Platform, platform, platform. Ugh.
Agents say it's not necessary for fiction writers to have a platform to land an agent, but it also can't hurt to build yours now, so let me introduce you to the most intriguing and fun way I've found so far to get my name out there: an anthology.
A box set. Oh, those little awesome 3D covers with their long stack of titles behind them, priced dazzingly low to entice readers in, and once you've got the readers, you have a chance to figure out how to keep them.
I've participated in anthologies for years (starting in 1994 when I had a story in Catfantastic IV, curated by Andre Norton, no joke) but this is the first time I've seen how writers wield anthologies as platform-builders. Plus, as a new writer can make yourself more marketable to agents, so let's talk box sets.
First and foremost, if you participate in an anthology, anything you publish is published. That means you're not going to query it later. So choose your work carefully. Many anthologies will have a theme, so you may be writing something specific, but try to tie it loosely to whatever work you plan to query. Same genre, for example. If it has the same characters, make sure the anthology contract doesn't lay claim to sequels or related works. (Make sure the anthology has a contract.)
Secondly, participating in an antholgy or a box set will give you a writing credit. You may not get any money (especially if the box set is being distributed for free, like mine is) but you're right at the beginning of your career and you're going into this open-eyed: writing for free is fine if you're willingly choosing to get paid in some other currency. In this case, the currency is experience.
Agents and editors like to know how a writer responds to professional guidance. If you've participated in an anthology, you've proven you know how to work with other professionals. (This goes for magazines, too.) You'll have a track record of being able to keep to deadlines, being able to accept critique, and being able to put yourself out there as a professional.
Experience also means flexibility. We had one individual leave production for personal reasons, so the remaining members divided up the responsibilities to make sure all needs were covered. Another participant needed to flex her schedule due to absolutely unavoidable conflicts, and we were able to adjust everything around her so that when she did have the chance, her work could come in late and then be streamlined right through production so everything was completed on time.
Flexibility is a skill. Taking critique is a skill. Working with others is a skill we all learned in kindergarten but needs practicing on a regular basis. In an anthology, you'll get all that.
Your currency may also come in the form of mentoring. If there are more-experienced writers in your group, watch them and soak up every single bit of information you can. Ask them to put you to work, and then go ahead and do it. Why? Because they're going to show you tricks that are second nature to them after being in the trenches. Marketing tricks. Phrasing tricks. Keyword tricks. Selling tricks. And remember, as a querying writer, you're marketing yourself.
(An unexpected side-effect of my participation in this anthology was that after I formatted the ebook versions, two members asked if I formatted on a freelance basis. I currently have my first freelance check sitting on my desk, awaiting transport to the bank. How cool is that?)
Third is that you're going to increase your platform, or maybe begin building your platform. When you participate in an anthology, each participant is going to reach out to her network in order to get support for the final product. If there are ten participants, you have ten times the reach you had before, and if you assume an equal division of readers, then 90% of the readers will be new to you.
Ah, but it won't be an equal division of readers because the other writers may have fully-developed platforms of their own already. And all together, you're each riding the others' coat-tails onto new readers' shelves. Everyone benefits. (Just make sure you have a way to keep those readers attached to you, such as a blog to follow or a Facebook page they can like.)
Side note: The authors of The Naked Truth About Self-Publishing talk about how, when they first formed The Indie Voice, they decided all of them should have the monicker "New York Times Bestselling Author." So they formed a box set with one book from each member, priced it at $.99, got a BookBub and other supporting ads, and proceeded to sell thousands of books, hitting the bestseller list. That, my friends, if you can be paid in it, is currency. (But you can't do that anymore. Both the NYT and BookBub closed that particular loophole. Sorry.)
It'll just be a sentence in your author bio. "I was previously published in Where The Light May Lead, an anthology that sold a thousand copies during its publication weekend." You don't need to harp on the fact that now you have experience and the beginning of a platform, or that you've picked up new skills and new contacts. Agents will know.
Participation in an anthology won't vault you over everyone else's head right into the agent's "request a full right this second" pile. But having a track record might tip the scales if the agent is unsure whether to look at more of your work.
And above all: participating in an anthology will make you a better writer and a better professional. Plus, it's fun. Those are always good things, even if you never want to impress an agent or an editor.
(Psst: If you want to check out the anthology that spurred this post, it's free in the US on Amazon and worldwide at a number of other vendors.)