Bringing a memoir to successful publication at an indie press, by Arleen Williams, guest blogger

Hello, campers –
After spending a long, hard few days slogging through the nitty-gritty of how to get a manuscript out the door to an agent or small press — and an even harder couple of days talking about the stresses of doing so — I have an aptly-timed treat for you today, a guest blog on, you guessed it, submitting a memoir to an indie press by one of the bravest memoirists I know, Arleen Williams. Her memoir, THE THIRTY-NINTH VICTIM, was published recently Blue Feather Press.

Naturally, it takes genuine bravery to write any memoir honestly — speaking as a memoirist myself, I had absolutely no idea how emotionally difficult it is to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth on a page intended for publication until I did it myself, or, more precisely, until the editor who had acquired it started asking me to change things.

But Arleen’s situation was, unfortunately, the stuff of nightmares: her little sister, Maureen, was murdered by the worst serial killer in American history. In case any of you missed my enthusiastic cheers when the book came out last April, here is the official blurb:

The Green River murders were headline news throughout the 1980s. By the time the perpetrator was sentenced in 2003, at least 48 young women had met an untimely death at his hands. What started as as string of local killings in Seattle became a national nightmare before it was over. In homes all across America, television news programs and newspapers large and small carried feature stories about the ever-growing list of victims.

Now imagine that during this time, someone you love — your baby sister, a beautiful young woman of 19 — suddenly goes missing. The police are at best unhelpful, and at worst, seemingly uninterested in what’s happened to her. And then comes word you hoped you’d never receive: your youngest sister’s remains have been found. She is yet another victim of the Green River killer. With amazing candor, Arleen Williams tells the story of her family’s journey, before and after the Green River killer murdered her sister Maureen and left her body in a stretch of wilderness off the west side of Highway 18.

What amazed me about Arleen’s memoir is that instead of approaching this horror as true crime — which, frankly, would probably have been easier to write — she embeds the reader in her family’s dynamics in the years leading up to Maureen’s disappearance, as well as after, making their sense of disorientation and loss achingly present. Intriguingly, their interactions are not at all the sanitized, made-for-TV-type family dynamics readers have come to expect from third-hand accounts, but a micro-culture of selective recognition and unanticipated temporary banishments for minor infractions that renders the family strangely equipped — and painfully unequipped — to deal with Maureen’s permanent disappearance.

I don’t want to give too much away, of course, but let me tell you, denial has seldom been so fascinating.

(For a more extensive peek into the memoir’s world, there’s a video about it on her website. And in case you’re wondering, THE THIRTY-NINTH VICTIM may be purchased directly from the publisher, Blue Feather Press, or on Amazon. If you happen to live in the southeastern portion of this fine country, you may have Arleen sign a copy for you at her upcoming readings:

Wordsmiths, Decatur, Georgia
December 15, 7:30 pm

Vino Loco, Englewood, Florida
December 20, 4 pm

I just mention.)

Remember how I was saying yesterday that it often takes a long time for even an excellent manuscript to see print? I believe that Arleen is going to have a thing or two to say about that. Aspiring memoirists will find this guest post helpful, too, as will anyone out there considering working with a small press.

But mostly, I’m thrilled to post this because, frankly, those of you who are writing on dark topics couldn’t possibly hope for a better-suited advice-giver. Please join me, then, in welcoming Arleen Williams as today’s guest blogger.

Take it away, Arleen!

How did a middle-aged straight woman get a memoir published by a small press with a lesbian fiction focus? This is a question I am often asked in one form or another. It’s a sort of how and why question, I suppose. So here’s the answer I tell readers and fellow writers alike: it took relentless determination and a whole lot of luck.

I wrote a story that I felt needed to be told. I took the classes and followed the rules – buying how-to books, reading blogs like this one, honing my query letter, going to conferences. I sent out over fifty agent queries. The responses ranged from harshly impersonal to expressions of heartfelt sorrow for my loss.

What they all shared was that note of rejection. Some included comments suggesting that I make the book more about my sister’s murderer, about the Green River case. Others claimed readers didn’t want a story told from a victim’s perspective.

So what to do? I wasn’t writing true crime or thriller. I wasn’t willing to change from the memoir format that I had chosen. I had two alternatives: self-publish or find an independent press. I opted for the latter and started querying every publisher listed in Writer’s Market that accepted memoir and unagented manuscripts.

After nine months of sending out queries and enduring rejections, I got lucky. I was offered a contract, but my luck ran out again when the company holding my contract was bought out before my book was published.

Unwilling to give up, stubborn determination came into play. I contacted the new company and asked if they intended to honor my contract. That was when my love affair with small, independent publishers began. I was able to talk with them, actually e-mail and get prompt responses.

And they wanted my memoir. Why?

Curious, I asked Emily Reed, co-owner of Blue Feather Books, Ltd., that same question. Why would a small niche publisher of predominately lesbian lit want a straight memoir? Simple answer: they liked it and they thought they could sell it. They publish books by women and for women. They were willing to take a chance on me.

I cannot say enough positive about working through the pre-publication revision and editing process with a small press. It was one-on-one, personal and real. I have developed a lifelong friendship with an editor who lives across the country from me. Jane Vollbrecht (my editor for The Thirty-Ninth Victim) and I will meet for the first time later this month when I do a reading in her city. Our relationship developed through respect, honesty and her willingness to share her story with me as we edited my own.

For the final line-by-line editing, Caitlin d’Aguiar, another of Blue Feather’s owners, and I met for a nine- or ten-hour marathon at a roadside Denny’s halfway between her home and my own. Again, it was personal and real. I have never worked with a New York publisher or an agent of any kind, but I’ve had conversations with many authors and their experiences seem to be very different from my own.

It sounds rosy, doesn’t it? The communication and connection. The e-mail, phone and face-to-face interaction with editor and publishers, but there is a downside to working with a small independent press.

Isn’t there always a downside?

I’ve always written, scribbling in journals for as long as I can remember, and like most, I write because I must, because it’s in my blood, because it’s my way of processing my world. When I began to write The Thirty-Ninth Victim in fall 2001, the thought of publication did not enter into the equation. I wrote because I needed to write. Nothing more. Later, when a draft began to take shape, it was a pair of dedicated teachers – Robert Ray and Jack Remick – who encouraged me to pursue publication, who felt that I had a body of work worthy of publication.

I explain all of this only to say that like most, I write for me, I write because I love to write. Never, in all my years of writing, in my wildest dreams, did I see myself in the role of book seller. And yet, that is precisely the role one falls into by publishing with a small press, particularly a press that does print-on-demand (POD) sales.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that you won’t be promoting your own book if you publish with a large New York house. Of course you will. Publishers have extremely limited promotional budgets, the bulk of which goes into promoting a very small number of pet projects. Most small presses have little to no promotional budget.

In both cases, most authors are on their own to promote their book, to set up bookstore and library readings, to secure media and on-line coverage. In short, to be their own (or to hire) publicity person. In that sense, publishing with a large or small house doesn’t differ much.

The difference lies in how a book is printed and distributed. Many small publishers, including my own, operate on a POD basis. It’s the only way they can survive economically, and yet because of this, most of the large bookstores won’t carry their books. If bookstores can’t purchase large orders with guaranteed buy back, they don’t buy.

For that reason, if you were to go into any major book retailer and request The Thirty-Ninth Victim, they’d be happy to order a copy for you, but you won’t find it on the shelves or on one of those wonderful tables displaying new books. A bookstore browser, a holiday shopper, will never see my book.

Though I didn’t know any of this when I signed my first publishing contract, it probably wouldn’t have mattered, anyway. I was tired of rejection, and I was thrilled, as most writers are, to simply land a contract. In the intervening months since my memoir was released, I have become PR person, public speaker and book seller – all roles I never imagined for myself.

The selling part is the hardest for me. If your book is in bookstores, your role is limited to publicity. But when bookstores are unwilling to stock your book, you turn to the indie stores and often enter the world of consignment sales. You find yourself weighing the cost of the books you must purchase from your publisher against the odds of being able to sell them. You finding yourself setting prices based on your break even point in a feeble attempt to stop bleeding money. And you begin asking yourself if selling your book will ever become more than an expensive hobby.

So I’m not saying there’s a huge difference between the author’s role in promoting a book published by a large house vs. a small press, but I am saying that it is harder if your book is POD. In that case, it is essential to rely on your personal and professional networks to get word out about your work.

Along those lines, I want to thank Anne Mini for her invitation to do this guest entry on her blog. I appreciate the opportunity to share my experiences with Anne’s readers and, of course, to invite you to visit my website to learn more about my work.

I sent my first agent query in March 2004. Wide-eyed, naïve and full of hope. The Thirty-Ninth Victim was released in April 2008. It was a long journey – one I am honored to have had the opportunity to take. I wish you all the best on your own publishing journeys.

Arleen Williams has been recording her life in journals since she left home in her late teens. Her wanderings took her to Mexico City, where she completed a bachelor’s degree through the University of California while earning a teaching certificate from the National University of Mexico. Arleen has been teaching the English language for over thirty years. She taught international students living in dorms in Seattle, and migratory workers in her living room in Santa Cruz, California. In Caracas, Venezuela, she faked an Irish accent in order to land a position at the British Embassy School, and in Mexico City, her high school students encircled her for her protection during an anti-American protest.

In 1984, the disappearance of her youngest sister brought her back to Seattle. Later, she completed a master’s degree in education at the University of Washington and accepted the teaching position she still holds at South Seattle Community College. For the past fifteen years, she and her husband have been remodeling a small 1941 home in West Seattle, where they have raised their only daughter. The Thirty-Ninth Victim is her first book.

4 Replies to “Bringing a memoir to successful publication at an indie press, by Arleen Williams, guest blogger”

  1. Thank you for the article and for all of the information posted in this blog. I feel more optimistic about the work that I’m doing in my memoir. However, I have a case (a huge case of the fear bug). I can’t seem to get past my fear of the manuscript not being good enough. So, I edit, and I edit, then I get so busy with other work that the “un-published” memoir about homelessness, addiction and violence, goes unfinished. I think by putting off finishing the book, it is like the major theme in the book, I am running away from things. The book has become my new pain; something that I want to rid myself of. I want to be done with it already. I know that sounds horrible, but, reliving painful experiences over and over again, is like having post traumatic shock syndrome over and over again. I need help with my manuscript, and to be honest I don’t know where or how to begin searching for that right editor, agent or publisher.

    1. You’re welcome, Katina. Arleen’s story is indeed remarkable.

      Speaking both as a memoirist myself and as a freelance editor who works with them regularly, writing an honest memoir is one of the most emotionally difficult things anyone can do. So what you say doesn’t sound terrible at all, at least not to me.

      This may come as a surprise to you, but the fears you describe are quite common even amongst those who write the best memoirs. Since one’s own life is a work in progress by definition, it’s difficult to see a story arc — and even harder to come up with a definite ending. The other characters in memoir are not merely people on paper; they’re actual people who may well read the book. (And, in my case, threaten to sue over it.) Since none of us can be completely objective observers of our own lives (however much some autobiographers may pretend otherwise), the temptation to keep refining how we’re presenting ourselves can often become overwhelming.

      If it makes you feel any better, the sensation you describe, of reliving the experiences with the vividness of a PTSD flashback, is a fairly well-documented one. There’s quite a bit of evidence that the body can respond to the brain’s reentering into a traumatic experience vividly enough to write about it well as if it were actually happening — which means, in effect, the body is literally reliving the experience, at least chemically.

      All of which is to say: you’re definitely not alone in feeling this way. I’ve been through it myself, as has every good memoirist I know.

      The thing to bear in mind is that the way to make the pain go away permanently is not to stop working on the book or to approach the material less honestly, but to complete it. You’ll probably be amazed at how much better you feel once you have faced down the fear and gotten it out there.

      The question of the book’s marketability is a separate issue — although from what you say, I suspect that it doesn’t feel that way right now. Memoirs are typically sold via book proposals, not the entire book, so setting aside the editing process for a few weeks and working on a book proposal might help give you a better sense of its marketability. There’s a how-to category on the archive list on the bottom-right side of this page that will give you the basics.

      This may sound like a dismissive suggestion, but it isn’t: in order to write a good book proposal, you will have to not only figure out why your story is marketable and why you’re the best person on the face of the earth to tell it (as I’m sure that you are), but also who your target reader is and what your book has to offer that no other book currently on the market provides that reader.

      Those things are not always easy to figure out, but once you’ve answered them about your memoir, your fears about its being good enough should start to subside. Nothing is better for dashing fears about your work not being good enough than spending a few hours sitting in front of the memoir section of a well-stocked bookstore or library, reading excerpts from what’s come out within the last few years. (It’s also a good place to start figuring out which agents to query — someone will have represented each and every one of those books you will be checking out. Most authors will thank their agents in their acknowledgments.)

      Besides, you’d have to produce a proposal before approaching a small publishing house or most agents, anyway. (Some agents say that they prefer to see the entire manuscript for a first-time memoirist, but that’s not how nonfiction is typically sold to big publishing houses.)

      In the short run, joining a group with other memoirists would probably help quite a bit. Talking with others who are facing similar difficulties can be very freeing. If you have trouble finding other writers in your area, ask at your local library or community college for suggestions.

      I would also HIGHLY recommend tracking down a copy of Barbara Robinette Moss’ mind-boggingly honest and beautifully written CHANGE ME INTO ZEUS’ DAUGHTER. It’s the best first memoir I’ve ever read — yes, really — and the story of how it came to press is inspirational.

      Hang in there, Katina — the finished book honestly will be worth it.

  2. As a former acquisitions editor for a national publisher, all I can say to you is “Wow.” Sometimes I wondered if some of our “potential ” authors had ever even looked at our website to figure ot what kind of publisher we are! Excellent advice.

    BTW, have not read your book, but I look forward to reading it. I lived in Seattle during the time of the killings, and someone from my High School had a sister who was an official victim…and another sister who was never found, presumed victim. I hope people will remember that these girls were someone’s daughters and sisters; my heart goes out to you and your family.

    1. Thanks, Julie! I like to think I’m providing a public service for the writing community. Nobody’s born knowing this stuff.

      And I’m forwarding your comment right now to Arleen!

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