March 5, 2009–Editor shares pleasures, pains of anthologizing–Michael Engelhard

Editor shares pleasures, pains of anthologizing
by Joan Tovsen

At the Alaska Professional Communicators’ March 5 luncheon, speaker Michael Engelhard suggested his compulsion to assemble and edit anthologies might be a psychological disorder of his own creation – one he fondly calls “anthromania.” The latest symptom was Engelhard’s most recent publication, just released from the University of Alaska Press (2009): Wild Moments: Adventures with Animals of the North. This follows the 2005 anthology, Unbridled: The Western Horse in Fiction and Nonfiction, and Redrock Almanac: Canyon Country Vignettes (2007).

Engelhard moved from his native Germany to Alaska at age 30. He finished his degree in anthropology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks but realized he much preferred the wilds of wilderness to pushing papers in an office or classroom. His anthology obsession grew out of his experience as a river guide, telling and sharing stories to entertain clients. Earlier publications include two river guide journals turned into story form: Where the Rain Children Sleep: A Sacred Geography of the Colorado Plateau and Hell’s Half Mile: River Runners’ Tales of Hilarity and Misadventure.

He now spends his days guiding and writing in Alaska and the Colorado Plateau.

Publishers consider anthologies challenging to sell and generally do not offer very much compensation to the writers or the editor, Engelhard told our group. But for him, the pleasure of assembling a collection outweighs the pain. The pleasures of anthologies, he points out, include the challenge of compositing 33 animal stories by 33 writers into one book. The composite combines experiences of multiple life times, permitting a combination of various styles, beyond the reach of one writer. The result is what musicians call an antiphony of voices. The editor of a good anthology selects the voices and stories that complement each other, as harmonious music, and sets them to a score of order.

One thing he appreciates about anthologies, said Engelhard, is that the collections can fulfill roles that other publication venues do not, providing a forum for stories that may not quite fit anywhere else.
For example, an anthology can be a good place for an author to put one’s stories of personal humiliations to good use. This is what Engelhard did with his own story of a first date on an Alaska river paddle trip. In the story, Engelhard recalled his show-off manner, and how he carelessly left paddles on the beach where the water carried them away. The ill-fated couple still had three days to go down river – with only surrogate paddles made from tree branches and drift wood. They have never spoken since that trip, he confessed. Yet, a story too funny and long for a magazine to accept was written – and wove its way into anthology.

Anthologies, Engelhard has learned, can be nearly as difficult to sell as poetry. In publishing circles, such collections are known for being slow out of the gate. But they are also known to carry some long-term value, since they tend to backlist rather than disappear.

One challenge of editing a collection, said Engelhard, is getting the writers and publisher to sign on to a project, since each generally wants to know who else is involved before making a commitment. Writers want assurance they are signing with a known publisher, and publishers want to know what big-name authors have signed on. University presses are most likely to publish anthologies, because they are subsidized and not concerned with profits. However, in most cases, publishing advances are small or nonexistent and the budget may barely cover payments to contributing writers. A typical scenario: a $3,500 payment must be divided among 33 writers, with no promise of any future income from the publication.

Despite the apparently low dividends, being in an anthology can be a good opportunity for a writer, said Engelhard, providing a venue in which new writers may rub shoulders with the big names. Though print runs are generally fewer than 1,000, collections may be reprinted if they sell well.

Our speaker entertained the gathering through the rest of lunch with some unique food for thought in a reading from another anthology, Going Green: True Tales from Gleaners, Scavengers, and Dumpster Divers by Laura Pritchett (University of Oklahoma Press, 2009). After this, he took questions and shared insights and inspirational stories from Wild Moments.

Click for more about Michael Engelhard’s thoughts on anthologies.

Michael Engelhard

Michael Egelhard