Three years ago, at HippoCamp 2019, I encountered Randon Billings Noble as a debut author, reading from her brilliant essay collection Be With Me Always, and as a presenter for her inspirational breakout session, “Crafting the Lyric Essay.” When I read that she was presenting about publication at HippoCamp 2022, I circled her session as a must attend.
Randon is an essayist, and the long and winding road she spoke about was publishing her debut essay collection. She started writing for the collection in 2002 and wrote the last essay in 2017. The University of Nebraska published the collection in 2019, but in between was trial by submission and rejection—and lessons learned.
How long should a collection be? 50-100K words. Some presses have specific guidelines, and don’t send your collection if it doesn’t meet those guidelines. How many essays should be already published? Some but not too many; less than 50% but some want less than 30% published. Publication on your blog or website counts. Should my collection have a theme? Yes, but it can have a loose one. Do you need an agent? No, but you might want one and must for big New York presses. To find an agent, look at authors’ book acknowledgements, follow the agent’s guidelines, and give your best work: no errors, no typos, nothing to make them decline.
Randon had an agent, but it was not a good fit, so she queried independent and university presses instead. These presses are often less interested in shaping the work for commercial appeal and more interested in publishing different kinds and styles of work. Though the money and publicity support are less, they offer more creative control. Both of Randon’s query letters worked, the basic and the “bright lights,” in which she included work summary, big publication, more publications, more qualifications, and her degrees. Initially, she resisted writing a book proposal but ended up writing one. Again, she followed the guidelines: overview and summary, audience and market, promotion, production details, table of contents with descriptions of each chapter.
How to get a book reviewed—by reviewing others—how to break into reviewing, and how to write a review? To all questions, Randon offered clear-eyed, “this is how I did it” advice. For book promotions, she did bookstore readings and attended book fairs and conferences.
The road to publication is long and winding, indeed. But with Randon Billings Noble as your guide, you are in good hands.
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