Mar 18 2010 10:34am

Polyphony Anthology Series

A while back I compiled a list of influential anthologies or anthology series (I think I had the audacity to call it “The Most Influential”). Possibly the most controversial item on the list was the Polyphony series, started by Deborah Layne and Jay Lake in 2002. I’ve made no bones about the fact that it’s one of my favorite recent anthology series. Mostly that comes from the fact that many authors I enjoy reading have been in the series, including Jeffrey Ford, Theodora Goss, Jeff VanderMeer, Leslie What, Lucius Shepard, Alex Irvine, Carol Emshwiller, Howard Waldrop, Ken Scholes, and more.

I also posted a while back that Deborah Layne and Wheatland Press were going on hiatus for all of 2009. In case you’ve forgotten (and I suspect most of you haven’t) 2008 into 2009 was a particularly bad time in publishing and the economy in general. The thought was that Layne and everyone else would have some time to recoup from their financial difficulties and Polyphony 7 would be published in early 2010.

However (there’s always a however with me, right?) Layne announced that she was looking for 225 pre-orders or she would have to cancel the book and the series. Now comes the news that Layne has received just over half the pre-orders she needed. She’s extended the pre-order deadline through Friday March 19, 2010, but it doesn’t look good.

One of the most telling points in her announcement is the number of submissions versus sales. Polyphony is typically open to submissions for 45 days. In that time frame Layne receives 650 submissions. In three months, she has about a quarter of that in sales. I’m not surprised. That’s the kind of numbers I see all the time with Electric Velocipede.

I can remember thinking more than once, “If half of the people submitting bought an issue or a subscription, I’d be doing great!” Of course, at the rates that short fiction pays, most sales wouldn’t give you enough money to buy a sample from the publisher and then you enter into a vicious circle of authors and publishers looking to make sales.

This isn’t to exhort you to rush over to the Wheatland Press site and buy the book. If you decide to click on the links and look at it, you’ll either like the list of authors and think about buying the book or you won’t. I can’t make that happen.

And I understand that disparity between submissions and sales. Many of us don’t have the income to buy something we know nothing about and can’t learn more about without ordering it. It’s that vicious circle again. I used to subscribe to a lot of publications, big and small, and I’ve had to cut back on those drastically over the past 18 months and shift my attention to anthologies and online fiction.

I’ll be very sad if Layne decides to cease the Polyphony series. But I’ll understand her decision.

John Klima is the editor of Electric Velocipede, winner of the 2009 Hugo Award for Best Fanzine.

Peter Hollo
1. raven
The Polyphony anthologies are really good value. I'll never be a contributor, just a reader, but the quality reading is more than enough incentive! A great mix of the stranger side of SF/F - just look at the list of contributors John gives above.

I've pre-ordered, and YOU SHOULD TOO.
John O'Neill
2. John O'Neill
Hey John,

Thanks for the update. I pre-ordered Polyphony 7 back in January, and wondered what happened to it. Now I know.

The series has really been tremendous, and I hope to see the next one. But, like you, I perfectly understand if Deborah can't pull it off. I publish Black Gate, another small press genre magazine, and while sales for us were stable last year, I've seen the same belt-tightening in the small press you have.

John O'Neill
3. N.Mamatas
Polyphony is typically open to submissions for 45 days. In that time frame Layne receives 650 submissions. In three months, she has about a quarter of that in sales.

Good news (hey, a place to submit work!) travels faster than bad (buy or die). It's not like there's a or duotrope for purchasing. Also, some of Deb's rhetoric has been less than enthusiastic. If you're selling a funeral, you'll often get one. I promoted the sale twice in my blog to some positive result, and ordered a copy myself, so I do hope it goes out. But, in the end, if you want to sell something, you have to sell it. "New Howard Waldrop story!" and "Check out this neat cover!" likely would have worked better than "Send me money or I'll go in the corner and eat some worms and then won't you be sorry?"
John Klima
4. john_klima
You're absolutely right, Nick. I think your "New Howard Waldrop story!" is a perfect example of how you could sell this. There are people, like me, who will buy anything that has new Waldrop in it. There are a lot of authors in the anthology that have fans from all over the place.
Arachne Jericho
5. arachnejericho
The Waldrop story made Polyphony 7 more or less an instant buy for me. The existence of Polyphony really didn't sink into me (as in, at all) before the recent exasperated news.

From the looks of previous volumes, Polyphony doesn't seem to go in for covers. But there are big name writers in every volume.

Truth to tell, I would have been happier with "Hey! Here are these awesome stories from these authors who are cool and I will tell you why they are cool! I will even tell you what these stories are about which is not always obvious from their titles. And I will do this on and Suvudu and John Scalzi's Big Idea and Omnivoracious and give you a press kit so you can plug this on your own blog as well! This will be all over the place, yes it will, and you can send friends outside of the core SF/F community to this happy and upbeat message on our site! We will ask our writer and editor friends to tweet this like mad and maybe have a contest!" rather than "Buy or we die."

Although it's likely I'm just an ignoramus and those are not good suggestions.
John Klima
6. john_klima
arachnejericho, you're right. I think that positive approach doesn't get tried very often and would likely work better. Having been a similar situation, I think the reality of it can be so overwhelming that being positive is difficult and the publisher/editor opts to try being honest about their feelings.

But, you can also be honest about how awesome something is and work that way to get interest drummed up. In my own experience I've found the positive version of news always plays better than doom and gloom.

But there's a good end to this! Although it looks like they didn't quite hit their numbers, Deb Layne has decided to go ahead and publish Polyphony 7:

Polyphony 7 Announcement
John O'Neill
8. Roger S
Does anyone know the status of Polyphony 7? I preordered P7 during the subscription drive, and haven't seen any updates from Wheatland Press for more that a year. Several of the stories listed for P7 have already been published. Has Polyphony 7 been officially cancelled?

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