Hi, I’m J.M. Ney-Grimm. I write fantasy with a Norse twist. I love writing novellas, but I also produce short stories and novels. This year I edited – and contributed a story to – the indie anthology Quantum Zoo.
I want to thank Lindsay for hosting me on her blog. I’m a big fan of her Emperor’s Edge series. No, I’ll go farther than that. I’m a big fan of Lindsay’s writing. All of it! Whenever she releases a new book, I buy it and read it. That simple!
So, why am I here on Lindsay’s blog? To share exactly how two indie writers collaborated with ten other indie writers to create an indie anthology, along with what we learned from the whole process.
My co-conspirator in the anthology project was D.J. Gelner. He’s a gifted writer who enjoys splashing into just about every genre known. Okay, I exaggerate! But thus far he’s written science-fiction, mythological fantasy, non-fiction, time travel, and a sports tale. All of these stories have two things in common: powerful drama and “gotcha” kickers at the end. It’s been great fun to tackle Quantum Zoo with him.
When I consulted with Lindsay on the scope of my post, she encouraged me to dig into the nitty gritty specifics. To present all the how-to’s (and how-not-to’s) that would make my account really useful to other writers, whether they intended to create their own anthology or not. So that’s exactly what I’ve done.
Why Create an Indie Anthology?
Building Quantum Zoo has been a lot of fun, but it’s also been a lot of work. Why did we do it? What did we hope to achieve?
D.J. and I had three goals from the very start.
Cross-pollinate reading audiences
We figured that some of my readers would become his readers. Some his readers would become my readers. Some of our readers would go on to read the works of the other writers contributing stories to the anthology. And vice versa. All of us would increase the size of our audience.
Experiment with new marketing techniques
I’ve been following the more conservative approach recommended for writers with patience and a desire to be frugal with time and energy: write the next book! I write, release, announce, and repeat. Yet I’ve harbored a secret yen to try some bolder and more direct promotional techniques. This would be my chance to approach vast numbers of blogging reviewers and hold a Facebook launch party. D.J. has always been quite open about his desire to experiment with different marketing projects.
Learn from the project and report back to the indie community
We hoped to learn more about what kind of promotion was effective and what wasn’t. Naturally we’d use that knowledge to better guide our own publishing careers, but we’d also share what we’d learned with other writers. We envisioned our anthology project as benefitting many, not just ourselves.
Before You Start, Take One: Choose Your Partner Wisely
I wouldn’t have wanted to tackle a project like this alone. But pick your teammate carefully! D.J. and I were members of a small and active online writing group for more than a year before we hatched the idea for Quantum Zoo. We admired one another’s skills. We knew that each of us would contribute a high-quality story to the project. We had complimentary strengths.
I have two things for you to consider in this first “before you start” phase:
Compare your skill sets
D.J. calls me a “front woman with the smarts, tact, and grace necessary to communicate with all sorts of folks online” and “a crackerjack cover designer.” (Blushing a little as I copy & paste that.)
D.J. has experience in law, business, and entrepreneurship, plus a real gift for seeing the big picture and identifying exactly what needs to be done now to make everything fall into place.
I created Quantum Zoo‘s cover, a website for the book, a Quantum Zoo Pinterest board, and a flyer for contributing authors to distribute at conventions. D.J. wrote the contracts and selected the accountant who will handle the money earned by the book. Between us, we could do everything.
Assess your working styles and personalities
The only ego D.J. and I permitted ourselves was a dedication to putting out the very best possible finished product. We didn’t indulge in turf battles or power struggles, and didn’t take anything personally. Any of that could derail a cooperative project like this. We worked as members of the same team with our eyes firmly on our goal.
TIP: Chose someone you know well to be your partner.
Before You Start, Take Two: Genre & Theme
Decide the genre and theme for your anthology
How easily you manage this will tell you something about your partnership right off the bat!
Readers generally don’t want a random assortment of stories in an anthology. Would-be anthology builders must decide what the unifying principles for their collection will be.
Genre was easy for us. We both enjoy speculative fiction, reading it and writing it. Quantum Zoo would be science fiction and fantasy.
Selecting a theme was a little more challenging. D.J. and I held several brainstorming sessions. We wanted a prompt that would be fun to write about, had a broad range of applications, and would work equally well for both sci-fi and fantasy authors.
TIP: Be flexible and don’t lock in on a theme right away. Play with ideas for a while.
I’ll confess that I had a story I was longing to write that stemmed from the concept of living exhibitions. But D.J. agreed that “zoo” was an excellent prompt when I suggested it. I’ve never asked him when the inspiration for his “Echoes of Earth” arrived. Now I’m curious. Was it when we were brainstorming? I’d love to know!
Before You Start, Take Three: Contracts, Expectations, and Other Messy Business
First of all, have a contract! Without some kind of baseline agreement between yourself and the authors in the collection, no one will know where they stand, and things can get messy quickly. At the bare minimum, you should have an independent contractor agreement with each of your authors; it simplifies taxes and any legal problems should they arise. (D.J. can dig more deeply into this in the comments if anyone has questions about the specifics.)
At the same time, it was important to us that the contracts for Quantum Zoo be very author-friendly. There are too many horror stories these days about authors who sign unfairly one-sided contracts just to be “accepted” by a publication.
By contrast, we wanted Quantum Zoo to be a collaborative effort that authors could join without feeling “railroaded” by the goal of the process. To foster that collaborative atmosphere, having fair, author-friendly contract terms was absolutely necessary.
Be sure the terms of your contract protect the rights of the contributing authors
Our authors retained their rights. They can submit their stories to magazines that accept already-published material. Their stories can be included in other anthologies, such as Year’s Best SF. Each author may also indie publish his or her story.
TIP: Make sure to have signed independent contractor agreements with all of your writers with terms that are fair to the writers!
Anthologies have a strong history in traditional publishing. The usual framework is that a publishing house or a magazine decides to publish an anthology of stories, often reprints, sometimes new titles. The publisher puts out a call for submissions, selects the stories, issues contracts, pays the authors, and puts out the book.
We would be following a similar path, with one important difference: this would be a collaborative effort similar to the book bundles that some indies are now creating and selling.
Be very clear about the nature of your project
It was important that we communicate accurately what we had in mind. That it was a collaborative project. That our focus was audience expansion and marketing experimentation. That this was not a traditional anthology primarily consumed with making money. Although we do hope to make money, the proceeds from sales will initially be plowed back into marketing the book until we reach a relatively high threshold, at which time we’ll all split the loot, one-twelfth each.
We wanted to be sure that the indies who chose to submit knew what we intended and what to expect. We included all this information in the detailed guidelines we sent to interested writers who emailed us. Which leads me to my next topic.
How Do You Find Authors?
This is the issue that stopped us for several months after we first conceived our anthology project. We couldn’t put out a call for submissions in the traditional places, because this wouldn’t be a traditional anthology. Plus we wanted indies (or hybrids), not folks traveling the legacy route exclusively.
Writers who are members of really large online writers’ groups might seek interested writers there. But neither of us were in one of these groups. How could we make this work?
Eventually we decided to go ahead by posting a call for submissions on our own blogs. D.J. gets quite respectable traffic on his, a couple hundred visitors a day. Mine is more modest, a mere twenty to thirty a day. Still, we figured those relative “trickles” of traffic just might be enough.
As it happened, we’ll never know. We caught a lucky break.
There’s a lesson there, I think. Sometimes you just have to dive in, even when you don’t have all the pieces in place.
What was our lucky break? The Passive Guy decided to run my “Calling All Indies” post on his massively popular blog: The Passive Voice.
D.J.’s words about that: “I think it’s pretty clear that Jessica’s thoughtful comments on PG’s blog, DWS’s blog, Kris’s blog, and others contributed to her standing in the community, which in turn led PG to run the post. Without that, we may have had too few submissions to bring together something as special as QZ.”
TIP: If you’ve got 90% of what you need to do figured out, consider trusting yourselves – trusting that you’ll use your smarts and savvy to figure out the other 10%.
Whatever the cause, we were definitely out of the starting blocks from that moment.
We received many, many fine stories for consideration.
How Do You Pick the Right Stories?
D.J. volunteered to read the stories first. His idea was that he could weed out the ones that weren’t right for Quantum Zoo, thus saving some of my time and attention.
As it happened, the vast majority of the stories were so good that he couldn’t definitively rule any of them out. So we both ended up reading all the submissions.
Read as a reader, not an editor
Editors read with an eye to what is wrong with the story, looking to see how to strengthen it. That’s not how readers read. Readers let the story have its way with them. If it doesn’t pull them in, doesn’t hold their interest, they stop reading.
D.J. and I read through the stories the first time as readers, merely noting which ones drew us in most strongly, held our interest without letting go, startled us or moved us or both. Those are the stories we chose.
We had to consider one other thing. Several of the stories focused on humans held captive in alien zoos. No matter how good they were, including six stories with the same premise was never going to fly. We picked two: D.J.’s own – an intense twist on an old pulp classic, and a humorous piece by S.E. Batt that goes in a completely different direction.
What about deadlines?
We had them. Both for the writers: submit by January 31, 2014. And for ourselves: decide which stories to include by early March.
TIP: Give yourselves some wiggle room with your own deadlines. Do have them. You need them to coordinate well with one another. But say “early March” rather than March 4. This is a huge project and you are fitting it in around the rest of your responsibilities.
Once the decisions were made, we sent out emails all in a batch. D.J. drafted the letters: one to inform the writer we were passing on the story; one to say that we’d like to include the story if the writer were willing to make certain, specific revisions; and one to say that the story was exactly what we were looking for. This allowed us to ensure that that the authors were “on board” with making changes to their stories before moving forward – again, we tried to be as author-friendly as possible throughout the entire process.
All of that work was before even starting the actual editing!
How Do You Edit Stories?
Once again we divided things up, but this time we did it very subjectively.
We both liked all the stories and were wholeheartedly behind each one. But certain stories really spoke to D.J., and he chose to edit those, while others really spoke to me, and I selected them for my purview. We described ourselves as being the “captain” of a story. At the start of the process, we just hoped we could guide each one safely into harbor instead of crashing the story on the rocks! Fortunately, all of the authors were very accommodating through the entire process, and I think this method worked well for everyone.
After the captain completed his or her work with the writer, the story went to the other editor for review. This kept one set of eyes fresh for finding the little things that escaped correction.
What about the stories that spoke to both of us? As it so happened, those were the ones that needed the least revision. It was feasible for both of us to review them as “captain” and then simply send a compiled list that combined our suggested revisions to the writer.
What about our own stories?
D.J.’s went to a first reader from our writing group for feedback and then came to me for editing. Mine went to one of my usual first readers and then to D.J. for editing. We didn’t give those stories a “pass” or a leg up on anything; they had to meet the same standards as the other stories that ultimately made it into the anthology. We both had revision work of our own, just like every other contributing writer.
TIP: Let the writers know that some time will pass before you get editorial feedback to everyone. There are ten (more or less) of them and only two of you. Some writers will get feedback right away. Others may wait several weeks.
The stories fell into three distinct states of readiness for publishing.
About half were in great shape. They needed no structural changes, perhaps half a dozen small changes for clarity or consistency, and a smattering of typos corrected.
The other half needed more work: an important character given more “stage time,” repetitious word use fixed, verbal tics corrected, a more emphatic final sentence devised, and so on.
One story was perfect! The author found and corrected the sole error – a noun that read better as singular rather than plural – before D.J. and I got to her. We focused on the stories that needed the most work first, to give the authors time to make the necessary changes.
In our revision requests, we were careful to emphasize to the writer that we loved the story – in all honesty, we wouldn’t have picked the story if we hadn’t! As writers ourselves, we know it’s easy to give extra weight to criticism and less credence to praise. My emails started with some of the things I loved, then listed the changes I wanted (with mention of a few specifics that I loved), and closed with more things I loved. I should ask the writers if I got the balance right!
When Should You Start Marketing?
As soon as possible! In a weird way, this was the “meat” of the whole project: we wanted to try out all kinds of “off the beaten path” ideas we had, but in order to do so, we had to nail down the basics first.
Covers are (obviously) some of the most important passive marketing you can do. They glow on the book’s web page, enticing readers to give them a second look or to click Amazon’s “Look Inside” button.
We had several options for creating our cover. D.J. is modest about his design abilities, but he’s built some eye-catching images for his own books. I think he could have tackled the cover for Quantum Zoo. One of our contributing authors is also an excellent designer. (Check out Morgan Johnson’s Skipdrive, published solo with a fabulous cover, as well as included in our anthology.)
But we wanted the contributions of all the authors (except D.J. and me) to be exactly equal: one story. Since I have more design experience than D.J., I got the job. (Gotta say it was fun to do – I enjoy playing with Photoshop!)
I finished the cover roughly a month before our release date. Cover reveals tend to generate a lot of interest among fans, so they’re a good way to start buzz. And one of the authors was headed for a convention: we wanted a flyer ready for her to distribute there. The flyer featured our cover.
The instant the cover was complete, we created a website for the book.
I had been resistant to this step. My thinking: we all have blogs, so why try to drive traffic to yet one more page on the vast, indifferent web?
Then I looked into our overall web presence across all 12 of us.
Turns out I was wrong to think everyone had a blog. One new author who submitted an absolute gem of a story had no web presence at all. This would be her first story published! One author had a Facebook page, but no website. Another author was starting a new pen name, so his existing web presence would help Quantum Zoo not at all.
Our book did need a website.
It ended up having two!
I’m going to explain the pros and cons of WordPress versus Blogger, which is the only way to understand why we have two websites. Crazy, I know!
My own author blog is on WordPress. Over the last two years, I’ve learned how to make it do what I want it to. I didn’t want to learn another system. WordPress has a free version we could use – important to keep costs down. WordPress has more design templates, giving more flexibility for the visual look of the site.
So I created a WordPress site for Quantum Zoo.
When I tried to place a newsletter sign-up form on the site, I ran into trouble:
It couldn’t be done!
You can place such a sign-up form on paid-hosted WordPress sites, but not on the free ones. Only a link to a sign-up form works on a free site. So we did that, but we weren’t terribly happy with the result.
What about Blogger? Blogger’s free, like WordPress. But as with anything, there were definitely trade-offs. Not as many template options. No slick, off-center designs. And a different interface from WordPress.
But it will accept a MailChimp newsletter sign-up form.
That was crucial; with every extra “click” that you put readers through, it’s one more place along the chain to lose their attention and interest. We were starting to build buzz before the book ever appeared on Amazon. How would we let readers who were interested now, pre-publication, know when the book launched? We needed those email addresses so that we could keep in touch with them, and we needed signing up to be as easy as possible.
So D.J., who is familiar with Blogger, got a Blogger site up. Then I came in and started tinkering and learning and making it reflect our vision for Quantum Zoo. You can check it out here. I’m very happy with how it came out. And we did get some readers signing up. Not a lot – perhaps a dozen – but enough to help on release day.
TIP: Be sure to feature your book cover on its website and use images from the cover as elements on the website, especially the header bar and the background – Quantum Zoo‘s web presence is all the better for it. Plus, it’s just good, old-fashioned, consistent branding.
We decided to leave the WordPress site up. One more page blowing in the internet breeze and potentially attracting a reader who missed the main site couldn’t really hurt anything. Since we intended these to be static sites, with just a few updates, keeping both would not add much to our workloads.
We fell down on this one. We should have asked our authors to start rounding up bloggers who reviewed books much earlier in the process. Most bloggers have huge TBR lists and work at considerable lead time. Finding bloggers to read and review Quantum Zoo needed to happen months before release date, not mere weeks, especially given the “fluid” nature of a lot of review sites these days: the site that was thriving and vibrant only a few short months ago could have an owner who’s totally swamped with reviews, or worse, utterly burnt out now. It’s challenging to dig through all of the lists of book review sites and blogs given that they’re constantly going out of date!
The problem was that D.J. and I had so much on our plates with reading submissions, managing communication with the authors, and editing that we simply couldn’t add one more task.
By the time I tackled the rather daunting task of combing the lists to find bloggers, it was much too late.
TIP: As soon as each author turns in his or her final draft, ask him or her to start seeking book reviewers.
I checked the science fiction & fantasy list of the Book Blogger Directory with 35 entries. Eleven of them were still in business, accepting submissions, and suitable for Quantum Zoo. (A few accepted only fantasy or YA books for review, so they wouldn’t work for QZ.)
I searched “science fiction” on The Indie Review, which narrowed 352 entries down to 57. Of those, many were predictably not accepting submissions or no longer in business. I found 13 suitable for Quantum Zoo and followed their submission guidelines.
As of now, none of these bloggers have read or reviewed Quantum Zoo. However, it is likely that some of them will eventually do so. Which will (I hope) give sales a boost when it happens.
Ask Your Authors to Help
Fortunately, Quantum Zoo‘s authors are all go-getters! They were busy talking with their own connections long before I said, “It’s time to make some noise!”
Several found readers who promised to read the book and post a review soon after its release. A.C. Smyth knew a very influential Goodreads member – many readers follow his lead in order to find their next read – who has already posted a very positive review. He’s a tough reviewer and didn’t give us a free ride anywhere, including the typos that were present in the e-ARC he read, but not in the final ebook. But his conclusion was: “Quantum Zoo is a collection of good writing… While I had some quibbles with several of the stories, there weren’t any that I outright disliked – not the case with several of the pro anthologies I’ve read recently – and some of them were very good indeed.”
Morgan Johnson educated us about Fiverr and a promo package there that he’d used successfully to bump his sales. This Fiverr campaign is likely one of the main reasons that QZ continued to sell enough to remain on several genre top 100 lists almost a week after release.
John Hindmarsh was beta reader for a popular indie who was willing to mention Quantum Zoo on his newsletter, which reached hundreds of his SF fans.
One of the benefits of publishing an indie anthology is that you don’t have to shoulder the marketing alone. Use the extra reach you have by encouraging all the authors to connect with their friends and fans.
TIP: It’s smart to plan your promotions in waves rather than all at once. Steady sales on Amazon will put the Amazon algorithms to work much more effectively than one huge (but lonely) sales spike.
From 12 Stories to Completed Anthology
D.J. built the ebook in Scrivener using his own custom template, then exported a .mobi file for Amazon, an .epub file for the other e-tailer sites, a .pdf file for reviewers who require that format, and a .doc file that I will use when I create the trade paperback edition of Quantum Zoo.
D.J. exported more than ten early versions, fixing all the errors that he saw, before he passed it to me for my review. My eyes were fresh at that point – I’d been working on the cover and marketing, so I found many of the problems that were hiding from him.
My process went like this:
First, more typos jumped out at me. (Ugh!)
D.J. corrected them and sent me a new file.
Then the major formatting issues became apparent.
D.J. fixed them and sent me a new file.
Then the more subtle formatting problems became obvious.
Not only that, but there were some late nights throughout the process debating (always very civilly ) how punctuation should be standardized, obscure (but important) rules of grammar, and even things like how to end each story. (“The End” seemed too old-fashioned – we ended up using proper asterisms, which are three asterisks in an upside-down triangle.)
The point of all of this is to say there were plenty of spots along the way where we could’ve wasted time arguing about who’s right and who’s not, but as we mentioned above, we didn’t let our egos get in the way – we always had the highest good of the project in mind.
And, as D.J. adds, “Jessica was right most of the time, anyway…”
(Naturally, I solicited D.J.’s feedback on this post. His revision suggestions were excellent, as always. And he added that sentence about my rightness. LOL!)
Again, pick your editing partner wisely!
D.J. made the last corrections to the ebook file. And then we sent it to all the authors to get really fresh eyes seeking errors and issues. Good thing we did, because they found another dozen typos!
At that point, after 19 versions of that file(!), it was ready to upload.
We chose to start Quantum Zoo in Amazon’s Select program, with plans to use those promotional tools. We’ll place it in Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Apple (iBook), and Smashwords 90 days after its release.
We uploaded Quantum Zoo to Amazon. It was an exciting moment when it went live – cheering was heard in Casa Ney-Grimm!
How Do You Market an Indie Anthology?
One of our goals at the very start of this project was to experiment with different promotional techniques. I summarized many of our marketing efforts under “When Should You Start Marketing” (above), but we have plans for much more.
This is an adventure that should persist for quite some time, and one that we’re delighted to share with the rest of the indie community!
One of our authors is a frequent visitor to the Writers’ Cafe on the Kindle Boards. He started a thread there that eventually garnered more than 2000 views. Did we get any sales from it? At least one – the reader posted to tell us so. But I suspect more than one buyer saw the thread.
Several writers who showed early interest in Quantum Zoo, but don’t have a story in it, followed our progress as we went from the idea to the collecting of submissions to the release of the book. They kindly emailed us messages of congratulations. Emboldened by their warmth, I ventured to ask them if any of them would like a free e-ARC to read and review. Two of them said yes!
TIP: Consider all the people interested in your anthology as part of the community that you’ve created by building the book. Some of them will be happy to help you.
As I write this guest post, we’re planning a launch party, to be held on the Quantum Zoo website. It will take place after I finish this post, but before this post goes live.
You can be sure I’ll blog about it after we have results. Indeed, D.J. and I plan to blog about all of our marketing experiments. We want to share what we learn. His blog is At Wit’s End. Mine is JMNey-Grimm.com. Check in with either of us from time to time to see our latest reports.
How Did Launch Day Go?!
I’ve always soft-launched my own titles, so I had no idea of what to expect for Quantum Zoo‘s release day.
It started quietly, with Quantum Zoo creeping softly onto the science fiction anthologies bestseller list at #84 or something like that.
But the news just got better and better as morning turned to afternoon and then evening.
By midnight, we were at #4 on science fiction anthologies and #11 (I think) on fantasy anthologies.
The next morning, Quantum Zoo was #3 on science fiction anthologies and #1 on Hot New Releases for the genre.
Wow! I’d never dreamed we’d get to #1 in anything. It felt great!
Much as we like the fabulous launch, our focus is long term. It will take time for our readers to read all the stories in the anthology. More time for them to decide to seek out other titles written by the authors of their favorite QZ stories. More time for Quantum Zoo to reach its full audience. Yet more time for that audience to buy novels by R.S. McCoy or Bridget McKenna or Sarah Stegall or any of our other wonderful writers.
But that is what we ultimately hope for: ripples going out for many years, that eventually become great tidal waves of sales for all of us…
…or at least let us set up house somewhere near the same zip code of the indie world where Lindsay resides!
What About the Book Itself?
You’ve just read the detailed saga of how Quantum Zoo was born. I’d like to tell you a little bit about it.
From a ghost park to a time-travel penitentiary of murderers to a menagerie of Egyptian deities, Quantum Zoo presents 12 compelling stories involving 12 very different living exhibitions. Including a wonderfully atmospheric tale by Hugo- and Nebula-nominated Bridget McKenna.
Visit 12 exotic worlds on a thrilling ride through Quantum Zoo!
Amazon.com I Amazon UK I Amazon DE I Amazon ES
Lindsay, thank you so much for hosting me here!
Anyone with questions, feel free to ask them. D.J. and I will check back from time to time and do our best to answer.