Interview: Written Backward’s Michael Bailey

Michael Bailey (used with permission, kinda :) )

One of my favorite authors and anthologists is Michael Bailey of Written Backwards. You may be familiar with a few of his literary horror anthologies: Chiral Mad I-IV, Pellucid Lunacy, The Library of the Dead, and Qualia Nous. His latest anthology (with co-anthologist Doug Murano) is called Miscreations: Gods, Monstrosities & Other Horrors.

I was lucky enough to get an interview with him regarding how he works and what he looks for in a story.

How did you get started editing anthologies?

Sometimes nothings become somethings. An idea pops in your head, stays there until you decide to let it out. The publisher of my first composite novel, Palindrome Hannah, decided to become a vanity press one day, and so I pulled my baby from that hot-mess and re-released her through an independent press I then created (because why not?) called Written Backwards (thinking, I can do this, thinking, this is lunacy, clearly). And since one of my favorite forms is short fiction, I thought I’d try my hand at anthologies. What could go wrong, right?

Pellucid Lunacy was suddenly in development, a psychological horror anthology. I don’t even remember when or where I posted the original submission guidelines, but they were simple. I was relatively new to the business (having published a few dozen short stories and poems in various magazines and anthologies (all outside the US at the time, places like Australia, Sweden, South Africa), this was basically a blind open call for submissions.

I received a few hundred stories from all over the world, and I had no idea who any of those people were (not at the time), but I really liked nineteen stories (wanted twenty for some reason), so I threw in one of my own that I wrote specifically for the book (one of my favorites, still, “I Wanted Black”). I didn’t know any better at the time. Other editors did it, so I did too (because why not, it’s my book?). This was exposure only. Everyone involved wanted exposure. I painted the cover myself (and later designed a new cover for the re-release), and found a relatively new print-on-demand service: CreateSpace (which later became Kindle Direct Publishing). “POD will never stick,” some said, but I thought differently. With all the sales over the years, let’s just say that book broke even. But let’s also say that it was an investment (must be mad, right?).

Then came the next idea: Chiral Mad, twice as big, twice as badass, a psychological horror anthology with a loose theme of … wait for it … chirality (which took a lot of explaining). This one was strictly (and still is) for charity, but by then I knew some people, became friends: Jack Ketchum (Dallas, I miss you), Gary A. Braunbeck, Monica O’Rourke, Gene O’Neill (so many initials!) Gord Rollo, Gary McMahon, up-and-comers and co-conspirators like Meghan Arcuri. I even convinced one of my teachers, my mentors, Thomas F. Monteleone (another initial), to write the Introduction. I kept costs low, did the cover and interior myself, opened submissions and filled 28 spots. The book was a hit, won some awards, and to-date has raised over $6,000 for various charities (the Down Syndrome Information Alliance got a nice $3,000 check those first few months). And then I thought, What if I started paying these people, professionally?

What do you look for in a story? We know it has to, at least, “work” as a tale, but what else brings a story to your attention?

I usually know by the first page if a story’s any good (to me, at least), sometimes as early as the first paragraph or two, maybe even the first line. Likewise, I usually know if a story’s not any good (to me, at least), or might turn out to be a clunker. If I find my mind wandering at any point while reading a story, I put it aside. If it’s okay, I might flip to the end to see if it’s one of those Ah-ha, see, there’s a point to all this stuff that shoulda been red-line-edited out! kind of stories. A spectacular story will grab on tight and never let go, so I guess that’s what I look for.

I used to read every submission from start to finish, as if every writer at least deserved that from me as the editor, but as the number of submissions increased, and as some writers retaliated rejection letters with How dare you not accept (with such nice words and encouragement, by the way) my flawless, soon-to-be-award-winning short story! time kind of got eaten up, and I realized that not all stories needed to be finished (read), and that if it took any sort of effort to finish reading them (or continue reading them), then the stories themselves probably aren’t finished to the point where they should be considered for a book. Harsh, but not really.

Some stories pull you from the get-go and don’t let up. Some keep you distracted from all the things you’re not looking for to reject a story. That’s what it all comes down to when reading slush, really; you’re looking for reasons a story shouldn’t be accepted, and not the other way around. For pro-payment anthologies, you’re paying for every word, so why pay for mediocre or filler words (all those unnecessary things that should have been self-edited out before ever submitting)? At six cents a word, a 5,000-word story will run $300. Do you really want to spend that kind of dough on okay? Do you really want to fill an entire book with okay?

What is your usual submission to invite ratio?

In the beginning, with Pellucid Lunacy, it was 0% invite, 100% submission (like my history of slinging short stories and poems in the US originally), which then changed with the first Chiral Mad to something more like 10% invite, 90% submission, which then changed with the follow-up, Chiral Mad 2, to something more like 20% / 80%, and then with Qualia Nous to something more like 30% / 70% or maybe even 40% / 60%. The trend kept heading that direction, although the submission to invite ratio probably will not seem to matter much by the end of this …

Chiral Mad 3 and You, Human: An Anthology of Dark Science-Fiction (which opened to poetry!), and even Chiral Mad 4: An Anthology of Collaborations (co-edited with Lucy A. Snyder, with graphic adaptations!)were roughly 50:50. Each had around 500 submissions to pick through for gems to fill half a book. But the more I became part of the business (writing, editing, book design), the easier it became to fill anthologies. Let’s call it mutual respect.

The Library of the Dead, along with the two anthologies I co-edited with Darren Speegle, Adam’s Ladder and Prisms (forthcoming, PS Publishing) were both “invite only,” which is sometimes frowned-upon by those not invited (oh, I see how it is!). The most recent Written Backwards anthology, Miscreations: Gods, Monstrosities & Other Horrors (co-edited with Doug Murano) was mostly invite, although we filled five spots with an open call for submissions. But here’s the fun part. We received over 900 submissions in a single month. And we had to decide upon five (5)! And although this ratio is more in the range of 80% invite, 20% submission (in terms of the content included), it also means those who submitted had a little more than half of a percent chance of making it in the anthology (quality of story not a part of this math), or 0.0055% (the 5 goes on forever), which was probably frowned-upon by the other 99.9945% (and will be forever).

Are there any tips or suggestions you have for authors who want to submit to a Written Backward anthology?

While Written Backwards is currently not open for submissions (all projects on hiatus for now), the rules are fairly simple. Follow any and all submission guidelines. There are reasons why publishers have guidelines, whether that’s an upper (and/or lower) word counts, content restrictions, or any number of things. If the guidelines state something like “5,000 words max, no exceptions,” anything over that is most likely an instant rejection. Follow the guidelines!

This is true not only for per-word payment consideration (anthologies are expensive to produce, and sometimes have caps), but overall word count consideration for the book as a whole. The bigger the book, the more it costs to create (up-front for author payments and also printing costs), and the bigger the page count, and the smaller the profit margin (depending on price point).

A pro-payment anthology consisting of twenty 5,000-word stories, at six cents per word (the lowest “pro-level” payment nowadays), would run 100,000 words, and would cost $6,000, just to pay the writers. If an editor’s lucky, they might get a flat-fee or other cut, and then there’s cover artwork, perhaps illustrations, cover and interior design (layout), the actual publishing costs to create this something from nothing … along with advertising, marketing, any number of things. A professional anthology could cost over ten grand. So, long story short: be respectful of guidelines. All a writer should ever have to worry about is writing the best damn story they are capable of writing, always. Maybe it will sell. Maybe it won’t. But don’t blame the editor. Also, if a writer is submitting to an anthology series, they should probably read a least a few of those past volumes before ever considering a submission.

You’ve been collaborating with a few people on editing anthologies. CHIRAL MAD 4 and MISCREATIONS both were co-edited. How did that go?

There are many horror stories about collaborations, and I feel lucky to have had such great partners: Darren Speegle (a few times), Lucy A. Snyder, and recently Doug Murano. The key is finding someone who understands you, someone in the business you wholeheartedly trust, and someone you respect (and vice versa on all three of those); even The Library of the Dead was a collaboration of sorts, working with both Gene O’Neill and Gord Rollo to bring their incredible shared vision for that book to life.

Working with illustrators and cover artists (and outsourcing for book design, if you go that route) is also collaboration. You have to have a solid relationship with collaborators, not just a Hey, here’s a cool idea, wanna play? mentality. I have had many requests to collaborate on projects (writing and editing) and I have turned away (politely) just about every single one. Passion (suffering) is a big part of collaboration. Anthologies can take hundreds (even thousands) of hours of dedication and hard work. Having a partner helps keep the insanity at bay. The same applies for those collaborating on fiction and poetry (which is also a lot of fun).

You also happen to be one of my favorite authors. You (I think it was you) wrote a story about a man who was trying to transfer his friend’s mind into a computer, and, well… I don’t want to ruin it for anyone, but the end of that story has stuck with me since I read it. For me, I could see where the end of that story was where it all came together. Do you typically outline with a plot or do you write “by the seat of your pants”?

I wrote “Bootstrap / The Binds of Lasolastica” while locked in a badly-AC-controlled server room for five days straight. I wasn’t really “locked” inside that cold room (I wore a heavy jacket the entire time), but spent six or seven hours each day installing then re-installing a horribly-designed server platform to program BMW vehicles (side note: it was originally called ISIS, and we were one of the test-pilots, but they later changed the name because of the terrorist situation). There was a lot of down-time while waiting for software to install, and a lot of hard drives. I started wondering How large is the human mind? in terms of bits and bytes, and then did the math (another side note: shortly after publishing that story, a psychologist reached out asking how I’d determined the final number, saying, “It’s very, very close!”).

I wrote that one as I do all my stories, as a “pantser,” someone who writes by the seat of their pants, as opposed to a “plotter,” someone who, well, plots things out beforehand. I like to see stories and characters take me. I like to be just as surprised writing a story as I am reading one. I’ve only “outlined” once. This was for an overly-complicated dystopian novel I recently finished called Seen In Distant Stars. Stuck in a cat’s cradle of stringy plot, I wrote out each scene as one-liners (sometimes two- or three-liners) and arranged and rearranged them until the three separate storylines made sense. So, I guess I’m a pantser by nature.

Thanks, Michael!

Oh and if you haven’t, go check out his newest anthology: Miscreations: Gods, Monstrosities and Other Horrors.

This was posted in full from my website at: http://kariwolfe.com/index.php/2020/05/10/interview-with-michael-bailey-of-written-backwards/

I simply feel it deserved more attention.

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Kari J. Wolfe

Never-ending student in the realms of writing fiction/nonfiction and telling stories. Hopeless wannabe equestrian learning from a distance.