NOTES FROM A DYSLEXIC PUBLISHER - #2
When publishing books outside your company’s usual focus
—in this case, memoirs—make sure the writer knows it
Garden City Park, NY: Independent publishers have many reasons for bringing out the books they do. Most people never have an opportunity to see what’s behind the curtain. This is just one of the stories I thought I would share.
When I started in publishing, I specialized in non-fiction titles designed to provide self-help to readers in any number of subjects—from college textbooks to childbirth to health. I sought out highly qualified authors, and I made sure to understand the marketplaces—that is, where my company could sell these types of books. Being an independently owned publisher does allow you the opportunity to take chances now and then on some interesting project—as long as you and the author each don’t mind taking risks. Why does the author take a risk? Because, as I explain to some of my authors, if your publisher doesn’t already have the experience of publishing a title in a certain market, you’re probably better off finding another publisher who does. Still, every so often a project comes along that pulls you out of your comfort zone—even in spite of your advance warnings to the author. That’s pretty much how I started publishing memoirs at Square One.
In 2005, I got a call from one of my authors about a gentleman she had met who was interested in finding a publisher for his book. She explained that if it weren’t for him, the world famous 1969 Woodstock Festival might never have taken place. “Would you mind if he called you?” she asked. “Sure, why not?” I responded. The story had certainly gotten my attention, but it was more out of curiosity than actual publishing interest, A day or two later, I received a call from one Elliot Tiber. It turned out that at about age 32, Elliot had been made the President of the Chamber of Commerce of Bethel, New York. As such, he had the sole authority to issue valid public performance permits to groups that wanted to put on fairs, plays, and concerts. He then went on to tell me that his mother and father ran a motel near the Yasgur’s farm where the Woodstock festival was staged, and that the concert producers had used the motel to house many of the stagehands and performers. He had put together a manuscript, and asked if I would be interested in taking a look at it? I said yes.
A few days later, I received Tiber’s manuscript. What I got could have been great as a standup comedy routine, but it wasn’t exactly what I could see as a book about what had happened back during that Summer of ‘69. So I called him up and told him what I thought. Not having really published any memoirs before, I said he should really be looking for a bigger publisher that would be better equipped in how to sell his book. That was the beginning of many phone calls he would make, telling me how none of the larger houses wanted to publish his book. As we spoke, I would ask him questions about how he got to become the guy who issued licenses to concerts and fairs. As he began telling me about the various aspects of his life, I realized that there was so much more to his story. It really wasn’t as much about the Woodstock festival as it was about him, his parents, and the motel. He had a story, but it turned out he had neglected to put into his original manuscript.
I asked him if he could go back and rewrite the manuscript based upon the larger story at the center of his life back then; To my amazement, he said he could not. He had no problem writing comedic bits, but didn’t think that he could write about his own life outright. I told him to hang back, and to let me see what I could do. That’s when I called a friend of mine, New York Times bestselling author Tom Monte, and told him about Elliot and his story. I must have been a good storyteller because by the time I had finished, he said he was in. By early 2007, Taking Woodstock by Elliot Tiber with Tom Monte was released. Initially, the reviews were very good, but sales were slow. As a publisher, our relative lack of experience selling memoirs at Square One was probably showing. However, about six months later, we received a call from Oscar-winning movie director Ang Lee and his producing partner, James Schamus—they wanted to turn Elliot’s story into a movie. The fortieth anniversary of the Woodstock festival was scheduled for August 2009, and that’s when they wanted the movie to come out. Once we signed the agreement with Focus Features, we let the media know about Elliot’s story becoming the basis of Ang Lee’s next film—and from there, the book’s domestic and foreign sales took off like a shot. Not too bad, for a publishing house that didn’t really do memoirs.
Over the years, Elliot got over his reluctance to write about his life, and we brought out a prequel—Palm Trees on the Hudson—and his later life adventures in a sequel, After Woodstock—both of which won rave reviews and now comprise what we often refer to in-house as “The Tiber Trilogy.”
It has been some time since we released Elliot’s memoirs, and I hadn’t been looking for another memoir to publish—that is, until I had a rather interesting conversation with Fred Engh, the founder of the National Alliance for Youth Sports, and one of my authors whose books focused on improving sports for kids were ones that I had already published. This conversation took place last May—about three months after the New York State COVID-19 shutdown, and only a few days after George Floyd’s death. The country was beset by marches, all in protest of the horrific way that Floyd had been killed. Fred told me how he understood the pain that the Black community was going through. Since Fred is white, I didn’t quite understand what he meant and told him so. He said it was a long story. With the COVID-19 shutdown in place, though, I certainly had time to listen.
Fred told me it all began with his being accepted to Maryland State College in 1961. He was living in a trailer camp with his wife and their two children—and a third child on the way. By going to Maryland State, he could earn his degree in Physical Education and go on to become a PE teacher—something with a better future for them all. Interesting, but I wasn’t sure how this connected up with the Floyd protest marches. Fred then asked, “You know I’m white, right?” I said yes, and he proceeded to point out to me that Maryland State was an all-Black college, and he became their first-ever white student—an experience that had pretty much shaped the course of his life. It turned out that Fred had joined the college golf team in that year, he and his team mates won their state championship. The more he told me about his experiences of racism—particularly as he traveled around the state with his fellow Black team mates for golf matches—the more I knew that this was a timely story that could make a great book. And so this coming March, we will be releasing Matchsticks: An Education in Black and White by Fred Engh with Jann Seal. It’s a story about racism, friendship, and golf. What else can you ask for?
Am I taking on a risk for Square One by bringing out another memoir? Will my house experience a backlash by bringing out this unconventional yet resonant story of ’60s segregation in Maryland? Maybe. But one of the perks of being an indie publisher is the ability to bring out stories that you think are worth telling.
If you’re reading this, Ang, feel free to give me a call.
Rudy Shur, Publisher
Square One Publishers, Inc.
P.S. Here below is the link to all of our Bio/Memoir titles: