In 2013 I got up all my gumption to pitch a long first person essay to an editor at the New Yorker. The editor was very nice about the pitch, which he suggested might work in a shorter, less ambitious version for the New Yorker’s "Page Turner" website. The New Yorker Dot Com, in 2013, was not the robust and roughly equivalent-to-print organ it is today (in prestige if not in $/word), and also the Internet at that point seemed like a dangerous place for my first-person writing – I wrote back to him that if it was published online I was concerned that it would be “received really poorly,” by which I meant I would be roasted over an open firepit on Twitter, which in 2013 was – stay with me – both WAY more fun and also WAY more unavoidably “kill yourself, c*nt” than it is now.
I was crushed by this rejection. I had thought something along the lines of, "I am, having been through the wringer with writing online, now ready to join the ranks of name-brand, respectable writers whose essays are published in print magazines like The New Yorker, New York Magazine, The Paris Review, n+1, The New York Times Magazine, Harpers and The Atlantic. That is the benchmark of success that both my peers and my mom would recognize. Not only that, it would make my next novel or essay collection sell to a publisher more easily and for more $. It also would enable me to go to parties and have people say 'Oh, I loved your essay in Prestigious Magazine!' They would be nice to me because they’d assume I had sway at Prestigious Magazine, and could introduce them to my editor there and improve their careers, too. I’d get jobs teaching because students would want to study with a writer who had been published by an august print publication. And also, I'd get paid at least a few thousand dollars." But I had thought wrong.
In 2013, I cried while telling all this to Laz, the bouncer/aspiring actor who worked at the bar I lived above. He listened attentively, because he literally had nothing else to do. After I finished my monologue he told me, “Emily, every rejection is God’s protection.”
I still think about Laz every time I get a pitch rejected, which is actually not very often, mostly because I almost never pitch anything. Once every 5-7 years I have an idea for a big long baggy first-person essay and the first step of writing it is flailing around trying to figure out how to get a good editor to work with me on it and, if possible, pay me enough for it that I’ll be able to justify spending the next 6 to 9 months working on it, which is unavoidably and regrettably how long it takes me to write one of these. Sometimes it takes much longer.
The most I’ve ever been paid to write a first-person essay for publication in a print magazine is $15,000. That was in 2008, for the New York Times Magazine essay "Exposed." My then-agent insisted on brokering this deal, which meant she took 15% of that fee. Since I was at that point chronically unemployed and, in my own opinion, unemployable, that felt a little fucked up to me, and that agent and I parted ways soon after.
The least I’ve made from one of these essays is, initially, (if memory serves), $400, in 2014, for the non-exclusive rights to the essay "Into The Woods" to appear in the book MFA vs. NYC. The essay was midwifed by Chad Harbach and wouldn't exist without his edits. After the book was published I was also able to sell the essay to Medium for $1200, but only after it was rejected not only TNY but also every other venue that publishes first-person writing. I recently sold translation rights to that essay to a cool Mexican publisher, Gris Tormenta, which published the translation alongside a new Introduction which I wrote last summer. For that edition of the essay (plus new intro) I was paid $700. So that essay has earned me $2,300 total over the course of the past 8 years.
The next long essay I worked on was my essay about shame for the Cut, which didn’t appear in print. (New York Magazine only publishes first-person essays in print if the author has been on TV or is otherwise famous.) I worked on it with editorial genius Molly Fischer, who made the essay good and stuck with it even when it was bad. She understood what I was going for when I initially pitched it and she also didn’t lose faith when, at various points in the process, I couldn’t make the essay work and was ready to give up on it. I would like to erect a shrine to her. I initially pitched it to her on June 12, 2019 and it was published in February of 2020, nine months later. That actually doesn’t seem like so long to me now, now that time has lost all meaning. Back then, though, time was moving more slowly. I think partly this was because in June of 2019 Ilya had not yet turned one.
I’m thinking about all of this today because I am in the bad part of my pitching journey with my next long first person essay. The market for this kind of work has changed as the “legacy” media landscape has contracted and diminished, but from my perspective, it hasn’t really changed ALL that much. I first pitched a version of this essay to another Prestigious Magazine back in August. I will spare you the gory details -- though I did just type them all out, then delete them -- but since then my pitching journey has involved a detailed back and forth with that editor which ended when he straight up ghosted me (not the first time this has happened to me), a new correspondence with a different editor at a different magazine that spanned an irl meeting and about 5000 words of correspondence which included me beginning to research the piece, summarizing that preliminary research and THEN being told a hard no. The no is especially hard to hear in this context because it's like 'good luck with this piece and also with this aspect of your life that the piece is about.' [Death emoji x 100]
One possible moral of this story, which unfortunately is not over, is that the cadre of respectable print first-person writers is not accepting applications for new members, and may in fact have ceased accepting applications 15-20 years ago, with occasional exceptions made for young people with a knack for flaying themselves and the talent to do the flaying skillfully. The other possible moral is that I should just write what I want to write, on spec, and place my circa 2013 hopes for writing success looking a way that both my peers and my mom would recognize in a little box and set it on fire. Obviously that is a better, healthier attitude in many ways, and it's certainly more realistic than hoping what's left of the legacy magazine establishment has time to See Me before it totally colllapses. The only problem with it is that I need an editor (CLEARLY) and I would like to have one for this piece.
So my journey continues. I will keep you posted!