Question about inviting authors to submit to an sf anthology

(This post is specifically about speculative fiction anthologies; it’s not about magazines or novels, and it’s not about literary fiction or other genres.)

Short version of this post: If you’re an sf anthology editor or an sf author, what does the idea of being “invited” to submit to an anthology imply to you about whether the submitted story will be purchased for the anthology?

Long version follows.


As long as I’ve been hearing about sf anthologies from writers and editors, I’ve been hearing phrases like “[writer name] was invited to submit to [anthology title].”

At first, I assumed that that meant that the editor contacted a writer whose work they liked and said something like “Hey, I’m editing an anthology. I would love to see you submit a story; I’ll consider whatever you submit, along with all the other stories that people submit, and I might buy your story if it fits the anthology.”

I learned that there was something called an “invitation-only” anthology, but I thought that that just meant that the editor would only take submissions from authors they knew, so that there was a smaller submission pool; I thought that most submitted stories would still be rejected.

But I later learned that for at least some invitation-only anthologies, the editor would start by creating a specific list of the authors they wanted to appear in the anthology (maybe plus one or two extras just in case someone didn’t get a story done in time), and would contact only those authors, and those authors would send in stories, and the editor would buy those stories, and the anthology would consist only of those stories.

But I still thought that for open-call anthologies (where there’s a public call for submissions and anyone can submit), an “invitation” to submit was just letting the author know that the anthology existed.

(In this discussion, I’m ignoring the anthologies that have some spots reserved for invited authors and other spots reserved for authors who weren’t invited.)

But then I talked with some author friends who said that they no longer write short fiction without knowing ahead of time that the piece will be bought. Which can make sense from an author’s point of view—why spend all the time and energy to write a story if you might not be able to sell it?—but was a reversal of everything I thought I knew about how the short-sf ecosystem works. (When I was editing short fiction at Strange Horizons, we just waited for authors to send us stories, and then we decided whether to buy those stories or not. And authors who sent us stories generally weren’t writing a new story specifically for us; they would write the story and then try to find a place to sell it to.) But I know that there are still plenty of authors who write short fiction without being certain ahead of time of who will buy it.

This past year, I’ve been gradually getting closer to editing an anthology myself. When I get that project off the ground, I’m definitely going to have open submissions, with no spots reserved for specific authors. But I have a list of, like, 200 authors whose work I’ve loved, and I spent a while trying to figure out how to go about asking some or all of them to submit stories, which I thought of as being part of the open-submissions process. I figured for the authors who I don’t personally know, I might say something like “Hi, I’m Jed—you don’t know me but I read and loved your story [title]. I’m now editing an original unthemed anthology, and if you have an unpublished story you’d like to send me, I’d love to see it, though there’s no guarantee that I would buy it.”

That last part is essential for me, because there are few if any authors whose work I always love. Even for my favorite authors, I rarely love more than about half of their work. (Sorry about that, authors!) So I would never agree to buy a story before reading it.

(I am in the perhaps enviable position of not needing to have Big Name Authors in my anthology. I would far rather edit a book full of stories that I love by unknown authors than a book full of stories that I don’t care about by famous authors.)

But then I talked with a few more editors and authors, and all of the ones I talked with told me that there’s not really any such thing as “inviting” authors to submit as part of an open call. They said (I’m paraphrasing and generalizing here) that the concept of “inviting” an author to submit to an anthology always carries with it the strong implication that the editor will buy the story. They said that there might be a few rounds of editing/revising, and that an invitation isn’t a 100% guarantee that the editor would buy the story; but that it would be pretty rare for the process to end with the editor not buying the story.

So I figured that simplifies things for me and my anthology. Given that I won’t buy a story sight unseen, I just shouldn’t invite anyone to submit.

But then a couple weeks ago, I talked with another anthology editor, who said that that’s not their experience—that they have invited authors to submit and then not bought the submitted stories, and it wasn’t a problem.

So now I’m confused, and I figured it was time to post publicly and hear some more viewpoints and further discussion.

I guess my main questions are:

For anthology editors: If you explicitly invite a particular author to submit to your anthology, are you expecting that you will probably buy the story they send?

For authors: If you’re explicitly invited to submit to a particular anthology, do you expect that the editor will probably buy the story you send?

For anthology editors and authors who said yes to the above: Is there a way of letting specific authors know about an open-call anthology, without implying a strong likelihood of buying whatever the author submits?

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