Welcome to today's new world of publishing and the options that await you. In the old days (we're talking only 15 years ago) there was really only one choice for writers who wanted their memoirs published: You sent your manuscript to a publishing house, and then you prayed. (Sure, even then you knew you were supposed to find a literary agent first, but that seemed a harder quest even than nailing down a publisher.)
Six, eight, twelve, sometimes 24 months later, you'd get that sinking feeling in your stomach when your familiar, brown-wrapped manuscript turned up again in your mailbox. Sometimes it would be accompanied by a scrawled, "Sorry, not for us," or a day-brightening, "Try us again!" More often it would come with a form letter, explaining politely that they get a lot of manuscripts and they publish few. After attempting in vain to remove the coffee stains from your once-virgin pages, you'd type the thing up afresh and start all over again.
Today's publishing world is radically different--and this new reality poses both challenges and opportunities for memoir writers, and indeed, all writers.
First of all, there are many more outlets today to which to send your work. Twenty years ago, there were a handful of top-notch literary agents. Today, there are several hundred good literary agents across the country. (Partly this is because the large publishing houses have downsized and been gobbled up in recent years, and many of the former publishing house editors have now hung out shingles as literary agents.)
Regardless, there are many more outlets for your work, and many more opportunities to capture a literary agent than ever before. (There are also more venues in which to meet a literary agent. With writing conferences popping up all over the country, you can pretty much pre-select your agent of choice and then track down the conference where you can most easily meet him.) [Note from Randi: there are books that list agents and their specialties.]
(One caveat: If you're going the literary agent route, be sure any agent you're considering is a member of the Association of Authors Representatives. If you encounter an agent who is charging editing or reading fees, run in the opposite direction; legitimate agents take a percentage of your profits and make money only when you do.)
There's also the new viability of self-publishing today. Although there have always been self-published books (Ben Franklin and Mark Twain are among the literary forefathers who supposedly self-published) the technology has now become accessible and affordable for all. You can print a 250-paged paperback book in quantities of 1,000 for just $2 per copy today--making self-publishing a truly viable option for many (see the Q and A at the bottom of this article for more about this).
If you don't have the capital outlay to pay for 1000 copies of your book up front, or if you're reluctant to plunge in whole hog, there's also print-on-demand technology that, for a slightly higher per-book price, lets you print as few as one or two copies as you need them.
And of course, there's the whole new world of ebooks and Kindles and Nooks, and the opportunity to publish your memoir as an ebook, avoiding many of the complications and logistics of printing and distribution.
So given all the options, how do you decide? What are the tradeoffs? What are the caveats? I work with authors one-on-one, both in person and via telephone and internet, to guide them through the minefield of publishing, but here are a few things to consider:
Cachet. Being able to refer to your literary agent and publisher is now, and probably always will be, more impressive than publishing yourself. When someone at a cocktail party asks what you do, if you can say, "I'm an author, Random House just published my memoir," that's classy. When I say, "I'm Peanut Butter and Jelly Press," it's just cute.
So how you should publish your memoir depends on your goals. If you're in it for the prestige or really want your book in bookstores, the traditional literary agent/big publisher route is probably best for you. [Note from Randi: always have an experienced agent or intellectual property/literary agent go over and negotiate your contract.]
Control. If you want to control the details of your book-the editing, the cover design, even the content-you need to self-publish. Although the best publishers give you some input, you're never able to control all the details unless you're publishing yourself.
Profits. If you have a clear sense of who your audience is, and how you can reach them, you might be able to generate much more income from your book by doing it yourself. When you work with a large publisher, you make only 10% of list price (and the agent takes 15% of that.) So the book that sells for $10 retail is netting you 85 cents.
As a self-publisher, you keep all those profits-so that same $10 book, once you've paid off the middlemen who sell to the bookstores and libraries, will generate at least $3 to $9, or even more for books sold back of the room at talks or directly over your website. You can be just 10% as successful as a large publisher-and make the same amount. (As an ebook publisher you can make even more.)
Traditionally, lack of distribution in bookstores has been one major argument against self-publishing. However, within the last four years or so, two companies, Lightning Source (owned by Ingram Book Company, the largest book wholesaler in the US) and CreateSpace (owned by Amazon) offer bookstore distribution.
Speed. Mainstream publishing is painfully slow. Even after you find a literary agent and publisher, the time lag between their acceptance of your manuscript and the final publication of your book could easily be as long as two to three years. Be sure your topic won't wither in that period of time. (My book, Terrorism and Kids: Comforting Your Child came out one week after 9/11. All the big publisher books on 9/11 came out nine months later, way too late for the market--and most of those books ended up being remaindered.) [Note from Randi: this may not be an issue for you. All my books took years and have sold great--but I really didn't have any competition. The more timely the topic, the more it matters.]
Shelf Life. With a big publisher, you have no control over the shelf life of your memoir. Most books today--even those that receive publisher advances of money--have a bookstore shelf-life of only four months. So if you want your book to be around for longer you need to consider self-publishing. (I turned down a six-figure advance for my book, The Infertility Diet: Get Pregnant and Prevent Miscarriage, because I was concerned that it would be yanked from shelves prematurely. By self-publishing, I was able to ensure that it stayed in print-and on bookstore shelves. That book has now been selling for over ten years.) [Note from Randi: smaller publishers may think differently, such as my publisher, New Harbinger. It has an active backlist of book written years ago.]
Business. If you like to write, but you have no interest in business, leave the publishing to someone else. Self-publishing is a business, and there is a steep learning curve.
Publicity. Finally, no matter how you ultimately decide to publish your book, remember that you--and you alone--are responsible for your memoir's publicity. No matter how much money the big publisher throws your way, it's unlikely that they'll be doing any publicity for your title. (In fact, several large publishing houses are now buying my small press book, The Publishing Game: Bestseller in 30 Days and giving it to their authors to encourage them to do some publicity on their own.) If you want your book to sell (and sell well) you'll need to learn how to do book promotion. Fortunately, it's a learnable skill, and with a little practice, you'll get good at it. (If not, call me :*)
[Note from Randi: in my experience with smaller publishers, they do have an in-house marketing department that is supposed to put together a marketing plan for your book. However, it may be limited and short-term promotion. If your publisher really believes in your book, they may hire an outside publicist, which has happened to me three times. But they also think short-term. As Fern says, you are responsible for your book in the long-term.]
Finally, remember that it's your memoir, and your life: If you believe in it, don't give up on it. The authors of both Gone with the Wind and Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone amassed considerable rejection letters before they succeeded. It can happen to you, too.
Fern Reiss is CEO of PublishingGame.com (www.PublishingGame.com) and Expertizing.com (www.Expertizing.com) and the author of the books, The Publishing Game: Find an Agent in 30 Days, The Publishing Game: Bestseller in 30 Days, The Publishing Game: Publish a Book in 30 Days and the forthcoming, The Publishing Game: Blog Tours in 30 Days, as well as several other award-winning books. She works with authors one-on-one to help them publish, and promote, their books.
Q & A with Fern Reiss:
Q: Fern, what are the realistic chances for a first-time author?
A: There's a lot of doom and gloom about the industry, and it's true that there are many reasons to be pessimistic: Bookstores are closing right and left, publishing houses have been heavily hit by the economy, and the challenges of online sales are threatening traditional books as never before. Nonetheless, the fact remains that there are many more books published today than there were ten years ago--so your chances of publishing are actually higher.
However, if you want to actually sell your memoir, not just produce it, you need to approach it professionally. That means paying to have it professionally edited, and if you're self-publishing or ebook publishing, paying to have it professionally designed and produced. If it looks like something your grandchild produced, then it's not going to be saleable.
[Note from Randi: I agree. I would add that people also need to care about your topic. Your life story may be of interest to strangers, or it may not. You are not always the best judge of your own life. However, while many people with BPD have published memoirs, few people family member's have (Siren's Dance is an exception).
Q: We've heard a lot about publishing scams; how do we stay away from them?
A: There are two primary things I'd be wary of, and neither of them are scams per se. The first is, I advise clients to work only with literary agents who are members of the AAR, and who have pledged not to take money for reading and editing. Agents should make money when you do; if they're also charging for reading and editing, that's a conflict of interest, though not a scam per se.
The other non-scam that I warn authors against is the adviseability of signing up with any of the many print on demand(POD)/subsidy/vanity publishing houses that have sprung up, all of which call themselves 'self-publishers.' True self-publishing is when you, the author, subcontracts to have the book edited, designed, and printed. POD/subsidy/vanity houses help with these tasks, which makes the process much easier. Read this article about self-publishing con-men.
But the downside, which they either don't tell you or don't stress, is that POD books are not saleable to bookstores and libraries, because of high price points, lack of returnability, impossibility of getting reviews, and a bad reputation in the industry: Bookstores and libraries simply won't buy them. So if you're interested in publishing your memoir to give to your kids and grandkids, and all you need is 30 copies, a POD/vanity company is a fine solution. If you're interested, however, in seeing your book in bookstores and libraries, don't do it.
Q: How do you know if you can really write a memoir that's any good?
A: You really don't until you try. And even then, most authors find it difficult to judge the quality of their own work. You can pay for editing, but editing can only fix some problems: You can sometimes transform a good memoir into a great memoir, but you usually can't fix a bad memoir, even with the best editing.
There are people who you can pay to assess the quality of your work, but often these people have a vested financial interest in telling you it's saleable (eg, because you'll be spending thousands of dollars publishing the manuscript with them, etc.) And of course, friends and family find it hard to give an honest opinion for fear of hurting your feelings. So it's hard to get a real sense of a book's worth.
I recommend joining a writer's group so that you can get ongoing feedback, and hopefully, a sense of whether your project is worth pursuing, or attending a writers' conference where you can have an audience with an editor or agent.
Q: Can you recommend any additional resources?
A: My http://www.PublishingGame.com site has dozens of articles on how to publish and promote a book, as well as exploring some of the pitfalls of publishing and some of the things to be wary of. There's a great list of books on memoir writing at http://www.memoirreviews.com/writing.html. Association of Authors Representatives has great information, as well as the list of agents: http://aaronline.org/. And my http://www.AssociationofWriters.com offers both instruction and visibility for authors, including memoirists. [From Randi: I also recommend the book Naked, Drunk, and Writing.