A couple of months ago, I met my very successful young author-cousin for lunch. Susan came into the bistro, sat down, propped her chin on her clasped hands and asked, “Do you realize how extraordinary it is to have your first book published when you are 77?”
“Yes.” But I didn’t know that in advance. I decided to write the book I needed but could not find when Lev died, and I started writing. I had no idea what genre it would be, where it would go on the shelves in Barnes and Noble. For that matter, I did not know how extraordinarily hard it is to get one’s book—especially a memoir—on a shelf at Barnes and Noble.
I did not know that it is almost impossible to land a trade publisher without an agent, and I never found an agent. Too many strikes against me: In addition to my age and my lack of fame, “platform” and social media presence, I dared to mix spiritual and secular themes.
Jane Friedman—author, teacher and former publisher of Writer’s Digest—has now written the book I needed to read at the beginning of my project: The Business of Being a Writer.
Written especially for (young) writers who want to pursue a writing career, Friedman sets out to explain the publishing industry and the business fundamentals that underlie writing and publishing success. Her interesting, informative, easy-to-read guide is comprehensive, as illustrated by its five sections:
- First Steps: Making a Life as a Writer
- Understanding the Publishing Industry
- Getting Published
- The Writer as Entrepreneur: Laying the Foundation
- How Writers Make Money
I wish I had had a book like Friedman’s back in 1962 when I abandoned my plans for a journalism career to marry. I could have had a successful writing career as a stay-at-home wife and mother. I hope that journalism and creative writing professors will use this guide in the classroom. Friedman provides “notes for instructors” in her introduction.
Without her guide, I had to learn as I went along. I am incredibly lucky to have several successful authors mentor me along the way. Without them, I wouldn’t have a book and I certainly wouldn’t have a publisher. It matters who you know.
I also bought almost every book I could find on writing and publishing. The Business of Being a Writer won’t replace them all, but it moves to the top of my reading list as essential, along with The Chicago Manual of Style.
Books for Writers
- Friedman, Jane. The Business of Being a Writer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018. iBook.
- The Chicago Manual of Style, 14thed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993. Indispensable, from identifying and arranging the parts of a book to everything you need to know about citations, footnotes and punctuation, including electronic citations, something I wasn’t taught in my long-ago English classes.
- Herman, Jeff, Guide to Book Publishers, Editors and Literary Agents. Novato, CA: New Work Library, 2015. Encyclopedic.
- —— and Deborah Levine Herman. Write the Perfect Book Proposal: 10 That Sold and Why. New York: John Wiley and Sons. iBook. I relied on this book mainly because it was the first book on book proposals that I found. I did not know then that memoirs and other narrative nonfiction don’t play by the same rules as other nonfiction in the publishing industry. They are treated more like novels, and you need a finished manuscript before you send out query letters to prospective agents. The Hermans teach mostly by example, with successful proposals as models; and they have one short chapter on memoir.
- Larsen, Michael. How to Write a Book Proposal, 2nded.Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1997. This is an excellent how-to book for nonfiction book proposals but without any mention of memoir.
- Sambuchino, Chuck, ed. Guide to Literary Agents 2016. Blue Ash, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 2015. For those who want their books published by a trade press, an agent is almost essential. This book provides helpful information for authors, in addition to the comprehensive listing of agents.
- Houghton, Robin. Blogging for Writers: How Authors and Writers Build Successful Blogs. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2014. About nine months after I started writing Reclaiming Joy, my mentor advised me to start blogging. This was my textbook, invaluable when I set up a website and developed a stronger presence on social media.
- Keyes, Ralph. The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear. New York: Henry Holt, 1995. This classic encourages and inspires new writers; it’s not a how-to book.
- —— The Writer’s Book of Hope: Getting From Frustration to Publication. New York: Henry Holt, 2003. Keyes offers inspiration and encouragement again, along with a realistic description of the discouragement and setbacks authors experience in seeking a publisher.
- Godwin, Gail. Publishing: A Writer’s Memoir. New York: Bloomsbury, 2015. iBook. A glimpse into one writer’s life, with war stories on publishing her many novels.
- McKinney, Claire. Do You Know What a Book Publicist Does? A Guide for Creating Your Own Campaigns. Plum Bay Publishing, 2017. Designed primarily for those who self-publish, this short little book gives a helpful overview of publishing and promoting and could assist new writers trying to decide whether to seek a trade publisher or self-publish. Though mine is a trade book, as a new author I learned what to expect from my publisher and publicist.
Four Books by Memoirists on Memoir Writing
- Kephart, Beth. Handing the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir.New York: Penguin, 2013.I purchased Kephart’s book when she was keynote speaker at the 2015 Moravian Writers’ Conference in Bethlehem, PA. No one has influenced my approach to memoir writing more than Kephart, a teacher of memoir writing at the University of Pennsylvania.
- —— Tell the Truth. Make It Matter: A Memoir Writing Workbook. Juncture, 2017. If you are interested in writing memoir but don’t know where to start, this workbook provides the kinds of exercises and writing prompts one finds in MFA classes and memoir workshops.
- Karr, Mary. The Art of Memoir. New York: HarperCollins, 2015. iBook. Like Kephart, Karr is a memoirist who teaches writing. However, they are very different people with very different approaches to the subject. Read both books. They complement each other.
- Brooks, Regina and Brenda Lane Richardson. You Should Really Write a Book: How to Write, Sell, and Market Your Memoir. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2012. iBook. This is more about what memoirs are and how to get one published than about the art of writing. I wish I had read it when I first started writing.
Note: Several books on my list are classics that are frequently revised. Be sure to use the latest edition.
Ella’s memoir, RECLAIMING JOY: A PRIMER FOR WIDOWS, will be released by the Baylor University Press September 14.