‘This book would never be published’


Still life with Books, a Letter and a Tulip, Charles Emmanuel Biset, 1640

From The New York Times:

Was I really willing to write a book that wouldn’t be seen (let alone read) by anyone I knew, or anyone who might want to hire me in the future? And was I prepared to forgo royalties, reviews and the assorted social and economic benefits that authors like to dream about and sometimes even experience? The client’s family had an excellent reputation, so I flew out to see him.

I met J. and his wife for dinner in a downtown restaurant, and we liked one another immediately. We met again the next morning, and his son and I soon came to terms in a pattern I would see again. Members of the older generation are often reluctant to spend money on a memoir until a son or daughter points out that a private book is really for the grandchildren — and eventually for their children. Talk about legacy! In other words, Dad (or Mom), although this book is about you, it’s not really for you.

A few months into the project, J. had a fatal heart attack. When his widow asked me to keep writing, I began turning a memoir into a biography. By then I had learned that J.’s father had also written a private memoir, and so had his father, so the book I was writing would serve as another link in a continuing and treasured family chain.

In most respects, writing for private clients is like working on any other book. One difference, though, is that instead of trying to imagine what my audience might find compelling, or debating some of the contents with editors and publishers, I now had a direct line to the readers. They were the same people I was interviewing — my client’s family members and his close friends and associates, so I knew what mattered to them.

Another happy surprise was that private books don’t demand complete structural consistency.

“Writing Books Very Few Will Read”, William Novak, The New York Times