Memoir Publishing: Advice from a Ghost


Nana Reading Aug 06 MPL

             Library Book Club Reading, “The Nana in the Chair,” 2006,

with grandchildren Jon and Julia on book selling duty (somebody has to do it)

Boo!

In my business career, I dealt with sales, executive support, events, and speech writing (among other things) for over 40 years. I ran corporate events around the world. I met lots of people and heard lots of stories. When I retired, I took with me those things that I thought I’d like to do part-time. They were both about writing: Speech writing and book writing.

I had published a couple of books of my own: “We’re Roasting Harry Tuesday Night,” (Prentice-Hall) was about writing and producing a business or social roast. I wrote and ran a lot of those.

“The Nana in the Chair” (AuthorHouse; revised edition RoofTop Publishing) is a family memoir of my Irish grandmother who told us grand stories of Ireland during World War II. I went on the promotion circuit.

I also self-published two niche joke books about Finance (“The Attack of the Killer Bean Counters”) and Human Resources (What is a Human Resource?) through my own Jokesmith Press imprint.

I  did newspaper commentary, wrote (and augmented) business speeches, published The Jokesmith (1985-2012), a speakers’ comedy newsletter, and worked with people who wanted to write and publish their own memoir. Most of these were business people.

The books and the writing helped me establish credibility  I remember a quote I read in a biography of the famed novelist Somerset Maugham. He wrote: “I am in the first rank of second rate writers.” I laughed and thought, “Okay, maybe I am in the first rank of third-rate writers. But – at least I’m in the first rank of something. I’ll use that.” And I did.

I also learned that there are two important things you must do if you wish to be regarded as an expert in your chosen field: 1. Tell everybody you are an expert. 2. Publish a book. I did both of those too.

Over the years of observing successful people in action, I learned that there are four benchmarks on the road to business and financial success: 1. Preparation (education & training) and experience. 2. Be in the right place at the right time. 3. Work hard and work smart (working smart , in my opinion, is more important than working hard), and 4. Get lucky. You need all four.

However, even that’s not enough to make a best selling memoir. A lot of people have done those four things successfully, and profited from it, but they still don’t have a story worthy of a national audience. You need something above and beyond that: Think about the genius of Bill  Gates, the unstoppable force that was Steve Jobs, the successful performance over time that is Warren Buffet. Now those are stories worthy of a national, or even world-wide, audience.

Is this a new concept? Nope. Think about Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, Thomas Edison, Joe Kennedy, Roy Kroc, and the legions of successful people who stretch out across our history. Were they all nice guys? No way. But they did have a story worthy of telling and worthy of reading.

I met Emile, for example. He had escaped from one of Hitler’s death camps in the Forties, came to this country as a penniless, non-English speaking immigrant, and amassed a considerable fortune over the years. He became a philanthropist in his senior years. He liked to say: “I came here with the clothes on my back, and my ten fingers.” Emile was about seventy when I met him in New York during the Sixties. After he told me his story over dinner and a bottle of wine one night, I asked him, “Mr. E., what would happen if you lost it all tomorrow?”

Emile paused for a moment, shrugged, and then replied, “I still have my ten fingers. I would build it all up again.”

When I started working with executives who wanted to write their memoirs, I kept all these things in mind. I wasn’t just interested in making money as a ghost writer, but in getting the book published, and telling a story that was worth being read. A story that could amuse, teach, inspire. I was brutally honest with the people who interviewed me.

I met one retired executive in Boston. He lived in a penthouse apartment in one of Boston’s most fashionable buildings. We had coffee on his terrace  one spring morning, overlooking the city of Boston, the harbor, and the airport. It was like something from a travelogue. He told me his story. It was a good story. It touched all four of my key points, but that was it. There was no magic to it. He wasn’t even close to Emile. No, my client was just a good man of business who did well for himself, his family, and probably a few others..

I try to let them down easily. I said, “That’s an interesting story, and maybe you could self-publish it (and I know how to do that, by the way), but I don’t see it  being commercially published, nor as a national sales success.”

He replied, “That’s okay. I don’t really care about that. I made my grandchildren very rich, and I want them to know my side of the story.”

I thought that was a great answer, and helped him with the project. I think eventually he printed up a couple of hundred copies of his story, at his expense, passed them out to his family and close friends, and that was it. He felt vindicated.

It reminded me of a story (possible apocryphal) that  I heard about old Joe Kennedy. Someone asked him once how his grandchildren might feel about their inheritance if  they learned he was a bootlegger and a robber baron. Old Joe allegedly said: “No grandchildren are ever embarrassed about how the old man got all the money he left them.” It may not be a true story, but the premise works for me.

There are so many outlets for publishing today. There is the Vanity Press. For the right money, they can produce a professional looking book to rival anything on Barnes & Noble shelves; although the content may be sadly lacking. One publisher told me, “If you want to write a book about your cat, this is the way to go.”

Then there is P.O.D. or “Print on Demand.” I’ve used one of these presses. They do a good job, at a reasonable price, and for around a thousand bucks you can end up with a good looking paper back, 50 copies, and a listing on Amazon.com. They offer such additional services as proof reading, cover design, and merchandising – all at extra cost, of course. Few of these books are commercial successes.

Next, there are eBooks. Some of these books never appear in hard copy. They are all “in the cloud” for customers to download on their computers and electronic readers. You can publish one of these eBooks on Amazon.com or Apple’s website, for few dollars, and people can download it for a buck or two You get to keep a percentage of the sales. As usual, unless you want to pay extra, marketing and publicity are up to you.

And then, there is the Holy Grail of publishing, the commercial publishing houses  (Random, House, Knopf, Little, Brown, Inc. etc – the biggies).  You don’t have much of a chance here. They won’t even look at your manuscript unless you submit it through a literary agent. However, literary agents are almost as selective as publishers, so you have to be special to  attract even their attention. It’s  a Catch-22: You can’t be published without a record of success, and you can’t compile a record of success without being published.

Yes, there are vanity agents who will read your manuscript and offer suggestions and some help, but it seems they are more interested in the fees they charge than they are in publishing your book and earning commissions the hard way.

So, what do you do? First, you ask yourself, why would you write your memoir?  If you want fame, national recognition, money, or a guest shot on Oprah, you might want to consider gardening instead. But – if you want to write it because it needs to be written, because it has to be written, and maybe nobody else can do it but you, you have the right motivation. You know the story shouldn’t be lost. That’s why you do it. If all else fails, you write it out on your word processor, print it neatly, and then photo copy it in 25 bound copies at Office Max or Staples. Then, at Christmas, or at some other appropriate gathering, you give signed copies to the people, family and friends, most likely to care.

Will you get rich and famous? Most likely  not. But, you’ll feel good about it. And, you will hope, like I do, that  somewhere, some day, maybe 50 or 100 years from now, a bright, young, family member will find it in a trunk somewhere, read it, and say the 22d Century equivalent of “Wow! This old guy was really cool. I want to remember this story and share it with my kids and grand kids.”

And that, my friends, is both the reason why you should write your memoir, and the ultimate reward.

They say you are never gone as long as people are talking about you.

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1 Comment

Filed under Business Insights, Pop Culture/Nostalgia

One response to “Memoir Publishing: Advice from a Ghost

  1. Elizabeth Prentiss

    You are your mother and father combined. The grandchildren have a touch of you too.

    Sent from my iPad

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