How to write an autobiography that will sell
I lecture on writing to non-writers – hypnotists, numerologists, psychics, housewives, business men and women and people who often tell me I should write about them because “they have had very interesting lives.” I begin my speech 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?” Typically most of the hands go down, the audience looks uncomfortable, and the shoulders begin to shrug. This second question is the first question you should ask when considering writing in the field of (auto)biography.
The people who write autobiographies or ask others to write their biographies 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 amazing fashion designers. They built great dams and bridges. They were successful generals.
Even achieving high status does not guarantee a biography. William Henry Harrison was president for only 31 days. He did nothing more as president than catch pneumonia during 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’ve heard of without running out of numbers. If you want to test this theory, Google “Civil War Generals” and see how many there were and how many names you recognize. Even Custer probably would have been an “equally served” if he hadn’t had one last stand.
The first rule of (auto)biography is: “An (auto)biography is not about a person, but about what a person has done.” If Audrey Hepburn had been a housewife, she would not have generated a biography, as beautiful as it is. It’s possible that Katharine Hepburn wouldn’t have generated a biography without Spencer Tracy.
The second biography rule answers the question, “What has the subject of the biography done that would appeal to an identifiable market that is willing to spend the money to buy the book?” Books are easier to sell in identified markets than they are in general markets. Even if you haven’t done something huge in your lifetime, if you’ve done something small that many thousands of people might want to read, you can probably get a book published – or sell a self-published book.
Sometimes a person related to a famous person will generate a biography for the famous person, which is really his autobiography which has a big market due to the fame of the relative – especially if there is a fame twist. An example of this is Christina Crawford who wrote “Mommy Dearest”. Her mother Joan Crawford was a horribly abusive mother. In this case the answer to the question “Who will buy your book?” It’s the people who are interested in nasty gossip that will really make a relatively famous movie star look bad. Joan Crawford became known less for her successful career in Hollywood than for the harm she did to her daughter. It is highly probable that Joan Crawford would never have been the subject of a biography without this abuse. It is an absolute given that Christina Crawford would not have deserved a biography without the abuse of a relatively famous mother.
For years I thought books were about writing. They are not. They are about selling. 80% of your time as a writer is spent selling your book; sell your book to an agent, sell your book to a publisher, then sell your book to an identified market. If you don’t sell your book, you can’t quit your day job. It’s critical that you identify the people you think you can sell to and allow your market interest to inform your writing. Your book comes from what you know people like you need or want to know.
The easiest way to sell your autobiography is to identify a market that wants to read what you’ve done, write specifically for that market, and find organizations interested in that subject that you can use as a place to sell books. to their members. For example, if your child has survived a rare form of cancer, you can write about what you did to help that child survive. Write down any information you learned during your child’s battle with cancer that would be interesting and helpful to other families facing a similar battle. Parents of children with cancer, and specifically with this form of cancer, are your market. The organizations built around the fight against cancer, and cancer in particular, are your marketing platforms – the people you talk to, the people you sell your book to. All the things other parents should know about battling this disease, how you felt and how you dealt with your feelings, all the techniques you used to help your child cope with chemo, needles and hospital stays, what you’ve done to help your other children deal with feelings of jealousy and neglect, all of that is water for your mill. What you did, not who you are, is (auto)biography.
You can also slip your (self) biography into “how to” books as part of the introduction that establishes you as an expert in your field. About twenty pages, about what you learned and how you got to your level of expertise, which informs the reader why they should read what you have written is your bio-introduction. These biographical chapters often summarize the highest and most exciting parts of your life, which solves an (auto)biography problem. Most of us live fairly boring lives with occasional bursts of excitement and activity. Most of us could write an article about the highlights 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, the biography is easier to write.
Fictionalising your biography is another way to write about yourself, interesting episodes in your life and what interests you. In fiction, I usually write in the area of medical thriller or medical rescue. I’m a former paramedic from New York, a job that can be surprisingly tedious. This is a ‘hurry up and wait’ profession with lots of very boring transport between some extremely exciting rescues. In my books, I slip into the highlights of the ambulance. I describe people I found interesting, situations that fascinated me, incredible accidents and rescues I’ve been involved in or heard about from other paramedics, techniques we’ve used in the field, things that we studied and that I imagined using in the field. It’s not exactly an autobiography, but it draws from my life, my interests and the lives of those around me. Turning what interests you into fiction increases the amount of material at your disposal.
Since you may be writing about an area of interest rather than yourself, you may want to research what has already been written on the subject. Just because there are other books in your area of expertise doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write in a particular area. Think about 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 address the issue differently. At the very least, you bring yourself and your personal experiences to the table. I wrote a little book called “Date Rape: It’s Not Your Fault” which was inspired by my own rape. Are there other books on date rape? Of course there are. But those books didn’t include my story and how I handled my recovery and they didn’t reach the same market as me.
To begin the process of writing an (auto)biography, start by answering the following questions:
- What have you done that other people would be interested in reading?
- Who would be interested in what you want to write? – be specific.
- How big is this potential market?
- How to reach this potential market?
- Check Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Buzz, Yahoo and MySpace to see if there are any groups interested in this topic.
- Are there any organizations that might be interested in your topic?
- If so, contact them. Become active in them. Make yourself known in them.
- What questions would people interested in your topic need or want to know?
- Make a list of these questions.
- Are there other books on your subject?
- If there were other books, how would you treat the subject differently?
- What information have the other authors left out that you consider important?
- How can you organize your book to highlight 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 yourself that will make you a successful writer.