The How, the Why, and the Wherefore of Publishing My Dad’s Memoir
Coming up for air on the bumpy self-publishing road. Bumpy and dusty. I can finally see emerald towers glistening in the distance. I hold Émigré in my hands and think back over the journey, which started when my ninety-seven-year-old father passed away, entrusting me with his unpublished memoir. From 2000 to 2005, I contacted agents and publishing houses. My power query included a first paragraph indicating endorsement from none other than Dwight Macdonald’s wife Nancy, who financed politics, a lit mag popular in the 1940s:
When Paul Grabbe came to the United States in 1923, he made a number of crucial decisions including to remain true to himself, not to marry an heiress, and not to relinquish his integrity. In sorting through his papers, I came upon an explanation of why he decided to write a memoir:
“Ever so many people have urged me to write the story of my life. What do they find so interesting? Surely they’ve heard and read about better adventures than mine? So, it can’t be the outward events that fascinate but rather something that they reveal, perhaps the spirit in which they were undertaken. Why is that so important? The most convincing argument was made by Nancy Macdonald, wife of Dwight Macdonald, who said, ‘What is significant about your adventures is not that they are unique or that your handling of them is unique. On the contrary, you should take the position that others could do the same and hold on to certain values the same way. What you have to say is not just of historical interest but may point the way – a way – in this difficult world.’”
The agents, history specialists all, applauded the project – compelling or intriguing or meriting publication – and suggested contacting university presses myself. Indiana and Yale, which have strong Slavic Studies departments, declined. Grove/Atlantic called Émigré a “worthy project” but didn’t “see it working” for such a small house. Enough already. Basta! Give me a break. What to do next? First rule of self-publishing, remain positive. Don’t allow discouragement to cloud the view. The agents probably didn’t want to rep a dead man, and who could blame them? But I knew they were missing out on an important book.
Second, take any advice offered, ie. reduce size. I read through again and cut 20,000 words.
Third: find a catchy title. I discussed options with family. Come Hell or High Water: 95 Years in the Life of a Russian Count was one early idea. Mother suggested From Century to Century, 100 Years in the Life of a Russian-American Immigrant. Slowly the various concepts came together in my mind as Émigré, 95 Years in the Life of a Russian Count.
My life paused at this point while I home-cared Mom. In 2006, I decided to write about the experience. Fast forward a number of years, after Jane Dystel had given up on my home-care memoir. I was doing more writing by then, working on a novel, while perfecting my craft through courses at Grub. Suddenly it was 2014 and Émigré remained merely a file on my computer. This time I decided to take control. I hired Here Booky, Booky, Sue Williams’ new indie publishing service. Since photographs enhance a book, I invested in digital scanning. I requested a blurb from another Russian-American who happened to be on the New York Times Editorial Board. He read the PDF and saw the book’s promise. Armed with his heartfelt endorsement, I printed up promotional postcards and contacted Russian Studies scholars.
For the cover, I chose a photo of my father’s keys because they symbolized, to me, his yearning for Russia. Had a major publishing house produced the memoir, this choice would not have been mine to make.
Meanwhile, technically-challenged, I reached out to my son for “publishing” help. He got the paper book going on POD service. The ebook would follow.
Pricing proved a challenge. We settled on $19.99 for paper, $9.99 for electronic.
In bypassing traditional publishing, I will pocket a larger percentage than agented authors, but what really matters is satisfaction with the finished product. Émigré is awesome. The memoir is available from Porter Square Books, Harvard Bookstore, and Amazon.
Of course I’d have preferred to have a professional worry about the manuscript, but that was not to be. The experience taught me patience and perseverance pays off. As one acquisitions editor remarked a dozen years ago, “Your father was a remarkable man who lived an incredible life. His is a unique story that deserves to be told.” She was right. In Émigré, 95 Years in the Life of a Russian Count, Paul Grabbe manages to communicate a universal truth about the human spirit, important to remember as the anniversary of the Russian Revolution draws near.
Alexandra Grabbe is the author of Wellfleet, An Insider’s Guide to Cape Cod’s Trendiest Town and the editor of Émigré, 95 Years in the Life of a Russian Count. Her recent work has appeared in The Washington Post, Better After 50, Five on the Fifth, and The Gateway Review, and is forthcoming from The Offbeat. She is writing a novel.See other articles by Alexandra Grabbe