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)
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Taking the Fight to the So-What Moment

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Few of us are famous. By definition, the word fame labels such people and things as well-known, and there are real limits on how much the world can know about somebody. If you’re like me and not famous, you can still have a memoir inside you, on your laptop, or in the pages of a favorite notebook, one that’s worthy of publication. You don’t even need to have experienced something as unique as cutting off your own arm to escape the wilderness. The key to getting your story into the world and creating a book is to do battle with the so-what moment. You do that battle with the fundamental tools of storytelling.

Writing&SellingYourMemoirSome of those tools help craft sentences and sections, and others serve to steer your story and reel in readers. Paula Balzer examines this in her book Writing and Selling Your Memoir. Some of the weapons to battle that moment — when a reader first sees yours is another story about a broken home, addiction, abuse, financial ruin, or infidelity — rely on the bedrock of voice and style. Your writing must emerge over so many words and drafts that you’re fluid in your voice: the writing that sounds like you and you alone. Everybody has memoir stories to tell, yes. But only you can tell the story in your voice.

Style is comprised of rules and choices, but staying consistent with your voice is a great start to honing in on style. A hair stylist makes a statement for you when you emerge from their salon. Your hair becomes an expressive, emotional element when it’s styled. Your writing makes the same leap when you write towards exuding style. Style has elements, in the classic Strunk & White textbook The Elements of Style. Like the individual cuts, curls, and colors of the salon, the grammar, punctuation, and choices of those elements make up writing style. Like the hairdo that makes us look, good style compels reading.

Reaching for style involves rewriting, the practice that gives you a go-to repertoire. No gerunds, for example. Short sentences, several of them, followed by one long one. The exquisite use of just the right word, although it’s one that’s rare as a just-minted coin in the reader’s hand. It’s the fadeaway jumper from Michael Jordan, says Ben Yagoda in The Sound on the Page, or John Coltrane’s use of the modal scale in jazz. Or leaving out the obvious, like Hemingway did, “and agressively omitting adjectives, metaphors, commas, and connecting words and phrases.”

Although a memoir’s experiences may not be unique, even that can work in your favor. If a story has a high relatability factor — many of us have grieved for someone we’ve have lost — it’s easier for our readers to connect with us. At their essence, stories of marital infidelity are really about betrayal. If you’ve never married, you can still relate to betrayal. And betrayal, and its aftermath, contributes to a universal theme. The little guy who fights the big Goliath of a company can bring down an unfair competitor. But how? Showing us exactly which moments contribute to a universal theme propels a story about a hike through the Appalachians to overcome doubt about abilities  (A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson) beyond that story’s so-what moment. It was just a hike, so what? It was also a discovery about how a hiker is made, or born. And we connected with the main characters early enough in the story to stay on the scene and watch whatever happened next.

In the big picture, the battle against the so-what moment is won or lost with effective writing. The elements are the same as for any kind of story, nonfiction or fiction. You need a good hook. Your story must rush to an engaging moment before the reader has a chance to ask that so-what question. That moment probably lives inside a scene I get to see as the reader. Many people have taken their kids on a two-week vacation in a car. The hook can be the quest for more than just pictures, souvenirs, and dog-eared programs. Those two weeks might be a way to find a proof of love, like a detective story. But only if that proof is elusive. I took a two-week road trip one summer across Midwest ballparks. But the perfect game was not the one I planned. Life is like that, if you’re lucky, and can stay out of your own way on the road.

“We just don’t automatically have the kind of mind-blowing material that results in the “tell me more” situation right off the bat,” Balzer says in her book. “That doesn’t mean we don’t have the material to write a fascinating memoir— it just means we have to battle the so-what moment using some of the other tools in our toolbox.”

The sharpest tool in that box is theme, but it’s also the most elusive. You can work a great deal of the way into a memoir, or any book, before you discover the story’s theme. This is the spine that Sydney Pollack described when he was telling the story of how he directed Out of Africa. “We spent about two years trying to find what I always call a spine or an armature of this piece. Sort of trying to distill the idea  down to one or two clear sentences that could be a guidepost,” he said. “What is it really about? We finally settled on possession. Freedom versus obligation. If I say I love you, what price am I expected to pay?” Out of Africa is based on Karen Blixen’s memoirs, by the way.

“Most best-selling memoirs, if you were to boil the story down to their core, probably have the same story as someone who lives down the street from you, or as someone who works in your office,” Balzer writes. The memoir writer has to mix many additional elements into their book to compel a reader to click the buy button for $12, or carry that paperback to the register. The elements must come from the craft of writing, especially style and voice.

 

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.

Changing the mood with word alerts

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Although William Zissner’s On Writing Well is subtitled “An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction,” the book has advice for all writers of prose. A section called “Bits and Pieces” offers Strunk & White-like summary counsel on writing’s brick and mortar: words and punctuations.

Within that chapter, however, there’s a subsection called “Mood Changers.” He covers the specific power of certain words to help readers keep up with your changing moodes. Zissner warns us, if you’re going to change the mood of the writing from one sentence to the next, then use a word to alert the reader. Zissner suggests these words, with a comment on each:

but
yet
however
nevertheless
thus
still
instead
therefore
meanwhile
later
today
now

Those last four can be especially important to writers of narrative. “Writers often change their time frame without remembering to tip their readers off,” Zissner says.

As his book is primarily a guide to nonfiction, Zissner also weighs in on his favorite kind: memoir. More on that on Monday, when I can compare what the Agents at the Writer’s League of Texas conference have to say about memoir in the post-James Frey era.

Being objective to observe the details

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Any writer who wants their prose to sparkle needs to bring details to the picture. A favorite article from my files points out that seeing without judging, objectivity, is just the sort of thing you can refine and practice from working in journalism.

I started in journalism. I’ve written nonfiction for more than 35 years, beginning with small town papers. I learned to stay detached from judging while I was telling a story’s details. Journalism just observes. The practice helped me see to picture things and places clearly. That favorite article comes from my deep files, a 29-year-old issue of the The Writer. Russell Working, the youngest winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award, was once a reporter on a daily paper.

Storytelling demands detail. The image, not the idea, is supreme. Great writers have the ability to focus their powers of observation, and to describe the images that contribute symbolically or aesthetically to the whole of their work.

Working goes on to cite details in Hemingway’s classic story A Clean, Well-Lighted Place. Hemingway cut his teeth on journalism. Working’s article praises this practice of detachment.

Such writing requires a kind of objectivity, an ability to detach yourself from your subject and simply observe. Writers are sometimes content to slog about in abstractions on character, rather than offering telling detail.

Working has published plenty of nonfiction, but he’s crafting short stories. Check out the beginning of his story “The Irish Martyr”. It’s part of his collection that won the Richard Sullivan Prize for Short Fiction.