Help on Writing Your Peace Corps Memoir

Our RPCV Self-Publishing Guru, Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras, 1975-77), author of Peace Corps Experience: Write & Publish Your Memoir a How-To book published by iUniverse, has interviewed other Peace Corps writers about “how they did it” and given us a wealth of material here. Read on!

HIRE A PAID CONSULTANT?

Ninety percent of Peace Corps writers are self-published. There is an incredible array of companies that offer support services to self-publishing writers for a price. Paid consultants offer to edit, format, design and even market. Some of our own Peace Corps writers have commented on their experiences.

PLEASED TO USE THEM!

Will Lutwick (Fiji, 1968-70) author of Dodging Machetes: How I Survived Forbidden Love, Bad Behavior, and the Peace Corps in Fiji, a memoir published by Peace Corps Writers, utilizing CreateSpace services.will-lutwick

Developmental editor: I contracted a woman before signing with Peace Corps Writers. She did a very good job, particularly in encouraging me to use more dialogue and less narration.

Copy-editing: My package editor found a lot of grammar and style errors and always explained why she suggested a change. She followed The Chicago Manual of Style.

Cover design: My publisher offered five optional services at varying prices. One possible downside (and this is true of all their services) is you never actually speak with your designer; rather you talk with a member of your “Project Team.” They are very courteous and know their   process well, but I found they generally do not understand the author’s needs when there is a problem and then they talk to the specialists, not you, and they get back to you in writing or over the phone. But you never have to wait to speak with a member of the Project Team (during business hours). You fill out forms, which I generally prefer, because it’s more precise than verbal conversations and you have a record of what you asked for. The company did two separate cover designs based on my ideas and was always very cooperative and professional about changes I wanted.

Formatting: They made several errors but were generally efficient and accurate when fixing them. I was very pleased.

Production: It took ten months to go through the publishing process, way longer than expected. If you buy the less expensive, simpler options, it will take less time. Every time you change the cover, interior, or press release you usually lose another 2-3 weeks on that process.

Promotional press release:The first press release writer just didn’t get what my book was about so I got rid of him and CreateSpace cooperated. They eventually sent it to three thousand “markets” but it got very little response. They give you the names of the markets, but not the contact persons or their email addresses. There is some statistical analysis a week after the press release, but it wasn’t very helpful.

Promotional Kirkus Review:If you want one, you have to pay big, but my publisher offered a discount package, cheaper than going directly to Kirkus. It’s a big gamble-if they give you a negative review (and they don’t hesitate to do so) you will have totally wasted your money.

Kindle Conversion: This cost me $69. There were some hassles and they gave me conflicting instructions for how to best review their work. They did not begin working on the Kindle version until the print version was finalized.

Website: I built it myself using Hostgator as the web host and WordPress for the actual construction of pages and other structure. This was my first attempt.

A USEFUL TOOL-THE EDITOR

Starley Talbott Anderson (South Africa, 2001) author of Lasso the World, a Western Writer’s Tales of Folks Around the Globe, a memoir starley-talbottself-published by Plainstar Press.

I have both self-published and published with a main-stream publisher.  There are advantages to both ways of publishing.  There are many fabulous stories that would never be offered to the public unless they were self-published.

Editing:  I believe it is crucial to hire an editor for self-published work.  It does not have to be an expensive editor.  It can be a friend, but it needs to be a friend who knows what they are doing.  I traded work for my content editor on the above book.  I also paid a copy editor to do a final edit.

Cover design:  I had an idea for the cover, but Publishing Pro was able to put that idea together and produce a cover I approved.

FormattingPublishing Pro also helped design the interior format.  I used my own photographs for the illustrations.

ProductionPublishing Pro was in charge of the printing which was done in Denver, Colorado, taking around 60 days, including a final edit on the proofs.  The books were delivered to me by Publishing Pro and included in the cost of their services.

Promotion:  Promotion is mostly up to the author, whether self-published or with a regular publisher.  The two regular publishers I have had on four of my books do an initial promotion and place books in stores, but I find the follow-up to be limited.  For the most part I have arranged for book signings on my own.  I have also designed and presented power-point presentations to many groups.  I find belonging to a professional writer’s group also helps on promotion, and attending professional writer’s conferences is of benefit.

Summary:  I believe if we want to elevate the status of self-published work, we need to approach it from a professional standpoint.  Yes, an editor must be “hired” in some form or another.  I have read some wonderful self-published works, but at the end I usually lament, “if only the work had been edited.”  And, I’ve read some really awful works that have been published by main-stream publishers, and I also often wonder why they had not been edited more carefully.

TOO STINGY TO USE THEM!

Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras, 1975-77), author of Peace Corps Experience: Write & Publish Your Memoir,a How-To book published by iUniverseauthor

Since my boots are creased and worn, my work pants frayed and my wallet near empty, all of my self-published books involved no paid consultants other than a printer and a binder. During the past four years, I have used Print On Demand for five books, paying the bare minimum without consultants. My publisher automatically creates an e-book as part of the contract and markets my books on Amazon.com.

Editing: All ten of my published books and seven pamphlets can best be described as range cooking. After many drafts, I recruit a volunteer editing team which usually includes a half-dozen people, working together like a band of round-up cowboys herding in my bad grammar, poor spelling and awkward sentences. A published poet and a professional editor always appear as the range foremen. The poet is a great ideas man while the professional editor offers ideas and line editing. The others change from project to project and normally proof read.

Cover design: Before book submission, my chores also include cover design which is usually done with construction paper, photos, drawings and scribbles. Later, my professional editor buddy helps me to create my cover design electronically before we open our guitar cases and celebrate with cowboy music, most naturally.

Formatting: Each of my books has some sort of interior ornamentation and illustrations, all of my making like whittled hair pins for that gal back home. Likewise, I create the actual interior format and note printing instructions.

Production: At this point, I sign a fancy contract and send the book, cover and printing instructions electronically to my publisher. Technically, the actual printing crew includes paid consultants who work with me on the requested format. From contact-signing to delivery of a finished book took an average of 60 days.

Promotion: Once the book is complete, I handle all promotion including press releases and efforts to garner book reviews as explained in my How-To book. Since independent bookstores are now so rare and electronic marketing is so important, I use as many free on-line sources as possible. These remind me of the volunteer fire department- neighbors helping neighbors survive. Peace Corps Worldwide has offered some great suggestions over the past few years.

Volunteers improve my books and are always cited on the Title Page Verso. They also receive a free copy. My projects are paid consultant-lite. The market includes hundreds of companies all pandering. This was even true before the advent of the personal computer. One company offers to edit your book into a Pulitzer Prize winner. Another company will format your book as if it were a Nobel Prize winner. There are specialists in cover design and artsy-fartsy interior doo-dads. Some folks promise to set your book up for electronic sale. Others will write dozens of five star reviews and post them on the internet. One company guarantees to manipulate the on-line sales rankings. The best dressed companies claim that they will put you in touch with the right people and organizations who will buy your book sight unseen. Some of these services sound silly, others unethical and they almost always appeal to greed and pride like a carnival barker. Why bother? Save 100% and do it yourself.

TOO MUCH TO DO ALONE

Jane Albritton (India, 1967-69); series editor for the Peace Corps at 50 Story Project (4 book set), including Even the Smallest Crab Has Teeth: 50 Years of Amazing Peace Corps Stories-Volume 4, Asia and the Pacific, published by Traveler’s Talesalbritten-j-interview1

Many years ago, I worked for a disagreeable person with brilliant ideas on how to create powerful marketing materials for colleges and universities. For each project, she assembled a unique three-person team: a writer, an artist, and a marketer, which then boarded a little project skiff and sailed along from concept to conclusion. Together we tacked into the winds of deadlines and along the way learned how to talk to each other. Quite miraculously, we produced impossibly beautiful work. When it comes to the making of books, where you start to build a team depends upon your own inventory of skills and stamina, the time available and how much money you can scrape together. Choose carefully. Compatibility and trust make the journey fine.

Editing: That’s what I do, for students, clients, friends and family. So I was pretty sure that I could edit my book and back up the other three volunteer editors as needed. I will say that the task required every bit of skill I had honed over 40 years or so-and then some. The word daunting comes to mind.

Web and Cover Design: Most aspiring book creators will not need a website (but might want a boffo Facebook presence), but we did: both to receive stories from our contributors (who live all over the world) and to demonstrate our seriousness to the publishing establishment. I do not know squat about creating a website, didn’t have much money to hire someone, but did not want a rookie, either. I asked an old editor (turned marketer) friend if anyone in his company did side work. He did. A young artist not only created our site and story portal, but also went on to create our four covers, something he had never done before.  He worked for Peace Corps wages.

Formatting and Production:I had a production manager because we had a specific target date for publication. A long-time production director for Travelers’ Tales books (my model for this project) knew the travel anthology territory by heart. Her presence on the team (and belief in the project) ultimately gave Solas House/Travelers’ Tales the assurance they needed to publish our books. Her value to the project far exceeds the pay she received.

Promotion: One reason I was so keen on having a publisher for the Peace Corps story project is that I wanted someone else to be in charge of basic marketing and shipping. I do not have the zest required to take that on. Because Travelers’ Tales published our books, we were represented by a marketing firm. Our rep hated our original covers. So we scrapped them and started over, snarling and snapping. It was absolutely the right call. Book Masters handles distribution (and has saved me from storing boxes of books in the garage and having to fulfill orders myself).

Peace Corps Worldwide has been endlessly helpful in broadcasting news of this project to the Peace Corps community. But I knew from my years of reviewing books for the Dallas Morning News that paperbacks do not get reviewed. So I drove across the great American West to Sacramento to present our books for sale at the state fair. I have done readings at the several bookstores and even recruited two young actors to read stories from the collection in their young voices at a museum. I entered (for a fee) our books in the literary competitions (2 silvers!) and arranged for the books to be represented (for a fee) at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, the oldest book fair in the world.

RECENTLY HIRED A PROMOTER

Bryant Wieneke (Niger, 1974-76), author of several political suspense novels including Priority Onepublished by PeaceRose Publishingbryant-wieneke

In 2010, I established PeaceRose Publishing with my wife, Elvira Rose, who also sells crafts through our business.  I sell my books in person locally and online through our website, PeaceRosePublishing.com. This arrangement allows me to have complete control over every step in the production of my books.

Editing: I have a copy editor, a local consultant.

Cover design: I do my own cover art and author photos.

Formatting: I format my books using Microsoft Word.

Production: My primary paid consultant group is a book printing business, Mira Digital Publishing, in St. Louis. I send them the content for my books, including the text in Microsoft Word and the cover photo as a jpg file, and they put it together. They have charged me $7-$10 per item to produce paperback copies of my novels, for at least 50 copies. Of course, the price per item goes up as the length or complexity of the book increases. Recently, I have decided to produce electronic copies of my books, a process that will reduce the cost of production.

Promotion: I have a domain name, self-designed website, seller’s permit, PayPal account, bank account, and P.O. Box for PeaceRose Publishing. I have purchased and assigned ISBN numbers for all my books. I hired a consultant two months ago to begin the process of promoting and marketing my books using social media. I am asking everyone who reads this article to log onto Facebook and “like” my Bryant Wieneke author page. It is only through expanding circles of Facebook friends that I can get the word out about my writing.

I have never found a traditional publisher for my novels, but you know what? Maybe I don’t need one.

23 Comments

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  • I had a publisher for my first three novels, but decided to self-publish my memoir, TUBOB: Two Years in West Africa with the Peace Corps. I am so glad I did–I had complete control and I am pleased with the results. I went through Create Space and found them helpful. With the help of my husband. We did it the hard way and formatted it free of cost–you can also have them do all the formatting for a fee.

    Thank you for this information. I found it interesting reading.

    I served in The Gambia with my husband 1979-1981.

  • Thank you for sharing! It is an interesting footnote that so few Peace Corps Experience memoirs have been published by commercial firms. Years from now, these memoirs will form the spine of history. The poltical books are more like the fancy scarves, hats and bling- they just dress up the real stories from us foot soldiers of Peace, the good neighbors who took the time to learn a new language, roll up our sleeves and ask in the local tongue- How can I help?

  • I found this information so very helpful. But I have one request.
    How much money did you all have to put up front and how much
    of it did you recover with the sale of your books?

  • Good question Joey! Some folks never break even. I have been self-publishing since 1983 in various physical types of products as well as various printing modes. When I speak about “10 books published.” I am fibbing. There’s more. In the 1980’s I published two others which were so bad, I will never bother to reprint! A third has since been revised and included in my book of short stories titled “Whispering Campaign.” Since I earned a living as an urban planner for decades, I always considered this a hobby. Over 31 years of writing and publishing a total of 13 books and 7 pamphlets, my total outlay has been about $16,000 which I consider cheap. That’s $516 a year. Most men spend that much or more on an annual fishing or hunting trip. For the first books, I gave too many away to break even. Lately, I am much more stingy. While my 3 self-published books in 2007 and 2008 cost about $3,500 each to produce and promote, my 5 latest ones produced between 2009 and 2012 using P.O.D. have cost about $500 each on the average. Today, it is more of a numbers game. As is true in the commerical book publishing industry, short stories do not sell. I doubt that “Whispering Campaign,” although very well written, will ever break even. Of the other four recently P.O.D. published, the two works of non-fiction are selling the best. It is probable that I will break even and make a profit for the last five books but the most sales will likely be those non-ficiton works- the memoir, the PC history book and the recent how-to manual. However, I doubt that they will ever pay for a trip to Hawaii or even Denver with air fares going up.

    I have met very few self-publshing authors who make any kind of substantial profit. My advice to those who decide to write and self-publish is to keep your day job.

  • Thank you. I was trying to get an idea if I could ever afford to self-publish. Of course, there is the matter of actually writing a book!
    So much for retiring to Paris on the film rights!

  • Joey- For anyone who really wants to write a Peace Corps memoir but cringes at an outlay of cash, I suggest that they invest energy in research, writing and editing. Write the best book you can and search for help. Once it is done, photo-copy it double sided and go to a copy joint so that they can bind it with a spiral. Even using expensive paper, the per unit cost of a 200 page (8 1/2 X 11) book would be about $6.50. Make just enough copies for friends, relatives and a few libraries. Twenty-five copies would cost about $162.50. I spend more than that each month on cigarettes. My wife spends more than that each month on her phone bill!

  • This conversation reminds me of a Pablo Picasso quote: “When art critics get together they talk about Form and Structure and Meaning. When Artists get together they talk about where you can buy cheap turpentine.”

  • It’s surprising, but there really are not many, if any, good books which review and compare self-publishing services. So thanks to Lawrence Lihosit who put this article together and John Coyne for publishing it on PCW. It helps fill an important void. And I think it really applies to all book self-publishing, not just Peace Corps-related books.

    As for the promotional aspects, in my piece of the article about self-publishing “Dodging Machetes,” I only mentioned the promotional services (press release, Kirkus book review) that I purchased from CreateSpace and what services I used to construct my website. I would like to add that since “Dodging Machetes” was released in May I spend most of my waking hours promoting it, primarily via the web – on my Facebook and LinkedIn pages, on other social media sites, commenting on blogs and message boards, promoting for book reviews, entering awards contests, updating my website, posting to message boards, emailing everyone I know and some I don’t—and the list goes on and on. The choices are endless and it can be overwhelming trying to get one’s book some attention. But then something great and unexpected will happen. Like my upcoming 50-minute interview on L.A. Talk radio on 9/22/12, which came about because someone saw a blog comment I had posted.

    I also want to endorse what others above have said about raising the quality of self-published books. Writing books is a profession and it takes education and practice to do it well. Go through that before you write the book you want to publish.

    Good luck to all of you who pursue this dream. There are easier ways to make money, but it really pays back emotionally when you persist.

  • Joey: in my case I splurged because it was my first published book, I didn’t know the ropes like Lawrence does, and I wanted to give “Dodging Machetes” a good chance to reach a wide audience so I put a lot of $$$ into both the physical product and the quality of writing (i.e. copy and developmental editors). And the critics and readers love it.

    But it will take sales of about a thousand copies for me to break even on out-of-pocket expenses. I have heard that 80% of self-published books sell under 200 copies. So it’s unlikely I’ll break even, unless that Hollywood film contract I’m working on comes through. This of course does not include one’s personal time even at minimum wage. I have spent most of my time the past 3.5 years on this one book.

    Don’t quit your day job just yet.

  • Ooowee. Hopping into this conversation is a little like jumping into a game of Double Dutch and hoping not to stumble.

    First of all, our Peace Corps story project was never about making money (good thing), but about preserving the voices of those who participated in a unique grassroots peace initiative. I can’t (yet) say how the financial ledger balance will end up on the Peace Corps at 50 books. The tide is out (and receding still), but I expect it will come back in bearing gifts. Breaking even sounds wonderful.

    I can speak to the matter of editors and the part a good one plays in helping an author—amateur or professional—craft prose that is light, vivid and exact. (I poached those ideas from Italo Calvino: Six Memos for the MIllenium.)

    Once upon a time, every publishing house worth its salt had editors, not acquisition editors whose job it is to find publishable manuscripts or proof readers charged with eliminating typos, but editors who worked closely with writers and who kept them from (among other things) going on and on (you all know what I’m talking about).

    In those days, writers like John Steinbeck had editors like Pascal Covici who actively shepherded their work through the process of revision. Those author/editor bonds required trust and flexible imaginations.These days, publishing houses economize by outsourcing professional editing or skipping it altogether. It’s all about their profit. So it’s left to writers, even those with contracts, to care about the editing and revision and to find the person who believes in the story and will listen and help.

    Ironically, it may be that the rise of self-publishing will renew the dynamic relationship between a writer and an editor. When nothing is given, then anything is possible—even retiring to Paris! Voila!

  • In answer to costs related to self-publishing. My cost for “Lasso the World” was $5 per copy to Publishing Pro, and $100 flat-fee to copy editor. It has sold 900 copies and yes, I have made a small profit. The second self-published work cost me $12 per copy because it has color photos, and was printed in the U.S.A. It has sold 700 copies and I might break even. Those costs do not include promotional costs, including travel, meals, etc. However, the promotions and book signings are fun and a way to meet people. One never knows what might happen from those connections. I recently sat for four hours at a book signing and sold three books. One of them was the PC memoir “One Hand Does Not Catch a Buffalo.” The recipient plans to join the Peace Corps. Woo Hoo. (Starley Talbott)

  • It was at a Peace Corps event. I am thinking it was at the Peace Corps “Reunion” in Fort Collins in 2008. Does that sound plausible?

  • Joey, yes, I was at the Fort Collins event and was signing books. Hope you enjoy the book, and thanks again. If you wish further information on self-publishing I will be happy to try to help. Starley Talbott.

  • Lawrence, most of my copies of “Lasso the World” have been sold at book events…have sold around 20 copies on-line. The sales of that book were due to my presenting my power point presentation to dozens of groups, and to a mail campaign. I also gave away around 50 copies.

  • For anyone who is considering a Peace Corps memoir as a vehicle to riches and fame, it may be wise to explain that this is a niche market with very limited sales potential. The odds of making the National Football League at the age of 50 are probably better. Even the most successful of the Peace Corps memoirists probably earned less on their total sales than I did in one year, working as an urban planner (and my job also offered health benefits). I agree with Jane Albritton that the investment of time and money has to do with the overwhelming desire to share. I also agree with Will, that the ultimate profit is more emotional than monetary.

  • Answering Lawrence’s question about my writing group…

    Actually I’ve been in a couple about a decade apart. In both cases they were the aftermath of a writing class where a group of about six students who were serious about moving forward with a book project would meet every couple of weeks. The first class/group was about novel-writing, the second about memoir-writing, so I’ll just continue about the latter.

    In between meetings three of us would send out about twenty pages (double spaced) for the other five to review at the next meeting, so at that rate you would have about 250 pages of your work reviewed in a year. You would email the feedback to the writer before each meeting and then discuss it at the meeting with the whole group. It’s a very helpful way to write a book as you are getting a lot of feedback as you write it, so you don’t write a whole book and then find out that you are continuing the same problem thoughout the book when you get it edited or even after it’s published. If one person doesn’t like something, not so important. But if two or three have the same issue with something, then most likely you need to change it.

    Also this structure keeps you going when all those other distractions in life give you excuses not to continue. You have probably started your project in the class and gotten the teacher’s and other students feedback there. I can’t emphasize enough the need to take classes. To publish a book (self or traditional) implies you are a professional and you can’t leave out the training.

    There are other ways to find writing groups, particularly via the internet and some just do it on the web and don’t meet, allowing them to spread all over the country or even the world. I think the ideal size is 4-6 people. Less and you aren’t getting enough points of view. More and you’re spending too much time reviewing other people’s work and not enough time on your own writing. Be sure to find people at your own skill level or higher.

    So far I’m the only one in my memoir-writing group to publish, although another member says he will be self-publishing later this year. Publishing a book is an ultra-marathon and a lot of writers drop out before the finish line. Or they come back to the process later.

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