How to Self-Publish Your Memoir and Find Your Readers
I like to keep my promises. Last week I wrote this essay arguing for why you should self-publish your memoir if you don’t find a traditional publisher for it. Maybe I’m being selfish, because as a writer of historical fiction, history, and biography, I depend on personal accounts of the time to portray my characters’ lives. Advice is a way I can give back, and also help you make sure your memoir finds the widest readership possible.
There’s a lot written about options for self-publishing. Basically, you have two. One is to do it yourself, via Amazon’s Kindle Digital Platform (KDP) or Smashwords, to name the two biggest DYI platforms. If you choose this, you will need to hire your own editors, cover designers, interior formatters, and publicists, or take on those roles yourself. The other is to use an assisted publishing service. Some of them, like BookBaby, take on all manuscripts, in all genres. So do the dozens of Author Solutions imprints, but they tend to be expensive for the services you get. Others, like SheWrites Press, specialize in certain areas, in this case writing by women, and they’re somewhat selective in the manuscripts they accept. They maintain a quality standard and will work with you (for a price) to edit your book to that standard if they feel it’s necessary.
These hybrid publishers, as they call themselves, take care of all aspects of the design (with your input) and again pride themselves on attractive, well-designed, well-made books. They also take charge of distributing your books and have a wide range of distribution possibilities. SheWrites books often show up on bookstore shelves, a rarity among self/hybrid publishers. I have a post that discusses standards and pricing for hybrid publishers, and you can learn more from this comprehensive piece by Barbara Linn Probst on Jane Friedman’s blog. If you go with a hybrid publisher, expect to pay quite a bit more than for DIY self-publishing.
If you choose a hybrid, I suggest making sure it has a narrower focus and publishes a lot of memoirs already. That’s a good indication of their experience level in terms of editing and marketing, if their website is a “go-to” for people seeking memoirs, and your opportunities to connect with other memoirists published by the same imprint. For example, at the Brooklyn Book Festival a few years ago I spoke to a group of memoir writers who had all been published by SheWrites. They met via the publisher’s Facebook group and decided to share a table for the festival.
When you self-publish or publish with a hybrid, you will need to choose your format. While e-books are the easiest to prepare for publication, you should also plan to print hard copies via print-on-demand (POD). Yes, POD requires additional formatting that can be more complicated and costly (for instance, Vellum, a common formatter for the Mac, has a lower price for e-books only). Creating PDF files for POD printing has many additional steps, a POD paperback requires a spine and back cover as well as a front cover, and you will need to choose your trim size. However, the effort is worth it, because your memoir is creating a historical record. Electronic formats change (remember the floppy disk?), but paper will never disappear. If you put all your eggs in the e-book basket, Amazon can make your work disappear from one day to the next with no recourse, claiming you violated their terms of service. Or some of your family members may not want to buy or read e-books. Your local historical society or library may not accept e-books, or they may change vendors and your book goes “poof!” in an instant.
In any case, with POD technology today, it’s a lot easier for you to print and distribute your book than it was for my great-uncle in 1964, when producing a self-published memoir was a Really Big Deal. And since all the books are printed as soon as someone orders them, you don’t have a garage or basement filled with extra copies due to the economies of scale of old-fashioned offset printing.
So how do you make sure people read your memoir, including the family members you give it to? Your first job is to make it readable. That means working with an editor, even if you’re an experienced writer. It’s often hard to be objective about your “baby.” Grammatical and spelling errors make for especially difficult reading.
If you’re looking for a wider audience beyond friends and family, and especially if you want to help out researchers, you need good metadata. Metadata refers to specific keywords you need to describe your work so searchers can find it. If you go onto Amazon, you’ll find categories. If you only check “Memoir,” it’s too general. There are hundreds of thousands of memoirs. What are the specific themes of your story? In which era does it take place? Where does it take place? Time period and location are crucial, especially for local historians. Did you witness a major historical event? Do you have specialized subject matter, like living with a disability or being an expert in gardening? These should be indicated in the categories you choose when you upload the book onto Amazon’s or Smashwords’s site or go into a distribution catalog when you publish with a hybrid publisher.
Once your memoir is ready and you have your metadata, how do you publicize the book. Go local. Contact local newspapers and websites. Who is your town or neighborhood historian? This is mine. Once we’re back in person, arrange readings at the local library and independent bookstore. Zoom has been great for pulling people together from around the world, but you want to go as local and in-person as you can. We’ll be more than ready for this to happen as soon as a critical mass of people has their vaccine. At the same time, the internet allows local events to have an impact around the world, so if you speak to a group, say, at a community center and your local newspaper covers it in their online edition, anyone anywhere can read it. I bet that the woman who told her life story at a community center in South Carolina doesn’t know that someone in New York City appreciated her words and her experiences.
I hope this helps you get started as you bring your memoir to the world. Feel free to ask questions in the comments, and I’ll try to answer or find someone who knows the answer. In an upcoming post (probably in two weeks), I’ll talk about ways to fund your memoir’s publication.