How to Write Submission Guidelines for Your Anthology

How to Write Submission Guidelines for Your Anthology

by Deborah Sheldon

Let’s get my bona fides out of the way first. I’ve curated three horror anthologies. Midnight Echo 14 (AHWA 2019) won the Australian Shadows ‘Best Edited Work’ Award, and one of its stories was nominated for the Australian Shadows ‘Best Long Fiction’ Award. The anthology I conceived and edited, Spawn: Weird Horror Tales About Pregnancy, Birth and Babies (IFWG 2021), was critically acclaimed, multi-award-winning, and multi-award-nominated. My latest anthology – that I also conceived and edited – is Killer Creatures Down Under: Horror Stories with Bite (IFWG, 2023), released this month.

Here are my suggestions on how to write a submission callout that will (a) get you the kind of stories you want in order to (b) create a knockout anthology. These tips apply whether your anthology is open call – meaning unsolicited submissions – or by invitation only.

Pick a concrete theme

Now is not the time to be wishy-washy. You need a strong subject, one that conjures an instantaneous opinion, feeling, memory or image in the mind’s eye of the writer or reader. For Killer Creatures Down Under: Horror Stories with Bite (which I’ll call KCDU from now on for convenience), I chose horror associated with Australian animals because my country is known worldwide for being jampacked with dangerous critters. It’s an intriguing premise for a horror anthology. I’m also scared of animals, which gave my anthology its editorial angle.

Think about how your life experience can fit the topic and shape your theme. The more connected you feel to the theme, the easier it will be to fine-tune your submission guidelines.


Give writers room to move

Don’t be too prescriptive. “The story must be hard sci-fi and include a time-travelling psychic, a Neanderthal, a bomb, and a double-twist ending.” Ugh. Firstly, severe restrictions on creativity aren’t appealing to creative types. Secondly, what about rejected stories? How can writers hope to sell them? The market will be flooded with drearily similar stories – assuming enough writers are inspired to submit to your anthology. Thirdly, readers of your anthology might get an “if you’ve read one, you’ve read ’em all” sense of déjà vu.

Instead, give the writers a solid theme, stand back, and let them have at it. From my guidelines for KCDU: “The stories must feature Australian animals; no cryptids, ghosts, legends or monsters. The animals can be of any type – mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, invertebrates, fish, arthropods – as long as they are real creatures that are native to Australia. While each story must be nominally ‘body horror’, there is no restriction on subgenre: anything from sci-fi to fantasy to gothic to action to psychological and beyond will be considered.”


Define your scope

There are many criteria that your guidelines need to pin down. Invited authors, open slush, or a mix of both? Short stories only, or will poetry and non-fiction be considered? What about limited demographics such as women, Australians, the disabled, veterans, cancer survivors, or gay men? What are the minimum and maximum word counts? Are reprints okay?

From my guidelines: “KCDU will comprise stories from Australian writers… Stories must be between 1500 and 5000 words… Reprints will be considered, but must not be available for free anywhere online.”

Keep in mind that some writers won’t pay much attention to your guidelines. This is not a reflection on your communication skills; rather, it’s just lack of care on the writers’ behalf. Over the three horror anthologies I’ve edited, some of the inappropriate submissions I’ve received have included novellas, children’s stories, first chapters of novels, memoirs, angry manifestos, and pornographic erotica. No matter how clearly you define your scope, you’ll get a few submissions like these. Don’t worry. Send a polite rejection letter, and move on.


Mention things you don’t want

Certain themes immediately conjure well-worn literary devices. You should state which devices you don’t want to see. This further refines your guidelines. Choosing stories is a subjective process, and the more information you can give writers about what you want and don’t want, the better.

From my KCDU guidelines about what to avoid: “Gratuitous gore used purely for shock value. Cliché tropes such as the adventures of a young boy and his dog; the main character turning out to be an animal; death of a beloved pet; dead animals coming back to life; crazy cat lady; alien disguised as an animal; villain with a fish tank; and so on.”


Publishing house, crowdfunding or self-publishing?

Let potential contributors know whether your proposed anthology has a home already – i.e., an established book publisher – or if you’re seeking to publish the anthology yourself using crowdfunding monies or your own pocket.


Payment and publishing rights

Clearly state if you’re offering payment. “Royalty share” means the writers are probably not going to receive any money. “Charity anthology” or “exposure only” means the writers will definitely not receive any money. (At the very least, you should gift each contributor a paperback. Some anthology makers, however, won’t even give their contributors a digital copy, which I consider to be very poor form.)

You need to be clear about how much you are paying, which rights you are acquiring and for how long you’re acquiring them. From my KCDU guidelines: “Payment 4c per word for original stories, 1c per word for reprints (Australian currency). First worldwide electronic and print rights in the English language, exclusive for one year, and non-exclusive rights thereafter. For reprints, non-exclusive rights apply.”


Outline the submission process

Will you require blind submissions, meaning that all forms of author identification are scrubbed from the stories? Or do you want names and bios in the cover letter? Spell it out in your guidelines.

Are you using a third-party submission site like Moksha or Submittable? Or do you want submissions sent to you direct via email? Or indirectly via the publishing house? Personally, I like to receive submissions directly via email. For both KCDU and my previous anthology, Spawn: Weird Horror Tales About Pregnancy, Birth and Babies, I set up unique email accounts. Doing so allowed me to easily keep track of submissions, edited story versions, and general correspondence.

Don’t use your everyday email account. You risk losing track of submissions amongst the avalanche of personal messages, business correspondence, bills, ads, spam and so on.


Time frame

How long will writers have to submit? I’ve seen everything from two weeks to twelve months. It depends on you and your circumstances. If you’ve thought of a fantastic idea but it’s pinned to an upcoming holiday, you’ll need a shorter submission window unless you plan to wait until the following year to publish.

I like to set a submission window of three months, because I feel it gives writers enough time to work on their stories. As a writer, three months suits me best. A submission window of two weeks? No time to even consider it. Twelve months? Nah, I’m not waiting that long for an acceptance or rejection letter.

You also need to consider which submission window best suits the anthology. If you want drabbles, poems or flash fiction, a shorter time frame might be possible. If you want stories of 5000+ words, you’ll need to give writers sufficient time to produce their best work.

Finally, your guidelines should include the anthology’s expected publication date. Stating the month and year – or even which quarter of which year – should be enough.



Killer Creatures Down Under: Horror Stories with Bite:

Synopsis: Australia: the land where everything wants to kill you. A continent filled with some of the deadliest animals in the world. From creepy-crawlies to crocodiles, you’ll have plenty to fear in this anthology penned by Australian authors. Killer Creatures Down Under: Horror Stories with Bite offers disturbing tales that range from the action-packed and visceral, through the historical and futuristic, to the phantasmagorical and supernatural. Prepare to confront your animal phobias… And perhaps develop some new ones.

Featuring work by: Geraldine Borella – Tim Borella – Renee De Visser – Anthony Ferguson – Jason Fischer – Fox Claret Hill – Robert Mammone – Ben Matthews – J.M. Merryt – Helena O’Connor – Steven Paulsen – Antoinette Rydyr – Deborah Sheldon – Charles Spiteri – H.K. Stubbs – Matt Tighe – Keith Williams – Pauline Yates

Out now in paperback and e-book format from a wide range of retailers, including Amazon


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