Don’t Underestimate Anthologies

the bookish brand with rachel werner

Contributing prose pieces or poetry to an anthology can elevate your platform as an author/poet in terms of publishing credits, as well as potentially putting you on the radar of editors and publishers. But many “hoping-to-be-traditionally published” writers are unfamiliar with how to seek out this type of opportunity. Which is why this month I have interviewed a seasoned pro who has shepherded anthologies from the initial pitch to bestseller lists.

Margot Kahn is the author of the biography Horses That Buck (University of Oklahoma, 2008) and a forthcoming poetry debut, The Unreliable Tree (Northwestern University, 2025). Together with Kelly McMasters, she is co-editor of two anthologies: the New York Times Editors' Choice This Is the Place (Hachette, 2017) and the indie national bestseller Wanting (Catapult, 2023).

Rachel: For a writer new to the concept, explain how editors are selected to curate anthologies, or in some cases, pitch anthology concepts to a publisher.

Margot: For both This Is the Place and Wanting, we (my co-editor Kelly McMasters and I) wrote a book proposal and had our agent pitch the idea to publishers. As with any book proposal, we wrote an overview of the idea and talked about why we were the right editors to curate the collection. 

R: As an editor and author, what are 2-3 tips you have for writers interested in contributing to an anthology?

M: An anthology truly is the sum of its parts. Just because you have an excellent idea or piece of work that fits the subject, you don’t necessarily have a piece of work that “works” for the collection. It’s helpful to reflect on:

  1. If your piece is already written and you’re open to editing, say that when you submit. It may be that part of your piece is interesting to the editors, or that a slight redirection will make it different enough from another great submission.
  2. If you have an idea but not a finished piece, ask the editor/s if you can chat about your idea before you do a bunch of work.
  3. Know that submitting to an anthology is much like submitting work anyplace else—there are so many deciding factors for us in choosing work, from the author’s identity and geographic demographics to the piece’s subject matter, tone, and style. 

We turned away terrific contributions for both books—so many, in fact, we’ve thought about making sequels! Try not to take a rejection too personally. 

R: Briefly describe how you decided which pieces—or specific writers—would be included in the latest anthology you edited?

M: We started with a list of writers we admire whose work already trafficked in the concept of desire. Then we made a list of writers whose work we love who we thought might consider exploring this theme. We paid close attention to representation throughout our process. Where you learned about desire, how you came to understand it, and what influences your ideas about it now are based on many things not limited to but including your cultural, religious, and family background, your race, gender, sexual identity, geography and age. And lastly, we aimed for variance in subject, style and tone. Funny is funnier when there’s darkness nearby, and the beauty of an anthology is the ability to present many different voices—if every piece sounded the same, the reader might as well pick up a collection by a single author.

R: How do you network with fellow writers and publishing professionals? 

M: I try to go to as many literary events as I can, but family life keeps me home a lot these days. If I see that an author has a book coming out and doesn’t have an event in my town, I’ll reach out and ask if they’d like help; I know how exhausting it is to set up book events and to rally people to come out—if I can do this for someone whose work I love, I’m happy to. When I’m able, I’ll go to AWP and other literary festivals to see folks in person; if I’m traveling in a place where I know someone, I might reach out to have lunch or coffee. I have lunch every couple of months with a group of writers I used to share a writing space with, and I’m part of a tiny, multi-city poetry writing group that meets every-other-week on Zoom. Much as it drives me nuts, I try to keep up on Instagram so I can say congratulations, give a shout-out, read new work and buy everyone’s books. 

R: What sort of details/characteristics/vibe "hook" you when reviewing stories, essays, poems for an anthology? Does this influence how the pieces are organized into a cohesive collection?

M: My attention these days feels shorter than it used to be, so the first few lines or paragraphs of anything I read need to draw me in, either by what’s happening or by the voice of the narrator. Is this a voice I can read for however many lines/pages? Am I intrigued? Enchanted? Curious? Of course, voice alone won’t cut it—at some point something must happen. But I’ll go along with you longer if the writing is strong. 

A piece I want to include in a collection needs an additional hook that must speak somehow to the other contributions. Maybe there’s an image or theme that’s echoed from one piece to another; or a subject that’s dealt with in two entirely different ways. In this way, individual pieces can create their own drama—another layer of tension and story. 

Imagine you invited a bunch of people to dinner and one fascinating, gorgeous person couldn’t have a conversation with anyone else there. Maybe you thought this person was going to be the life of the party, the star—instead, they sulked in a corner, and everyone wondered why they were there at all. There should be a reason every individual piece is included in a collection, not just for its own style and substance but also for what it does in conversation.

Watch an interview with Kahn during which she shares more details about how traditionally published anthologies are created—plus additional submission tips—by signing on to Lit!Commons, then accessing The Builder lesson module for the week of July 10. Not a current subscriber? Click here to join today.