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.

Know the difference between memoir, autobiography and biography: all about you


It’s rather simple, but people do get them confused. After you examine them, you’ll want to write a memoir. Because it’s the most dramatic tale, and so the most entertaining.

Memoir: A story written with the word I. As the author, you are the hero, the protagonist of this story. Everything that happens in it relates to you, and we should see that relationship. However, great memoirs are often about things other than the author. Out of Africa is about a coffee farm in Africa. My Life in France by Julia Child is as much about the character of postwar France and living the life of a US State Department employee’s bride, plus the rigors of publishing a first book. A memoir doesn’t contain everything that happened in your life—only selected events that relate to your theme. A theme like, “Even when you discover who they really are, how can you save your loved ones?”

Autobiography: A story all about you, but with everything that’s interesting included, in chronological order. Drama is important because we hear this tale in the voice of the I. But accuracy is even more important. Roger Ebert wrote a great book, My Life, before he died. But it was hailed as a memoir because not all the connecting pieces of Ebert’s life are in the book. They do all contribute to his theme, but it all had to be true. Autobiographies often appear as stories of the lives of celebrities, but are often ghost-written. We’re led to believe it’s the voice of the subject talking to us, but the ghosts are channeling that voice.

Biography: A complete examination and telling of the life of someone who is not the author. Covers all significant events of the person’s life, not just those related to a theme. Think reporting, with verve and style, at its best. The voice of the writer emerges here, just like in the last two forms. But at no point does the reader live the events in a biography as if they were their own. Not even an autobiography can do that — because it’s basically a self-biography.

Here’s some good news. Memoir demands drama, the very thing that drives people to read fiction. But a memoirist — or as I like to call them, memoiristas, because their writing should become daring — they work with what they’ve experienced or see first-hand. Not only what they remember exactly, however. Everything that anyone writes becomes a form of fiction as soon as you put it onto the page, or your laptop screen. It’s your story. Just because all the details are not there in a way you could prove doesn’t mean you cannot start. You begin with a disclaimer that your story will contain changes to character names, compressed events, even a warning that what you’ll read doesn’t portray actual events.

It’s this greater truth that a memoir is after, the understanding that leads to wisdom and the resounding bell of connection — that’s what drives us to read memoirs. Here’s the boxed disclaimer in front of the memoir Dry, by Augusten Burroughs.

Author’s note:

This memoir is based on my experiences over a 10-year period. Names have been changed, character combined, and events compressed. Certain episodes are imaginative re-creation, and those episodes are not intended to portray actual events.

That, dear writer, is license that a biographer, or even an autobiographer, cannot enjoy. So write the bigger truth of the story.

Writing as Your Self Help

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One of my groups at the Writer’s Workshop builds memoirs, and its members have been hard at work being vulnerable, fierce and flawed while they tell stories about themselves. It’s a challenging assignment to use creative nonfiction to write a memoir — these stories usually have pain and loss to go along with lessons and laughter.

self-helpThis kind of writing can help you help yourself. Yes, self-help, that phrase that’s been denigrated since it first appeared well over a decade ago. Of course, you still see Self Help on the bookshelf signs at Barnes & Noble or our local Bookpeople. But for some of our writers, finding self-help practice inside of a memoir group has been surprising.

It’s surprising to me to think that writing about yourself would not be helpful — or even the most rewarding result of creating a memoir. One of my early Workshop students recently expressed a common feeling: Writing is Hard. As we shared about this on her Facebook feed, a friend noted that the therapy of writing is one of the biggest prizes to be earned from the effort.

Writing is ultimately therapeutic – getting it clear on paper means getting it celar in your head, which means getting it clear in your heart sometimes.

So working on memoir, or any heartfelt writing, has the potential to be much more than comparison of narration vs. scene, or how to construct an elegant transition, or how many of your paragraphs get to be one-sentence grafs. (Tip: if there’s more than one single-sentence graf on your manuscript page, you may be undercutting every one of them after the first one. Sports columnists rely hard on the single-sentence paragraph. Even the prize-winning ones.)

The connection: The sports columns are creative non-fiction, just like a memoir. But the subject of memoirs is yourself and your heart, where the battles are conflicts between friends and family — so we want to read about struggles overcome, not just gamesmanship. Memoir is writing that will become therapeutic with enough practice and honesty. Making a memoir can produce self-help, with a gentle group to spread courage.

Time changes stories

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There may be times when stepping back for awhile from a story or novel can provide a deeper understanding of what is vital to the tale. Up on the Web site for the literary journal Glimmer Train, the writer Erica Johnson Debeljak talks about writing her memoir twice, 10 years apart, first as journalism and much later as a novelization.

An honest writer of either fiction or nonfiction has to admit that the treatment of characters and situations — what is left in and what is left out — ultimately serves the meaning of the work, and that meaning can change over time. In other words, there is content (lived experience, impressions, imagination) and there is form (genre, story shape, the flow of words and sentences on the page), and the process of a writer funneling content into form will virtually always produce a different product depending on perspective and what meaning is being pushed to the fore at any given time.

She goes on to say this isn’t a viewpoint that non-fiction writers will embrace easily. But she “made changes in chronology and cold hard facts” while creating the memoir Forbidden Bread, the second life of her story.

More than a few writers in our workshops have worked on fiction based in life experience, or even a novelized memoir. Letting time elapse between drafts might help you if you’re working on such a story.

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