The commercial imperative – and the whole beauty of ignoring it

Day 1 – The story of the story – Mahreeb

Aspirant writers need to be realistic about the fantasy of  what ‘success’ looks like, in terms of money and fame, but there is another view that I think can sit with it: the beauty of writing and the whole messy, vulnerable, seeing-the-world-from-your-guts place where the act of writing deposits you.

Just to set the scene, I will use events that occurred just this past week. At the beginning of the week I receive an impassioned letter from a friend (I’ll call her Jane) working as a lawyer in Switzerland advocating not a case, but a manuscript. The document was written by a colleague of hers (we’ll call him Mahreeb) who started life as an Afghan refugee. It is a memoir – and she sent me his first chapter to give a sense of the writing, and asked for the low-down on publishing.

This advice she was needing – it was starting from scratch – and it reminded me how much in the dark you can be when you start on the writing journey. I mean, where do you start? Jane asked. Mahreeb had at first written the memoir as a way of healing the experience of being a child refugee, and ‘releasing the past’, as Jane explained. The first chapter attached to the email was harrowing and lovely at the same time.

Now most people in the hard publishing world would start to scoff at this point. Another memoir. Yes memoir is popular on the charts: Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming has sold over 10 million copies last count. But her situation is exceptional, as is her writing. Even the surface of her story is of interest to many people, and it has some deep and interesting insights at various other levels too (politics, being a professional woman/wife/mother, being the partner of someone famous, being in the spotlight almost every waking moment for years, thoughts about resilience and tenacity – whoa, who wouldn’t read it!).

And there are very sellable memoirs out there by people involved in some type of news drama or infamy, and importantly the ones that make their lives a salutary experience. For example funny/salutary like Fat, Forty and Fired by Nigel Marsh, or prurient/salutary like Educated by Tara Westover (Mormons gone crazy, and already 59 weeks on the best-seller list in the US), or motivational/self-help/salutary like Can’t Hurt Me by David Goggins (from dire poverty and abuse to acclaimed athlete and Navy Seal). And of course the brilliantly written Wild: a Journey from Lost to Found by Cheryl Strayed, and Eat Pray Love – so famous its title and meaning have become like new bits of currency in our language, and I don’t need to mention it is written by Elizabeth Gilbert. 

And then there are others that teeter on the edge of sellable: memoirs that people write for the benefit of their families, or their beliefs, or are told from an insider’s point of view on historically important times, written by people who are relatively unknown. The success of this last group depends greatly on the topicality of the subject and how well the book is written as a story as opposed to a ‘witness account’.

Below is the advice I sent – it really is starting from the basics – and it is knowledge that we have been able to piece together amongst us on the SelfPub team after a year or so of working with a small publisher. Even though we have all of us worked in journalism, magazines and newspapers, the book publishing industry is the innermost spiral of the innermost rung of the innermost circle of the writing world. Getting info is the equivalent of mastering secret handshakes, complex passwords, whispered codes in shady laneways, and the darkest of dark webs. Kidding. Almost.

I want to make this point –  Mahreeb did not want to make a million bucks and become a famous author when he started writing his memoir. He probably does not see himself as a career writer or storyteller professionally. But he wrote this thing. It would have been hard, it would have been lonely. When you write – and I don’t care what it is you write – you are exposing bits of yourself that usually never sees the light of day. It costs. And because it is written there is a need to see it read. Which is the other half of the equation, right? Something gets written, does it mean anything until someone else reads it. For some very very few authors,  it does not matter a hoot (I talk about some of them in a later blog). But for most it does. Its like being an actor who has rehearsed all their lines and ready to perform, with absolutely no audience.

In a way it does not matter what route for publishing Mahreeb chooses – and there are, these days, many. The writing of it has evidently brought about such a sense of value that he and his friends believe it should be made available for others to read. Hope, courage, optimism in the face of the most difficult shapes that life can take. Those are worth bringing to light. Maybe only a hundred people will read it, or maybe a million. But those who do read it – even if just a few – will have a story about the story. Like this blog is in fact. Me telling the story of his story. 

So my first counter-argument to the commercial imperative is – that some stories are not written by virtuoso storytellers, but the imperative to write them is beautiful and messy, and the attempt to bring that story to others, is honest, natural and courageous.


(Maria Issaris is an editor, journalist and writer working within publishing and community broadcasting.)

My Advice to Mahreeb:

Hey Jane

How are you! Thank you for the manuscript, and yes I agree that stories like Mahreeb’s are worth telling. I am reaching out to my contacts for further information that might help Mahreeb for his type of work, but here are some initial thoughts:

1. If Mahreeb is going to market the book to publishers/contacts it would help to provide: 

  • A Summary of the story and its genre- roughly 300 words
  • Length of the work – Number of words
  • Bio of the author – 300 words 
  • A Pitch – roughly 300 words
  • The manuscript in double space, 12 point

I know this is administrative but publishers usually ask for this and it gives a leg-up for the manuscript. 

2. Many publishers have a specialisation for certain genres or are focussing on certain genres for that year etc. I am trying to find out if there are any international publishers that specialise in memoir for you. But if you are famous or in the news, it is way more likely that a memoir will be picked up. 

3.  What is it Mahreeb wants to achieve in publishing? This can go in his pitch above. 

4. Mahreeb has many options for publishing – there are a plethora of small publishers and self-publishing platforms around if his aim is primarily to get his story into print. In common, most of these options will sell his book (digital and hard copy) on Amazon internationally, and GoodReads, and will print on demand for book sales. He can set up a website and sell his own books (not too hard, really). 

5. The difference between publishers is the degree to which they can push your book. That’s why an international large publisher is the first option because they have sway in book shops and your books will be marketed by their PR machine. These larger publishers will take the risk of absorbing all the costs for final edit, proofing, layout, design, printing, then marketing. However the royalties for the author are quite low (circa 10 percent of all sales). A small publisher is likely to charge for some  of the costs of layout, design, cover, final edit and first print run, but the royalties for the author would be far higher (up to 40% or so). 

6. Editing and editing. Most publishers will do a final edit for a manuscript – but they won’t do a deep edit to bring the document to publishing standard (unless it is one that they have commissioned.) Which is where professional editors come in. OK – I have read Mahreeb’s first chapter – and it is fluid, does not seem to need much of a fine edit (grammar, spelling, etc). But I dare say, given that the first chapter is over 14,000 words, that it would need a content edit (that is an edit that ensures the structure of the story makes sense, that it is apportioned into logical and effective chapters, so that the thrust of the story can emerge in its trueness according to what the author wants to achieve. There also needs to be a story arc signaled right from the beginning – something that tells the reader they want to read this, that it is compelling, it will make a difference to their understanding of the issues raised, and that makes this more than an ‘account’.) 

Costs for an edit of that sort vary – but I would go for someone who suits his temperament and will give him an all-up cost for the whole project. A lot depends on the number of words at hand.

To be honest – a memoir of this type should not be more than 60-80,000. 40,000 would be better. A wonderful autobiography someone can pick up and know they can read through and learn something new, broadens their understanding, gives them some meaningful messages. True. If it is way, way longer – it may need to be split into different volumes. 

My thoughts – if you can avoid the large self-publishing giants do so; they are expensive and are quite heavy to deal with (really big sales pitch that can intimidate the unwary). On the up-side they will do everything for you which is very tempting and convenient.

Try the large publishers, but please don’t be despondent if they don’t pick it up. Memoir is popular but a hard sell.  Searching out an appropriate small publisher may be the way to go.  

I know of one author who has produced a beautiful memoir (a Sydney Jewish woman who married an Egyptian Muslim and lived there for over a decade) – gorgeous, passionate writing describing her international courtship, her life in Alexandria, and what goes on behind the veil. She joined a workshop with a lawyer/writer specialising  in international human rights and may publish with her mentor, a small publisher, or self-publish if she cannot find a large publisher. However this publisher specialises in women’s stories. With this type of publisher – I am not sure of the contractual conditions or the degree to which you would need to pay for the suite of services associated with bringing a book to the printer, but I can find out. 

The publisher I work with (and please don’t think I am pushing this at all! Just giving an example because I actually know the math on this situation), specialises in memoir. She is an author of a biography of Krishnamurti and another on Christina Stead and the best editor I have ever come across, and she has this methodology. Once she accepts a manuscript (and she is selective) the author pays a fee that ensures the document is at publishable standard and more or less invests in the whole process: final proof and edit, layout, design, cover, first print run, posting up on Amazon, GoodReads, print-on-demand, sale on her website (Sydney School of Arts & Humanities), and will usually organise the launch at a bookshop which agrees to take the book – for example in Sydney this is often Ariel Books, an iconic indie bookshop. 

Upside is that she works really hard with the author – gets involved to ensure it is absolutely top quality before it goes to print. The royalties are high for the author. The personal encouragement and attention to detail is of real value.

However, she would likely insist that Mahreeb’s manuscript gets content-edited before entering the publishing stage above due to its relatively unstructured approach (or so I am gathering from the sample sent). 

Good luck Jane – and I will get back to you with any further info.