Grandma’s Memoirs: A Self-Publishing Thought Experiment

When my grandmother was approaching 90, she decided it was time for her to write her memoirs. Why not? She had lived a full life, spanning nearly the entire twentieth century, from her girlhood in Europe during World War I, through immigration to the United States, all the way to the the end of the Cold War. She spent over a year writing passages by hand. Every holiday, my aunt would scoop up the pages and take them home to type them up. By the end they had a book-length manuscript they printed out and gave to everyone in the family for Christmas.

We were all thrilled, of course. It was a wonderful document of an eventful life, written by a woman we all loved and admired. Each of the ten or so copies in existence has a wonderful home.

My grandmother must have spent a few hundred hours on the writing. My aunt spent nearly as long typing the pages, creating a cover, photocopying pages, and putting it together in a spiral version. The point is this: these days, for not much more time than that, they could have made an e-book and a print-on-demand version. The book would not quite be professional, but it would be something between covers and would be an improvement on the version they were able to make.

And then what? My aunt could have sent a few links to my grandmother’s friends, especially those in the American town she had lived for most of her life and her relatives who still lived in Europe. All of those people were close, but they were distant enough from us that we wouldn’t think of printing out copies for them.  I could imagine that if this were happening now, though, we might have sent a few of them an email link to the Amazon page. Rose wrote a memoir; buy it if you’re interested. My guess is there would have been a dozen people or so who would have bought it that year. It would have made a nice Christmas gift.

And maybe it would have spread a little. Not because it had great literary merit – it was not, say, Angela’s Ashes and headed for bestsellerdom – but because it was well-done, heartfelt, and specific. People interested in that particular journey might have discovered it – maybe someone who traveled a similar path (or had a grandparent who did), or someone who turned down the chance to do so and had always wondered what life would be like. Worth $25 in a store? Maybe not. Worth three bucks for an e-version, or seven or eight for a paperback? Maybe.

Let’s say it wound up selling 100 copies in America and Europe, mostly to friends and extended family, and maybe to some others who have an interest in her origins, her profession, her trip to Ellis Island in a particular year, whatever. Maybe her local library buys a copy or two to keep on the shelf. Or let’s be wildly optimistic and say it sold four hundred – a couple hundred here, a couple hundred among her family members in Switzerland. (We’re still far below the threshold where any traditional publisher could possibly consider it worth printing. A book selling in those numbers would be terrible for them. A disaster. A fiasco. An embarrassment.)

But – stay with me – let’s say my Grandma clears, say, 500 dollars. Not a huge amount. But she spends a year or two hearing from friends who remembered her, or others who came across the book and want to reach out. Her network of friends and neighbors and acquaintances might have called up to marvel or reminisce. That would have been fun; she’d have enjoyed it. (Who am I kidding? She’d have been excited about the 500 bucks too.)

My point is that I think people who turn up their noses at self-publishing as a great exercise in self-deluded vanity – the woe-is-me-here-comes-the-slushpile crowd – are sort of missing the point.  One can participate in this new distribution model without making more than modest claims for one’s work. The author is not saying it’s better than what’s been selected for publishing by a New York firm. She’s saying she finished it, she’s proud of it, and she wants readers to check it out, if they choose to do so. She wants to make it available. So what?

Real publishers crave books with the reach and power of the sun; they can’t afford to sink their money into some author’s lowly handmade candle. But there’s a reason why we have both suns and candles in this world – it’s a big place, after all. And for every big-name author there are others like my grandmother, who admittedly can only lay claim to a small corner of the world –  but it’s her small corner, there’s room for a few guests, and a candle will do nicely to warm the place up, thank you very much.

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