Sunday, June 8, 2008

Notes from an Accidental Humorist by Judy Gruen

Happy Sunday Mamas! Today we have a great essay by Judy Gruen about how to market yourself in a niche ... in her case, the humor (or as Kai and I would say, humour) market. This is a favorite (or as Kai and I... oh nevermind..) topic of mine since I've written a LOT in my niche market. And I tell every new writer I can get my hands on to specialize and corner a niche market... So, without further blabber from moi... heeeere's Judy!

When an editor at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner called to tell me she was buying my essay, “Fear of Fat: Don’t Let It Make You Skinny,” I didn’t try to act cool – I shouted "Yippee!" right into the phone. I was only 22 years old, and this was my first freelance sale. Not only had I earned fifty whole bucks (in the mid-1980s, this was only paltry, but not laughable), I had broken into the newspaper business, or so I thought.

What was really happening was quite different, though I wouldn’t realize it for years. This first sale, and the several that followed, were paving a foundation for my career as a humor writer. The Herald-Examiner, at the time the scrappy underdog daily paper in L.A., bought a few more of my pieces, and then I sold a few to the Chicago Tribune when I lived in that city during grad school in journalism. Inspiration struck quickly, as native Chicagoans kept asking me in disbelief, “Are you sure you’re from LA? You’re so . . . normal!” Apparently, they expected native Angelenos to have purple and blue hair that looked like it had been cut by a 4-year-old who’d been mainlining sugar all morning. I was no different than any other essayist: I recycled as many of my life's experiences as possible into humor fodder: When a boyfriend jilted me, for example, I skewered his metrosexual habits, such as sending his jeans to the dry cleaner and stuffing shoe trees into his sneakers, in the Chicago Tribune. (That was fun.)

Though I kept selling humor pieces, the very idea of trying to become a professional humorist seemed absurd. After all, how many Erma Bombecks could one country support? No, I was a practical gal, and my day job for years was writing and editing for health care publications, both at a major research university and later, at a health care corporation. I loved my job. It was interesting. It was relevant. It paid.

But several years later, after I had left my job and worked at home as mom to four children, there was simply too much hilarious material to ignore, so I wrote my first book, “Carpool Tunnel Syndrome: Motherhood as Shuttle Diplomacy.” Then, when I hunkered down to do the hard, gritty work of marketing the book, I realized I had to market myself as a humorist. That’s when I realized my career focused had changed, perhaps for good.

It’s hard to market yourself in a limited niche, and the key thing I’ve learned after working at this for seven years is that you have to keep searching for your audience, the people who will relate to your voice. For years, I avoided marketing my work to Jewish publications, even though I’m Jewish, since I didn’t want to limit my audience, nor did I want to be pegged as solely a “Jewish writer.” But over time, editors of Jewish publications and web sites started coming to me – they had heard my voice and recognized it in the pieces I had sold to them. In the past two years, I’ve become a regular humor columnist for two Jewish print magazines, the “Jewlarious” section of the web site, and started podcasting my program, "Just Off My Noodle," on the web site of a national Jewish organization. I no longer shy away from writing about this aspect of my life, as it actually widens my audience, and I can almost always adapt my work written for these outlets into more generic humor, such as for my blog on, for my email newsletter subscribers, and other media outlets.

If you are writing for a limited market, you’ve got to love what you do and love your topic. If you aren’t getting pleasure from your work, rethink your writing emphasis. Finally, persevere and carry a thick skin. If you’ve been at this for more than 15 minutes you know editors will ignore you more often than they'll pay attention, but if you keep polishing your work and continue hunting for new, like-minded audiences, you can and will break through!

Judy Gruen’s latest book, The Women’s Daily Irony Supplement, has earned numerous publishing industry awards, including a Gold ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Award, a Silver “IPPY” from Independent Publisher, and a Bronze Benjamin Franklin award from the Independent Book Publishers Association. Her work has also appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Family Circle, Woman’s Day, and many other media outlets. Read more of her work on


C. Erickson said...

OMG, Judy. You're awesome!

Thanks so much for guest-posting!

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