How To Do An Essay Collection
You know you want to.
A few weeks ago we talked about how to do an anthology. And I know some of you were probably turned off by that, and I’m sorry not sorry. It’s hard to do an anthology and if you aren’t 100% ready to go full throttle with it, then it’s best not to. There are plenty of other kinds of books to write.
One of those is the essay collection! It’s like an anthology, but you write all the essays and you don’t need a contributor contract. I’m kidding. But it is kind of like that. I know many of you want to do an essay collection, and here’s how to figure out if you can/should/shouldn’t now.
You need a topic.
This should come as no surprise, but your essay collection should be about something. Whether it’s personal essays or essays around a theme or subject, your book needs a thesis or clearly defined point of view. Maybe you saw Jaya Saxena show the cover of her forthcoming essay collection CRYSTAL CLEAR: Reflections on Ordinary Talismans for Everyday Life on twitter today. (Preorder now!) She described it perfectly here: “It's about crystals but really about the way humans externalize our desires and feelings. When someone says ‘rose quartz represents love,’ I wanted to talk about why—both where that story comes from, and why we needed a rock to represent love in the first place.” I mean, she’s already written the book, so it’s much easier for her to talk about what the book actually is, but this is also how we pitched the book to editors. Your essay collectoin can’t just be about you know, crystals and stuff. It needs a distinct point of view, a focus, and a point the reader can see applying to their own life. Like memoir, essay collections are sometimes a mirror to the reader, especially if they are remotely personal in nature. The reader wants to see themselves reflected in the books they read, whoever they are. And even if you’re writing a book of criticism or reportage, it still needs to be about a distinct thing. It can’t be here are the best essays on all the topics I’ve ever written and I think they’re pretty good. Unless you’re Dave Barry (old person reference!) you can’t sell a book of your greatest hits (yet).
You need a platform.
I know. I know. It sucks. It sucks to talk about platform because that’s the longest game. It’s the hardest to build and you can’t do it fast. If you want to write an essay collection in the future, you have to start NOW on your platform. I’ve explained in detail what that means here, so go give it a read/re-read and come back. I’ll wait.
The bottom line is that personality often sells collections AND ALSO you need that platform to market and promote your book once it’s a real thing. Like most things in publishing, it’s not a case of if you write it, they will come. I know. I’m sorry. Keep reading even if you don’t have the platform YET.
You need to publish an essay or two, likely.
This relates to the above re: platform. Publishing an essay or two or more (but not all) of the things you think might end up in your book is a way to both sell your book and build your platform—and sometimes get an agent! I have definitely read an essay or article online and reached out to an author and said have you ever thought about writing a book? It’s great! Sometimes the essays you write turn INTO the book you sell and you didn’t even plan it that way. Jaya wrote a column about crystals for Catapult and some of those essays are definitely in her book! The system works! So, bottom line, write and try to get things published. Yes, it’s hard. If it was easy then you wouldn’t need this newsletter.
MAKE SURE when you are signing a contract with a publication that you only give them NON-EXCLUSIVE rights, OR that their rights to publish the work expire/go non-exclusive in a reasonable amount of time (a year or two) OR that it specifically says that you’re allowed to publish your essay in a book. If you sign over your copyright to a publication then that essay is no longer yours and you do not own it anymore and you CANNOT publish it in your own book. READ YOUR CONTRACTS.
You need a proposal.
When you have all that done, and/or while it’s all coming together, start writing your book proposal. I’ve talked about that here, too! You’ll want a few essays in there as sample chapters, and it’s ok if one or so of them have been previously published. But make sure there are some unpublished essays in there, too, so the editor doesn’t think it’s just all going to be things people have read before. This can be the book’s introduction, which you wouldn’t have published online yet, likely. Otherwise, it’s a pretty straightforward book proposal.
You need ideas on how to promote it (which you include in the proposal.)
Pretty straightforward book proposal, including ideas on how you will promote the book. Essay collections can be hard to sell to the book-buying public (not to mention editors). You want to come in with some reasonable, actionable ways to promote your book. This can include suggesting essay topics you can pitch to other publications that don’t appear in your book. Topics and panelist suggestions for “in conversation” type events, with people you know or that you can reasonably contact and ask. A list of people you feel comfortable approaching for blurbs. It’s all well and good to say I’ll get on the Today Show! but if you don’t have a close, personal friendship with the booker, then that idea isn’t feasible. Your publicist is going to pitch you for the Today Show if she thinks it’s a good fit, but the pie in the sky ideas can’t be the cornerstone of your promotional plan. Show the editors the things YOU can do and they will add that to the things THEY can do, and that’s how you build a solid publicity campaign. But yeah, a lot of it has to come from you. It’s just the way it is. (When we all have more energy, we can argue about how dumb that is, but right now, let’s fight bigger battles.)
If you get these ducks in a row, you’ll be that much closer to your dreams of writing a book of essays. Don’t be demoralized about the steps between where you are and what you want. You can do it. I know you can.
And I know there is so much ELSE going on. SO MUCH. It never stops. I hope you are carving out the barest minimum of time to do whatever it is that brings you some relief these days, because really, we need all hands on deck to get through the next 42 days, and whatever comes after that. Please register to vote. Please vote, and early if you can. Please give money to places like Ditch Mitch and the Florida Rights Restoration Commission and directly to the Biden/Harris Campaign if you can. Text bank or write postcards. Please.
I was going to write today about holding on. We just have to hold on, not because things are guaranteed to get better (especially not if we don’t do anything) but because giving up is not an option. It just isn’t. Too much is at stake. And I was going to segue into talking about how that’s just like in writing because through all the hard writing days and impossible query letters and silent agents and ghosting editors, you just have to hold on and keep writing and keep working and learning and reading and trying. Because the alternative of not doing those things means you are guaranteed to fail. Writing a book maybe and the future of our country do not have the same stakes obvs, but they are both things that rest on doing the small things all the time over and over. Write. Text bank. Donate. Read. Advocate. Vote. (Ok that only happens once. Don’t commit voter fraud please.) Hold on, friends. We’ll get through this.
From my anarchist jurisdiction to yours,