As Chicago icons write memoirs, some wonder: Will anyone care?
BY MIKE THOMAS Staff Reporterfirstname.lastname@example.org January 3, 2013 7:58PM
John Landecker in a WLS radio studio at 190 N. State st. He has a memoir coming out in March. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times
Updated: February 7, 2013 6:04AM
Local television anchor/pitchman Bill Kurtis penned one. So did Chicago-based radio personality Mancow Muller, former Chicago mayor Jane Byrne and late Ald. Leon Despres. Legendary Sun-Times columnist Irv Kupcinet wrote two. And that’s just a handful.
We refer here to memoirs, those highly subjective personal histories that prominent and not-so-prominent figures around the globe have been churning out for countless decades — sometimes on their own, often with assistance from hired hands.
Most Chicago memoirists haven’t been and are not nationally famous (internationally known film critic Roger Ebert excluded), which is no boon to book sales outside the city and certainly the state of Illinois. Still, they’ve written and continue to write for essentially built-in audiences of listeners, viewers, voters and newsprint disciples. Insiders say money is almost never a driving factor, because there’s little to be earned.
Up-front “advances,” especially, are rare and typically very low.
“We try to avoid giving [advances] at all, because we don’t like to put money out before the book is published,” says Karl Kageff, editor in chief of Southern Illinois University Press. “We end up talking people down to [between] $1,000 and two or three thousand [dollars]. There was a time when we offered more.”
The newest crop of titles, published in the past couple of months or forthcoming shortly, includes works by WGN-AM (720) agri-business oracle Orion Samuelson, Illinois politician Debbie Halvorson, TV newsman Walter Jacobson and radio broadcaster John Records Landecker.
They all postponed or had serious reservations about taking on one of the most daunting and nerve-racking tasks of their careers.
“What do I want in this?” Landecker says he asked himself during the bookmaking process. “Why am I doing this? This is stupid. Who gives a s---?”
Soon enough, however, he overcame the psychological hump that has hampered writers since time immemorial — and can seem especially towering for someone who’s baring it all in print: Will anyone care?
“You get to the point where [you think], ‘I don’t care if anybody does or not,’ ” Landecker says. His memoir, “Records Truly Is My Middle Name,” was written with the help of Landecker’s former producer Rick Kaempfer and is due out in March from the Chicago-headquartered Eckhartz Press (which Kaempfer co-owns). It includes “a fair share of drugs, sex, indiscretions [and] slightly humorous tales,” the author says, as well as more serious topics.
“It gave me a better perspective on — it sort of sounds clichéd — the real importance of events in my past … that at the time seemed so cataclysmic and in retrospect seem like a blip,” Landecker says of the writing process.
For Jacobson, who chipped away at “Walter’s Perspective: A Memoir of Fifty Years in Chicago TV News” over the course of roughly two years, doing so was largely “a pleasurable experience.” Having spent a half-century crafting punchy television copy, his chief challenge was letting the prose breathe.
“I never thought I would ever write a book,” he says. “This book was not written because I wanted to say something to somebody or target anybody. I wrote this because I retired and, for the first time in 50 years, could kind of sit back and think about where I had been and what my business had been like for all this time. … The only motivation was cathartic. I felt a lot that I didn’t have time to stop and think [about] and feel [before].”
Jacobson says his publisher, Southern Illinois University Press, was the only outlet that expressed interest after the big New York houses deemed it too regional, a window of opportunity with another local university press fell through and yet another failed to respond.
When it came to less-than-flattering subject matter — such as his D.U.I. arrests in 2004 and 2008 and the time (in 1984) he was sued for libel by Brown & Williamson Tobacco — Jacobson says he never thought of whitewashing anything.
“I have been so critical of people who haven’t been straight with me over the years that it didn’t even occur to me to not say something that might be uncomfortable for me.”
Aside from matters of style, he says, he was most concerned with accuracy.
“I was afraid that I would be clobbered by critics if I had made any mistakes. Or that writers at the newspapers who may be looking at the book might be like, ‘See? We’ve been telling you for all these years that Jacobson’s a pain in the ass and makes mistakes.’ I was scared to death about that, so I was really careful.”
So far, he says, so good.
To date, only a couple of months after its release, “Walter’s Perspective” has sold around 1,200 copies — roughly half of what his publisher needs to recoup its costs, according to SIU Press’s Kageff. But it’s early, he notes, and there’s more hawking to be done.
As the only one of this bunch to have kept a daily journal for the past 20 years, Halvorson — a former Illinois congresswoman and senator — had all of her raw material at the ready. With some paid assistance, the bulk of it was organized and vetted. Stuff deemed too mundane or offensive was tossed.
“Everybody I talked to that wanted to publish it couldn’t guarantee that my story would stay my story,” she says of “Playing Ball with the Big Boys … And Why the Big Girls Better Get in the Game.”
They also wanted the book to be “a little more salacious,” Halvorson claims. And so she declined, becoming “my own project manager.” Her self-published title hit cyber-shelves Nov. 1 (for now it’s available only at www.playingballwiththebigboys.com) and, though slim at 147 pages, cost around $20,000 to produce.
“If I sell all my books, I definitely could make my money back,” Halvorson says. “But I don’t think that was ever in my mind to do. This was a labor of love.”
That said, she recalls a time in the mid-’90s when her former Illinois Senate colleague Barack Obama’s memoir, “Dreams From My Father,” languished on bargain tables. After his momentous speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and during his historic run for the presidency thereafter, it landed on bestseller lists and ultimately made millions of dollars. Not that she’s expecting a similar rocket ride for “Playing Ball.”
“I wrote it because it needed to be told,” she says. “And I have to be honest, there were some chapters that I cried through… because I was making myself the vulnerable person that I never was.”
As you might expect from a guy with Orion Samuelson’s extensive business reporting background, the 78-year-old broadcasting veteran (he’s also on satellite TV) entered the bookmaking realm with a plan. Ghostwritten, laid out and otherwise shepherded through the multi-stage process by local husband-and-wife team Steve Alexander and Diane Montiel, Samuelson’s 413-page, photo-filled memoir “You Can’t Dream Big Enough” (Bantry Bay Books) is based on hours of past interviews and new dictation that yielded hundreds of transcribed pages. Produced by Lake Book Mfg. in Melrose Park, it has the look and feel of a tome that might emanate from a major New York publishing house.
Samuelson says his initial investment was $22,000. Alexander and Montiel, who pitched the project to Samuelson, chipped in at least that much. Printing and binding, in particular, aren’t cheap. After costs are covered and marketing partners paid, profits are shared equally.
According to Alexander’s most recent sales statement, they’ve unloaded around 8,100 copies of an initial 10,000-copy run. That translates to at least $218,295 in revenues (the book retails for $26.95), and it’s thanks in large part to Samuelson’s media prominence and successful signings in front of target audiences, such as the Illinois Farm Bureau. An early December appearance with that group alone, he says, moved 275 copies. Promotional arrangements with WGN and other organizations further boost awareness and sales.
“This is far from a vanity project,” says Alexander, a sports agent and part-time news anchor at WGN.
For Samuelson, “You Can’t Dream Big Enough” was primarily a chance to record his remembrances of six colorful and (he says) unlikely decades on the air after 20 years of procrastinating. But even a near-lifetime in the public eye and ear, he says, was scant preparation for this latest undertaking.
“I have never been as nervous about a project in my professional life as I was with this book,” he says. “Because I thought, ‘God, what if people lay out $26.95 and find it boring?’
“I would be as embarrassed as can be.”