By Jerry Waxler
In the fourth part of the interview with Karen Fisher-Alaniz, author of the memoir, Breaking the Code we talk more about writing and publishing the memoir.
Jerry Waxler: Finally getting the book into print must have been a fabulous sense of completion. Now you are in a new leg of your journey, speaking to people about an actual book instead of a book in progress. Congratulations!
Tell us about your publishing choices, and why you chose the particular route you did?
Karen Fisher-Alaniz: I believed in my book. I believed in my father’s story and that it was time for it to be told. But after sending out queries, I was getting some nice comments but no requests for more. There is a moment that stands out for me. I was at a writer’s conference and they had a time when authors were standing behind a table signing their books and chatting with conference attendees. Some were traditionally published, others were self-published. Some were famous, others were not. I looked around and thought, I’m not making myself crazy about this anymore. If I don’t have serious interest from a publisher by the end of 2010, I’m going to self-publish the book. My father was in his late 80’s, plus there were a couple of important war time anniversaries in 2011, so I knew that would be a good year to publish. When I let go of the traditional publishing as the only mode, I felt so free. I felt almost giddy. I knew that one way or another I would publish my memoir.
The funny thing is that just a few hours later, I had one agent and one editor seriously interested in the book. They both requested the first 50-pages. I know it sounds crazy, but the big-time New York agent just didn’t feel right to me. On the other hand, the editor from Sourcebooks had said, “It’s like our parents had these whole lives that we never knew about.” And I knew he got it. I sent him the pages and he skipped protocol and sent me a contract within about a month.
Jerry Waxler: Fascinating. That’s a great example of “letting it go!” So how is this publishing method working for you? I’d love to hear pros and cons. So many memoir writers face this challenge.
Karen Fisher-Alaniz: With the advent and perceived ease of self-publishing, many writers are going straight to self-publishing. I’m not sure that is the best thing to do. It’s still so new that the typical reader, as well as bookstore owners, librarians and such, are still struggling with it. I had a couple of experiences with it. When my book first came out, when I traveled, I would go into bookstores and offer to sign stock or just tell them about the book in hopes they’d order it. Well, I was told by my publicist that when I do this I should begin the conversation this way, “_my book, which is published by Sourcebooks.” So, I always did that and was received very well. But one time, at an independent bookstore, I forgot to say I was published by Sourcebooks. I didn’t realize it at the time; all I knew was that the buyer for the store was very rude. She was short with me and said emphatically that she would be taking a percentage because they have a hard time selling those kinds of books. I’m still standing there, naively thinking she’s referring to memoirs or war stories. But the percentage thing threw me off. I hadn’t heard that before, so I asked about it. When she realized I wasn’t self-published, but was traditionally published, her whole demeanor changed. All of a sudden she was nice. It made me mad.
Unfortunately, I’ve found this to be an ongoing problem and something that those in the book selling industry are frustrated with. There are a lot of self-published authors who don’t put enough effort into editing, learning about their craft, and ensuring the book is it’s absolute best before it is printed. I feel like there needs to be some kind of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for books. We need to know they’ve been meticulously edited and beta tested.
On the other side, there is a lot of traditional-publisher bashing. I hear what people say about traditional publishers and it’s just not my experience. As a debut author, I was told not to expect an advance. But I did get an advance. I was told that I would have little or no control over my book. I was involved in every aspect of it. I was told that publishers just aren’t doing any marketing or publicity anymore — that they leave that for the author to do. That wasn’t true either. My publicist even got my father and I interviewed on National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition. I had a very good experience with my publisher. Maybe Sourcebooks is the exception, maybe they’re not.
One thing a publisher has that an author just doesn’t is education, expertise, and connections. When I visited their offices in Chicago, I was really struck by the fact that these people have degrees in things like marketing, publicity, public relations, and so forth. Whole teams of people were working on my book. There’s just no way I could know everything they know, no matter how many years I studied. Publishers vary, of course. Smaller and mid-sized publishers like mine are often overlooked. Most authors shoot high and hope for one of the Big Six New York publishers. I feel like I had the best possible publisher for my book. I’m not sure I would have gotten the attention I did, if I’d chosen one of the mega-publishers.
Where self and traditional publishing converge is in the area of marketing your book. While my publisher did an amazing job in the months following the publication of Breaking the Code, there is a time limit. A best-selling author I know said that they give you a good three-weeks, and then they are on to other books. I had about two months where my book was a priority. That gradually dwindled off. It was like my publisher had been driving on the highway a hundred miles an hour, then pulled over and let me drive in really slow traffic. At this point, the shift changed to me. Self-published authors are at the forefront of knowing how to market their books. I’ve learned a lot from websites, workshops, and publications that are geared toward self-published authors. They are the experts at finding creative ways to keep your book selling.
I hear a lot of people use the phrase, “Traditional versus Self-publishing.” I don’t think it has to be that way. The two are not against each other and in fact can complement each other. Most people don’t know how little money a first-time author makes. In fact, most don’t even come close to making even the most meager of livings from their books until they have three out. Authors that are making a living at writing books have many, many books out. They also create multiple streams of income by adding in speaking engagements, and creating various web-based programs. They also supplement their writing income by self-publishing ebooks related to their subject. There are a ton of options out there. So, if your goal is to make your living at writing, it can be done. The timing is better than ever.
Jerry Waxler: One of the things that fascinates me about memoirs is the way so many of them bubble up out of the context of a person’s life, almost like a story that wants to be told. Because of this deep enmeshment between the author’s life and their book, the book holds a powerful important place in their life experience, and as a reader, I’m keenly aware of and appreciative of this connection between the life and literature. However, it leads to a dilemma for the published memoir writer.
After writing a book that is key to their entire lives, they want to keep writing. Some, like Frank McCourt, go on to write other memoirs. Some, like Jeanette Walls, go on to write historical fiction or like Andrew X. Pham, a ghostwritten biography. Others, like Alice Sebold and Beth Kephart branch over to fiction. Some, like me, mainly want to write about the process of writing a memoir. Where do you see your direction? Do you have another book in you? What’s next?
Karen Fisher-Alaniz: That’s such a good point. When I do book events, there is definitely a good deal of teaching and encouraging others to write their own story. I’m passionate about that. We all think we’ll have more time to get our stories, or those of our loved ones, written down. But sadly, for some time runs out. My message is to Write Now: Because It’s Later Than You Think, won’t be changing anytime soon.
I am working on two nonfiction books right now. The first, Running in Circles is a humorous memoir about raising a son who has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). My son just turned 18 and is a senior in high school. I finally feel like we made it to the other side. But it has been a real struggle — especially when he was young. People joke about ADHD and throw the term out every time they feel a little burst of energy. That’s not what ADHD is. But if you spend any time talking to parents, you’ll see the heartbreak, the frustration, and the guilt. I’ve been through all of those things. But I’m far enough out from it now to have some insight. And truth is, a lot of our experiences were downright hysterical. I always tell people that if I’d just stopped at two children, I would have been that annoying parent who had all the answers for your kid. And then there was Caleb.
The second book I’m working on is another veteran story. Drawing Me Home is the story of Vietnam Veteran, Michael Reagan. He is a talented portrait artist. He worked hard to build up a business with his art, in a beautiful, waterfront art studio. He raised more than $10 million for charity by drawing portraits of celebrities. He has met presidents, celebrities, and politicians. He was the official artist for the University of Washington for more than 30-years. When he was asked to do a portrait of a soldier who died in Iraq, his life changed. The soldier’s widow was so profoundly affected by the portrait that he knew what he had to do. He gave up everything; his art studio, his career at the U of W, prestige, paycheck, and notoriety, to dedicate his life to drawing portraits of fallen soldiers. He’s drawn 3,000 to date. His tragic past is woven into the present in the most amazing way. Miracles abound.
If I do branch out in the future, it would be into children’s books. I taught elementary school for a number of years, and I’ve written several children’s books. I’d love to see those published and I’d love to interact with children around books again.
For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.
To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.