Why Self-Publish Your Memoir
In 1964 my great uncle hired Louisiana journalist Zeak Buchner to write the story of his family. Immigrants from Poland in the 1890s, they settled in Shreveport and put down roots in the form of a department store and dozens of children and grandchildren. It was a large family, and for eight-year-old me living in Houston, Texas and trying to figure out who all these cousins, aunts, and uncles were, the book was a valuable resource. The family story had a small printing, maybe a few hundred, and copies circulated among family, in-laws (who they called the “outlaws”), friends, and business associates.
Over the years, copies disappeared, and the few remaining are coveted treasures among family members. The family history is well-written, thanks to my Polish-born great uncle who left school to work at young age hiring a professional to turn his interviews and notes into engaging prose. Through the book and a rudimentary familiarity with Polish and German (due to Duolingo, TV shows, and movies), I was able to locate the actual village where my great-grandparents came from and get a sense of what life was like when my great-grandfather courted a young seamstress from a nearby town. I came to understand their decision to leave the Jewish immigrant enclave of New York City’s Lower East Side to live where there were few people like them, and how they quickly assimilated to the world around them. In fact, by the time I came along, my Jewish family closed their stores on Sunday rather than the Jewish Sabbath of Friday night and Saturday and celebrated Christmas along with their non-Jewish neighbors and customers.
The book contains a wealth of information for anyone writing history or historical fiction about immigration and Jewish life in the South in the first six decades of the twentieth century. Because of two biography projects that I wrote in the past few months but cannot announce yet, I’ve gained a new appreciation for books like these. In one case, the person I wrote the biography about — in fact, another Jewish immigrant who settled in the southern United States — had self-published a memoir. In the other case, a close relative of the person had written and self-published a memoir. These two self-published books were key to my understanding my person; I could not have written what I did without them.
I’ve met a lot of people who’ve accumulated life experience and are interested in writing memoirs. They want to know how they can get their memoirs published. Unfortunately, traditional publishing is a little too infatuated with youth and celebrity. In many ways, it’s easier for an older writer to publish fiction in most categories (YA being a bit of an exception unless it’s historical fiction) than a memoir.
Agents and editors receive a lot of memoir submissions from older writers, many of whom have retired and have more time to write. In terms of traditional publishing, memoirs only have a chance if authors are celebrities, have a truly unusual story, or have established themselves first as authors of literary fiction. The rest are typically told early on that their story “doesn’t stand out.”
That doesn’t mean the writing is bad; it only means there isn’t a market big enough for the publisher to make a profit. Does that mean you should give up on your memoir — leave it in the trunk or on your hard drive, or not write it at all?
Your story is valuable. I’m not the only person who writes historical fiction and nonfiction. We fans of history depend on first person accounts of daily life to flesh out or stories. Particularly in the case of historical fiction, we aren’t writing about the famous people, the elites who dominate textbook accounts. To give voice to ordinary people in history, we need the voices of ordinary people in history.
Think about Holocaust survivors. Without these thousands of first-person accounts, it would be much easier for ever-more-powerful right-wing extremists and Holocaust deniers — people who understand how propaganda works and have little regard for truth — to convince the rest of the world that these atrocities never existed. Without the personal accounts of participants in the Civil Rights Movement, we wouldn’t know what life was life before then until our current crop of neo-Confederates had already stripped away the right to vote and institutionalized a new wave of Jim Crow discrimination.
Even if you never endured these large-scale assaults on human rights or took part in the struggle to end them, your story provides insight into a time, a place, and a way of seeing the world. If an agent or editor tells you that your story is “only of interest to your own family,” they’re wrong. No, you’re probably not going to make a lot of money if you self-publish your memoir, but you may well be able to sell it to people beyond your family and close friends, and you’ll be able to do it long after all those flash-in-the-pan celebrity memoirs have gone out of print. Self-publishing gives you the control to keep your memoir in print for as long as you or your family members want. It can continue to be a valuable resource for historians, historical fiction writers, and other researchers — people you don’t know who may end up buying and appreciating your story.
In my next post, I’ll talk about how you can raise your chances of getting your self-published memoir noticed.