Everyone has a story, and no two stories are exactly alike. I’ll just put that out there as a given. Should every story be told? That’s a matter of opinion. There are some subsets of life stories that are often given greater weight, most notably stories about those who have survived something big and lived to tell about it.
Yesterday (as I write this), February 23, 2014, the oldest known Shoah (Holocaust) survivor died. She was 110 years old. Her life story inspired two books. A friend commented, “I have thought for years that very soon we will live in a world where people no longer know survivors of the Shoah first-hand and it makes me scared.” Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation wants to keep those memories alive so that no one will forget, even when those who lived the experience are no longer with us. As a fellow human being, and as a Jew, I agree. As a publisher, it gets more complicated.
It’s generally agreed that memoirs hit a publishing boom in the 1990s and early 2000s. Memoirs made bestseller lists and won prestigous awards. Publishers and agents kept telling writers that they needed to write something different, unique, something to make it stand out above all of the other memoirs being published. Writers were encouraged to tell the stories of their parents or grandparents or other family, stories that previously might have been lost, or passed down only as stories around the Shabbat table or on Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day). The major publishing houses were looking for the next Frank McCourt or Elie Wiesel.
In the past couple of years, I’ve seen a growing number of memoir submissions, ranging from Holocaust memoir to immigration memoir. What I call immigration memoir is similar to what the Jewish Week referred to as “ones that explore a lost community in some far-flung place — Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Chile and Shanghai . . . ” I’ve read queries pitching memoirs about an escape from pre-WWI pogroms in Russia, fleeing from Nazi-occupied Poland to England and then to America, and a Jewish family that has its roots in Argentina. They’re all unique stories, and they all deserve to be told.
But then there’s the math.
Publishing a book can easily cost upwards of $10,000 once you take into consideration editing, cover design, paying for required licenses and permissions, marketing, printing, warehousing, and postage. Small press publishers like Yotzeret are in the publishing business more because we love books than because we want to make a lot of money. There is no money in small press publishing. After the bills and royalties are paid, small press publishers might—might—see a few dozen cents per book sold. I kid you not. So if we’re going to sink ten grand into a book, we want a pretty good idea that we’re going to make that money back, and maybe a little more. You can’t look at a book’s retail price to get a sense of what a publisher or author will make on a book, since the majority of books—and all of the books sold through bookstores and Amazon.com—are sold at a discount of anywhere from 45%-70% off the retail price. (More about discounts and profits in a future post.)
Memoirs are not universally marketable; they appeal to a subset of readers. Jewish memoirs appeal to an even smaller subset. While some memoirs have made big splashes, the majority do not. The majority sell, at most, a few hundred copies. Even if the story is unique, even if it is different from other memoirs, unless the author is nationally (or internationally) known or has a large following or has some other hook that will attract readers—okay, let’s be honest, attract buyers—the chances of recouping the thousands of dollars that are invested in bringing that book to print are slim. For a small press, which can’t afford to subsidize the publishing flops, every manuscript has to be analyzed for its commercial viability. That may sound like it’s a hundred and eighty degrees from art and deserving, unique stories. It can be. It’s also a harsh reality.
That’s not to say that we won’t publish memoirs. In fact, we’ve just signed a new author for her memoir about making aliyah to Israel, only to learn the hard way that it was the best and worst time in her life. Why hers? Because it’s timely, it’s controversial, it’s funny, it’s different, and she already has a following. There’s no guarantee of success, but it has a lot of things going for it.
So what’s a memoir writer to do? First, work with an editor. Before you ever get to the point of pitching it to a publisher or agent, make the investment of hiring a professional book editor. Second, research similar memoirs. Visit bookstores and libraries, and look at recent releases similar to your memoir. Are there a lot? Note that if a lot were published in the past 3-4 years, that could mean that the field is already saturated and your memoir is now going to have to compete with thousands of others. Third, talk to booksellers and librarians. Tell them about your memoir and ask if it’s something they’d buy if it was published. Fourth, think really carefully about who your audience is. Will it appeal mostly to history buffs? Mostly Ashkenazic Jews who want to read about others’ experiences in eastern Europe? Maybe your memoir is partly romance, appealing to people who like to read about relationships. Lots of people might read your book, but who is actually going to buy it? At full price?
Family memoirs, including Holocaust memoirs, are quite often best suited to self-publishing, perhaps in print and perhaps initially only as an ebook, with a print copy available if there’s enough demand. Your book is unlikely to be in bookstores, but it will still be a deserving story told, and that’s more important for a memoir than commanding shelf space.