This is why there are blogs for authors. Sometimes a careless comment from an entitled, successful vendor-author just shades good authors. Somebody's got to call BS.
(See how I used the verb "shade" there to go all current on the language? It means to diss, rag on, or denigrate. But I'm all woke about English. Dude.)
What's set me off this morning is a comment by the omnipresent Joanna Penn. She's everywhere these days, especially in my inbox. Being interviewed for a podcast produced by distributor Ingram Spark, Penn said writing a personal memoir was really unprofessional. Or maybe she meant getting it published, by whatever means necessary, was the mark of a non-pro.
The comment stung me because I'm in the last inning of writing a baseball memoir. And no, I don't look back on a career in a uniform. Almost 25 years ago I took my 11-year-old son Nicky on a two-week baseball trip. It was a divorced Dad's vacation dream and a way to discover if I had the stuff, as a pitcher would say, to stay in the fatherhood zone on my own. Stay in the zone better than my dad did, the fellow who killed himself before I was 21.
It's very personal. This may not be the kind of memoir Penn was yapping about during her 30 minutes with IngramSpark. She might've been talking about a book without a pro edit. Or one that hadn't been workshopped for years. Or one that didn't get pro advice on querying. Or one that won't be shopped to six hand-picked agents this month. (Don't blast a query to everyone. Unless you like tracking no-replies and rejections on a spreadsheet. Do your comparison and deals homework and get a subscription to Publisher's Marketplace. Sign up for Edelweiss+. Start taking a free email sub to Shelf Awareness Pro.)
I'm doing and did all of that and more for my book. Memoir is a tough sell, yes.
What's bugged me is that her advice sounds smug. She tells a story of her own transformation in her life's work, of being in business as a consultant before she turned to writing thrillers. While they're professional and acceptable books in their craft, art they are not. She's glad to say as much, if anyone would ask her about those books of hers which do not deliver publishing and writing advice.
I'll be fair here and let her own words represent her opinions.
I've heard people want to do their granddad's war diary or their personal memoir that they're not intending to be turned into a movie. Lots of products which will come back to you, but books that are not necessarily part of running a business. I guess what we're talking about is how to turn the creative side of being a writer and publishing a book into something more professional which, for me, kind of means you are thinking about the money. You are thinking about marketing and thinking about getting the book out there, which of course, you can get out there through IngramSpark.
The preceding testimonial was brought to you by IngramSpark. They won't create sales for your book. That's your job.
I believe Penn's strongest sellers are likely to be those nonfiction business books. She doesn't seem to acknowledge that she's writing that kind of nonfiction business book — actually a bush-load of them — while a memoirist is writing another kind of nonfiction. Memoir, she probably knows, relies on the stellar caliber of the writing to get sold. And published. And agented, to run the gauntlet backwards in the long journey of writing to selling your own books.
It helps to have a YouTube channel, a deep base of readers in place, or a television audience to get a memoir published.
There's no doubt that memoir is a tougher sell than a series of thrilling stories. What's really selling, it seems from the viewpoint of a guy who's got no access to her accounts, is her nonfiction. Publishing advice and process, instead of the novels, are at the top of her landing page. I own a sea of this kind of advice in book form, even one title she's sold. And sold and sold and sold, I'll bet.
Because if there's one thing this former business consultant can do very well, it's sell. She's allied with a deep bench of other advice-writers. Every time you go to buy advice in 2018 you learn she's got a partnership with whoever you've sought out. Oh, these advisors do love one another. There's always a discount out there for you on another product once you've already purchased one $497 video series or another.
These advice experts hawk and sell and trade upon the hopes of writers who want to be professional. Some of it helps. I've been a pro in publishing since before Joanna was out of grade school, and in the leeward side of my career I took on the delicious struggle of writing a personal story about those two weeks. (Here's a note: every memoir is a personal memoir. It's like saying a fictional novel, but now I'm splitting hairs on the language. And the caliber of the advice. )
So now I hear I should've been writing thrillers or something else, because who will buy a memoir, a personal memoir at that? The Penn picture has got a huge canvas. It is so big it includes a pair of books she co-wrote with her mum. Not personal memoir, but probably leaning harder toward personal dreams than professional endeavors.
I've learned a few things about the state of modern publishing, if you want to call it that, over my publishing career. 25 years of it was periodicals, but let's be honest: anything attached to a monetary transaction for written words is publishing. We ran a lot of paper across metal printing plates, an option that was the only one in 1993 or even 2001. Ebooks were a concept, like those cars we saw in auto shows that never would be seen on a street, so cool they were. Ebooks, the concept cars of the early 21st Century.
Now things are different and sometimes better. As authors we have tools to publish ourselves, software and social platforms that would only be dreams back in grade school days. Email, what a concept. It's crucial today. We also have advice outlets that are easier to access than 15 years of career experience working jobs. The professional kind of endeavor. Getting hired for those jobs wasn't easy, and they are few in number by now. The marketplace for publishing advice is rich. Did the thrillers rise up on their art, or their business merits? Nobody cares, and they shouldn't. A book sold is usually a good thing.
I think that's true so long as your advice about selling isn't tied to the third rail of "write the books that are like mine, and cast away your art. Be in business." That's what shading memoirs during a podcast amounts to, and right up in front of the broadcast, too. Ingram Spark is a strong resource because they ship printed books to bookstores. They don't sell for you. They deliver and print.
IngramSpark, of course, wants to stimulate you to write books you will sell. They need something to print and ship, after all.
Here's the thing — and I promise I won't make this post much longer. Whatever wisdom inside the writing business books which Joanna sells will be useful this month, this year, but for how long? It's a hamster wheel of work to keep those books accurate and up to date. It helps to have allies to sell them. There are so many publishing advice titles in her catalog. Maybe in time, the books will be updated by staff. You all love those thrillers written by departed authors, actually created by a fresh writer whose name is on the cover in much smaller type. Don't you?
Meanwhile, a personal memoir will be written once and savored the same in 2028 as it will be today. Without changes. Nobody's updating this grandpa's experiences. "Grandpa" is another kind of author that Penn needed to diss, but we don't have to go into that now. I published nonfiction for years, journalism, in the very lucrative computer business. Eventually started my own publication. We kept up and helped companies and now most of the writing sits in dusty closets or out in recycling dumpsters. The writing was a thing of the moment, like a can of motor oil or a spark plug.
Spark your creativity. Write your art. Be a professional and create a book proposal for your business plan to help sell whatever you write. See, you can sell out, no matter what your book is. And push away any advice that the story which calls you to create is unprofessional. I'd say being unprofessional is holding a writer back—although what I heard on Penn's podcast is only going hold back further sales of her books to me. I'm only one reader with a crabby blog, but at least I know that business and art can be allies.
If you've made it this far, congratulations. What do you believe about the kinds of books that can be professional?