The art of the anthology: interview with Monstrous Regiment Publishing

Header image showing an open book on a table, with shelves of books in the background

We first interviewed Lauren Nickodemus and Ellen Desmond of Monstrous Regiment Publishing two years ago about their use of crowdfunding to support their first book, The Bi-ble: Essays and Narratives about Bisexuality. In this interview, Lauren and Ellen give insights into the challenges and opportunities of publishing anthologies, and the impact that COVID-19 is having on small publishers.

In our earlier interview, you had recently published your first book, an anthology called The Bi-ble: Essays and Narratives About Bisexuality, and you are currently working on a new anthology, So Hormonal: Personal Stories About Hormones. What prompted you to choose an anthology model for your publishing?

We didn’t set out specifically to publish anthologies, but it soon became clear there is market demand from readers for essay collections and personal narratives. This is particularly true for readers who aren’t seeing themselves reflected in mainstream publishing. Anthologies often give a platform to writers and topics that previously weren’t given the shelf space they deserve, which is what we set out to do. They have the power to address or debunk popular narratives and assumptions by recording the truth of many individual writers’ lives and experiences. They can be radical and political just in their very nature, as well as a varied reading experience that can draw in many different types of readers.

We think So Hormonal will be our last anthology though, at least for a while, as we are hoping to branch out more into the fiction market. We have our first fiction title coming in late 2020.

Can you describe the benefits and challenges of publishing anthologies? 

The challenges for a small press like ours are definitely the costs, as well as the management and administration workload of having so many people involved in one project. It means 20-30 times the contracts, communications, and consideration—and that last one is really important when you’re working to support creatives. It’s difficult to keep on top of a multi-author project if you’re running your press as a “side hustle” or if you’re facing health challenges.

In addition, the goal of an anthology is generally to have as many outlooks/voices captured as possible, and this can also be a content challenge—When do you stop commissioning? How do you get a good balance of perspectives, and make it logistically feasible for a small press to produce? As anthologies are very popular right now, another challenge is proving that yours is different enough to be relevant.

As for benefits, anthologies are needed more than ever in order to give back control of truth and history to overlooked or misunderstood voices. They also make for excellent reading. It’s been said across the industry recently that essay collections “are having a moment”. We agree that the quality of personal narrative-style nonfiction has been stronger than ever in the last 3 or 4 years, which says a lot about the calibre of output from those writers who were previously overlooked.

Do you have any tips for editors who are thinking of publishing their own essay selections? 

We would suggest preparing for it to take a lot more time than you think you need. You will be working with tens of people, all of whom have different ways of writing and working, different needs, and different independent lives. You will need to be ready to accommodate, support, and have planning in place for delays. And likely, you will be doing this alongside several other publishing projects.

Anthologies are also very personal and the topics can be very “open to interpretation.” A really good end product comes from having an open mind and allowing the publication to grow on its own. That said, it’s also important to have a brief in mind, and come back to it time and again to make sure you’re still selling what you’re advertising.

How have you found working with Kickstarter on publishing projects – would you recommend this route to other publishers?

Kickstarter is invaluable for small presses. Initially we used it just to get our press off the ground and into the book market with a first publication, but we’re increasingly coming to see it as an excellent way to test if there’s interest in a project and then bring that project to life, at almost any stage of a small business’s lifespan. Deciding if crowdfunding is right for your press is very much down to capacity and what your project is. You could model a similar preorder system under your own steam, but without the deadline and goal pressure, it can be more difficult to muster public enthusiasm.

However, given that more and more small publishing ventures are crowdfunding, it makes for a saturated market. There’s a fear of customers getting tired of being asked to support projects, but there’s also the benefit that readers are now really familiar with Kickstarter and have backed projects they love before, so they trust the platform and process.

We think readers like being involved in the process of making a publication happen. When you crowdfund, you really show the “before” stage that readers don’t often witness before picking up a book in a shop. Sometimes, there’s space for readers to give input too. You also prove to the reader how vital they are in the process; again something that might not be clear if they aren’t witnessing the production process from the beginning.

Finally, because it’s a subject on everyone’s mind at the moment: how has COVID-19 affected your work at Monstrous Regiment?

For Monstrous itself, there’s been good to be found among the bad. It couldn’t be more obvious how magical book professionals and readers are in many ways. A really poignant example for us was while running our So Hormonal crowdfund, we were expecting to rely quite a bit on bookshops preordering in bulk via Kickstarter. When the COVID-19 crisis hit the UK, and indie bookshops were among the first to feel it, we assumed they’d all (understandably) have to give this one a miss. Those same bookshops all came through and helped us, through preorders or in other ways too. We couldn’t have been more grateful for their incredible kindness.

On a professional level for our two founders, it has been more difficult and at times we’ve been quite worried about if we’ll be able to keep working in the creative industry. We work for free or on a freelance basis for Monstrous, as we pay all the other creatives involved first. This means we have to find a lot of work elsewhere to support ourselves. We’re now out of work, and it’s hard to say for how long.

This is something that’s proving to be a challenge for a lot of publishing start-ups, gig economy workers, or self-employed creatives/disabled creatives, even before the COVID-19 crisis. The crisis shines a light on the age-old need for independent wealth/middle class support systems in order to get ahead in the publishing industry. Obviously, that’s not been the experience for everyone, but for many of us. We may have to pick head over heart in relation to career choices soon, as if we can’t support ourselves, then we can’t manage to run Monstrous.

To learn more about barriers in the publishing industry that predate the pandemic and have been heightened by it, both financially and for disabled people, we recommend following Julie Farrell on Twitter @weeredwriter. She has raised some excellent points and put out some really informative videos over the last few weeks.

Lauren Nickodemus is co-founder of the indie press Monstrous Regiment Publishing, and works in book marketing and sales by day. Originally from Michigan, she is now based in Edinburgh, and spends her free time writing speculative fiction. 

Ellen Desmond is the co-founder of Monstrous Regiment Publishing and co-editor of The Bi-ble: Personal Narratives and Essays about Bisexuality (2019). In 2016 she was awarded the title of Ireland’s Best Student Editor and nominated for an SAAI Award for contribution to Irish student media and publishing. She’s always happy to connect on Twitter @ellen_desmond.