Today’s edition of “Anatomy of an Anthology” comes from Amber J. Keyser, editor of the nonfiction YA anthology The V-Word, published by Simon Pulse and available now.
Amber J. Keyser
Your Anthology’s Name
The V-Word: True Stories of First-Time Sex
A collection of personal essays by women about first-time sexual experiences.
How did you get your idea/what was the initial spark?
There were three inspirations for this book. The first was my children who were tweens at the time and who were asking lots of good questions about sex and sexuality. The second was an article written by Ferrett Steinmetz for The Good Men Project called Dear Daughter: I Hope You Have Awesome Sex. The third was an overheard conversation between two moms talking about how they didn’t even want to know if their kids were thinking about sex.
Where did you begin researching your idea and/or developing the idea into a more clear, focused concept?
I read every book about sex written for teens that I could get my hands on. Some were outdated. Some were very judge-y and proscriptive. Most were heteronormative and non-inclusive. Even the best books were focused on specifics like methods of birth control, types of STIs, how to masturbate, and various kinds of sexual behavior. None talked in depth about how you know you are ready for sex or what it’s actually like to have sex, physically and emotionally. That was the gap my anthology was going to fill.
What steps did you take from idea to proposal?
I did quite a bit more research into topics such as: the state of sex ed in the US, the efficacy (or lack there of) of abstinence-based approaches, the importance of sex-positivity, the role of pornography in the sex lives of teens, gender fluidity, the spectrum of sexual identity, and the influence of media (traditional and social) on teen sexuality. After that, I worked hard to refine the overview of the anthology relative to the gap I perceived in the market. I recruited an author friend to write a sample essay and found subject area experts willing to be interviewed.
What was included in your proposal to your publisher?
- An overview of the concept that emphasized that I was doing a sex positive, diverse, and explicit anthology, which filled a significant gap in the market.
- A detailed outline of the material I would include in addition to the essays that formed the core of the book.
- An analysis of competing titles.
- Two completed essays (one by me and one by Kiersi Burkhart).
- Bios and writing samples from several experts that I planned to interview.
- An initial list of the writers I planned to approach about contributing an essay.
Did you use an agent? If you didn’t use an agent, how did you find a publisher?
Funny story! I ran into Michelle McCann, an editor friend of mine on a soccer pitch. (Our boys were both playing.) She mentioned that she had recently started acquiring for Simon & Schuster and was looking for YA nonfiction on themes of body, mind, and spirit. I mentioned my anthology idea to her, and she pitched it to the acquisitions team based on our conversation. Once everyone was enthused, I hustled to get a proposal together. My agent, Fiona Kenshole, got involved at this point and was absolutely invaluable in getting us through the very difficult and protracted contract negotiation process.
How did you find your writers?
Since this was an anthology for teens, I started with YA authors who were already writing about sex in honest, realistic, and explicit ways. With these women, I had confidence that they knew the audience, knew the material, and were brave enough to share their own experiences. These writers helped me connect with others. When my author pool was still overwhelmingly white and straight, I put out a very targeted call for open submissions to several private Facebook groups, looking for women of color, transwomen, and queer women.
On reflection I really wish I had done this earlier. I feel good about the diversity in the collection (including three women of color, a transwoman, and six queer women), but it could have been better. Several women of color that had agreed to write for the collection had to back out at the last minute (two because of time constraints and one from nervousness about the topic). It was too late in the process for me to find alternatives. Also I really wish I had actively sought out disabled women writers. My advice for new anthologists is to start early and make finding diverse contributors a top priority.
How did writers pick their story or essay topic ideas? What process did you as editor use to vet them?
Other than the open submission call, I spoke with each potential contributor in advance and asked them to tell me their story. In this way, I could choose stories that expressed a range of experiences. I was also able to eliminate ones that definitely wouldn’t fit (usually because one of the sexual partners was under the legal age of consent or if the essay portrayed the sex as shameful). For most of the essays I did a lot of advance vetting because I didn’t want to commission an essay and then be forced to reject it.
As an editor, were you responsible for contracts between you and your writers? Did your publisher or agent handle the administrative/legal side of things?
All of the contributors entered into a contractual agreement with me. My literary agency helped write and execute those contracts. My publisher was responsible for registering the copyrights.
How did the editing process work between you and your writers?
Usually we began with a conversation and then did two to three pretty intensive rounds of revision. The most common revision comment that I gave was that the author needed to be more explicit in the descriptions of sex. Often the first drafts had detailed descriptions of the events and emotions that led up to the actual sex but then the essay would fade to black. For some authors it was incredibly hard to break that not-so-subtle taboo against talking about sex.
Money talk: how did you get paid for your work?
I received an advance on royalty contract.
How did your writers get paid?
I paid the writers out of my advance.
What role did you take on as editor of the anthology? Were you hands on? Hands off?
I was pretty much all grabby-hands. Honestly, my biggest mistake was being too hands on in the editorial progress. It was the first time I had ever edited other people’s work, and I was way too heavy-handed at first. My inexperience almost drove one contributor away. She was kind enough to allow me to start over with her piece. Another established author gently guided me toward a more effective editorial approach. It was hard to balance my vision for the overall collection with the needs of each contributor.
How did you communicate with your writers? What sort of information did you share with them and how?
After an initial phone call, we communicated via email and through track changes and comments within the manuscript. I shared some parts of the draft manuscript, specifically the introduction to the whole collection and the short intro for their essay. Otherwise, they didn’t see the other essays until post-publication.
Where and how did you decide to include your own work in the collection?
Well, someone had to go first! *GRIN* I don’t think I ever considered not including my work. I had something to say after all.
Where and how did you come to “direct” the anthology? Did you have an idea of how you wanted pieces to progress early on or did you wait until all pieces were available to you to begin constructing the collection?
I waited until I had all the pieces in place. Order was complicated. I must have rearranged the essays a dozen times. I tried to balance out the order of appearance for positive and negative as well as straight and queer. Sometimes essays were linked through common or opposing thematic elements so I ordered them to emphasize those similarities or differences. This is an area where my acquiring editor was incredibly helpful.
How involved was your editor/publisher throughout the creation process, prior to turning in a manuscript?
Since the acquiring editor was someone I know really well, we talked pretty frequently during the process. If there was a contribution I was on the fence about, we discussed it. If I had an editorial conundrum, she offered suggestions about how to handle it. She was crucial in figuring out how all the pieces of the collection fit together.
When the manuscript was a complete draft, what was the process when you passed it on to your editor/publisher?
My editor focused her efforts on the parts of the collection that I wrote rather than on the essays themselves. She had a few minor concerns (mostly legal ones), which I passed on to the contributors, but otherwise, the final form of the essays was the one that emerged from the author’s interaction with me.
How did you communicate changes and/or concerns between writer and your editor/publisher?
I was always the intermediary, sharing pertinent comments with each writer individually and personally. This was time consuming, but I never simply forwarded things on.
When it came to the package of your anthology, how much say did you have in the cover or design? How much were contributors involved in that part of the process?
I had a lot of input on the jacket copy (because I am pushy that way) but very little on the cover. The contributors weren’t involved in this part.
What was your favorite part of the anthology creation process?
My absolutely favorite thing was when a new essay from a contributor would show up in my inbox. It was magical to receive these intimate, profound, funny, delightful, and brilliant essays. I was blown away by the women who wrote for The V-Word.
What was your least favorite part?
There was behind-the-scenes, sausage making at the imprint, which was challenging. Anthologies have lots of moving parts, and in my case, there were quite a few people involved (including the publisher’s legal department). I had to be a very strong advocate for both my overall vision and for some of the more controversial essays.
What were some of the biggest lessons you as an editor learned in creating an anthology?
Editing other people’s writing, especially on tender topics, is very challenging. I wish I been a more sensitive and gentle editor. I came away with such appreciation for my own editors. The work they do is invaluable and also very hard. A brilliant editor is a gift to a writer.
What were some of the biggest successes?
I’m really proud of the book itself. It earned several starred reviews and was selected for lots of great end-of-year lists ( New York Public Library 50 Best Books for Teens 2016, Chicago Public Library Best Nonfiction for Teens 2016; ALA Rainbow List 2017, ALA Reluctant Reader List 2017, The Amelia Bloomer List 2017). I think it offers something to teen readers that they won’t find anywhere else. Its strength is in the honesty of each contributor. They are the superstars of this collection.
What, if any, anthologies did you read while putting together your own? What anthologies had you looked at to help you on your own work?
I read quite a few anthologies. For sexual content, I read Losing It. For structure, I read Zombies vs. Unicorns. For tone, I was going for Dear Sugar (not an anthology, but whatever).
If you aren’t already working on another anthology, would you do another one? Why/why not?
Honestly, the sales for The V-Word have been modest. Partially that’s content. Most schools won’t shelve it. Several public libraries have faced challenges (as in book banning challenges) for shelving it. But over and over again booksellers have commented that anthologies just don’t sell. Many bookstores struggle to know where to shelve anthologies. They are square pegs when it comes to typical YA categories.
I did this book because I believed (and still believe) that teens desperately needed it. I would definitely do the planned companion (essays by men about first-time sex) if the stars aligned, but I would go into the project with a more jaded eye. An anthology, in my opinion, is way more work than writing an entire book yourself, and if it is financially structured like mine (a fairly large advance out of which I paid contributors), it might never earn out. Anthologies just aren’t going to pay the rent.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I love this book. I love the women who contributed to it. They taught me many valuable lessons about life and writing and love and intimacy and being real. One of the best things to come out of my work on The V-Word is these enduring friendships with each of these super talented writer-humans. I’m very lucky.