It’s not easy to publish an essay collection unless you’re already a well-known author (or a celebrity), but it is certainly not impossible. There is a market for individually published personal essays—for example: newspapers, themed anthologies, literary magazines, trade and professional journals—but selling a compilation of them takes extra marketing savvy.
At Writer’s Relief we are often asked how writers can get their collection of essays published, and we recommend the following tips to help essay writers approach editors and literary agents with greater confidence and success.
How can I generate an editor or agent’s interest in my book of essays?
Publication credits. If you’ve previously published essays in reputable literary journals, make sure to include these credits in your query letter. We highly recommend that you build your publication credits before approaching an editor or agent with a collection of unpublished essays. The market for an essay collection is limited unless you have significantly newsworthy experiences or have a background that proves your writing has mass appeal. Wide publication credits will help indicate readers’ interest in your work.
If you are still in the process of building credits, investigate local venues for your essays—newspapers, newsletters, etc. There are also free specialty publications covering every imaginable topic (check out coffee shops and bookstores) that may be receptive to personal essays. (Hint: you can find many of them in our Writers Classifieds!) Start locally but aim for national exposure for the best results. If you’ve published a personal essay in a reputable national literary magazine, you’ve increased your odds of selling a collection by quite a bit.
Theme. Collections do well when they include essays with a common theme. For example, David Sedaris is best known for his humorous essays, and C.S. Lewis once published a collection of religious essays. Other themes may include women’s studies, travel, sports, or city life. Unique themes get attention—people love to read about real-life experiences that are highly unusual—but even the most outrageous stories must be backed by good writing.
How can I find editors or literary agents who work with essay collections?
Research, research, research. Study the essay collections at local bookstores and libraries—and don’t forget to investigate the nonfiction areas such as travel, cooking, or parenting. Note who publishes these collections and what kind of essays are selling. Check the books’ acknowledgment pages for possible references to literary agents or editors.
Study book reviews and buy compilations of essays (for example, The Best American Essays) to learn where each was published. And don’t forget about networking. Writers’ groups, college English departments, conferences—get to know fellow writers and ask questions.
Search for literary agents who welcome essay collections. You can find thousands and thousands of resources online and in bookstores. You’ll need to examine literary agency listings carefully in order to determine which are best for you. And, if you’re short on time, Writer’s Relief can help you. We maintain a database of information—current and constantly updated—to help you target your submissions more successfully. We’ve been helping writers get their work published since 1994.
REMEMBER TO CHECK OUT OUR LIST OF WRITING CONTESTS and ANTHOLOGIES! You won’t find a better list anywhere (AND IT’S FREE!) of upcoming anthologies, special-themed journals, and contests.
How I Published My First Book of Short Stories in 12 Easy Steps
1. I decided to learn how to write short stories. Originally, I thought I should write and publish short stories to later help get my novel published. I enrolled in classes in the craft of short fiction, at which point it became clear that I didn’t even read short stories, and that I would need to, if I was going to be any good at this.
Tip: Consume short fiction, even the kind you think you don’t like. Learn how stories work and why they work.
2. I wrote. A lot. In the beginning, the ideas were endless. It was like an underground spring had finally been unplugged, and I was a geyser of creativity. And even though I started writing short stories to further my novel, I ended up falling in love with this beautiful, compressed form that allowed me to actually finish a story arc in less than five years.
Tip: Even if you are working on a novel or another long project, taking a break to write a short story now and again can help free you from that insidious condition we call writers block.
3. I submitted my short stories to literary journals. Sometimes I sent stories out too soon, before they’d had a chance to marinate and grow, and I got a lot of rejections. But I had educated myself about the rejection rate (98% at most journals) and I knew this was a numbers game. I knew to take none of it personally. I was stubborn. I kept revising and submitting, and I started getting acceptances.
My most successful year—when five pieces were published—I also got 125 rejections.
Tip: Don’t give up. Seriously. The only way to fail is by not trying. If you let a wave go by because it’s big and scary, it continues to roll and grow and crash and ebb while you stay still. Don’t stay still.
4. I vowed to strengthen my craft in a peer writers group and in high-quality workshops, where I got to work with teachers like Steve Almond and Aimee Bender and Charles D’Ambrosio and Anthony Doerr and Jim Shepard (it is not necessary to study with these people in alphabetical order; for some weird reason, it just worked out that way for me).
Tip: Don’t get stuck in only one teacher’s style, and don’t ever assume you’re too advanced to learn more. There is always more.
5. I started paying attention to the themes I returned to again and again in my work. Loss, love, breaking apart and trying to become whole again. I wrote towards those ideas when I began every new story. This was my first step towards considering a short story collection as something more than just all the stories I’d written cobbled together.
Tip: Write towards whatever it is that keeps you up at night, whatever swirls around your heart and your head.
6. I put (what I considered to be) my best stories together, in one document, to see how they flowed. Some of them had been published, and some had not. I was looking for not just how each story felt, individually, but how they felt as an aggregate.
Tip: Ask yourself what will resonate with the reader when they see and read all your stories together.
7. I spent endless hours rearranging the order. Putting new stories in, pulling old ones out, putting old ones back in again. I changed the name of the collection numerous times. It was “Astronomical Objects” and “He Never Gave It To You Straight,” and “I See You in the Bright Night” and “Baby’s On Fire.”
Tip: Front load your manuscript with your strongest stories. Don’t think about how they should be ordered when your book is published; instead, blow the socks of an editor right away. They’ll be more likely to forgive weaker stories later in the collection if they’re already in love.
8. I started sending out the manuscript to small presses I admired that published collections I actually read. I no longer had an agent for my novel (a long—and unoriginal story), and it turns out that saying “I’ve got an unpublished short story collection” is rarely the line that gets you one—especially since I had never been published in The New Yorker, nor graduated from the Iowa Writers Workshop. But you know what I did instead? I’d become part of a large, generous community of writers who really want to help each other out.
Tip: Ask your friends who are writers (who you’ve met along the way, in your writing classes and peer writing groups) who their editor/publisher is, and if it’s okay to use their name when you send your manuscript to that editor/publisher.
9. Contests looked like a good option for me, so I entered a handful.
These can be tricky: you usually have to pay an entry fee and some contests can be scams that prey on the dreams of inexperienced writers. But there are also many reputable short story contests that are an excellent publishing avenue for debut authors (writers like Antonya Nelson, Gina Oschner, Amina Gautier, Hugh Sheehy, Nancy Reisman, and Anthony Varallo have all had short story collections published as a result of winning a contest).
Tip: Don’t dismiss contests entirely, but make sure you do your homework on sites like Poets & Writers, and don’t pay a submission fee that seems out-of-alignment with the prize (for example: a $75 fee for a $500 prize sounds pretty scammy).
10. Press 53 announced I was a Top 10 Finalist for their Award in Short Fiction! I’d been disappointed before (see aforementioned 98% rejection rate), and didn’t want to get my hopes up. But my hopes were up. I wanted this. This collection had been rejected thirteen times, and I was starting to wonder if it was worth it, if I was worth it.
Tip: Frustration and self-doubt are a natural part of the writing and publishing process. Don’t let it stop you. Ride the wave, then pick yourself up and shake off the sand, and look for your next swell.
11. Here’s the twist ending: I didn’t win the Press 53 Award. The winner was announced, and that winner was not me. I felt vindicated in my pessimism. A half-hour later, I received an e-mail from Kevin Morgan Watson, the Press 53 publisher saying, “You were a very, very close second,” and if I’d be willing to discuss some editing suggestions, they would like to publish my collection the following year.
Tip: Balance the pessimism and the optimism. Sometimes things will go your way and sometimes they will not, but they will often surprise you.
12. I said, “Screw that! If they don’t want my collection exactly as it is, then they clearly don’t recognize or appreciate my genius.” Kidding! I re-read the e-mail fourteen times, making sure I wasn’t imagining it, then forwarded it to my husband and a friend to make sure they were seeing the same thing I was, and when my reality was confirmed, I wrote back to Kevin and said, “YES!”
Tip: Don’t give up. Writing is hard and publishing is harder and there are no “easy steps.” What you’re doing is creating art, and that always exists in your soul. It is as endless as the ocean, top to bottom, shore to shore.
Liz Prato is the author of *Baby’s On Fire: Stories*(Press 53), and the editor of *The Night, and the Rain, and the River* (Forest Avenue Press). Her stories and essays have appeared in numerous
publications, including The Rumpus, Subtropics, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Toast, Hunger Mountain and ZYZZYVA. She writes in Portland, OR, and teaches at literary festivals across the country.