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Articles and Stories by Sonia Pressman Fuentes

Sonia Pressman Fuentes

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 disappear either"

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 are, in the main, directed not to individuals such as myself but to nonprofit organizations that can afford their fees.  To be sure, there are 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 Feminist Daughter.

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 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 family. 


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.

Speaking Engagements

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 own.

Legal Liability 

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, is 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 about a year ago, 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 is 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 my stories.

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 clarify it.

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 the contract.


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 writing.

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 memoir 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 refund.

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.  In addition to the book's publication in paperback and hardback by Xlibris in the U.S., Planetree Publishing, Ltd. has published it as a paperback in the U.K., and Word Wrangler Publishing has published it as an e-book for downloading and on disk.

Reviews have been glowing and there have been a good number of newspaper and website interviews.  I am in constant demand for speaking engagements and memoir readings.  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 will be included in  a reference book to be published this fall called Women of Achievement  in Maryland History. I was included in the Gallery of Prominent Refugees (www.unhcr-50.org) established by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in December 2000 to commemorate its 50th anniversary.  I was one of nine authors of e-books profiled in the May 2001 issue of Publishing Success, a newstand-only publication of the Writer's Digest.   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, in the February and March 2001 issues of Electronic Market Place, the Charm Write Publishing Newsletter, and in "The Writer's Life" section of the May/June issue of the website of EPPRO, the website for Electronic- and Print-published Professionals.