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    Memoir and Family History as Stories Well Told

    A reader of the Ask the Book Doctor Blog recently asked, “What's the difference between narrative nonfiction and memoir?”


    It's an important question for family historians as well as memoirists.


    Bobbie Christmas, book editor, author of Write In Style (Union Square Publishing), and owner of Zebra Communications responded, “All memoirs [family histories] and biographies are considered narrative nonfiction...”


    For authors seeking contracts terminology is important. Slotting the book – the industry term for how to market the book and shelf it in the bookstore – is essential in pitching a book to an agent or publisher.


    For authors who are planning to self publish the term is not so critical, but what is important about what it says about what makes a good memoir or family history.


    The key word is narrative. Merriam – Webster online say it's “the representation in art of an event or story.” Too often memoirists and family historians see themselves as writing a historical record, or as just reporting the facts. As a historian myself, I would suggest that the narrative style of a writer like David McCulloch or Barbara Tuchman a generation earlier, who present history as a story is far more pleasing to readers than authors who employ a purely factual, academically reportorial style.


    Christmas advises, “Well-written memoirs [and family histories] include vignettes or scenes with beginnings, middles, and ends and include action, dialogue, narrative, settings, and other elements of fiction to make readers feel as though they are watching the story unfold.”


    The family historian who tells the stories that lie behind the facts of pedigree charts and GEDCOM files can draw readers into her account. That's why genealogy research should always be accompanied by the search for family stories to bring ancestors to life. It's also why we often advocate employing the techniques of creative non-fiction to make tell those stories more vividly.



    Get Your Book into Print in 2011

    Happy New Year!


    I have a suggestion for a New Year's Resolution for anyone thinking about getting a family history book or memoir published this year. Set a date to get it finished.

    We've just finished the holidays. In the couple of months leading up to Christmas and Hanukah we've talked to too many people who have said, “I'd like to get my book done to give as holiday gifts.” Unfortunately, we've had to tell some of them that they didn't have enough time to get it finished.


    So if you want to have a book in print for next holiday season, plan now for what you'll need to do to get it finished. Work backwards from the finished product creating a timeline for all of the various steps: completing the draft of your manuscript, choosing photos and illustrations and getting them scanned, getting the draft edited and revised, designing the cover, laying out the pages, choosing a publisher, getting the manuscript shipped off to the printer and printing it. Will you need help with any of these steps? If so, decide who you want to help you and get them scheduled.


    A caution to family historians – when you begin working on a book recognize that you are dealing with a product not a process. Doing family history is a process. Research is ongoing. You'll probably be doing research for the rest of your life. But a book is an end in itself. Recognize that your research won't be finished. Your book will be based on what you know now. If you are going to get your book into print, you've got to be willing to say, “I am ready to publish what I know at this point.” If later research gives you new information or insights, great. Publish a second edition of your book. If you think about your research and realize that you have things you won't have ready in time to publish, limit what you will include in your book to what you know. When you finish the research you still haven't done, write a second book.


    It will all be worth it. We had a number of clients who did complete their books for this holiday season. Seeing their happiness, excitement and pride was really wonderful.


    So if you want to create a book, make your New Year's Resolution to get it done for the 2011 holiday season.


    Best wishes. Have a great 2011!



    Finding an Editor For Your Memoir or Family History

    For the first time writer, working with an editor can be a daunting task. The Northwest Independent Editors Guild offers a good list of Tips on Working with an Editor.  


    When you begin seeking an editor, contact potential candidates well in advance. Editors can be booked for several weeks out. (Having just helped a number of clients who were rushing to get books completed for Christmas, I can sympathize.) Recognize that many editors have projects they will need to wrap up before they get to yours.



    When you contact potential editors you should be prepared to discuss the following topics:

    • The subject matter and length of your book. (Some editors talk about the number of double spaced pages. We prefer to use the word count which eliminates variables like font size, margins, etc.)

    • The date by which you would like to have your project completed.

    • The level of editing you are seeking: developmental or content editing, substantive editing, line editing, copy editing, or proofreading. The Guild recommends reviewing A Guide to Common Rates for Editorial Services created by the Editorial Freelancers Association as you are considering the type of editing to seek.

    • Do you want the editor to mark up a hard copy or provide the feedback in digital form, as with MS Word "track changes"?

    • What are your style preferences? Chicago Style manual, AP Stylebook, MLA Style or the editor's in-house style

    When discussing the amount of editing you seek, you will want to consider:

    • Are you seeking light, moderate or heavy editing?

    • Do you want true editing or are you querying the editor about substantive problems with inconsistency of tone or character?

    • Do you want the editor to fact check questionable items or simply flag them for you to check?

    • Will you need help preparing the manuscript for publication?

    • Are there any specific problems you want the editor to watch for?

      The editor may ask to see a segment of your manuscript o help make decisions about some of the questions above. You in turn may want to see a sample of how the editor edits a segment of your manuscript. (This is one of the reasons we offer a low cost manuscript evaluation service.) You may also want to ask the editors you talk to for references, clients who can provide feedback on their experiences with the editor.


    When you have decided upon an editor you want to work with, he should provide you with a specific quote for the services you seek. If the quote is satisfactory, the editor should ask you to sign a specific agreement or contact covering the entire project.


    Click here to read the full post by the Northwest Independent Editors Guild


    Click here to read the Editorial Freelancers Association Guide to Common Rates for Editorial Services




    Paid Obituaries Will Be a Loss to Family Historians

    David Phillips, publisher of the Bluff County Newspaper Group, in Southern Minnesota, decried the nearly universal trend among newspapers to charge family members to place obituaries in the paper. It's an issue that should be of concern to genealogists and family historians as well.


    Phillips' concern is that payment for obituaries, or for placement of stories of any kind for that matter, blur the line between news and advertising. “It makes news a commodity to be sold, not information that a newspaper publishes because it is important to readers,” he says. “The content is dictated by the institution and the timing is dictated by finding the sponsors willing to pay for its publication.”


    That' certainly a valid concern for a publisher. When Phillips opened up the topic for discussion among members of the International Society of Weekly Newspapers a second issue emerged. Obituaries are an important part of the historical record of a community. Anyone who has attempted to research a person fro an earlier era whether a historical figure or a family member has undoubtedly found useful information in obituaries. When obits become a paid service of the newspaper they are less likely to appear, or at least less likely to be more than cursory death notices.


    An editor from Maryland wrote: 'Think about the community history that's lost because obits have become ads. Many people's lives have been boiled down to a name, age, hometown and date of funeral - two or three sentences tops. Why? Probably because these families don't have the money to capture their loved one's life. That's a sad delineation and a loss for history. If your paper insists on money for every obit, you'll actually be preventing the community from knowing anything about certain deaths. It will be creating, in effect, a separate system for people with money and those without.'"


    While newspapers attempt to cope with the myriad of problems threatening their very survival, it's nice to see publishers thinking about what might be lost as they try to generate enough revenue to try to keep their ships afloat.


    Researchers certainly know that if obituaries do disappear their task will become difficult in future years.


    Click here to read David Phillips full post



    Family Christmas Stories

    What better way could a family historian spend Christmas Eve than sharing family stories from holidays past?

    A website called My Merry offered its readers to participate in a forum titled My Best Christmas Stories by submitting their own holiday memories. From those submitted a collection of the 25 best was published on the site. There are stories of romance, humor, tragedy, faith and insight. The stories are wonderful and would be great to share with your family. Who knows, they might trigger some sharing of holiday memories among your around the Christmas tree.

    The Tucson Citizen online edition tells the story of a family that had that experience recapturing Grandma’s memories of Christmas 1920 in The Cole Family Christmas.

    Personally, I can’t think about stories of memories without recalling the poet Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales. It’s a great read, but it’s even better if you can get a recorded version of Thomas reading his story. What a voice!

    Best wishes for a wonderful Christmas for you and your family!

    Click here to visit

    Click here to visit the Tucson Citizen




    Judging Books By Their Covers

    If you love books, you might want to take a closer look at their covers.

    “Sometimes the cover of a book is as memorable as the book itself,” says Erin Moriarty of CBS News as she launches a segment of CBS Sunday Morning which explores the art of book covers.

    Jamie Rabb of Grand Central Publishing, told Moriarty, “Book covers are important. You go into a bookstore and what do you see? You see the covers. The book experience is about the design, the color, the shape, the feel. When you walk into a bookstore sure sometimes your overwhelmed, but aren’t you stimulated by the art?”

    The cover has a critical function. “It’s a billboard,” said Peter Mendelsund, of Alfred Knopf who designed the cover for the Stieg Larsson novel, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its two sequels. “You hope yours shouts the loudest or entices the most intriguing way."

    Originally intended simply to protect book, in the mid - 19th century covers became ornamental. Today, covers have become an important part of the books value. Michael Inman, Curator of Rare Books for the New York Public Library offered first editions of The Great Gatsby as an example. A copy purchased without a dust jacket might go for $10,000, but with its dust jacket the price jumps to $80,000.

    Says Chip Kidd, who designed the cover for Jurassic Park, “Covers are iconic because the books are iconic.”


    Click here to view the CBS video Judging Books by Their Covers



    A Conference For the Family Biographer

    I just ran across a conference I'd love to attend. The Compleat Biographer, a daylong event sponsored by the Biographers International Organization, is scheduled for May 21, 2011 at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. It sounds like a session that family historians might enjoy. The conference schedule offers sessions under four broad headings – Research, Writing, PR / Marketing, and Topics. I've already got my choices picked out. I'd attend “Dealing With Black Holes in Your Subject's Life,” the “Role of Fiction in Biography,” “Dealing With Copyright, Fair Use, and Estate: Tips and Trapdoors,” and “What You Need to Know About E-Books.” The organizers have set up opportunities to participate in research workshops preceding the conference at the Library of Congress and the National Archives.

    The National Press Club, Washington D.C.


    If you're looking for a last minute holiday gift for the biographer in your family, how about a ticket to D.C.?


    Click here to read more about The Compleat Biographer.



    Advice to the Family Historian: Listen Well This Holiday Season

    As many of us prepare for holiday get-togethers with relatives we don’t see frequently we have a great opportunity to gather family stories. But, in the hustle and bustle of the family gathering we have to make sure we’re really listening.  Here are a few thoughts that might help.

    Writer and editor Brenda Ueland, in a wonderful book, Tell Me More: On the Fine Art of Listening, called “… listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force.” She explained, “This is the reason: When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand. Ideas actually begin to grow within us and come to life. You know how if a person laughs at your jokes you become funnier and funnier, and if he does not, every tiny little joke in you weazens up and dies. Well, that is the principle of it. It makes people happy and free when they are listened to. And if you are a listener, it is the secret of having a good time in society (because everybody around you becomes lively and interesting), of comforting people, of doing them good.”

    What makes for good listening? Nancy Kline author of Time to Think: Listening to Ignite the Human Mind offers some simple suggestions:

    Adopt this attitude and general behavior as you listen:

    • Settle back
    • Keep your eyes on the eyes of the person as they speak
    • Cultivate fascination with what they will say next
    • Achieve a composure that is wildly dynamic
    • Do not interrupt
    • Trust that not uttering a word is one of the most effective things you can do
    • Know that your job is to help the person think for themself, not to think for them
    • Remember that the expression of feelings is often part of the thinking process
    • Be aware that much of what they say will be a result of your effect on them

    When we listen attentively, says Kline, “In the quiet presence of your attention, respect and ease, important things can happen for the person thinking. Fresh ideas can emerge; confusion can dissipate; painful feelings can subside; creativity can explode.”

    So, when you sit down with relatives this holiday season, listen well. I’ll bet you are rewarded with some great stories.



    Preserving Family Values With an Ethical Will

    Family historians and memoirists seeking to pass on stories of their life experiences have rediscovered an old tool. The ethical will, is designed to provide a statement of the author’s accumulated values, beliefs and life lessons.

    Originally described in the Talmud and the Bible, ethical wills have recently recommended by a diverse group of advocates. We agree with Scott Friedman and Alan Weinstein, writing for the American Bar Association who said, “A parent’s insight, knowledge and wisdom are the most important assets they can transfer to a child.”

    Contemporary ethical wills differ in one important way from their traditional counterpart. The historical prototype was meant to be delivered to a person’s family after his death. But now ethical wills are written and presented to family members while the author is still alive.

    Contemporary ethical wills, “...can be viewed as writing a love letter to your family,” said Barry Baines, the medical director of a Minneapolis hospice program and author of Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on paper.

    With extended families scattered across the country and even the globe, children don’t have the opportunity to hear the family stories that once were routinely repeated at grandma and grandpa’s dinner table. “Kids don’t grow up near their grandparents anymore,” said Karen Russell, founder of the non-profit National Grief Support Services. “Ethical wills are a way to have continuity when we don’t live with each other.”

    There are no rules for writing an ethical will. “Just make sure it comes from the heart,” says Baines. Some of the things which are often part of an ethical will include:

    • A statement of personal, religious or cultural values. This statement is often accompanied by examples of times when you did things to act on your values.
    • Words of praise for those who deserve it
    • An apology (if necessary)
    • A request for forgiveness (if necessary)
    • An offering of forgiveness (if necessary)
    • An honest attempt to settle and resolve unresolved issues and disputes
    • Words of wisdom. You might consider including things you have learned from both members of your family and from experience.
    • Something(s) you are grateful for
    • Your hopes for the future

    Be careful to avoid lecturing people. “There’s a temptation to try to criticize, cause guilt, or tell people how to behave,” says Rabbi Jack Reimer co-author of So That Your Values Live On: Ethical Wills and How to Prepare Them.

    Recently many people have expanded the idea of ethical wills to include family stories, history and formative or important personal experiences. The goal is to help future generations know the person who wrote the will and the world in which they lived. It is possible to make the elements of an ethical will a part of a Stories To Tell project.

    Whatever form your ethical will might take, the financial advisors known as The Motley Fool captured its potential value when they said, “Photos can fade and inheritances are eventually spent. But an ethical will can provide inspiration to generations to come.”



    Gather Stories of Ancestors With a Family Blog

    We are always on the lookout for ways to collect family stories. Anyone who has attended one of our workshops or seminars (or read this blog for that matter) knows that we believe stories are the key to writing an interesting family history book. But the best stories aren’t always easy to find and family members we ask to share those they know aren’t always as forthcoming as we might wish. Hence our interest in how to collect those illusive pieces of family lore.

    The high tech website Mashable recently described a story catching tool called Storify which will allow the user to,” Pull together content from social networks to create a cohesive story with tweets, posts, photos and videos that maintain their original functionality.” Interesting idea, but maybe not the one most family historians I know are looking for.

    A friend passed along a newspaper magazine insert, American Profile, which offered an idea that relies on a more traditional kind of social networking. Stephanie Vozza suggests creating a family blog. This is not necessarily the family history blog that most people in hot pursuit of a missing ancestor might think of. It’s not about gathering data or documenting facts. It’s about keeping in touch.

    A generation or two ago keeping in touch wasn’t an issue for most of us. Extended families often lived within relative close proximity to each other. People kept in touch over Sunday dinner at grandma’s house. But with relatives spread all over the map today conversations that were a matter of course don’t just happen anymore.

    Vozza describes the experience of Jayne Jaudon Ferrer of Greenville, South Carolina who started a blog to which she encouraged family members to submit. Many family members have, she says, contributing recipes, movie reviews and prayer requests. “It’s a wonderful and easy way to stay in touch with loved ones that we may not get to see in person for years at a time,” says Ferrer.

    What’s of interest to a family historian seeking to gather stories of ancestors was something Ferrer didn’t anticipate when she started her blog. People began conversations. They shared recollections. “We also post memories of relatives long gone,” says Ferrer, “big family gatherings that happened back when most of the original family members – our grandmother and her eight children were still alive, and family stories that have been passed on down.”

    The kinds of stories that might be shared on this kind of blog are exactly the ones that will bring ancestors to life in a family history book. Give it a try for your family.

    Click here to read Mashable “Use Social Media to Tell Interactive Stories

    Click here to read Stephanie Vozza’s article “Creating a Family Blog” in American Profile



    Illustrate Your Family History With Historical Photos

    Photographs and images of various sorts can bring family history books to life. Especially for younger readers growing up in a world of digital images pictures are increasingly important. Technological improvements in both offset and digital printing have made it both easier and cheaper to include photographs in a family history book. Why wouldn’t anyone use photos to illustrate their book? Simple, availability. People often tell us that they don’t have family photos to use in their books.

    When that’s the case historical photographs that document the time and place where ancestors lived can fill the void. Images can provide a historical context to help readers get a sense of the ancestors world and the events occurring around them.

    Where do you find those historical images? We’ll suggest three resources that will help link you to a variety of collections of photos and images.

    1.      Wikipedia “Public Domain Image Resources” stored on Wikimedia Common

    This site offers “... the largest free images only repository and it contains many public domain images.” It offers links to collections of historical images, books including Project Gutenberg and the Google Library Project, general photo collections and government files. The links connect you to over 3.5 million images.

    2. “Historic Photos & Photo Collections”

    The site helps you “discover thousands of free historic photos for use in your family history projects in these online collections of digitized historic photos and portraits.”

    It contains links to 30 image collections. I have used several including the Library of Congress American Memory Collection, the BYU Historical Photograph Collection, UC Berkeley California Heritage Collection and the San Francisco Public Library’s Photograph Collection. All of them are excellent.

    3.      University of Houston Digital History

    The site offers links to collections with images of topics including: Advertisements, African Americans, Architecture, Art Books and Pamphlet Images Canada, Civil War, Daguerreotypes, Ethnicity, Federal Government Images, Holocaust, Maps, Medicine, Music, Paintings, Photography, New deal, Political History, Portraits, Radicalism, Science and Technology, Slavery, Southwest, States, Trials and Court Cases, World War I, and World War II.

    If you are looking for images to illustrate a book it’s likely that one of these sites will guide you to them.



    Amazon: A Third Wave Rocks Publishers' Leaky Boat, Pt 3

    In the two previous blog posts we have examined how developments in the business of book publishing and sales have affected publishers and booksellers. Today let’s look at what it has meant for authors and readers.

    Amazon promises readers two things: access to more books than have ever been available to them, and personalized recommendations tailored to each individual.

    On the first score Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said, "We want to make every book available—the good, the bad and the ugly." With Bowker, the company charged with issuing ISBN numbers, estimating the now published annually at over one million there are plenty of all three.

    But the sheer volume of choices available to Amazon buyers has had something of a perverse impact on book buying. As Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice, explains, "When the choice set is larger, people tend to make worse choices. They choose on the basis of what's easiest to evaluate, rather than what's important to evaluate...the safe, highly marketed option usually comes out on top."

    As Colin Robinson, publisher of OR Books, explains in an article in The Nation, one of the reasons is the result of the algorithm Amazon uses for its personalized recommendations. He cites a comment by ex-Amazon editor James Marcus who said, “Personalization strikes me as a mixed blessing. While it gives people what they want—or what they think they want—it also engineers spontaneity out of the picture. The happy accident, the freakish discovery, ceases to exist. And that's a problem."

    Amazon’s algorithm doesn’t point readers toward that vast array of choices but toward a limited number of recommended choices. As Charlie Winton, CEO of Counterpoint Press says, "Shopping on Amazon is a directed experience—it works best when you know what you're looking for. But how does that help with, for instance, a first novel?”

    The other element of the algorithm that most readers are unaware of is that recommended titles may be based on paid promotions not juts purchase data.

    The impact of tactics at both big box retailers and Amazon are having an impact on authors as well. Consider a recent price war between Walmart and Amazon. They went head to head selling hardcover bestsellers by authors like Stephen King and John Grisham for $10. In the case of Kings thousand page plus Under the Dome that was a 75% discount off the publishers recommended price.

    The American Booksellers Association requested that the Department of Justice look into possible “predatory pricing.” The New York Time’s reported that Grisham’s agent, David Gernet said, “If readers come to believe that the value of a new book is $10, publishing as we know it is over. If you can buy Stephen King’s new novel or John Grisham’s Ford County, for $10, why would you buy a brilliant first novel for $25?” He might have noted that arbitrarily setting the price of ebooks at $9.99 might have a similar effect.

    Authors of somewhat more literary novels face a different impact. Publishers are less inclined to publish books that aren’t likely to be blockbusters. . "Look at books like Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies or Roberto Bolaño's Savage Detectives," says Paul Yamazaki, chief buyer at City Lights in San Francisco. "These are serious, sophisticated books that began life with modest expectations, but after dedicated work by the publisher and independent booksellers, they went on to reach wider audiences. This sort of publishing is under threat today."

    Finally, authors can expect smaller advances for books that are published. As Colin Robinson reported, “…a boss at Scribner, where I was a senior editor for two and a half years, announced at an editorial meeting that when it came to advances, ‘$50,000 is the new $100,000.’ Speaking with agents at this spring's London Book Fair, I found widespread corroboration that advances had indeed dropped precipitously.”

    Should we be concerned? American Booksellers Association warned, "If left unchecked...predatory pricing policies will devastate not only the book industry, but our collective ability to maintain a society where the widest range of ideas are always made available to the public."

    Click here to read Colin Robinson’s, “The Trouble with Amazon” in The Nation

    Click here to read Onesha Rouchoudhuri’s, “Books After Amazon” in The Boston Review


    Amazon: A Third Wave Rocks Publishers' Leaky Boat, Pt 2

    In the first post in this series, we examined the trends in the business of publishing and selling books over the last 40 years including the consolidation of publishing houses by a handful of conglomerates, the arrival and dominance of big box retail chains Borders and Barnes & Noble, and finally the growing market control exerted by Amazon. The result has been the elimination of over 2/3 of independent booksellers and many small to mid-sized independent publishers.

    Today, we’ll look at how the eBook and particularly Amazon’s dominance in the eBook market has accelerated those trends.

    To establish a market for its Kindle eBook reader Amazon set the price for all of the eBooks it would sell at $9.99. “Amazon’s handling of e-book pricing – and publishers’ response – will have perhaps the most far reaching effects on the industry,” said Onnesha Roychoudhuri in a recent Boston Review article.

    The price was set without consulting publishers. A large publishing house, selling a twenty-dollar hardcover book to a bookseller or Amazon at a 50% discount receives about $10. From that amount the publisher must pay about $3 in royalties to the author, printing costs of $2 or more, approximately $1.20 for distribution and $2 for marketing. That leaves the publisher $1.80 for the rest of its costs. “Ebooks reduce the cost of printing, binding and paper, but royalties tend to run higher and all other costs are largely unchanged,” reports Roychoudhuri. “Publishers account for these costs when they slap a cost on a book, so Amazon’s decision to set prices irrespective of them set off a wave of anxiety.

    Amazon tried to allay the fears of publishers by paying them the price they would have received on for a printed book. In essence, Amazon made the decision to take a loss on the book to assure market dominance for its Kindle.

    Publishers are concerned that Amazon’s willingness to pay the costs of its ebooks will not last forever. “There is no way they can continue to sell…at a loss,” says Johanna Vondeling, vice president of Berrett-Koehler, a san Francisco business book publisher. “Eventually they’re going to change their minds on this, and I think all publishers should be worried about what’s going to happen when they do. They are going to keep the ebook price where it is. They’re going to turn around and say to publishers, ‘Tough. All we’re going to pay you on is the split of $9.99.’”

    Amazon hasn’t succeeded in maintaining ebook prices exclusively at $9.99.

    John Sargent, CEO of Macmillan, whose imprints include Farrar, Straus, and Giroux; Henry Holt; Picador; and Times Books, attempted to negotiate a different ebook price, Amazon removed the buy button from all Macmillan titles. Sargent wrote a post on the Macmillian blog exposing Amazon’s tactics. Amazon backed down and announced that the publisher “has a monopoly over their own titles” and, therefore, could control pricing.

    Smaller publishers don’t expect to have the same success. Johnny Temple of Akashic Books said, “If we had a room full of lawyers, maybe we would be working with them and thinking about future terms. But we’re just trying to stay in business.”

    “The conceit is that the market demands the $9.99 price tag,” says Roychoudhuri. “But in the case of ebooks Amazon is the market.”

    However, the market may be changing. The introduction of the Apple iPad was accompanied by an agreement between Apple and publishers that allowed publishers to set prices for their titles over a range beginning at $9.99.

    Today, Google announced its entry into the ebook market. A post on the Google blog said that the Google eBooks Web Reader available from the Google eBookstore. The Google ebooks will run on laptops, netbooks, tablets, smartphones and e-readers including applications for Apple and Android devices. (But notably not the Kindle.) Books can be store in online accounts and accessed as one might log into a gmail account.

    What the entry of these new players into the ebook market may mean remains to be seen.

    In our next post we’ll look at how changes in book publishing and distribution have affected readers like you and me.

    Click here to read Onnesha Roychoudhuri’s article “Books After Amazon” in the Boston Review.

    Click here to read the Wall Street Journal’s article “Apple in Talks With Publishers”

    Click here to read Google's blog post, "Discover more than 3 million Google eBooks from your choice of booksellers and devices"



    Amazon: A Third Wave Rocks Publishers’ Leaky Boat Pt. 1

    It’s no secret that book publishers have had a tough time keeping their ships afloat over the past three decades. A good way to look at why is the lens provided by a question in Onnesha Roychoudhuri’s recent article in The Boston Review. He asks, “What happens when an industry concerned with the production of culture is beholden to a company with the sole goal of underselling competitors?”

    Historically - or at least in the early 1970s – publishers looked for the best writers they could find, published their work, and left it to independent publishers to sell their books. The local bookstores knew their clientele and chose books for their local markets. Staff recommendations at bookstores often helped books find an audience.

    The first wave of economic change to transform the industry hit in the 1970s-80s when traditional publishing houses were largely gobbled up by multinational conglomerates whose number one criteria for evaluating the publishers performance was their return on investment. Focus shifted to blockbuster books promoted to the hilt. New or mid-list books found it tougher to find a way into print.

    The second wave – mega chain book retailers Barnes & Noble and Borders – washed over the industry in the late 80s. The result was the disappearance of independent bookstores. In the early 90s there were over 6,000. Today there are 2,200.

    The big box bookstores grew by demanding and getting preferential pricing from publishers. Independent booksellers customarily bought at a 40% discount off the publisher’s price. Chains got a 48% “volume” discount. The independent bookseller’s trade group the American Bookseller’s Association filed two lawsuits against the discriminatory discounts. Both were settled out of court.

    The big box retailers then went after the publishers with demands for co-operative advertising fees, usually referred to as co-op. These fees bought preferential store placement, provided special in-store discounts on selected titles, and amounted to 4% of publishers’ net revenues.

    The retailers began to dictate content. Roychoudhuri reported that, “One editor at a major publishing house, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity for fear of employer sanctions, told me that agents of Barnes & Noble, Borders, and Target are frequent participants in meetings about potential books. Without their buy-in, the publisher is unlikely to go forward with a book.”

    When the third wave became visible, in the form of in 1994, there seemed some cause for optimism. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos said, "We want to make every book available—the good, the bad and the ugly."

    However, Amazon has merely accelerated some trends that were initiated by the big boxes. It has pushed the discounts at which it purchases from publishers to 52-55%, while even the chains get only a 50% discount.

    Publishers Weekly in 2004 reported that Amazon demanded that publishers pay higher co-op rates. If they didn’t they faced “…Amazon not selling their books at a discount and not having their titles ‘surface’ in various merchandizing and advertising programs.” When publishers resisted they found books “de-listed” meaning they could no longer be found on Amazon. Others found the “buy” button removed from their books’ listings. Charlie Winton, CEO of Counterpoint Press called it “a discount grab in the guise of getting co-op.”

    Roychoudhuri reported that most publishers refused to speak on the record about Amazon’s strong arm tactics.

    Jeffrey Lependorf, Executive Director of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses and of Small Press Distribution said: “I think even people at Amazon would say that it’s essentially a widget seller that happens to have begun by focusing on books. Many people, like me, will say you can’t sell a book the same way you sell a can of soup.”

    In upcoming blog posts we’ll look at what the e-book, particularly Amazon’s Kindle, will do to the trends already in motion and what those trends may mean for readers like you and me.

    Click here to read Onnesha Roychoudhuri’s article “Books After Amazon” in the November / December 2010 Boston Review.

    Click here to read Colin Robinson’s article The Trouble with Amazon” in The Nation, August 2, 2010



    Bring Facts to Life in Family History

    Authenticity and truth are topics that frequently surface in our workshops and conversations with people working on family history books. As they talk about family stories they may comment, “Of course I’m not sure if it’s completely true,” or “I can’t really prove that.” As a consequence they shy away from including interesting and colorful stories in their books. That’s unfortunate. It’s also understandable as we are bombarded by a steady stream of “false memoirs.”

    A memoir hoax is back in the news. Court House News Service reported that “A publishing company can sue a Belgian woman who wrote a bogus memoir about surviving the Holocaust and later won millions of dollars from the publishing company, the Massachusetts Court of Appeals ruled.”

    The book, Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years, by Misha Defonseca was initially unmasked as a falsehood in 2008.

    Blake Eskin summarized the book in Slate. He wrote, “Published in 1997, Misha is about a Jewish girl from Brussels who walked across Europe by herself during World War II and spent months living in the forest…Even if you forget for a moment that Defonseca has two prolonged encounters with wolves in war-torn Europe, her story strains credulity: She walks from Belgium to Ukraine, sneaks into and out of the Warsaw Ghetto, and stabs to death a Nazi rapist who attacks her—all between ages 7 and 11.”

    Misha sold only about 5,000 copies in the United States. Disney had an option on the film rights but let it lapse. Oprah taped a segment with the author at a wolf preserve, but it never aired.

    However, in France and Italy, the memoir sold more than 30,000 copies. French-Jewish filmmaker Véra Belmont made a feature film Survivre Avec les Loups, based on the memoir.

    On the eve of the book’s exposure by the Brussels newspaper Le Soir as a fabrication Defonseca released a statement through her lawyer, "I told myself a life, another life. I apologize.” She said, the book "is not actual reality, but was my reality, my way of surviving."

    [Note to the genealogists among us: It was genealogical research that proved that Defonseca’s story was untrue.]

    What Defonseca and other “false memoirists” like James Frey did is fraudulent. They made up the whole thing. If their book had been shelved in the fiction section it would have been fine.

    That’s a long way from a family historian using techniques borrowed from fiction to make a book more interesting. The family historian has a factual framework generated by his research which lays out the detailed records of ancestors’ lives. Bringing those ancestors to life by researching the historical context of the time and place they lived to help readers understand their experiences is a very legitimate way to help sharpen the story you are telling. Weaving family lore and stories passed down through the generations helps to create a more lively portrait of your ancestors. Looking at the factual record in an imaginative way to explore possible emotions, motivations or even dialogue which might have accompanied documented events are all valid tools to help characterize real people.

    Family historians shouldn’t hesitate to make their books as colorful as they can by employing a variety of literary techniques. They have nothing to worry about regarding being truthful because their factual research is the framework for the entire book.

    Click here to read Jeff Gorman’s article, Publisher Can Sue Over Holocaust Memoir Hoax

    Click here to read Blake Eskin’s story, Crying Wolf: Why did it take so long for a far-fetched Holocaust memoir to be debunked? in Slate