A year ago, I attended the Atlanta Writers Conference to pitch a manuscript.
The number of agents looking for a humor writer was embarrassing. Everyone wants to find the next Harry Potter or Game of Thrones.
But seeing some key words in the "Wish List" from all agents attending, it seemed two might be looking for humorous essays. I signed up for what appeared to be two novice agents in the business. Although from big New York publishers, they were at the bottom of their food chain. But that was the best of the lot for my genre.
I paid $75 to spill the beans for 15 minutes to each agent about my work. The process is you sign up early – and pay that $, AWC appoints a time with an agent, you show up, hand your query letter to the volunteer doorman of the agent's sanctum, wait five minutes for each agent to read your written pitch, invite you in, take a seat and then you start promoting.
My query letters began, "Missing the wit and wisdom of Erma Bombeck..."
Before I could even begin with each of them, they both individually asked...
"Who's Erma Bombeck?"
Who is Erma Bombeck?
And before I could even speak about my manuscript, I TWICE had to educate these publishing-virgins about this woman's history because this amazing writer is – for those of us who write humor – our Seshat, the ancient Egyptian goddess of wisdom, knowledge and writing. Even Seshat’s name means “she who scrivens or scribes” and is credited with inventing writing.
At Erma Bombeck’s peak, three times a week our witty writing goddess “did what she had done since 1964: Sifted greasy ovens, voracious washing machines, sibling rivalry and the predilections of couch-potato spouses for the nuggets of mirth that won her the devotion of readers who followed her 500- to 600-word columns in almost 900 newspapers,” according to The New York Times.
I began, “Her readers all identified with her humor. YOU may not, but I promise your mother and grandmother did and they are readers, too."
“Listen,” I continued. “She is the author of more than a dozen books, including her 1976 “The Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank,” her 1978 title, “If Life is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits?’ and in 1983 she penned ‘Motherhood: The Second Oldest Profession,’, which were all wildly successful.”
They both looked stupefied because these dates that seemed to tease them obviously came before they were born.
“Twice a week she appeared on ABC’s ‘Good Morning America’ from 1975-1986. She wrote a monthly column for Good Housekeeping at various times, contributed to Reader's Digest, Family Circle, Redbook and McCall's; she lectured, and ‘The Grass Is Always Greener’ was turned into a 1978 CBS prime-time television movie and it starred Carol Burnett as Mrs. Bombeck's alter ego. I guess you’ve never heard of Carol Burnett, either?”
“Not sure,” said the first agent.
“I don’t think so,” said the second one later.
“In 1988, her books sold more than 15 million copies. And she started this whole process around the age of 40 because she wanted to have a more fulfilled life after her children left home. She said that she was ‘too old for a paper route, too young for Social Security, and too tired for an affair.’ Funny, right?"
One snickered. The other rolled their eyes.
“She started writing for $3 a column and ended up making $500,000 – $1,000,000 in one year. And she kept doing her own housework, too, so she’d have fodder for her columns.”
“Ladies, you need to do a better job studying your line of work,” I said in my head as I left.
I was bummed I was out of $150 for the morning. But then as a teacher I thought, well they know who she is NOW.
Lee St. John, a retired Coweta County high school English teacher, is the author of five humorous books and two audio books. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org