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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We highly recommend that you build your publication credits before approaching an editor or agent with a collection of unpublished essays.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). 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.