The novel gait of Skyhorse Publishing

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Publishers come in many sizes and niches, but few of them have the broad scope of titles at Skyhorse Publishing. The company is not one of the Big 5 imprints. Even though it sold $43 million in books last year, it’s considered a major independent. Skyhorse is a place where titles of the books seem to matter as much as the names of the authors.

A Publisher’s Weekly article about the publisher, noting the press went from $0 to $43 million in 10 years, included this insight from its founder Tony Lyons about acquiring and selling books.

Lyons has no interest in changing his model to try to compete with the largest of New York’s trade houses. He is quite happy to pay modest advances for books that may sell 3,000 or 4,000 copies in a particular niche, but which also have the potential to have a long run in backlist. Backlist sales now represent about 60% of total revenue. Though Skyhorse has published many books that have sold more than 100,000 copies, Lyons said he considers a good sale for a typical Skyhorse book to be around 20,000 copies.

Acquiring a book that might only sell 4,000 copies is not unusual in the publishing business. A company the size of Skyhorse doesn’t often make this a regular practice, though. This publisher, like all of them, wants bestsellers on its lists of books. It’s published 46 New York Times bestsellers.

But a book with modest sales (think 300 books a month for a year) fits into the Skyhorse pedigree, too. That desire for a long run in backlist is important. Nonfiction titles — including some memoirs — dominate these lists of books the publisher still sells but doesn’t promote much anymore. Think yoga books, think a memoir of how a couple lives with only Victorian housing, clothes and the like — these things sell forever if they’re done well.

How could you not be curious about a publisher whose company was named after an editor from its own ranks? Nonfiction is the heartland of what they’re looking for today. Here’s something else that’s novel: the publisher takes on submissions that are un-agented. You need to submit a proposal, like all nonfiction submissions require these days.

  • Sports (Team and Individual)
  • Outdoor Sport (Hunting, Fishing, and Camping)
  • Adventure and Travel
  • Health and Fitness
  • House and Home
  • History
  • Humor
  • Military History
  • Business
  • Games and Gambling
  • Horses
  • Pets and Animals
  • Nature and Science
  • Food and Wine
  • Aviation
  • True Crime
  • Current Events

Skyhorse needs to see one of the following sections in the subject line when you submit your materials.

  1. Outdoor & Sports
  2. Fiction & Literary Non-fiction
  3. Children’s
  4. Cooking & Lifestyle
  5. Politics, History, & General Non-fiction
  6. Racehorse (highly trending topics; e.g. adult coloring books)

Memoir and therapy and you

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Memoir is all about you. Writing one is, anyway. In the process of creating these stories about your history, you’ll uncover aspects of yourself. Not pretty, some of these will be—if you’re lucky, and fortunate enough to be brave about telling on yourself.

dog-therapyOne of the universal cautions about writing memoir is the role of therapy in creating it. Endless introspection isn’t attractive. There’s a saying in the movies when a stage play is brought to the screen. The tactic is to “open it up.” Parts of The Odd Couple got exterior settings in the film, for example. Opening up a memoir means letting other people into the story and being aware of their emotions. Not just your own.

That being said, memoir writing is the most personal storytelling you will do. You have the potential to examine what happened in your past and put things into the spotlight that were shadowy. Memoirs can also identify the habits and beliefs you didn’t understand, even as you practiced and followed them. One great resource to lead you is Writing Life Stories, by the novelist Bill Roorbach and therapist Kristen Keckler.

Are you narcissistic, or bipolar? I’m a bit of both, habits that can rob you of joy and love, and also get you published and elected. Own what you are and use it. If you put enough work into a memoir, you can understand your conditions and disorders with a bighearted love and compassion. Now go tell some secrets.

Memoir disclaimers might involve murder

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elegy-coverIn the workshops I run for memoirists the question comes up often. How close must I stay to the facts while I tell my story? The answer varies from one memoirist to the next. Dave Eggars (A Heartbreaking Story of Staggering Genius) veers close to fiction. He invents dialogue that he doesn’t remember and built composite characters to represent people from his life.

On the other end of the scale is Lee Gutkind. He’s the father of creative nonfiction and says nothing should ever go onto the page that you cannot document. You Can’t Make This Stuff Up is one of his seminal craft books.

A Top 10 memoir for 2016, J.D. Vance’s A Hillbilly Elegy walks closer to the documentation line. It also includes this report of how he built his story of memories. While he admits he’s changed names (who doesn’t in their memoir?) he adds

This story is, to the best of my recollection, a fully accurate portrait of the world I’ve witnessed. Where possible, I corroborated the details with documentation—report cards, handwritten letters, note on photographs—but I am sure this story is as fallible as any human memory.

He goes on to report how he gave his sister a draft and they talked for 30 minutes about how he’d misplaced an event chronologically. “I left my version in,” he adds, “not because I suspect my sister’s memory is faulty (in fact, I imagine hers is better than mine) but because I think there is something to learn in how I’ve organized the events in my own mind.”

Vance’s book acknowledges he is biased and notes that some family members have attempted homicide, “and a few were successful.” You’ll want to get the details essentially correct about people who see murder as a reasonable response. But I also heard from a writer at the Texas Book Festival whose memoir was full of criminals from the author’s life before prison. “They complained when I left them out of the book,” he said, “and I told them, ‘I’ll get you in the next one.’ ”

Do your best to remember. Don’t leave something important out of your memoirs because you can’t recall it completely. The larger truth is what we hope to witness while we read memoirs.

There should be trouble in those memoir pages

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The memoir is a surprising way of feeling good about things that are bad. Child abuse, alcoholism, bipolar rages — these topics sit in the souls of writers around my memoir workshop table. Nobody wants to linger much in a story full of sentiment and happiness. Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Tolstoy was explaining in Anna Karenina why you have plenty of material for stories if you’ve had a family. You just need to know what’s important to include

Do a Google search on “feel good memoir” and the results include a page from NPR, lauding “memoirs written with heart.” There’s trouble in every one. A tsunami, a student who bullies a teacher with online stalking, war in Sarajevo, a fatal brain tumor in an infant: there’s trouble in every book on the page. When your identical twin dies in a terrible act of violence, the story does not lie in the violence, or even the way you adored her before death. The story is in the redemption and renovation you pursued after the trouble. Every misstep along your path is trouble that follows the trouble.

A friend once said the compelling storyline we all crave is as simple as two lines

Man falls into hole
Man climbs out of hole


In Marion Roach Smith’s excellent memoir guide, The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing & Life“>The Memoir Project, she reports about her usual assignment to her students: 750 word essays. But she hears from students they plan to write about “gender.” Or maybe “my great-grandmother.” Uh-oh, she says, “Those proposed topics must be shrunk, or the writer… will have failed to wrestle onto the page a monster of unmanageable heft.”

Big topics become personal when we look for moments of discomfort we endured. Okay, she says, so Grandmother’s recipes for cookies and the smell of her hands never became a part of your life, because “she was a drunk,” like one writer told Smith.  Okay, there’s a story there about what you did not have, and how you overcame that.

When you went home with your college roommate for Christmas and her whole blond family moored itself about the granite island in the Greenwich, Connecticut kitchen to ice the holiday cupcakes, just many of them did you cram into your mouth, trying to full up that gaping hole in your heart?

Not-having leads to yearning. The pursuit of peace, of the tradition of cupcake-icing, is your climbing out of the hole. Being in the hole is trouble. There is room for sentimental memories in memoir, but only if they help us experience the climbing-out part of your memoir.

Getting a Strong Start on Your Memoir

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pumping iron therapyMy advice to the writers in the Workshops I run is to find a half hour in the morning, before your day gets upon you, to write. It’s one of the best creative times of the day — because you can carry forward your subconscious dream work into the writing. Plus, the interruptions of the day that can pull you off your creating haven’t surfaced yet.

— How to start if you have not begun? Think about this: What is the question you are trying to answer with your memoir? The question can change, and it usually will. My own memoir started with “How did I make that happy two weeks of baseball with Nicky? Where did my optimism emerge from?” It has evolved to “What lessons from my father changed my fatherhood route with my son? How did I change the rules for a perfect game?”

If you’re free-writing now, that’s good. Prompts that are helpful are “The story I want to tell is…” and “These are the things I remember. These are the things that I don’t remember.” Believe it or not, even the latter has a way of unearthing memories that make up a memoir.

— You always want to write a memoir from the perspective of I. It’s a story where you are the heroine or the hero. A lot of writing may emerge that uses “we” in family situations and scenarios. Let that unspool, yes. Then look at it again and see where you can experiment with sensory writing — the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touch — to bring you into the scene as the person experiencing it. Some family events and behavior have to be chronicled, yes. But don’t let yourself, the I, ever drift too far away from the writing.

It helps to know where you’ll go next, too. Write toward the white-hot. More

How to Start a Memoir

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WritingWellWilliam Zissner, a giant in the nonfiction writing world and the author of On Writing Well, gives us the most simple advice. From an essay of his in 2006, on the American Scholar website.

As for how to actually organize your memoir, my final advice is, again, think small. Tackle your life in easily manageable chunks. Don’t visualize the finished product, the grand edifice you have vowed to construct. That will only make you anxious.

Here’s what I suggest.

Go to your desk on Monday morning and write about some event that’s still vivid in your memory. What you write doesn’t have to be long—three pages, five pages—but it should have a beginning and an end. Put that episode in a folder and get on with your life. On Tuesday morning, do the same thing. Tuesday’s episode doesn’t have to be related to Monday’s episode. Take whatever memory comes calling; your subconscious mind, having been put to work, will start delivering your past.

Keep this up for two months, or three months, or six months. Don’t be impatient to start writing your “memoir,” the one you had in mind before you began. Then, one day, take all your entries out of their folder and spread them on the floor. (The floor is often a writer’s best friend.) Read them through and see what they tell you and what patterns emerge. They will tell you what your memoir is about and what it’s not about. They will tell you what’s primary and what’s secondary, what’s interesting and what’s not, what’s emotional, what’s important, what’s funny, what’s unusual, what’s worth pursing and expanding. You’ll begin to glimpse your story’s narrative shape and the road you want to take.

Then all you have to do is put the pieces together.

Of course, the “putting together” the late, great Zissner describes can be one of the most creative aspects of this project. But until you have pieces, you can only imagine what your memoir will say, or hear the voice that will be telling the tale. You must be patient and write awhile, to begin.

News Flashes from the Personal Essay World

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Winik “It doesn’t matter if it’s true — only if it works,” says Marion Winik, author of Telling, Then Comes Love and The Lunchbox Chronicles. From her 2000 seminar at the Writer’s League of Texas, Advice for Personal Essayists:

  • You will write great beginnings and endings. You just won’t write them first and last.
  • It doesn’t matter if it’s true — only if it works.
  • The more idiosyncratic and specific, the better
  • What an essay writer shares with fiction writers: storytelling
  • What an essay writer shares with poets: intimacy
  • What an essay writer shares with all writers: love of the language.

This week she’s been reading and signing Highs in the Low Fifties, How I Stumbled Through the Joys of Single Living — her ninth book — in Austin and San Antonio. Photo above from her inspiring, funny evening this week at BookPeople. She reads today at Bookwoman.

Winik’s writing is memoir. It’s told in the form of personal essays in her latest book. David Sedaris uses the same structure. While these writers are not considered in the same aspect as a Cheryl Strayed writing Wild, Winik and Sedaris are no less fearless, meaningful or intimate. They tie together memoir through stories which relate to an overall theme. Being single is a loving place to be in your life; that might be the way you’d see her latest book, written after a divorce and becoming mother to a third child in her forties. And then discovering Baltimore after the dazzle of years in Austin.

She’s definitely a memoir writer and essayist to study. We’ll be doing that this season as our Memoir Intensives start up in August.

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