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This blog was featured on 07/18/2019
Overcoming Gatekeepers When Bringing a Memoir to Market
Contributor
Written by
She Writes
July 2019
Contributor
Written by
She Writes
July 2019

This guest post is by Christine Ristaino author of All the Silent Spaces: A Memoir. In her memoir, she details her experience with violence and trauma, a subject that most were too scared to bring to market. Discover her journey to publication and get to know the unfortunate side of publishing that can keep some must-read stories from reaching an audience.

My Story of Overcoming Violence, Inside and in Print:

When the Marketplace Prioritizes Profits Over Principle and How one Publisher Listened

I have written a book. It has all the salacious details of mystery, violence, a crime committed, transformation and resolution. Yet there’s one thing wrong with this book. It’s all true. And because of this, for the good part of ten years, publishers were terrified of it.

The Story

As a survivor of molestation, rape, and another, more recent act of violence, I have spent my life hiding my truth. This has cost me. For years it made me invisible, even to myself. There was a time when I didn’t know who I was. I couldn’t voice my opinions. I didn’t even know what they were.  My book is about this—what it took to leave the shadow of violence behind and finally figure out who I was.  I like this real me so much more than the nice girl I grew up as. Knowing my own truth, voicing what I think and believe, even if it’s controversial, has changed everything. Finally, I have a voice. What I think matters.

The Market

I have been writing my memoir for twelve years and since I began this project, I’ve been receiving similar responses from publishers and agents. In 2012, an agent emailed to say that my book is “an ambitious memoir, and in it you offer compelling meditations on race, profiling, and family. That said, we find that memoir is very difficult to sell in today’s marketplace, and yours was, unfortunately, a bit too unconventional in tone and structure for us to feel confident that we could find a trade publisher for it.”  This type of reply was far too common. Nobody wanted to tackle the messy issues of my past. They feared they wouldn’t sell.

Agents

When I did find an agent, publishers loved the writing, but couldn’t make a commitment to the topic. In 2015, a large commercial press wrote the following to my agent, “Something’s in the air, because I’ve seen a few proposals --  and well-done, as this is --  with similar themes about how to deal with violence and trauma in its wake, whom to accuse and how; how to forgive or not, how to go on after a rape or other attack.  Women especially seem to be searching for answers and some new formula… a challenge to figure out a publishing plan for these projects – how to find a readership and compel them to these stories and questions; bottom line, sell books about it.  I have not felt a pull toward these topics when I have raised them with our marketing groups.  So, I feel that Ristaino and others are evolving toward something important, but not quite there yet, at least in terms of gathering in a large audience – at least in book form.” Perhaps this publisher was feeling the early tug of the MeToo movement before it had gained momentum. However, the pull from the publisher’s marketing group had a firmer hold. The press was unwilling to take a chance despite being on the cusp of change, not courageous enough to help women find the answers they were looking for around violence, unable to commit for fear of the bottom line.

Self-Publishing

My agent and I finally parted ways. In her final message to me she invited me to self-publish because, as she put it, “It’s really time to get the book out there and I think we’ve exhausted the options. I hate that people seem afraid of the difficulty of the topic. I have no doubt that there is an audience. And your writing is engaging and powerful!”

Yet the self-publishing house I signed with was just as cautious. They took me through the whole process of producing my book.  We had just completed the cover. It would only be a matter of weeks before I could hold my memoir in my hands and share it with the world. Then the publisher mandated I do exactly what survivors are asked to do all the time, disown my story. If I were to publish with them, I needed to use a pen name rather than my own. But there was no turning back for me. My experience with sexual assault, pretending it hadn’t happened, denying ownership of this experience again, was no longer an option in my life. The publisher broke the contract.

Voice

As a survivor of sexual assault, as a formerly invisible person, I’m angry when I’m ignored or passed over. In fact, again and again it is this scenario that angers me the most in my life. When I haven’t been seen or heard, my whole body feels it. My stomach tightens. My heart deflates. The emotional centers of my brain are filled with the rage of injustice. Before I began writing my book, I didn’t understand why this scenario in particular upset me. Now it’s obvious. When you are invisible, when even you have ignored your own voice and truth for so long, being heard is a matter of existing or not existing, agency or invisibility. It’s a matter of being alive or being dead inside. Self-preservation for me is all about getting my voice out there, and heard.

And when I look around, I see people just like me, people who have stories to tell about being rendered invisible, alongside those who are silencing us again and again in the name of profits, status quo, complacency, fear, or cowardice. Making money and being safe are often prioritized over tackling some of the most difficult topics in our society today.

According to Book agent Byrd Leavell as stated in the blog of Tucker Max, Co-founder of Book in a Box, “Publishers aren’t buying anything that doesn’t come with a built-in audience that will buy it. They don’t take risks anymore, they don’t gamble on authors, they only want sure things. I won’t even take an author out unless they have an audience they can guarantee 10k pre-sales to,” https://medium.com/startup-grind/the-book-publishing-landscape-is-a-mess-this-is-the-map-bcc850f234ac.

Publication

Fortunately, I am one of the lucky ones, shortly after my first publishing house dropped my book because I refused to take on a pen name, She Writes Press did accept my memoir and there were no restrictions. I was to publish my book as I had envisioned it, and take the chances I had been compelled to take.

Writing

The power of writing about my past, opening it up, all thorny, and finally looking at it, has been the most liberating experience of my life. The messiness of this process, combined with precious moments of clarity, is something anyone who has experienced sexual assault, trauma, or loss could benefit from hearing about, because it is life, true life, nothing to be ashamed of and finally, nothing to hide. And the process of getting to know myself has been similar to that of falling in love—delight, surprise, vulnerability, wholeness. Pealing away the layers of sorrow and loss has helped me to uncover my core. The courage to be me, sexual trauma and all, has changed everything. Being embraced by my publisher, being told my story can be shared as is, has been the ultimate step in liberation.

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Comments
  • Ann Hedreen

    Proud of you, Christine. Proud to be your She Writes sister. I too experienced many of those "beautiful writing, but topic too difficult" (my mother's young-onset Alzheimer's disease) rejections. May your book reach far and wide, smashing through those walls of silence!