THE BEST WAY TO GET A BOOK DEAL is to write something spectacular, publish it in a solid publication and attract a lot of attention. No, that is not written sarcastically or flippantly. It’s just good, solid advice, as well as advice that has not been the least bit changed by even the newest of new media. It’s also advice I give you openly and freely knowing that I can back it up with some solid examples.
What is The Best Way To Publish Memoir?
In every online memoir class I’ve taught, as well as at every talk I give, initial questions always center on what is a memoir and how memoir differs from autobiography. Right after that, someone will ask about the best way to get a book deal. My answer is always the same.
Even as ebooks, self-publishing, hybrid publishing, blogging and podcasting have added enormously to platforms on which you can be read and heard, at its core, mass-market publishing has remained a quality-based business, and one that responds to well-written, well-placed articles in the world’s top publications. How does it respond? By asking the writer to expand the piece into a book.
Here’s the best, most recent example of what I mean.
Meet Ariel Levy
In November, 2013, Ariel Levy published a piece of memoir entitled “Thanksgiving in Mongolia” in The New Yorker. To say the piece is amazing is to write poorly about one of the more remarkable pieces of writing ever printed. I have heard it referred to as the “best piece of memoir ever written,” enough times to know that many people think so.
In a recent quote in The New York Times, The New Yorker editor, David Remnick, said of the personal essay that when it landed on his desk, he did something unusual and read it right away. “I couldn’t get out of my chair,” the Times quoted him as saying…there’s really nothing like it.” I agree. It left me gasping, literally, as I read it the first time, and teaches me something every time I’ve read it since. But don’t take my word for it, read this piece in the Harvard Neiman Foundation’s famed Storyboard explaining why this piece is so damn good.
How good? The piece won the 2014 National Magazine Award for best essay. (After reading Levy’s piece, if you’d like to read the four other finalists for that year, you can, in this piece in The Washington Post.)
This month, Penquin/Random House published Ariel Levy’s memoir, The Rules Do Not Apply, a follow-up to that magazine piece, the result of a contract she was given after the piece appeared.
So when people ask me how to get a book contract, now I tell them to write a piece of memoir that prevents someone like David Remnick from getting up from his chair — in other words, that is as good as they can write, and see what happens. Let’s start there, because I happen to know that remarkable things can result.
I was 26 when it happened to me. It went something like this.
How I Got My First Book Deal
“Why don’t you write it?”
As those words were spoken to me, I began to back out of the editor’s office at The New York Times Sunday Magazine. The editor surely was not used to having 26-year-old writers try to talk him out of writing a piece while simultaneously backing out of his office, but that was the scene. I told him every reason I couldn’t possibly write the piece he was suggesting I write.
And then he said it more forcefully:
“I think you should write it.”
At the time, my 51-year-old mother’s mind had gone to battle with something, and lost. She had Alzheimer’s disease, and nowhere in the New York City phone book was there a listing for help. There were no research dollars in the federal budget then. There was no cure, no help, no treatment, and my mother, who had just been diagnosed, was the only person I knew who had it (although the doctor who diagnosed her said that 4.5 million Americans were Alzheimer’s patients).
It seems impossible to imagine, I know, since we all now know someone who has the illness, or someone who is caring for an Alzheimer’s patient. Back then, nobody had written a first-person account of the illness in a mass-circulation publication.
At the time, I was a few years into a job at The New York Times, and I did what any good young employee might do: I went to the magazine editor and told him someone ought to write the story, to make The New York Times the newspaper to introduce the world to this dreadful illness. I never expected him to suggest that I write it myself.
I wrote that magazine piece and, along the way, learned those rules of memoir I’ve been practicing ever since. That would have been enough of a reward, but within only weeks of publication I got five book offers from major New York publishers. Soon after, I published my first book.
Three books later (see the photo collage above), my most recent book is my irreverent little book on how to write memoir. It began life as a blog post that a lot of people read. So I wrote another post on the topic of how to write memoir, and a lot of people read that one, as well. And despite having been published by Houghton Mifflin, Simon & Schuster, and Bloomsbury, I decided to self-publish the memoir book and learn about how that was done. I did, and after selling all the copies we’d printed, I took it to my agent in NYC, who took it out to the market and sold it to Grand Central, who published it under the name of The Memoir Project, A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing & Life.
So, my first book came from a magazine piece. My most recent book came from a blog post. See a trend here? I think you do.
Can You Still Get a Book Deal if You Don’t Have a “Big” Story?
I know what you might be thinking — that Ariel Levy and I both had big stories, or at least that big things had happened to us. That’s true. But that is not the only sort of memoir that will get a book deal. Let’s discuss.
Think of Anne Kreamer. Much like Ariel Levy and me, Anne had something happen to her, though what happened to her was that she was going gray. What did she do?
She thought about it. Yup. Then she did some research. And she thought some more and started to write and the result was the book at left that did very, very well and many magazine pieces, including this one in Time Magazine and this one from Martha Stewart Living.
Still too big? Think you cannot write a book on something that happens to practically everyone and make it your own? You can, but here is the key: You will need to do some reporting. This throws a lot of people. Don’t be one of them.
Do Some Original Reporting
Reporting for memoir can require calling your sister and asking the name of the dog who lived next door when you were kids. It can be far bigger than that, as well, involving genealogical research or research on your city or town or house.
My house was a speakeasy during Prohibition. Were I to write a memoir that took place in my home in some way, I would begin at the local historical society, whose records include many photos and much ephemera about my area. I would visit the county clerk where deeds are recorded. And then I would locate a historian (either through that historical society or through a State Humanities Council office) and ask about Prohibition, specifically about speakeasies in my area.
Does that make you nervous? Does calling a expert give you the whirlies? Don’t let it. In all my years of reporting, I have never had anyone say no to me when the question has been, “Would you please explain to me what you do for a living?” Start there, getting a feel for what the person does, how she or he does it, and then slowly move into what specifically interests you. Do not call up demanding answers. You are not working as an investigative journalist here, but rather as a writer who is genuinely interested in a story.
Want to know how many people go gray every year and what they do about it? Call Clairol. They’ll be glad to send you to their Public Relations department and answer a question that benefits them — i.e., how many people use your products every year?
Doing reporting? Keep it friendly.
And what if the story is not all that friendly? What, if like my friend Bob Cowser, you are haunted by a murder that took place in your childhood town? Read a few books like Green Fields, Crime Punishment and Boyhood Between, Cowser’s memoir on the death of his third grade classmate, and see who he spoke to and how he handled it. Still game? Then read Melvin Mencher’s News Reporting and Writing, now in its twelfth printing and widely considered the standard text in its field. Mencher was a professor of journalism at Columbia. Train yourself and then pick up the phone or get on email and ask experts what you need to know. And here’s a secret: It’s fun.
How to Make Your Memoir Writing Better Every Day
But ultimately, you are going to have to write the piece to get a book deal. What’s my message on that? I think you know. Want to get a book deal? Write well. Write quality memoir. Write memoir that prevents the reader from getting out of his or her chair.
How? I can help. Here are some posts to read to start your transformation from good to great.
Feel like you need a little bit more community? Come join one of my live, online memoir classes classes. I’ll introduce you to others who do what we do and it will get you where you want to go. Don’t do this alone, writers. Come join the fun and learning at one of my four live, online memoir classes.