Columns > Published on February 22nd, 2023

The David Sedaris Publication Path

photo: Heike Huslage-Koch, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

David Sedaris never submitted pieces to lit mags.

David Sedaris never tried to find an agent.

David Sedaris got published by reading out loud at events. He started with small events, was asked to slightly larger events because he killed, and those invites led to more, even larger events, until eventually he read at large enough events that he was discovered, was invited to read on NPR, and, well, we know the rest.

Why does this matter?

The Lit Mag Is Dead

The traditional publication path used to start with submission to lit mags. You sent something in to Glimmer Train (real name), or Tin House (also real), or Pete's Lit Hole (may be made-up, but who knows?), and eventually you got picked up by one of them, and you were off on your big publishing journey.

The Believer, Glimmer Train, Tin House, and a buttload of university-based lit mags are gone. Mostly because lit mags don’t make any money.

Hey, I’m all for an artistic pursuit that doesn’t make money. I’m even in for artistic pursuits that LOSE money. I made die-cast, rodeo-style belt buckles to celebrate the 500th episode of a podcast nobody cares about. I can’t GIVE them away (seriously, if you want one, and you live in the U.S., I will send you one, free of charge. Message me).

But a lit mag is a TON of work, and it’s a lot to ask someone to do for free, or perhaps even at a loss, for the decades needed to give a lit mag status, to make it a force that publishers pay attention to.

David Sedaris’ publication path matters because the Glimmer Train has derailed. The Believer Stopped Believin’, despite Journey’s impassioned advice.

You need a different path.

If you can make everyone a little money, you make it pretty easy for a publisher or an agent to say "Yes."

The Loss Of Meaning to Small Press Success

Another popular road to bigtime publication: put out a book through a small press, and use that to demonstrate your marketability to an agent.

With the means to start a small press so easily available, having a book come out from a small press doesn’t mean what it used to. 

David Sedaris’ path to publication matters because it doesn’t rely on small presses.

The Key to Sedaris’ Publication

What's missing from current publication paths? What needs to be replicated in a new one?

Why was David Sedaris' way ALWAYS better?

Because Sedaris brought something to the table that was a lot better than a manuscript: An audience of book buyers.

When Sedaris made roomfuls of people laugh, he showed publishers and agents that he was a good, safe investment. 

And that's the key: If you can make everyone a little money, you make it pretty easy for a publisher or an agent to say "Yes."

How It Might Look Today

Unless you live in New York or L.A., chances are you won’t have a lot of opportunities to hit open mics and read stories in front of people who will hear them. And I have my doubts as to whether publishers are hitting a lot of these sorts of events…

But that’s okay, the 2023 version of this publication path is different.

It’s probably guest blogging. It’s probably reading your stories on podcasts and doing interviews. It’s probably building your own audience through self-publishing and small press publishing and newsletters and getting your work out there.

Get your work out there. Demonstrate there's an audience for what you do.

Why It Might Be Good For You: You Have to Work Hard

Every time Sedaris read, he turned it into another, slightly larger, gig. And for every gig he did, he wrote something new. By the time he was “discovered,” he already had a book’s worth of short stories that he’d put together, performed, edited, and polished to a high shine.

The Sedaris path isn’t for the person who writes one killer short story and tries to ride it for the next 4 years.

Why it Might Be Good For You: Bigtime Deadlines

Fuck a deadline that someone wants to see a draft, now you're in a world where you've got an event in two weeks, and whatever pages you have finished are the pages you'll read out loud in front of a group of people.

THAT, my friends, is a deadline you will only screw up once before you never screw it up again.

Why It Might Be Good For You: Skip the Inbox

When your manuscript is waiting in someone’s inbox, it’s dead. It’s not getting you more work, it’s not making you any money, it’s impressing no one.

When your manuscript is making the rounds being read aloud or appearing online, it’s alive. It’s doing its job.

I say skip the lit mag and big press inbox, put your manuscript to work.

Get Happy-Go-Lucky by David Sedaris at Bookshop or Amazon 

Get David Sedaris Diaries: A Visual Compendium at Bookshop or Amazon 

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

Reedsy Marketplace UI

1 million authors trust the professionals on Reedsy. Come meet them.

Enter your email or get started with a social account: