Consider this, if you’re writing to sell. You can write an essay about anything, and if your essay or book based on personal experiences strikes a nerve, you’ll make money. The book which first convinced me of this was Betty MacDonald’s The Egg and I. Published in 1945, this blockbuster about the struggles of a chicken farmer sold a million copies in a year; an enormous number of books for its time.
Are personal essays profitable? Consider that in 2013, O, The Oprah Magazine, pays $2 a word for personal essays, and other writing.
Amazon’s Top 100 Bestsellers list is packed with books of personal experiences. Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife is at #2 on the list, and has currently spent 167 days on that list. It’s safe to say that this book has made its author a lot of money. It will continue to make money too. Once a book is on the list for a few months, it tends to stay on the list.
Personal essays are easy to write: you’re writing about you, and there are plenty of markets. Meghan Ward has an excellent list of markets to get you started.
Payments for essays vary. Ms Ward says that The Smithsonian pays $1,000 for 500 to $650 words for its “The Last Page” humorous essay. Salon on the other hand, pays a chintzy $150 for essays.
What can you write about? Since personal essays are personal by definition, you write about your life. When I had young children I wrote dozens of personal essays: trying to feed a kid who wouldn’t eat, losing a kid at the mall, buying the perfect pram…
Later I wrote essays about divorce and travel and of course about writing. Without trying hard you can come up with dozens of personal essay topics in ten minutes. Listen to your friends. What do they gossip about? What scares them? More to the point, what scares you?
Sometimes you can stretch a personal essay into a book. If Betty MacDonald can write about chicken ranching, what oddball things have happened to you?
If you write enough personal essays you can collect them into a book, and can sell them on the Kindle.
How to write a personal essay
Choose a topic. Write it down. Then spend five minutes writing everything that comes to mind about that topic. You don’t need to write full sentences. You’re just doing a mind dump.
Then leave what you’ve written. I store my early musings about topics in Evernote, so that I can jot down additional ideas wherever I am .
Reread what you’ve written tomorrow. When you’re in the mood, write a first draft.
Personal essays you can write
Read some essays at the markets you’re considering. Which essay styles appeal to you? Watch for something which says: “I could write this.”
David Sedaris frequently writes personal essays for the New Yorker. A recent essay, UNDERSTANDING OWLS: What does a gift say about the giver?, is well worth reading if you’re exploring writing personal essays.
More sales: turn your personal essays into a book
When you sell a personal essay to a publication, you’ll sell first serial rights. You may also sell electronic rights, for a limited time — anywhere from a week, to a month.
Consider this: if you’ve sold a personal essay ONCE, you can sell it again. After your first sale, look for other markets for your essays. Then, once you’ve exhausted the markets, compile your essays into an ebook, and self publish them. If one of your essays is hugely popular, consider how you might expand the essay into a book of its own, and self publish that.
If you’d like to know more about writing your personal experiences, Memories: Writing and Selling Your Life Stories (Workbook and Videos), is this week’s special offering.
Article update: July 16, 2014