The Anthology of Tomorrow

I fear that I have a habit of blathering about the future. On this blog, just in the past year, I’ve written about future of the bookstore, where I see more interaction between author and reader, more writing workshops and book clubs, more indie bookstores with bibliophile sellers, more local authors represented on the shelves, and of an end to the returns system and the rise of local, print-on-demand.

I’ve also written about the future of the book, with more dynamic interaction between reader and writer, animated covers on webstores, wider variety of genres now that shelves are infinite, cheaper prices and bundling, and less concern over how the work was published and what form it takes and more worry over whether the story is any good.

Of course, I’ve also spent quite a bit of time prognosticating the future of the industry as it pertains to writers and readers, and I confess to being naively optimistic for both parties. I’m fond of saying that there’s never been a better time to be a reader or a writer, and this conviction strengthens with each passing day. Of course, I could be dead-wrong about all of my predictions. Hey, I’m a speculative fiction writer, I get paid to make up stuff that never comes true. You’ve been warned.

Having said that, allow me to speculate about something very niche and particular about which I and perhaps only a dozen others care about, and that’s the future of anthologies.

Not since Apple was headquartered in a suburban garage has a stock with so much potential sold for so little. The anthology has a long history of being an also-ran when it comes to sales and popularity, but I believe it is ripe for a Renaissance. Let me tell you why. The short story simply fits our hectic lives. They carry us from one bus stop or subway station to the next. They while away our lunch breaks. They eat up halftime for those non-DVR’ed games. They satisfy our craving to finish what we start. And as digital creatures, the size is irrelevant. It’s all about reading time. You can gobble them up on your cell phone.

Anthologies adopt the maxim of: “more of a good thing is gooder”. Eloquent, if you ask me. A good anthology will also serve some theme, so the collection is more than the sum of its parts. Each story gives a slightly different view of the same vista. They augment, like overlapping waves. They also have a feature that I believe is ripe for digital exploitation, and that’s the un-fixed reading order of the anthology. Think about these various future possibilities:

The Do-It-Yourself Anthology

Here, the anthology is the basket and the short stories are fruit. You head over to Amazon’s short story market, where dozens of themed anthologies are presented to you. These are editorial suggestions. There are also anthologies put together by knowledgeable readers. These are rated (and ranked) by other readers for the quality of the collection. NCbusyBEE32 is the top-rated editor on Amazon, it appears. Her collections are a mix of esoteric and whimsy that readers can’t get enough of, with a 98% rating. She always finds that hidden gem before anyone else. You consider grabbing her latest collection, but there are two stories in it you’ve already read. You grab the anthology anyway, and you swap these two stories out with two from the pile. Or two from IMyoMOMMA7’s latest collection. You give the anthology its own name and shuffle the contents in the reading order you want. What you pay for is the “basket,” or a credit of ten stories. The unique work is assembled immediately and sent out to all of your reading devices.

The Shuffle Anthology

This one works with existing anthologies. You select the edited work, but you set the reading order. Maybe you set it to “short to long” or vice versa. Or you place the names you recognize first or decide to save them for later. When you go to read, the order you selected makes up the custom table of contents. You dive right in to the story you’re most interested in. It’s the reading equivalent of the mix-tape. As you read and complete a story, you can rate it quickly, and then the story is shuffled to the end of the work and marked as “read”.

For all of these, Amazon’s algorithms take into account how you rate the short stories, which ones you finished, and makes recommendations for the future. There are “Best of 2014” anthologies in a dozen or more genres (and overall, so you can explore new genres). Readers get badges for the number of stories read in a year. And even though many complain that 99 cents is too cheap for a story, I think there’s room to make them even cheaper. Let’s say a basket of 10 stories costs $7.99. And let’s say Amazon pays 50% royalties. There is the potential here for a lot of reading to be had for not much money, a lot of writers to be newly discovered, and for money to be made by those who explore the craft of the morsel-sized story. Everyone wins.

This could be a boon for literary fiction, which is seeing journals disappear left and right. It would serve Science fiction, fantasy, horror, erotica, romance, and mystery equally well. (Remember the old Encyclopedia Brown and Great Brain stories? Where are those mystery shorts today?) The best part is this: Like fan fiction, short stories are the perfect way to cut one’s teeth on the thrill of writing. This could increase the participation of aspiring writers and young writers. It could grow the community of authors — which tends to grow the community of readers. Imagine seeing your story anthologized alongside that of your heroes! Imagine the readers out there who will take pride in discovering latent talent, because reading a short is far less of an obligation than reading a novel, and then gaining a reputation as an editor extraordinaire! Maybe Amazon would provide basket credits to anthologists whose works are downloaded a certain number of times.

These are just a few of the ways I can think of playing around with the medium. The fact that anthologies are not set in stone, that their themes can be numerous, that they can be read in any order, provides unique opportunities in this digital age. And there’s something powerful about giving the consumer some editorial power. It’s the thrill of choosing the ingredients and then watching someone else cook your omelette. It’s the pride of picking out the components for your new computer. When books can be stitched together on the fly and delivered instantaneously, these same joys can be applied to publishing. It’s only a matter of time.

Unless I’m making all of this up. Unless I’m dead wrong about everything. Again.

8 responses to “The Anthology of Tomorrow”

  1. I love this idea, the mixing and matching. A friend in publishing from one of the Big Five told me recently anthologies don’t sell. And yet, they keep getting produced, so there must be a market. I personally love them.
    How can this not happen soon? You can do it with music & TV shows, why not books.
    Hugh you are so far ahead in your thinking, I often wonder if you are from this time period or if Amazon 2053 hasn’t sent you back to lead publishing into the Golden Age.

    1. Fine! Blow his cover. Now the time cops are gonna be all over him.

      All great ideas, Hugh.

  2. You blow me away with your outta the box thinking, Hugh. I love this. It could Pandora or Spotify your reading for you…


    As a matter of fact, we’re working on an anthology right now. I love them. Good for readers and good for authors.

  3. How about paying an “Anthologist” the amount of cash that an affiliate partner would normally get, like 5% of the cover price?

  4. Wonderful idea. So what’s YOUR anthology? Besides your own personal books which have kept me busy for a bit now (just finished Dust…superb) Do you have a book “playlist”? Wither it’s shorts or not it seems I enjoy your taste in literature and would be interested.

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