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.
Unlike many magazines, Creative Nonfiction draws heavily from unsolicited submissions. Our editors believe that providing a platform for emerging writers and helping them find readers is an essential role of literary magazines, and it’s been our privilege to work with many fine writers early in their careers. A typical issue of CNF contains at least one essay by a previously unpublished writer.
We’re open to all types of creative nonfiction, from immersion reportage to personal essay to memoir. Our editors tend to gravitate toward submissions structured around narratives, but we’re always happy to be pleasantly surprised by work that breaks outside this general mold. Above all, we’re most interested in writing that blends style with substance, and reaches beyond the personal to tell us something new about the world. We firmly believe that great writing can make any subject interesting to a general audience.
Creative Nonfiction typically accepts submissions via regular mail and online through Submittable. Please read specific calls for submissions carefully.
We try to respond to all submissions as soon as possible. If you submit by regular mail, you will receive an email from us (typically within a week of your manuscript’s arrival in our office), confirming we have received your manuscript. If you submit online, you will receive a confirmation email from Submittable.
We read year-round, but it is not uncommon for a decision to take up to 6 months; unfortunately, this is especially true of work we like. If you have not heard from us since the initial confirmation email, please assume your manuscript is still under consideration.
Please follow the links below for more information about:
A Note About Fact-checking
Essays accepted for publication in Creative Nonfiction undergo a fairly rigorous fact-checking process. To the extent your essay draws on research and/or reportage (and ideally, it should, to some degree), CNF editors will ask you to send documentation of your sources and to help with the fact-checking process. We do not require that citations be submitted with essays, but you may find it helpful to keep a file of your essay that includes footnotes and/or a bibliography.
Current Submission Calls
For a special issue of Creative Nonfiction magazine, we’re seeking true stories about finding—or, perhaps, coming to terms with losing—your place in the world. Deadline: May 21, 2018Complete guidelines »
LET'S TALK ABOUT SEX!
For a special contest and issue of Creative Nonfiction magazine, we’re seeking true stories about doing it—whether you’re straight, gay, or other; alone, in a couple, or in a crowd; doing it for the first time or the last, or not doing it at all. Deadline: July 16, 2018Complete guidelines »
Submissions for our monthly mini-magazine should be between 5,000 and 10,000 words long, on any subject, in any style. Surprise us! The only rules are that all work submitted must be nonfiction and original to the author, and we will not consider previously published work. Now ReadingComplete guidelines »
PITCH US A COLUMN
Have an idea for a literary timeline? An opinion on essential texts for readers and/or writers? An in-depth, working knowledge of a specific type of nonfiction? Pitch us your ideas; Creative Nonfiction is now accepting query letters for several sections of the magazine. Accepted Year-Round. Complete guidelines »
TINY TRUTH CONTESTS
Can you tell a true story in 140 characters (or fewer)? Think you could write one hundred CNF-worthy micro essays a day? Go for it. We dare you. There's no limit. Simply follow Creative Nonfiction on Twitter (@cnfonline) and tag your tiny truths with the trending topic #cnftweet. That's it. We re-tweet winners daily and republish ~20 winning tweets in every issue of Creative Nonfiction. Not sure what we're looking for? Check out this roundtable discussion about the art of micro-essaying with some of the more prolific #cnftweet-ers.
Previous Submission Calls
THE DIALOGUE BETWEEN SCIENCE AND RELIGION
Closed: December 12, 2016
Issue now available.
DANGEROUS CREATIONS: REAL-LIFE FRANKENSTEIN STORIES
Closed: April 17, 2017
Look for this themed issue as our Spring 2018 release.
Closed: June 19, 2017
We are actively reading the submissions received and expect to be able to update submitters on the status of their work in fall 2017. Look for this themed issue as our Spring 2018 release.
EXPLORING THE BOUNDARIES
Closed: September 11, 2017
We are actively reading the submissions received and expect to be able to update submitters on the status of their work in spring 2018.
Closed: November 6, 2017
We are actively reading the submissions received and expect to be able to update submitters on the status of their work in summer 2018.
Closed: February 26, 2018
We are actively reading the submissions received and expect to be able to update submitters on the status of their work in fall 2018.
WRITING PITTSBURGH BOOK PRIZE
Closed: November 20, 2017
We are actively reading the submissions received and expect to be able to update submitters on the status of their work in summer 2018.
A Note About Reading Fees
Here at Creative Nonfiction, we are always reading, searching for excellent new work to showcase in our various publications. At any given time, we usually have several submission portals open (see above calls for submissions), many of which require writers to pay a reading fee to submit their work.
Why we charge reading fees.
- We publish between 70-100 writers every year, and we pay every single one of those writers; reading fees help offset that expense.
- We like to pay writers more when we can, so we often run essay contests (with prizes ranging from $1,000-$10,000 per winning piece); reading fees help us offset that expense.
- Online submission is incredibly convenient for writers, but in some cases, it can be too convenient. Charging a nominal fee helps eliminate spam submitters--and it helps offset the administrative expenses of processing submissions.
How to avoid paying the reading fees.
- For books and other non-contest submission categories, send a hard-copy submission through the mail. The only cost is in ink and postage.
- Participate in our ongoing micro-essay experiment on Twitter! We publish 22 "Tiny Truths" in every issue… and we pay these writers with copies of the magazine.
- Subscribe to Creative Nonfiction and/or True Story.
How buying a subscription to CNF eliminate the cost of a reading fee.
We recently adopted a new policy: no active subscriber to CNF will ever have to pay a reading fee of any type. Ever. Subscribers can submit as many times, to as many calls for submissions as they like, as long as their subscription is current. This is our way of supporting the readers who are supporting us.
Ways to become a subscriber (or renew a lapsed subscription) to CNF.
- Submit your work. Many of our calls for submissions offer a submit-and-subscribe option—the price of which is about 25% less than the cost of the regular subscription.*
- Join our email list. Joining our list is another way to stay up-to-date for all of our current calls and news. Once you've signed up, you'll be offered a chance to subscribe for $10 less than the regular price.**
- Subscribe. You can always purchase a subscription at the regular price at any time from anywhere.
* Offer valid for U.S. subscribers only. We regret the limitation, but it’s incredibly expensive to send magazines overseas.
** Again, U.S. residents only.
How much do you pay for a published essay?
For essays published in Creative Nonfiction magazine, we typically pay a $50 flat fee + $10/printed page, plus a copy of the magazine. For essays published in an In Fact Books anthology, we typically pay a flat fee between $100 and $150.
My essay is over your word limit. Will you still consider it for publication?
We’re very sorry, but we have to draw the line somewhere.
Do you always charge a reading fee?
No: you can always submit non-themed essays for consideration without a reading fee, if you send a hard copy via regular mail. Like many other magazines, we charge a $3 convenience fee to submit essays online through Submittable. In the case of contests, reading fees generally offset the costs associated with those issues, as well as (in most cases) the prize money; or, for a small additional cost, you can become a subscriber, which also helps keep the lights on at CNF.
Will you consider excerpts from longer pieces?
We are happy to read excerpts from longer pieces, though in our experience it rarely works to pull 4,500 words from a longer piece and call it an essay. Rather, we suggest you consider adapting part of your longer piece so that it can truly stand alone.
Does something posted on a blog count as previously published?
If your blog is shared with the public, we do consider its writing published. If you significantly re-write or expand a piece that is posted on your blog, though, we will be able to consider it for any of our calls for submissions.
Can I change the names or distinguishing characteristics of the people in my story to protect their privacy?
We typically prefer that you not do this, and would argue that, in most cases, there are better ways to approach this type of challenge. That said, in some cases—for example, if you’re a doctor writing about your work with patients—sometimes this may be appropriate. Regardless, we’re big fans of transparency, and greatly appreciate a note in the cover letter or perhaps even footnoted in the manuscript itself, if you’ve taken this type of liberty.
Will you give feedback on the essay I submitted?
Unfortunately, due to the high volume of submissions we receive (in the neighborhood of 100+ essays per month), we can’t send detailed feedback or responses. If you are interested in having a professional editor review your manuscript, we encourage you to check out CNF’s mentoring program and online courses.
Can I submit an essay I wrote in one of CNF’s online courses or in the mentoring program?
Sorry, no. But we do wish you the best of luck placing such work elsewhere, and hope you’ll keep in touch with your teacher or mentor and let us know about any successes!
What are CNF’s copyright requirements?
CNF typically considers only unpublished work and seeks first publication rights. After publication, CNF typically retains certain reprint rights, and some other rights revert to the author. We find that when people ask this question, they usually mean, “I’m submitting a chapter from a book I’m writing, and I need to have the rights to it.” Please know that we absolutely do not retain any rights that would interfere with your ability to publish your work in your own book.
Can I make changes to my essay once I submit it online?
The work you submit for consideration should be the final proofread and edited version of your essay. We do understand that mistakes happen, however, so in the event that you submitted the wrong file, realized that your essay was a poem, or some other obvious oversight, we do allow editing of submitted essays within a limited set of parameters--usually within two weeks of the original submission date or up until a contest deadline. After the essay has been assigned to a reader, changing files can cause a lot of confusion and may result in our not giving your work our best attention.
I found a typo in my submission. What should I do?
While your essay should be carefully proofread, a small typo will not influence the overall evaluation of your submission. In the event that we accept your essay for publication, it will go through a careful editorial process, and you will have plenty of opportunities to review it carefully.