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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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.

How to Hear Your Voice in Your Writing

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VoicesVoice is harder to teach than it seems. It’s about hearing yourself. That’s why the Amherst Writers methods I use in my workshops are so good for discovering your authentic voice. When you read your fresh writing out loud as we do, in a safe and supportive space, you can hear what rings true. You’ll hear the clear, un-compromised notes from deep in your heart.

Hearing your voice can give you confidence to create something like bathos: that juicy anticlimax when you go from the deep sentiment of your heartstrings to something plain, like the taste of sliced cheese. First the heart, then a simple sentence.

We work toward hearing the styles of our voices. There’s authentic Original Voice, the one we’re raised with and hear as it tells our childhood’s stories. Then there’s Natural Voice, used for our reports on our own life and the facts of our world. Finally there’s Costumed Voices, the ones we prepare for showing off the characters in our stories. Everybody speaks a little differently. Making these voices distinct is a skill worth polishing.

Why is that Original Voice so important? Once you can feel how much comfort your voice gives you, it becomes less painful to write out all of that suppressed trauma. Trust the words you remember from your childhood, Pat Schneider says in Writing Alone and With Others. Her Amherst method textbook has a chapter all its own devoted to voice. There’s a good book by Ben Yagoda, the Sound on the Page, that teaches about voice, too.

When you write about something you care about deeply, you are likely to choose your Original Voice. Use simple language, most of us will. The Original Voice transports us to a place where we can forget to be afraid. Abraham Verghese broke into the world of letters in 1994 with his memoir My Own Country, but he’s come to better known for Cutting for Stone, a novel starring a character with many qualities in common with the author.

In The Sound on the Page, Verghese was interviewed about voice and style and said this about writing nonfiction and memoir.

To me, finding voice is about confidence. I struggled when I first started writing nonfiction. I had to speak as myself. There had to be a sameness and a tameness to my voice. And I had to learn that this ione of the great advantages of nonficton: when something is true, you automatically have the reader’s interest, because we’re all inherently curious about things that really happened.

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.