by Jerry Waxler
Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time to write your memoir.
I recently read, Orwell and the Refugees by Andrea Chalupa, eagerly absorbing the human drama unfolding on its pages. The author’s grandfather survived Stalin’s infamous famine-genocide in the Ukraine, so she grew up surrounded by stories involving mid-century Russia. Naturally she had an enormous stake in the outcome of these historical events, and her passion for the subject drove the story forward.
And just as exciting as the content inside the book were the possibilities the book raised for other authors who wonder how they will find readers. Orwell and the Refugees reports on one cultural upheaval, and it is also an example of another. The book shows how the changes in publishing are expanding our ability to connect with each other.
Her story is about one of the greatest dramas in human history. Stalin’s starvation campaign affected millions of Ukrainians, and indirectly impacted hundreds of millions of others. And millions of people have grown up horrified by the strange and terrible allegory portrayed in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. However, despite this vast impact, none of this is in today’s news, and it’s unlikely many readers are heading to the bookstore to buy a book on either topic. The history of George Orwell’s impact on Ukrainian refugees seems too specialized and obscure for a commercial publisher.
Many aspiring memoir writers face similar problems. We know our story has dramatic impact that would intrigue some subset of people. But when we learn how to pitch it to a publisher or agent, we find that we must demonstrate its salability. It’s difficult to guarantee the five or ten thousand readers that traditional publishers need. Until recently, such authors would either squash the impulse to write about their lives, or they would polish a manuscript for years, shop it around, and then lovingly lay it to rest.
In the new millennium, we no longer need to jump over the barrier of the mass market. Electronic publishing gives us the freedom to focus on telling our story as artfully as possible so whoever reads it will enjoy it and tell their friends. In the new millennium, aspiring authors build momentum not on a sure business case but on the passion of storytelling. And as Orwell and the Refugees demonstrates, once we are released from commercial considerations, we can take advantage of some additional literary freedoms.
Cut Across Rules to Engage the Modern Mind
If Orwell and the Refugees was published traditionally, a bookseller or librarian would not know where to shelve it. Does it belong with books about the history of Eastern Europe, or the history of English literature, or is about the investigative journalism of a woman whose grandfather wrote a memoir? Because Chalupa published her story as an eBook, she didn’t have to worry about these distinctions. By cutting across categories, she is free to express herself in a variegated style and high-energy content that suits the broad interests of a hungry mind.
Its length is another radical departure from the past. Traditionally, its petite size would have kept it out of a bookstore or library because without a spine, you can’t see it on the shelf. However, it recalls a much older tradition. Some of the most influential books in history have been short enough to be considered pamphlets, such as the incendiary Common Sense by Thomas Paine, a 48 page work that helped ignite the American Revolution. Orwell and the Refugees is unlikely to start a revolution but it’s a great example of one, allowing us to regain access to this important, short form. The book is filled with intrigue and information, without being so long as to be overwhelming.
Which Niche Markets Beckon Your Book
Just because Chalupa did not convince a publisher that Orwell and the Refugees would sell thousands does not mean that such sales are impossible. Publishers often take the wrong side of this bet, as evidenced by endless stories of successful books that were rejected before they found a home. Even Orwell’s Animal Farm, one of the greatest books of the twentieth century, was rejected at first.
When you look more closely at Orwell and the Refugees you can imagine an enormous number of potential readers. Millions of people could be curious to know the background of George Orwell’s ominous allegory about cruel tyrants, and millions more might want to know about grandparents displaced in the upheaval of Europe and Russia. Orwell and the Refugees places those events into historical context as a chilling personal account seen through the eyes of someone whose family suffered from the horror directly.
In fact, in my own household, the word Ukrainian never had any particular significance. My grandparents came from Kiev, wherever that is. In light of Orwell and the Refugees I looked at a map. It turns out that three of my four grandparents were refugees from the same region as Chalupa’s ancestors, as were the millions of Jews who escaped Russia at the turn of the twentieth century. Now that I have come across this information, I’m fascinated. Her niche is not so small after all.
It’s not easy to know in advance how your book will be received. In the epilog to Rachel Simon’s memoir Riding the Bus with My Sister, she says that the success of the book took her completely by surprise. Instead of the occasional person who wanted to read about a girl and her sister, she was inundated by buyers who desperately wanted to learn more about caring for their disabled siblings. Pleasing the vagaries of the public is not something any of us can predict, even the professionals. So the best bet for any memoir author is to tell your story as well as you can and then reach out and let readers know where to find it.
What niche audience might be interested in your story? (For example, boomers, veterans, survivors of a particular illness or injury, spiritual seekers, children of aging parents, etc.) How will you connect with these readers?
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