Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Though they get less press than novels and short fiction, personal essays actually have one of the most welcoming markets in publishing. Dedicated essayists have a great chance of seeing some form of publication, so long as they’re willing to put the work in and understand the marketplace.
That’s why in this article I’ll be exploring the ins and out of publishing your personal essays, starting with how you can secure publication on the lowest rungs of the industry ladder, and then leading up to the anthology or collection publication of multiple essays. But whether you’re a writer of novels, plays, or personal essays, the first piece of advice will always be the same…
Read, read, read
As with any art form, there are trends in the personal essay market. It’s also the case that most publications will have preferences about things like tone, length, subject, and structure. Because of this, whether you’re writing essays in general or for a particular publication, the first step is reading as many as you can get your hands on.
Your research should be focused, however. Reading the great essays, collections by writers such as George Orwell or Oscar Wilde, is of course a good idea but the bulk of your reading needs to be targeted at the sort of publication you’re writing for.
There are many kinds of small touches, technicalities of rhythm and pace, which can only be learnt by reading good examples, but most publishers won’t just be interested in whether your work is good – they’ll be interested in whether or not your work suits their publication. The key is to study their publications relentlessly, first deliberately striving for the ‘feel’ of the work they publish and then gradually allowing it to become a natural style.
This sounds difficult, and at first it will be, but there are two facts which should make beginner essayists feel better:
- The ability to assume a style is one which gets easier and easier with practice. The more different styles you learn, the easier you’ll find the whole process, and very quickly you’ll have a wardrobe full of styles you can slip into to suit the occasion.
- Generally speaking, the better established the publication the less strict they’ll be about conforming to a set style. The demands on quality go up of course, but publications with existing industry and readership respect will be less concerned with the safety of conformity, and more concerned with showcasing the best of your unique talents.
It will take a while for these facts to come into play, but you should feel reassured that however difficult you find it starting out, that’s as difficult as it gets.
Reading should be a constant through your attempts to gain publication, but what you read should change according to where you are on the essayist’s pyramid.
The essayist’s pyramid is a way of combining the different levels of essay publication with the work it takes to move from one to the next. The pyramid basically consists of four levels. At the base are local and specialist publications, the next level up is regional publications, then national and international publications, then successful collections.
The pyramid doesn’t just represent a hierarchy; it’s a guide to progressing from one level to the next. One of the biggest deciding factors in whether a publication will consider your work is your reputation and publication history. Because of this, it’s necessary to have a lot of local publications under your belt before you contact a regional publication, a lot of regional publications before you try for national, and finally to be a frequently published national essayist before you can expect to be successful with a collection of essays.
Self-publishing gives you the ability to skip any of these steps, releasing your work to the world through blogging or e-books. While these are valid routes they’re unlikely to lead to success on their own unless you have a unique viewpoint or presentation. Instead it’s advisable to view websites as you would any other publication. Yes all websites are available to anyone, but realistically they still fall into a structure so similar to ‘local / regional / national’ that they can be discussed in the same breath. Once you have a few essays on a few minor websites you can try moving up, and keep going until there’s sufficient audience to follow you to your own online venues and digital publications.
So now we’ve looked at the route essayists can take to success, it’s time to discuss how they can get started.
The more local a publication the more likely they’ll be to publish you. This isn’t just a matter of circulation, but it doesn’t hurt. A sense of community + a small pool of potential talent = welcoming publishers. For the same reason specialist magazines, those which deal with a specific realm of subjects, are likely to be similarly well disposed towards your work.
Local publications can be found… well… locally. Eateries, libraries, and healthcare centers are good places to search. Established local publications, especially newspapers, will often have adverts for less well-known magazines.
If you’re working online then it’s just a matter of searching around and gauging which publications will be most appropriate for your work. Either way this approach is one which works all the way to the top of the pyramid. Regional publications will contain adverts for local ones, and national magazines are a good source for regional publications.
Each block of the pyramid stays aware of the block below (everyone wants to know where the talent is coming from), and so the more you work the more recognizable you’ll be to those you need to contact next.
The submission system
As I mentioned in my article on publishing short fiction, if you’re serious about publication then you need to establish a system where you’re always submitting and waiting to hear back about a submission.
Waiting to hear back from one publication before submitting to another is wasted time. Ideally you should have a few articles ready to go ‘out’ when you begin, then spend the time before you hear back writing more.
Every writer experiences more rejection than acceptance (mainly because the same piece can be rejected a hundred times, but only accepted once.) You shouldn’t be disheartened, but equally you shouldn’t let any necessary rejections on your road to success waste time you could spend succeeding.
Reading, writing, and submitting are a constant process. Getting published is a job, and it’s one you have to keep showing up for. Do so, though, and you can reach the achievement every essayist dreams of…
Collections and anthologies of personal essays
‘Anthologies’ are collections of essays in which your work can be featured, whereas you can publish a ‘collection’ made up entirely of your own work.
To make it into an anthology you need to scour literary magazines for one with a theme you think you’d suit. Here the need to tailor your writing to the publication in question is more important than ever. Hang a list of their guidelines in your writing space and stick to it. Anthologies gather most of their audience based on interest in the overall theme, so deviating from it will get your work quickly dismissed.
If you’ve worked your way up the pyramid those who have already featured your work will likely be thrilled to trumpet your achievements, so if you do make it into an anthology make sure to contact former publishers. They may want to advertise your work, or even have you write something.
This is doubly the case when you publish a collection all your own, as there will be fewer other sources of exposure. Thankfully former publishers will almost always be genuinely happy to acknowledge your success, and it will also help their own prestige to be associated with a successful author. Collections are almost always the exclusive preserve of famous essayists – the kind you see week-to-week in national newspapers – but there is a healthy market for self-published collections by lesser-known but established authors, especially when they deal with specialist topics. Whether you’re a beer brewer, a trout fisher, a doll collector, or really almost any kind of hobbyist, there’s a niche for your work already waiting.
Building the pyramid
As I said before, finding some form of publication is just a matter of hard work. Moving up the pyramid you need to keep experimenting with your style and making sure that the work you’ve done on one level supports what you’re attempting to do on the next. A firm base is vital, and is the greatest tool in what have to be constant efforts to improve both your art and the places it can be found.
Above all, remember these three things:
- Always be reading, writing, and submitting.
- Write with your publication of choice in mind.
- Keep building.
For more advice on the logic behind entering competitions and anthologies try Should you enter a writing competition? Or for how to build an email list, a must for writers who will be moving from publication to publication, check out Why you need to have an email list right now.