Twilight Times Feature
"How I Published My Memoir:
A Lawyer-Feminist's Story"
by Sonia Pressman Fuentes
"A world died when my parents died. I did not want that world
to disappear without a trace. I did not want my own life to
I retired from my position as an attorney with HUD (U.S. Department of
Housing & Urban Development) in Washington, D.C., on May 29, 1993. Thereafter,
there followed a year of soul-searching, during which I pondered what I
wanted to do with the rest of my life. I explored part-time
employment, thought about returning to full-time employment, and worked
at several volunteer positions. Nothing seemed right.
Then, because I had been the first woman attorney in the General
Counsel's Office at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)
and a founder of several nationwide women's rights organizations,
including the National Organization for Women (NOW), I began to think
about commemorating the historic role I'd played in the Second Wave of
the women's rights movement.
But I didn't want to devote the time needed to pour through all my
papers and write a lengthy tome. I wanted the book written, but I
didn't want to write it, at least not alone. So, I embarked
on a search for a writer to work with me. I spent a year in
libraries, talking to friends, writing to publishers and writers'
organizations, and meeting with writers. What I learned was that a
writer would work with a non-celebrity only upon the payment of
thousands of dollars. I was loath to invest that kind of money in
a project that might never result in publication.
A friend suggested I go to the library of the Foundation Center, a
nonprofit organization that focuses on foundations, in Washington, D.C.,
to research information on grants. There I could learn how to
apply for a grant, which I could then use to pay a writer.
At the Center, I found that grantsmanship was a world of its own.
There was lots of information on organizations that apply for grants for
grant seekers, but their services were, in the main, directed not to
individuals such as myself but to nonprofit organizations that could
afford their fees. To be sure, there were seminars and books
written on grant seeking. But I was not prepared to spend the time
needed to familiarize myself with this field.
Mixed in among the brochures on grant seeking organizations were a résumé and business card from a woman named Sara Fisher. She described
herself as "writer, editor, proofreader." Although her résumé indicated that her specialty was fiction, I decided to call her.
We agreed to meet for coffee at Zorba's Café in Dupont Circle in
Washington, D.C. At coffee, Sara and I chatted for a while about
my writing a history of my involvement in the women's movement when she
said something that changed my life. "That's not the book you
want to write. You want to write a book of
humorous stories about your parents, the kind of stories you've been
telling me. And you want to write it yourself."
That's why I began to write my memoir, Eat First--You Don't Know What They'll Give You, The Adventures of an Immigrant Family and Their
But there were other reasons why I continued it. The raconteur and
author, Alexander King, once wrote, "Whenever anyone dies, a world
dies with them." A world died when my parents died. I
did not want that world to disappear without a trace. I did not
want my own life to disappear either.
And so, I wrote a book about their world and mine.
I thought since I was writing a memoir that, unlike the book I'd
originally planned to write about my involvement in the women's rights
movement, no research would be involved. I was dead wrong. I
did a tremendous amount of research. There were two reasons for
this. Where I was writing from memory, I needed to check whether
my memories of particular incidents were correct. In addition, my
memories often didn't contain the details I needed.
I went to libraries in the District of Columbia and Maryland, including
the Library of Congress, the National Archives, and the U.S. Holocaust
Memorial Museum. I contacted by mail, phone, fax, and Internet
newspapers and libraries around the country and individuals and
organizations that could provide me with the facts I needed. I
contacted the people involved in certain stories.
It took me two years to locate the town in Poland named Piltz in Yiddish (Pilica in Polish) where my
parents were born and married, a piece of information I could have
secured from my parents in a minute while they were living--had I
thought to ask.
I read the English translation of a diary my brother, Hermann, had kept
from 1932 to 1935, beginning in Berlin, Germany, and ending in the
Bronx. I had innumerable conversations with Hermann during what
turned out to be the last year of his life--which gave me the
information I needed to describe how my family left Germany in
1933. While the research was time-consuming and it was hectic
running around to libraries, I made some wonderful discoveries. At
the National Archives, I found a copy of the manifest--the passenger
list--of the ship we came to the United States on, the Red Star Line's
S.S. Westernland. It contained my name and the names of my
parents, Hinda and Zysia Pressman; Hermann; and even that of my paternal
grandmother, Udel, who wasn't on the ship with us.
At the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., I found a
book of pictures of people who'd lived in Bendin, a town I'd heard
my father mention frequently, and identified six members of my
I began writing the book. Many of the stories I had been telling
all my life and many I had written down in the past. At various
times of my life, I had halfheartedly tried to get individual
stories published--but was never successful except for having one story
published in 1967 in the journal of the D.C. Bar Association. I began
working with the stories I'd already written--fleshing them out, fixing
them up. All my pieces are stand-alone, and I no sooner finished a
piece to my satisfaction than I began sending it out to magazines. I'm
someone who likes to see immediate rewards so it never occurred to me
to wait until the entire book was completed. I received some
encouraging responses--but no acceptances. I knew I could write
but I had no idea whether I had the kind of writing ability that gets
one published. I knew I could tell a funny story but I had no idea
whether I could write funny.
I had done well in law school and in my legal career and, therefore, I
had confidence in my legal ability. But I had no training and
nothing to tell me whether or not I had any talent as a writer of
humorous and serious material--to the extent that people would find what
I wrote interesting and amusing to read. I do not know what
kept me going.
Acceptance of Stories
It was a year before my first story was accepted. On November 18,
1995, my piece on how my family left Germany for the United States was
accepted in a journal called Café Solo, published in California.
After that, acceptances came more frequently until just about every
piece in the book--and some that didn't make it into the book--were
accepted for publication in newspapers, journals, magazines and for e-zines.
I even had pieces published in journals in Canada and South Africa.
I never, however, made the mainstream commercial magazines, like the
Ladies' Home Journal or the Reader's Digest.
I had always given talks on the women's rights movement and my role in
it. Now I concentrated on getting speaking engagements for such
talks and for doing readings from stories that would be in the book.
I spoke at bookstores, literary festivals, libraries, colleges and
universities, Jewish organizations, women's organizations--even at the
National Archives. The response to my memoir readings was always
positive. People loved my stories. I found that while my
pieces appealed particularly to niche audiences of women, Jews, and
seniors, they also appealed to broader, general audiences. When I
read stories about my family life to general audiences, non-Jews
invariably told me afterwards that my parents reminded them of their
Since I am a lawyer, from the minute I started writing the book I was
concerned about the specter of a lawsuit for libel or invasion of
privacy. I ended up doing two things about it. First, I
looked for a lawyer who specialized in that field. It took me
three years to find someone with whom I was comfortable--Susan Aprill.
Susan, who was referred to me by a writer-lawyer friend, was then with the Miami, Florida, office of Holland
and Knight, one of the top twelve law firms in size in the country.
She reviewed the entire book and didn't really have any problems with
it. But she and I agreed that to stay on the safe side, in some
cases, I would change the names of the people involved, and, where they
were well known persons, I would also change other facts about them so they
would not be recognizable.
There is insurance one can get for libel actions but I found the cost
prohibitive. However, shortly after I began to write, I had joined
the Washington, D.C. chapter of the National Writers Union (NWU).
At that time, NWU did not offer insurance to its members. But
thereafter, it negotiated for the provision of media perils
insurance for its members. This was the country's first insurance
program protecting freelance writers and authors against the costs of
suits alleging libel, invasion of privacy, and other matters. The
premium was far below that charged by insurers for individual policies
and I purchased the media perils insurance.
By this time, several years had passed. I had decided to write my
memoirs; decided they would be written with a light touch and deal with
my entire life and my family background--rather than just my activities
as a founder of the Second Wave of the women's movement; done extensive
research; written the book; gotten a good number of the excerpts
published in newspapers, journals, magazines, and e-zines; done numerous
memoirs readings; and protected myself from legal liability. Now
all I had to do was get the book published.
Search for an Agent
I learned that in order to have one's manuscript looked at by the larger
traditional publishing houses, one needed to have a literary agent.
I contacted agents I found in the NWU book on experiences NWU members
have had with agents, agents that friends recommended, agents to whom I
had a personal connection, agents I found in books in the library,
agents who advertised in the Writer's Digest, an agent to whom
the Washington Independent Writers Association referred me,
and agents who had contacted me after seeing my book listed in
Authorlink!, an Internet listing for authors, agents, and publishers.
I contacted a hundred agents. No agent would represent me--except
one--and I turned her down when my correspondence with her indicated
that she was inexperienced and unprofessional.
I thought the fact that many of my stories had been published in
journals, magazines, and newspapers would facilitate my finding an
agent. Instead, two agents turned me down because so much of my
work had already been published. They said a publisher wouldn't be
interested in my work because everyone had already had a chance to read
Small and University Presses
Since I couldn't get an agent to represent me, the larger publishers
were closed to me. So, I then began sending book proposals to
small and university presses. I contacted 165 publishers--and
received a positive response from one, a small press out west. It
was run by a woman I'll call Ms. A. After we corresponded and met,
Ms. A sent me a contract prepared by her attorney, whom she described as
the best attorney in her city. It was probably the worst
legal agreement I had ever seen. It was poorly drafted, unclear,
and had typos. I told Ms. A that I would need to revise it to
But in addition to redrafting it, I needed to find out whether I should
sign the clauses as written or negotiate better provisions for
myself. I contacted NWU and learned that it has a 54-page booklet
for its members called Guide to Book Contracts and that the head
honcho for questions on book contracts was Phil Mattera, a member of the
Washington, D.C., chapter, whom I knew. I called Phil, he sent me
the booklet, I reviewed the booklet, had numerous telephone
conversations and e-mail exchanges with Phil, and learned what the
clauses in Ms. A's contract meant and how her contract differed from
what NWU recommended for its members.
I spent three or four months revising Ms. A's contract. I was
about to sign it when I noticed a clause that had somehow escaped my
attention earlier. This clause provided that if anyone ever sued Ms. A
or her press for libel, invasion of privacy, or any other matter related
to my book, she could settle with them before or during the trial in any
amount, without consulting me, and that if the matter went to trial and
there was a decision in favor of the plaintiff, I would be responsible
for paying the award of damages and legal fees, although I did not have
to be consulted or involved in the proceedings. This was at a time
before the NWU's media perils policy was available. If I signed
the contract containing that clause, I could be liable for millions of
dollars or my total net worth in a matter over which I had absolutely no
control. I contacted Ms. A, who was adamant that she would not
agree to any amendment of this clause. She said since her company
was a small press, she could not afford to open herself to such
liability--therefore I should assume the liability. I did not sign
I had considered self-publishing throughout the process but kept hoping
that a publisher would pick me up. Now I had to explore it
seriously. There are various types of such companies, who perform
various services; some are printers, some are called vanity presses,
some have other names. I did not, however, want to go that route
for two reasons. First, from what I could see, self-publishing
would cost me about $10,000. I did have one friend who
self-published her book, doing all the steps herself--she found a
printer, applied for an ISBN number, and handled all the other steps.
She said it cost her about $1,000 and was definitely doable. But
it sounded like more effort than I wanted to take on. The second
reason I didn't want to self-publish was that I would get no or scant
help promoting the book after publication. True, even where a book
is published by a publishing company, generally only the John Grishams
and Stephen Kings get much promotion--but at least the other authors
might get some assistance. With self-publishing, there'd be none
or very little. I put that possibility on the back burner and kept
Then, through the Internet, I got e-mails about a new publishing
phenomenon--books-on-demand. Using a new technique, there were now
publishers who instead of publishing five hundred, a thousand, or three
thousand books, published one book at a time--whenever someone wanted to
buy the book. This form of self-publishing was much cheaper--it
would cost about $1,000. I still wouldn't get any marketing
assistance but I figured it was worth $1,000 to get my book published.
I explored various publishing-on-demand companies on the Internet.
One suggested a retail price of $27 for the paperback edition of the
book; I knew this was too much money and did not go with that company.
Then I found another company I'll call the B Company. The B
Company offered to publish my book in a paperback edition, a hard copy
edition, and as an e-book for $800. It would even do some
marketing for me. It offered to send out a press release about my
book to a hundred members of the media in the D.C. area for an
additional $300. I signed a contract with them on April 25, 1999,
and sent the company a check for $1,100. The e-book edition was to
be ready at the end of July of that year and the paperback/hardcopy
editions in early August.
Based on those commitments, I called and arranged for six memoirs
readings and book signings in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia at Barnes and
Noble and Borders book stores, the Washington, D.C., Jewish Community
Center, and the National Archives. The first reading was scheduled
for the end of September, which gave me plenty of time to have the books
delivered so I could sell them at my readings since they were to be
available in early August.
Since I spend my winters in Florida, I arranged for another six readings
there. The Florida readings were set to begin on January 18, 2000.
At the end of July, the time when the e-book edition of my book was
supposed to go online, I began checking the B Company's online
site. But the book was not there. I called the president of
the B Company and learned that although I had contracted with the B
Company, it had subcontracted the printing of the book to another
company, the C Company. The president told me that he had problems
with the C Company, the C Company was behind on meeting its commitments,
and he was unable to reach the C Company by phone to find out what the
status of my book was. After a series of phone conversations over
several weeks, the president told me he wouldn't be able to meet his
commitments to me, had no idea when the book would be published, and I
had the choice of waiting until such time as it might be published or
requesting a refund of my money. I requested--and received--the
Then I was in a desperate situation. It was August 1999, my first
speaking engagement was set for September 22, and I had no book!
My situation appeared hopeless until I received an e-mail from another
on-demand publisher, the Xlibris Company. Their charge was $1,100
for the paperback and hardback editions, with no press releases sent
out; furthermore, they were not publishing e-book editions at that
time. They said the books should be available by the end of
November at the latest, in time for me to keep my Florida speaking
engagements. I signed a contract with Xlibris. Then I had to
call the D.C. Jewish Community Center, the National Archives, and the
four bookstores where I had commitments to tell them I wouldn't be able
to do the scheduled programs as the book wasn't yet ready. I was
terribly embarrassed--and totally unprepared for the reactions I got.
All six said they understood and would reschedule for next spring.
I was grateful that I didn't also have to call the six places where I
was scheduled to speak in Florida.
My books from Xlibris arrived on time and I was able to keep my
speaking engagements in Florida and those that had been rescheduled in
the D.C., Maryland, and Virginia areas.
There have been many exciting developments since then.
Reviews have been glowing and there have been a good number of newspaper
and website interviews. I am represented by a speakers bureau, Speakers Plus! In March 2000, I was one of five
women in the state of Maryland inducted into the Maryland Women's
Hall of Fame in Annapolis, Maryland, and I was included in a
reference book published last year called Women of
Achievement in Maryland History. I was also included in the Gallery of Prominent Refugees
established by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in December 2000 to
commemorate its 50th anniversary. Excerpts from my memoirs have been included in two anthologies: 120 HIAS Stories and Matzoh Ball Soup. My memoir was used as a
textbook at Cornell University (my alma mater) in the Spring 2000
semester and at American University in Washington, D.C. in the Spring
2001 semester. It was a thrill to walk into the classroom at each
of these universities and find a group of students, each with my book at
his or her desk.
From a very shaky beginning as a retiree, I have entered upon the
richest phase of my life.
©2000 by Sonia Pressman Fuentes
This article is based on talks given by the author in 2000 to the
Maryland Writers Association in Annapolis, Maryland, and the National
Writers Union, D.C. chapter, in Washington, D.C. It was published
in mid-October 2000 in Writer Online at novalearn.com
and in the February and March 2001 issues of Electronic Market Place, the Charm Write Publishing Newsletter.
Sonia Pressman Fuentes, who was born in Berlin, Germany, came to the US as a child with her immediate family to escape the Holocaust. Her memoirs reveal how this five-year-old immigrant in 1934 grew up to become the first woman attorney in the Office of the General Counsel at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 1965, one of the founders of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966, the highest-paid woman at the headquarters of two multinational corporations--GTE and TRW, and an international speaker on women's rights for the US Information Agency.
Visit Sonia's web site
This article Copyright © 2000 Sonia Pressman Fuentes. All rights reserved.
Re-printed by permission of the author.
This page last updated 05-11-03.
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