The Art Of Writing And Selling Memoirs

Guest host Mary Louise Kelly talks with Sarah Crichton about the recent memoirs of teen star Justin Bieber and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Crichton is the publisher of Sarah Crichton Books at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and has assisted many memoirists, including former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

And I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

A couple of offerings from the publishing world caught our eye this week: two memoirs out the same day. The first from Condoleezza Rice, the former secretary of State and Stanford academic, it's called "Extraordinary Ordinary People" and it chronicles her life before the Bush administration growing up in segregated Birmingham, Alabama. Then at, somewhat, the other end of the gravitas spectrum there's teenage pop phenom Justin Bieber. He tackles his whole 16 years on Earth so far, in a memoir titled "Justin Bieber: First Step 2 Forever My Story." It's enough to get you think about the art of writing and selling a memoir and we've invited Sarah Crichton to help us ponder that.

She's editor and publisher of Sarah Crichton Books at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and she's worked with many writers on their memoirs, including Madeline Albright and Mariane Pearl.

Sarah Crichton, thanks for joining us now.

Ms. SARAH CRICHTON (Farrar, Straus and Giroux): I'm glad to be here.

KELLY: Tell me, does it strike you as unusual someone writing their memoir at the ripe old age of 16?

Ms. CRICHTON: Does it strike me as unusual? No, because we've had a spate of them. We're definitely in a sort of reality world, certainly there's an appetite right to learn about anybody's lives to whatever degree they're willing to tell us.

KELLY: Well, as you sit at your desk in New York, I'm sure these offerings come to you all the time in the mail. What kind of thing are you looking for? What sort of pitch does somebody have to make for you to give it the green line?

Ms. CRICHTON: I really want to work with people who are willing to tell stories that haven't been told before. I worked most recently actually with a guy named Ishmael Beah, who wrote a terrific memoir about having been a boy soldier in Sierra Leone. And that was extremely interesting to me because he was telling stories and giving voice to an experience that we hadn't heard.

So you have those and they you also have all the different political figures. You're going to be having George Bush's memoir out after the elections. And I think those books often aren't read so much as sort of put on shelves to join the team and display which team you're a part of.

KELLY: Is there anybody right now in the publishing world who is considered the big get, the one that if you heard they were in the market to sell their memoir you would be straight out, front of the line to try to bid on it?

Ms. CRICHTON: Oh, that's such a great question. I'm sure that I'm going to wake up in the middle of the night and think of you, you know, the five big ones. I think the main thing is it's not always just the person but it is what they're going to tell you.

And in the case of a Condi Rice you don't expect her to reveal all. And so, the fact that she tells as much as she does in the book is going to not only satisfy but she's actually giving them a little bit more than they were going to expect. You expect different things from different people.

KELLY: Now, I understand you have stopped working on memoirs lately because you are not crazy about the direction the industry is headed. In what sense?

Ms. CRICHTON: No, no. I love working on memoirs. I'm just wary because it's very hard for writers to put themselves out there. When you're working with somebody, you really work hard to get them to reveal as much of themself as they possibly can. Working with Madeline Albright was a wonderful experience because you had to push her a little bit to be a open and honest about her past as she was. But it's painful sometimes for - you're asking an author to put themselves on the line, and if their book goes into the marketplace and it gets rejected, that's an extremely painful experience for that person. And so, I'm a little cautious about it.

KELLY: Hmm. Well, thank you very much.

Ms. CRICHTON: Pleasure.

KELLY: That's Sarah Crichton. She's an editor and publisher at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and we spoke to her from our New York bureau.

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