation for ordering one's own book. Since I'm having trouble with that, I might do this! @Ruth, Thanks for reblogging this post. All this time I thought that anthologies made money – like a gateway book into the industry. Guess not.

  4. Lyle Daggett March 29, 2010 at 2:14 am #

    Really interesting to read about this. I've never edited an anthology for publication, though from time to time, as a kind of practice, I'll pretend I'm assembling a poetry anthology, and make a list of potential poems and/or poets I might like to include.I've found that the practice of arranging poems in sequence, when they aren't my own poems, has been very useful in putting together and sequencing my own books of poems. I can change the order, add and remove poems, shake things up, without the heavy emotional investment it would have if they were my own poems.I love the idea of doing a reading tour by Megabus. I live in the Midwest, in one of the cities the Megabus goes to.

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