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A literary memoir in a regional marketplace: Distilling and selling an Idea Nancy Baxter, Senior Editor Hawthorne Publishing

What makes a memoir that enters the marketplace, which will appeal to readers and be sold in bookstores and to libraries a success? We should clarify the definition of a memoir which is intended to be sold. It’s not the duplicated family memoir one does for children and grandchildren. It’s written and edited skillfully.  And, it’s also different from a biography, which is told by a third person writer, or a detailed autobiography, dealing with a full life. A memoir is a section of a life fixing its attention on a certain period or periods, possibly with one theme. It may summarize much of the rest of the person’s life but fixes on the one theme or time that will be important to readers.

So why would we care about this person’s life? There had better be a reason for people to pay anything from about $18 to $40 to read this book. Story! Something with some historical meaning or drama needs to make it readable and distinctive. Importance of the person or, better yet, the issue or time or happening to which the person was connected, will render it viable.

And in Indiana, we as a recognized state/ regional press know that it needs to be connected with the Hoosier state.

Lou Ellen Watts now lives in Franklin, Indiana, but she has recently written and published with us her story about growing up in pre-Civil Rights-era South Carolina, Alabama and Louisiana. Its title is Sleeping in Dixie’s Feather Bed: Growing Up White in the Segregated South.

Lou Ellen told her story of being a popular, young working-class girl whose life with her friends and activities fully occupied her growing-up years. All around her by the time she was in high school, the Civil Rights movement was awakening and coming to fruition. Lou Ellen tells of happenings that made her uncomfortable, still, in the midst of her teenaged life: the balcony at the local theatre where the “colored people” had to sit and sometimes threw down popcorn; a distressing incident with a bus driver who mistreated those in the back of the bus, a drive to see the remains of a burning cross and more. Her uncomfortable lack of focus on the rights of half of the society in which she grew up blew up in her face when she became a counselor in an integrated summer camp. That time changed her heart. She found she wanted to welcome all races in her life. Lou Ellen became a teacher and advocate for integration and equal rights. She believed in her 80s that her story of change in attitude and consciousness needed to be shared with others.

But how to sell such a book in the regional market? Such a book had never been exactly published or marketed in Indiana before. Indiana, the former home of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, was believed to have a hidden layer of prejudice beneath its declared tolerance. She hesitated about her own community. We at Hawthorne felt Indiana was ready for the biography of a southern belle who now regretted her family’s intolerance and wanted to talk about incidents which shouldn’t have happened. Our own experience is that Indiana has come a long way (not completely of course) toward outgrowing the intolerance of the Klan era. D. C. Stevenson, the grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, was preaching hatred of Catholics first and foremost and then Negroes in the 1920s. Thousands joined his Klan, partly because it had a social appeal. His own misconduct, the rape of a young woman on a train and her subsequent death in humiliation, caused a Noblesville jury to send him to prison for life. A jury in that town of southern immigrants found him guilty of murder. The Klan was broken up by Indiana officials themselves. We Hoosiers are not genetically or hopelessly intolerant and Lou Ellen’s book has shown that. How did we succeed in getting the first edition sold out and Lou Ellen on a book tour which saw many people coming up with their own stories about “growing through” cultural beliefs of an earlier time? Extensive publicity in both Indiana and the South?

Our campaigns are based on long experience with our state. We begin with the home community of the author. Sure of the importance of the story and the quality of the book, we have the author seek an opening venue where he/she can tell her story. We believe each story at Hawthorne, motto “The stories of good people told well,” has natural appeal to those who have had similar experiences in the state or region of their lives. Careful newspaper contacting of pertinent media outlets with electronic publicity kits and reviews on Amazon and other places puts the title in the public eye. Most of all, the story needs to sell itself. That’s why careful and long-term planning of the publishing goals and limits of a company like ours is important. We take books we know make valuable contributions, that will sell and will interest our people. Thus they sell themselves, once the news is out.

You can get Lou Ellen Watts’s book Sleeping in Dixie’s Feather Bed by clicking back to the website.