I’m about to say something with which just about every other person in the publishing industry will disagree. In fact, most will strongly, passionately, with much snooty sarcasm, disagree with what I’m about to say.
Ready for it? Everybody has a memoir in them. Not only that, but everybody should write one. There, I said it.
Every life is unique, and everybody has a story that only they can tell. As a journalist, what I enjoy most is getting people’s stories in their own words. As a book editor, I can help them tell it in a way that brings out their own voice, that will invite others to relive their unique lives with them. With the rise of self-publishing, authors don’t need to put up with rejection by acquiring editors who decide whether anybody cares about your story. Just write it. Oh, and hire a good editor to help you tell it. That’s all.
I’m Howard Lovy, managing editor at the Alliance of Independent Authors, and I’m focusing this episode of IndieVoices on memoir.
Also in this episode, ALLi News Editor Dan Holloway updates us on a self-published author who is winning awards in France (and a resultant uproar because he published it on Amazon’s CreateSpace), what Amazon Storefront means for indie authors, and an update on European copyright law.
If you haven’t already, we invite you to join our organization and become a self-publishing ally. You can do that at http://allianceindependentauthors.org.
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About the Hosts
Howard Lovy has been a journalist for more than 30 years, and has spent the last five years amplifying the voices of independent publishers and authors. He works with authors as a “book doctor” to prepare their work to be published. Howard is also a freelance business and technology writer, and is launching a new Jewish-themed podcast on Patreon. Find Howard on LinkedIn and Twitter.
Dan Holloway is a novelist, poet and spoken word artist. He is the MC of the performance arts show The New Libertines Earlier this year he competed at the National Poetry Slam final at the Royal Albert Hall. His latest collection, The Transparency of Sutures, is available on Kindle
Read the Transcripts
Howard Lovy: I’m about to say something with which just about every other person in the publishing industry will disagree. In fact, most will strongly, passionately, with much snooty sarcasm disagree with what I’m about to say. Ready for It?
Everybody has a memoir in them. Not only that, but everybody should write one. There, I said it. Every life is unique and everybody has a story that only they can tell. As a journalist, what I enjoy most is getting people to tell their stories in their own words. As a book editor, I can help them tell it in a way that brings out their own voice, that will invite others to relive their unique lives with them, and with the rise of self publishing, authors don’t need to put up with rejection by acquiring editors who decide whether anybody cares about your story. Just write it. Oh, and hire a good editor to help you tell it. That’s all.
I’m Howard Lovy, managing editor at the Alliance of Independent Authors and I’m focusing this episode of Indie Voices on memoir. I’d like you to first meet indie author Leila Summers of South Africa who published a memoir called It Rains In February about a very personal, painful topic that she made universal. Can you start off by telling me about your memoir, It Rains In February, and how you came to write it?
Leila Summers: Sure. Well, I never really considered myself a writer. I was just a wife and a mom, but I had always been quite a great storyteller and it was just a natural thing for me, you know, I parties would hold the the court, hold the field and keep people entertained because, I suppose, I’m a Gemini and Geminis like to talk.
Howard: Oh, they do? I didn’t it know that. Okay.
Leila: You’ll discover it if you find a Gemini. So, yes, I never considered myself a writer.
Howard: More of an oral storyteller?
Leila: Yes. What happened was my life began to change drastically on the first of February 2006, when one day, unexpectedly, my husband came home from work and announced that he was in love with another woman, which was quite a shock to me, obviously, at the time.
We had two small kids, aged three and five at the time. What happened was he just became more and more depressed and he wanted to actually get together with this other woman but she had seen it more as a passing affair. After I’d heard that shocking news I began to write a journal. Every day I wrote down all my thoughts and feelings because I could be honest to myself in my journal, whereas I couldn’t tell anybody else what was going on in my life at that time.
Eventually, after a year, my husband did kill himself after several suicide attempts and it was after that that about a month later I picked up the journal and started reading through it as a way of self-reflection, I think.
And then I realized that my children would never know any of the story because they were so young at the time, being only four and six years old when he died and so I began filling in the spaces and as I was doing that, after a couple of months, I thought, “Hey, you know, this could be a book.” And I told a friend about it and she said, “You should really make it into a book.” That’s when I kind of decided, maybe I will.
Howard: A lot of people probably should do that, especially if they’ve gone through something traumatic like you did. How did you make that leap from this is something personal to me to this is something other people should read?
Leila: Well, I think almost up until the last minute I was wondering, “Am I really going to go ahead and publish this story?” because it is very personal and I do write in a very real way. I let it all hang out so, you know, there’s nothing I held back. So I think that, for me, it’s not necessarily that other people have to have experienced the same thing that you have experienced to benefit or enjoy your story.
I think that all of our stories are universal in some way because emotion is universal. So we all feel heartache, whether that, you know, may be from the loss of someone you love, or even from the loss of a pet or, you know, your boyfriend’s left. It doesn’t have to be the same heartache as another person, but when you read or hear about somebody else’s heartache you resonate with all your own heartache. The same with joy.
So, as humans, we all have the same emotions and I think that is what is underlying in all stories and in all memoirs and that makes it relatable to another person. I’ve had read his writing to me whose husbands have just had an affair and others who have experienced other kind of losses and grief. It surprised me that so many people benefited from reading my book, which was in no way a self-help book at all.
Howard: That’s interesting, you know, a lot of people I think feel like they need to read a self-help book, whereas you’re not going to pretend to tell other people what to do. This is what happened to me and how I dealt with it.
Howard: I think I read somewhere you also teach memoir writing to other writers?
Leila: I did run some workshops. It was more like “Write your story.”
Howard: Oh, I see.
Leila: So, not specifically memoir, but just about the healing journey of writing.
Howard: What do you tell people who want to write down their story. Is there a first you do this and then you do that?
Leila: I always recommend that you just write and don’t stop writing. Don’t worry about Gramma or editing it or anything at the time, because just to get it out there, that’s where you’re going to get a real beautiful raw piece of information. Later on you can go and check facts, you know, you can add in pieces. I think just just getting it all out on the page is the very first step because a lot of people try to be perfect, set up the word document exactly in chapters and so on and that perfectionism can really hold back the realness from coming out and being able to be put down.
Howard: Yeah, stop sharpening your pencil and just write.
Leila: Just get it out there. What I found after writing my memoir is that I probably cut out thirty to forty percent of it before publishing because it was just too much, you know, and I thought nobody’s going to be interested in that and what I had for breakfast or whatever it might be, but I wrote it all anyway, just so that it was all down and later on, when you crafting your memoir, which to me would be the second part of the process, and that would mean cutting and pasting, moving things around, trying to make it more into a story.
Leila: That’s, you know, when you’re going to chop out a lot of stuff, so you’ve got to have a lockdown in order to be able to chop in and move.
Howard: Right, and that’s where a good editor comes into play, too, who’s not as close to the story who can tell you, “Well, this scene is great and that scene is great, but all the stuff in between about how you walked to this place and ate lunch isn’t quite as interesting.”
Leila: Absolutely, but my first step was after I had what I felt was readable by somebody else I sent it out to four friends who I knew would be very honest, and I printed out a copy for each of them, and gave them a colored pen, and I said, “Scribble and write and do whatever you like on it.” And the full can back to me with all sorts of different comments, so it’s helping you to say “This part is really not interesting,” which some of them did say to me.
And then after that, I then took it and edited for quite a while before I had what I called a first final format and at that point in time, I heard two professional editors, one after the other and when I got that back I still then edited again and at that point, I then sent it out to six different proofreaders.
Howard: Now can you define for us what a memoir is? A memoir is not your autobiography.
Leila: I define a memoir as a snippet in time, or revolved around a certain theme, and you don’t have to go into your childhood, and how you grew up, and what your parents were like, that doesn’t even have to come into play in a memoir, because you’re just speaking about a certain period of time.
Howard: Now, what’s the advantage of self publishing a memoir as opposed to going through a traditional publisher?
Leila: Well, I actually I have this question a lot from authors because it seems that everybody has the idea that it’s much better to get a traditional publisher. First of all, that’s a very difficult thing to do unless, you know, with memoir especially, unless you are somebody famous.
I had a friend who wrote a memoir about a tragic event in her life and her sister also wrote a memoir about the same event. Both of them wrote under pen names so I don’t even know if anyone would relate the two together, but the one got a traditional publishing contract and the other self published. So I always like to use this as a very good example, because what happened was Random House published the one sister’s memoir and after 5,000, they print 5,000 copies, the publisher, get it into all the bookstores and so on, but if the book doesn’t sell well, they don’t do a print rerun. So after about three or so so years, her book is now out of print whereas the sister who self published her book is still in print, and will be, you know, forever as long as she has it on Amazon. So that’s one advantage.
The second is that the self published author made a lot more money than the traditionally published author because I think the royalties from publishers are very low. After you get that that initial sum, if you get one, you know, you have to sell enough copies to make that up. The royalties are usually less than a dollar a book, a print book with a traditional publisher and with being self published you know you can choose your price, you can choose your royalties, most authors I work with get a royalty of about five dollars per print book.
Howard: You just made the entire argument for self publishing in about one minute. That’s perfect. So you’ve worked with a number of different editors, do you have any tips on working well with an editor?
Leila: I think one of the, the first editor worked with I really love the way we worked. We actually worked, and I’ve never done this before, chapter by chapter. So I would send her a chapter and she’d edit it and send it back to me, I then re-edit, sent it back to her and so on. And then I’d send her the next chapter and I really loved that process.
One of the lovely things about memoir, and you mentioned it, is a very personal story and everybody, yeah, obviously, it’s a very personal thing, but there’s one great thing about that, and that’s when it comes to the marketing, because it is your story, your memoir is part of you, so all you really need to do is share your story.
So I love that about the marketing side of a memoir. I actually found it easier than marketing almost any other kind of a book, because all you have to do is share who you are and make friends.
Howard: This is totally up to you, but if you want to read a passage from your book, that would be great.
Leila: OK, this is an excerpt from Chapter 52 of my book. It Rains In February: A Wife’s Memoir of Love and Loss.
I drop Rosa at dance class, do the dreaded errands, fetch Rosa, go home, make dinner, feed the animals and eventually sit down with a glass of red wine, a cigarette and a thick brown envelope.
The girls are watching a movie. I’ve been carrying this envelope around for a few hours today without opening it yet. It’s your post-mortem report that I collected from the lawyer’s offices this afternoon. It has taken seven months to arrive, sitting outside in the warm evening air, I nervously slide out the papers. Inhaling deeply, I begin reading the alien text.
Corpse: adult white male, estimated to be thirty-three years old. Certified: dead. Body: Heavy edematous lungs, rib fractures, hematoma. Cause of death: consistent with drowning. I get a reflex shiver when I read the words “a monochromatic professional tattoo which reads Rosie Jane over the medial aspect of the left forearm” and the back of the body is covered in sand and small fragments of broken seashells.
On that day in the morgue where Ruth and I came to identify your body, I knew it was you, but reading about your Rosie Jane tattoo makes this unexpectedly cold and real. When I read that your heart was heavier than average, I disintegrate into tears.
Calming myself, I try to make sense of the medical terms. I read through it again, this time with a dictionary. I want to understand every word. This takes me quite a while and makes no difference. One fact remains, your body died. It lay in the Salt River State Morgue. Someone had to cut it open and examine it as if it was a piece of meat at the butchery.
Next to most of your body parts listed is the word unremarkable. Nose: unremarkable, ears: unremarkable, mouth: unremarkable, tongue: unremarkable. No. Stop. I almost scream out loud and quickly feel for another cigarette. There was nothing unremarkable about you. You were an average middle class kid and would have lived an average middle class life, except that you didn’t do average, middle, or class.
Sensual, intelligent and predictable and easily bored, you used to think that you were larger than death, taunting the power of mortality as proof of life. You carried many friends across the stages of your life. Each was mesmerized by your fervor but never willing to get as close to the flame as you did. It was a calculation to your extremes but whether it was a sober you who pulled the strings in the end whether you lost yourself in the shadows, I do not know, perhaps it was a bit of both.
Howard: Wow, that was very powerful, thank you, Leila.
Leila: Thanks so much, Howard.
Now it’s time for the news from the indie publishing world with our news editor, Dan Holloway. Dan is a writer, a performance artist, and entrepreneur and every month I learn something new about him. I asked Dan before we recorded the show what he’s been up to and he said, “I now have 500 packs of my creativity game printed.” I don’t know what that means, so I’ll let Dan explain. Hi, Dan, it’s great to talk to you again.
Dan Holloway: Hi, great to talk to you. Yes, Mycelium, it’s a creative thinking card game. It’s based on the the memory systems of medieval monks and the brain scans of battle writers.
Howard: Oh, of course. Why not? Yes.
Dan: It’s designed to be a fun way of making people more creative.
Howard: It’s a card game, or a board game or a-
Dan: It’s a card game and it gives you problems to solve. So, for example, you might have to do a problem after the zombie apocalypse would you choose to save a violin or an oil well. That’s one I like and then you have five minutes come up with as many and as original answers as you can.
Howard: Oh, I see, OK. So there’s no right or wrong answer necessarily.
Dan: There’s no right or wrong answer, if you just can, if there’s a group of you playing, the more people who come up with the same answer, the fewer points you score.
Howard: So is this part of your new Oxford University spinoff business?
Dan: It is, indeed, yes. They very kindly paid for me to have a professional artist because we should pay professionals-
Dan: in the trade, as a matter of course, as we know as authors and they paid to print five hundred decks. So now my floor is straining.
Howard: Well now you have 500 decks of cards that you need to give away. What’s the price point on that?
Dan: They’re 10 pounds and again, if you look at them, they are beautiful things so it’s a collector’s item, as well. Because obviously, the price reflects the fact that we have paid a professional artist to do a very good job.
Howard: Sounds cool, Dan. Well, here’s what I’ve been up to lately. I’ve been doing more freelance developmental editing for other authors and one of the most fun genres has been memoir, which is the focus of today’s show. I just took on two new memoirs, one is written by a person who dropped her high-powered marketing job to travel the world and train for an Ironman competition. Along the way, she’s on a spiritual quest and meets all kinds of fascinating people and another one is a kind of family memoir from a famous Hollywood director from the eighties whose name I’m not sure I can say yet. His family story and mine are strangely parallel, though. They came as Jewish refugees from Hungary and made a new life in the American Midwest.
The only difference is that this writer became famous in Hollywood and I didn’t. I might be in the minority in publishing, but I really do believe that everybody, everybody has a worthwhile story to tell. I come from a journalism background so I enjoy just talking to people, interviewing them, getting to know their story, and then, from there, I can advise them on where their story might connect powerfully with other readers, but I know you might have some perspective on memoir as a genre in general. I know that it’s heavily saturated. Have you worked with memoirs, Dan?
Dan: I have, yes, I was lucky enough to work on ALLi’s Jessica Bells memoir, Dear Reflection, which is a fabulous book that doesn’t fall into many of the pitfalls that many memoirs do. It’s particularly difficult to edit memoir because when you’re dealing with fiction, it’s slightly more removed from the author. It’s very difficult to deliver messages that people sometimes need to hear because obviously it feels as though you are criticizing a part of the person. And the problem that a lot of memoir has is it’s very hard to see a market for it and it’s a very fine line when you’re the author on the other end of that hearing “I don’t see a market for this” to “I don’t think your life is interesting” and that’s a really dangerous line too, which obviously isn’t the case, because everyone’s life is fascinating, and everyone’s life is important, but not everyone’s life will make a marketable memoir.
So it’s easier when you’re editing someone who wants to self publish their memoir because they want to have a book. Because then they don’t have expectations of sales, but if they want to sell their book because they think it has got a market for it, sometimes that can be very difficult. And I’m sure it sounds as though from the books you’re working on you sort of think along the same lines that what you really need is an end of it, an angle that no one’s ever had before.
Howard: Right, you know, in one case, just this person’s name might get people in a bookstore looking at it, like what’s this person been up to lately? But then you have to deliver and the other one, I think she does have a compelling story to tell. The question is how can she tell it in a way that’s different and memorable and she’s actually the opposite. She’s not very sensitive at all, I’ll give her critique and she’s telling me, you know, just tell me when it sucks, you know. I never tell people that their work sucks, I tell people where they could improve it. But it’s fun and I’m enjoying, you know.
Dan: It sounds interesting. Is it going to be marketed more as sort of the Eat Pray Love kind of book or more as a sports book?
Howard: Well, it’s kind of, you know, I never read Eat Pray Love, so maybe I’m one of the only people who never read that, but this is sort of a little bit of both, some of it is how and why she started training for the Iron Man competition. She wasn’t an athlete at all, but she wanted to challenge herself in various ways and a lot of it has to do with her own personal spiritual development. The temptation is always to try to make these things into a self-help book and not everything has to be advice, you know. A lot of it is “This is what happened to me” and maybe you’ll see something in your life that’s similar or get something out of a similar. So, yes, it’s rough and then you put your whole ego out there that nobody cares then I guess that’s rough. But part of my job as an editor is to make some people care.
Dan: Yes, well, I read a lot of running books, so that’s always interesting, the journeys people have to becoming a competitive runner.
Howard: Right, right.
Dan: In fact, literally just before we start talking I was looking on Twitter someone was talking about Chrissie Wellington’s latest book, who is obviously a world- level triathlete, multiple world champion and I’ve read everything she’s written, so certainly within the sporting community that part, there is an endless appetite for that kind of book.
Howard: Yeah, I have read a few of those and most of it makes me feel horrible, you know, these people, you know, put up with all these these challenges and all these barriers, and I can’t get enough of the dam couch, so.
Dan: Okay, so I won’t send you my memoir to edit. There will be a lot of running in that.
Howard: No, no, I enjoy it. So, let’s talk about the news this month and what I found, I guess funny, is the news of the self published author who really pulled one over on judges for an award. He wrote such a great book that he was nominated for an award and once they discovered that it was self published by Amazon’s Create Space the judges are crawling all over themselves to backtrack. So tell us what happened.
Dan: Well, it’s a slightly complicated story. He’s a traditionally published author, his name, I believe, is Marco Koskas. He’s a French Israeli author but he couldn’t find a publisher for the latest book which is called Bande de Français, so he decided to self publish and he came up with this or this rather amusing joke of self publishing with a publishing house name which Galligrassud which is a combination of four big publishing houses in France, it was a nice way of sticking two fingers up to the publishers who turned him down.
Howard: Exactly, yes.
Dan: He was shortlisted for the the Prix Renaudot and that’s one of the big French literary awards and they take literary awards very seriously in France, unlike in the U.K. You’ll sell a lot of books by being shortlisted for a big award and booksellers discovered what the judges didn’t, that this came through Create Space and they were up in arms. And French booksellers wrote an official letter to the judges asking them to, basically accusing them of everything under the sun, because in order for them to order the book they would be giving money to Amazon and this is their objection.
Howard: So this is another illustration of how self publishing is no longer vanity press. These could be quality books that can even fool judges.
Dan: Yes and I’m sure we’ve talked about before the Arthur C. Clarke award they changed their rules to allow self published books in because, Becky, I’m sure you know Becky Chambers who is author of The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet which is, it’s one of most highly acclaimed science fiction books of recent years and is now the first book in a trilogy. It’s subsequently been picked up by a massive publisher but it started out as a self published book and they said openly that it was ridiculous for them to have a prize that would have excluded a book like this. So there is progress being made on the critical front as well as the sales front, which it’s great to see.
Howard: Speaking of Amazon, tell us what’s going on with Amazon Storefronts. I have seen them advertised and essentially they’re sort of an answer to the criticism that Amazon squeezes out small and medium sized businesses.
Dan: Yeah, I think that’s certainly how it’s being sold, it’s a very interesting idea and I’ve noticed them on television. You’re seeing small businesses being advertised on Amazon through this. Basically what they’re doing is that they’re letting you have your, small businesses can now have their Amazon page feel more like their own page, so there’s less of the Amazon branding, there’s more of your own branding, it feels as though you’re going into the home of a small business to shop as you would shop if you were going on to their website.
Interestingly, Amazon has identified booksellers as people they want to take part in there which obviously opens up all kinds of interesting possibilities for for authors. Maybe authors who want self publish a small print run, for example.
Howard: I wonder if any book stores are going to sort of break the blockade and go with Amazon. Do you know of any bookstores that are doing it yet?
Dan: I know that bookstores have been using Amazon for a little while to sell their stock online, obviously through marketplace, but marketplace is a very impersonal thing so it will be interesting to see if they adopt this. It seems to me like it’s quite insidious, or potentially insidious. One of the real advantages of getting people to your website is that you keep them in your environment so that when they click away from what they came for they’re clicking into something else of yours, whereas if you’re keeping them within your environment within Amazon, it feels like they’re on your site but it’s very easy for them, without realizing it, to then click out of your part of Amazon and onto another part of Amazon.
Howard: This isn’t quite the direct to consumer self publishing 3.0 that ALLi has been talking about because this is still Amazon
Dan: No, it feels to me like it’s being sold as that, but it actually could be a little bit of a bait and switch.
Howard: I see, okay, so again Amazon is actually a self-interested business, amazingly enough.
Dan: Strangely enough, yeah.
Howard: So what else is happening? You mentioned European copyright law.
Dan: Yes, my favorite subject. It’s absolutely my favorite subject, as you know, is copyright law. The European Union took one step closer, it will probably become properly embedded in law next year to its copyright law reform. It’s something quite like, for viewers in the States, it’s quite like SOPA PIPA, which you may remember from a few years ago, the law that caused the internet blackout.
Howard: Oh, right, right.
Dan: And eventually got rescinded, or it didn’t make it to a vote in the end because it collapsed. It’s a law that is, in theory, intended to give creatives greater control over their copyright. There are two really controversial bits to it. The first is the so-called link tax, which means that if you link to someone else’s article and display more than a tiny snippet of their content, so the sort of thing that aggregated sites do, then you need to pay them for that, so you can’t just link and have more than a tiny bit of what they’ve written.
Howard: As long as the Internet’s existed that’s been pretty common and then to have to pay for it certainly seems a little odd to me.
Dan: It’s going to be interesting to see how it how it works in practice. The other one, it’s a rule that means that everyone is responsible for the content that’s uploaded on their website, rather than the people who upload it, so it is the people who run platforms but it would also apply to us as bloggers if we have guest bloggers.
So if I write a guest blog for you and it turns out that what I’ve written has been nicked from someone else, then it’s your fault and you will be liable to pay. It’s your responsibility to police it and if you don’t then your site could be taken down and the Society of Authors is very welcoming of the new legislation. They think it gives some really solid ground to creators to to protect the rights, particularly from their work, to stop people just randomly using it all over the place. Other people becoming famous on the back of their work which is what often happens.
Howard: How does this impact specifically indie authors?
Dan: It means that if people use our material we have a right to charge them for it or have it taken down more easily than it would be so that’s great. It also means, as I say, as bloggers, there is a greater responsibility that we have to look after our website and police our websites.
Howard: The wild west phase may be over in terms of what the Internet is.
Dan: It doesn’t feel very wild anymore, that’s for sure.
Howard: Right, right, exactly. Of course everybody can keep track of all the latest news by reading your weekly news updates on our website selfpublishingadvice.org. And good luck with your game and I’ll demand an update on that next time we talk.
Dan: Thank you very much, indeed.
Howard: Thank you, Dan.
Dan: Thanks, bye.