Jennifer Niesslein and Stephanie Wilkinson, the editors of Brain, Child magazine, wonder why publishers seem to be backing off literary offerings by, for, and about mothers — when sixty-eight percent of books are purchased by women.
At one point though — say, around 2003 — around we started getting discouraging notes from writers we know. How’s the book coming? we’d ask. Not always so good. Agents were saying that they couldn’t sell memoirs about motherhood anymore. Editors were telling agents that the field was saturated. One writer, whose then-agent shopped her manuscript around in 2003, told us, “One by one . . . the ‘pass letters’ came rolling in. A couple editors said that it took them a long time to decide against the book because they liked it so much, which was some comfort, but a cold comfort.”
When Miriam Peskowitz began shopping her part-memoir, part-feminist analysis of motherhood book around about eighteen months ago, she found an agent in a surpisingly short amount of time. A New York agent, no less, a father of three who said he thought her book would sell quickly. They took it to the big New York publishing houses–and promptly got shot down. “While I loved Ms. Peskowitz’s ideas,” said one, “I’m afraid the platform seems a bit too small for us.” (Translation: we can’t take a chance on an unknown writer who doesn’t already have celebrity or a built-in readership on her side.) Said another, “I’ve enjoyed reading the intelligent and extremely well-written proposal . . . but our last foray into the field of intelligent, culturally informed, somewhat complex mothering books wasn’t a great success.”
New York literary agent Elizabeth Kaplan puts it more bluntly: “Publishers are done with momoir.”
Now that’s the sort of talk that makes people who assign motherhood-themed book reviews nervous. We started digging.