Tuesday, February 15, 2011

How to Write An Autobiography That Sells

I lecture about writing to non-writers – hypnotists, numerologists, psychics, housewives, businessmen and women and people who often tell me that I should write about them because “they have had very interesting lives.” I start my talks with a question. The first question I always ask is, “Who wants to write their autobiography?” About three-quarters of all audiences raise their hands. My next question is, “Can you tell me who will buy your autobiography?” Generally, most of the hands go down, the audience looks uncomfortable and shoulders begin to shrug. That second question is the first question you should ask when considering writing in the area of (auto) biography.

People who get to write autobiographies, or have others write their biographies for them, are men and women who have done something really special in their lives. They were famous movie stars. They were national or international politicians. They were presidents and first ladies. They were incredible fashion designers. They built great dams and bridges. They were successful generals.

Even reaching a high status does not guarantee a biography. William Henry Harrison was only president for 31 days. He did nothing more as president than catch pneumonia at his inauguration and die. So even being president does not guarantee a biography. There are a kazillion generals in history but most of us can count the few we ever heard about without running out of digits. If you want to test that theory Google “Civil War Generals” and see how many there were and how many names you recognize. Even Custer probably would have been an ‘also served’ had he not had a last stand.

The first rule of (auto) biography is, “An (auto) biography is not about a person, it is about what a person did.” Very often, even if they have had a big career that's not enough. If Audrey Hepburn had been a housewife she would not have generated a biography no matter how gorgeous she was. It is possible that Katharine Hepburn would not have generated a biography without Spencer Tracy.

The second rule of biography addresses the question, “What did the subject of the biography do that would interest an identifiable market that is willing to spend money buying the book?” Books are easier to sell to identified markets than they are to general markets. Even if you have not done something huge in your life, if you have done something small that several thousand people could be expected to want to read about, you can probably get a book published – or sell a self-published book.

Occasionally someone related to a famous person will generate a biography for the famous person, which is really their autobiography that has a large market because of the fame of the parent – particularly if there is a twist to the fame. A case in point was Christina Crawford who wrote “Mommy Dearest.” Her mother Joan Crawford was a horrendously abusive mother. In this case the answer to the question “who will buy your book?” is people interested in nasty gossip that will make a relatively famous movie star look really bad. Joan Crawford became less well known for her successful Hollywood career than she was for the harm she did to her daughter. It is quite probable that Joan Crawford would never have been the subject a biography without that abuse. It is an absolute given that Christina Crawford would not have merited a biography without the abuse by a relatively famous mother.

For years I thought that books were about writing. They are not. They are about selling. 80% of your time as a writer is spent selling your book; selling your book to an agent, selling your book to a publisher, and then selling your book to an identified market. If you don’t sell your book, you don’t get to quit your day job. It is essential that you identify the people you think you can sell to and allow the interest of your market to inform your writing. Your book comes out of what you know that people like you need or want to know.

The easiest way to sell your autobiography is to identify a market that wants to read about what you have done, write specifically for that market and find organizations that are interested in that subject that you can use as a venue to sell books to their membership. For example, if your child survived a rare form of cancer you can write about what you did to help that child survive. Write about all the information that you learned during your child’s battle against cancer that would be interesting and useful to other families facing a similar battle. The parents of children with cancer, and particularly that form of cancer, are your market. The organizations built around fighting cancer, and particularly that form of cancer, are your marketing venues – the people you talk to, the people you sell your book to. All the things that other parents should know about battling that disease, the way you felt and how you handled your feelings, any techniques that you used to help your child cope with chemo and needles and hospital stays, what you did to help your other children deal with feelings of jealousy and neglect, all that is grist for your mill. What you did, not who you are, is the stuff of (auto) biography.

You can also slide your (auto) biography into “How To” books as part of the introduction that establishes you as an expert in your field. 20 or so pages, about what you learned and how you got to your level of expertise, that inform the reader about why they should read what you have written is your bio-introduction. These biographical chapters often encapsulate the highest and most exciting parts of your life which solves a problem about (auto) biography. Most of us live fairly boring lives with occasional spikes of excitement and activity. Most of us could write an article about the high points of our lives rather than a book. If you turn what you’ve learned into a “How To” book and talk more about what you can teach and less about yourself and your life, biography is easier to write.

Fictionalizing your biography is another way to write about yourself, interesting episodes in your life and what interests you. In fiction, I generally write in the area of medical thriller or medical rescue. I am a former New York City Paramedic which is a job that can be surprisingly tedious. It is a ‘hurry up and wait’ profession with a great deal of very dull transport in between a few extremely exciting rescues. In my books I slide in high points from the ambulance. I describe people that I found interesting, situations that fascinated me, amazing accidents and rescues that I participated in or heard about from other Paramedics, techniques that we used in the field, things that we studied that I imagined using in the field. It’s not exactly an autobiography, but it pulls from my life, my interests and the lives of those around me. Turning what interests you into fiction increases the amount of material available to you.

Since you may be writing about a field of interest rather than about yourself, you may want to research what has already been written on the subject. Simply because there are other books in your area of expertise does not mean that you should not write in a given area. Think of how many cookbooks there are. What you want to do is read everything that has been written in your area of interest or expertise and figure out what is missing or how you would handle the issue differently. At the very least, you bring yourself and your personal experiences to the table. I wrote a small book called “Date Rape: It’s Not Your Fault” which was inspired by my own rape. Are there other books about date rape? Of course there are. But those books did not include my story and how I handled my recovery and they did not reach the same market that I can reach.

To begin the process of writing (auto) biography start by answering the following questions:

* What have you done that other people would be interested in reading about?
* Who would be interested in what you want to write about? - be specific.
* How big is that potential market?
* How do you reach that potential market?
* Check out Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Buzz, Yahoo and MySpace to see if there are existing groups that are interested in that subject.
* Are there organizations that might be interested in your subject? If yes, contact them. Become active in them. Become known within them.
* What questions would people who are interested in your subject need or want to know? Make a list of those questions.
* Are there other books on your subject? If there are other books, how would you treat the subject differently? What information did other authors leave out that you consider important?
* How can you organize your book to stress the differences in what you bring to the table?

These questions should get you started and should lead to other questions that will help you write and organize books about you that will turn you into a successful writer.

2 comments:

  1. I'm from A small town in California and I have been looking for someone with talent to write my story for me my struggles growing up and the sacirfices leaveing my kids behind in a messed up court system my life in Amador Co California

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    1. My situation is similar to your own. I was asked by my counsellors to write my story, told that there are a lot of people out there who would benefit from hearing what I have to say, hearing what I think and how I've felt, and that maybe I'd find a bit more healing in having written it, gotten it out of my system and out of my hands. At the very least it would be nice to know someone who is looking to get this done. Would you like to team up and work together to get this done?

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