Found in the Crowd: the Case for Crowdfunding Anthologies

Photo by The Conmunity

Recently, in certain literary circles, there’s been a lot of chatter about the future of the short story. Some feel that we’re seeing a resurgence of the short form, citing the phenomenal success of George Saunders as proof. Others feel that the popularity of stories has steadily declined in recent years. In his generally positive introduction to The Penguin Book of the British Short Story, even Philip Hensher was forced to admit that ‘reading short stories rewarded by competitions, I was struck by present-tense solitary reflections, often with characters lying on their beds affectlessly pondering… There was nothing there at all, apart from a fervent desire to win £30,000.’

What everyone appears to agree on is the fact that publishers don’t know what to do with short stories. Occasionally the larger publishers will humour an established author – Hilary Mantel, Lionel Shriver – by allowing them a collection between the novels, but you’re unlikely to see many debuts. New authors are finding that only the smaller, independent presses are willing to take a punt on their genius.

The same is also true of anthologies, as I found myself, when I edited Being Dad: Short Stories About Fatherhood last year – but thankfully, help may be on the way. More and more publishers seem to be turning to crowdfunding as a viable option, and in particular it’s something that seems to be working for the humble anthology. Might there be a future for the short story after all?

In many ways, my experience with Being Dad was fairly typical. Several medium-to-large publishers expressed an interest, but said that anthologies ‘didn’t sell’ (how they would know this when they don’t actually publish any is one of life’s great mysteries). Eventually I secured the interest of Bristol-based Tangent Books, who had the foresight to see that this was a book which had both a market and some great stories. There was one proviso: we had to raise the initial costs via crowdfunding.

I’ll admit, at first I was reluctant – but when it came to the crunch there were few options. I also liked Tangent’s enthusiasm for the project, and the way they conducted their business. I therefore launched a campaign on Kickstarter to raise the necessary capital to get the book off the ground.

I won’t go into the details here, but suffice it to say that it was a long and arduous process. What struck me most forcibly, however, was the interest we were receiving – and not just from people we knew. Yes, many of my friends and family backed the book, for which I’m hugely grateful. But we received pledges from complete strangers too – some of them extremely generous – and in the final accounting these made up more than half the total. We were able to pre-sell much of the first print run in this way, and the project very quickly went into profit.

My experience is by no means unique, either. Unsung Stories are currently crowdfunding 2084, an anthology of short stories inspired by George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and they’ve had a resounding success. Their funding goal was reached within eleven hours of the campaign launching, and they’re now up to over £8000 as I write this, more than three times their original goal.

I asked George Sandison at Unsung Stories why they’d decided to crowdfund the book, and this is what he had to say:

‘One of the things an anthology gives you, that a single-author book doesn't, is a chance to reach the fans of every author involved. Between support from contributors with promoting the launch, and a larger group of people who may be interested in the project, you've got a healthy customer base to call on. And one of the things crowdfunding does really well, is get people involved in a project - they get their name in the book, collectible editions, artwork, special stuff they'll want to keep. So combine those two things and you have a lot of people, who are empowered and made part of the process. Quite literally, they help make the book.’

This is what I’d found too, and it suggests that there’s a very real business model that’s starting to emerge. Anthologies benefit from having several authors involved, with their combined fan bases – they are also able to spread their appeal more widely. Having one or two well-established authors on board can also make it more appealing, especially to an audience that might not have taken a chance on the lesser-known writers.

Of course, it’s not just anthologies that are reaping the benefits of crowdfunding. Independent presses in general are gradually coming to realise its advantages, and many now have a success story to tell. Influx Press recently crowdfunded their own anthology, The Unreliable Guide to London, which has gone on to receive critical acclaim (it’s currently shortlisted for Best Anthology at this year’s Saboteur Awards, an accolade that I’m proud to say went to Being Dad last year). At the moment, they’re undertaking a more general crowdfunding project, however, raising funds to support the business’s growth. This campaign is already enjoying phenomenal success, and is well worth checking out. Dead Ink and Dodo Ink have also turned to crowdfunding to get projects off the ground in recent years, and all are going from strength to strength.

Interestingly, Unbound enjoyed a huge crowdfunded success with Nikesh Shukla’s The Good Immigrant last year too. While this was non-fiction, rather than fiction, it once again suggested that crowdfunding works for multi-author projects. I’ve since been told that Unbound will no longer consider anthologies, a decision that seems to undermine the idea of crowdfunding anthologies as a strong business model. It starts to make sense, however, when you bear in mind that Unbound are now part of the Penguin Random House behemoth. Clearly the mainstream publishing mantra that ‘anthologies don’t sell’ has already seeped through to the Unbounders.

Within the independent field, though, the anthology may actually be thriving, and crowdfunding is looking more and more like the way forward. Yes, short stories are a niche market – but they’re a market nonetheless. By targeting and actively involving readers who have an interest in short fiction, projects like Unsung’s 2084 are looking remarkably prescient, a glimpse into what the future might hold for anthologists everywhere. Publishers would do well to look to crowdfunding when they’re considering turning an anthology down. The market is still out there – you just have to search for it in the crowd.