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Friday, November 5, 2010

Self-publish your autobiography

Has your life been full of drama? Want to share the lessons you learned with others by writing your autobiography?

It’s very hard to get personal memoirs published by traditional publishers if you’re not a celebrity on the level of a president or movie star. Your life story may be riveting, but publishers are only interested in the bottom line. Will it sell?

I originally wrote Sensual Celibacy: The Sexy Woman’s Guide as a self-help book for women who were in between relationships. I realized early on that I would have to include some autobiographical elements so that women could relate. If I had pitched Sensual Celibacy as a pure memoir, I don’t think Simon & Schuster would have bought it. Why? Because my marketing platform wasn’t all that strong. I suspect they picked it up because the content was controversial (and still is, to tell the truth). It was so controversial that Playboy did a tongue-in-cheek review of it.

If you want to publish your memoir through a traditional publisher, my advice is to develop a strong marketing-oriented proposal, get a good agent, and then wait and see what happens. Parallel to that, build your marketing platform online and offline. As speaker James Malinchak likes to say, “Always be marketing.”

Also, have a back-up plan. If your memoir doesn’t sell, don’t lose heart. Self-publish!

Writing the story of your life can be cathartic and possibly revenue generating (as long as you’re ruthless about marketing and branding). Here are some things to keep in mind when writing your autobiography.

1. Fact check. When writing Sensual Celibacy, I was fuzzy on the time frames of many of my life events. Reading over my resume, of all things, helped a lot. I also talked to the people who knew me best. Suppose your autobiography lands on the New York Times Bestsellers list? It could happen. Make sure your content is accurate.

2. If needed, include a bibliography. Carroll Quigley, historian and President Bill Clinton’s college professor, wrote his 1,348-paged Tragedy & Hope: A History of the World in Our Time with no footnotes, no bibliography, no nothing. I always wondered how he could do such a thing. Was he everywhere present during all historical events? Stay on the safe side. You don't want to be accused of plagiarism. Provide citations for quotes, passages, etc. Also, your readers will appreciate a bibliography, especially if you're combining self-help with your personal life story.

3. Be careful about naming names. A friend asked me to help her write her autobiography. She did have an interesting story to tell, but the worrisome thing was that she wanted to call out, by name, every person who had slighted her over the years. Read here how Mark Twain told his publishers to release his autobiography 100 years after his death. Why? He didn't want to hurt anyone's feelings! I'm more concerned about getting sued. If you insist on naming names, which may be appropriate, get a good lawyer who will tell you exactly how to go about it (and who will protect you if you have to go to court).

4. No down low writing. Tell the truth. Read here for a gallery of author liars. You don’t want to be in this club.

5. Phrases to avoid when writing: I believe, I think that, my opinion is. It’s your book. Your readers will know it’s all about your experiences, beliefs, and opinions.

6. Working with a ghostwriter:
  • Ghostwriter’s responsibilities – Write in the author's voice, not your own. Clearly organize the author's life events chronologically in a way that makes sense for the book format. Manage the project, and meet deadlines. Remember that the author is the client. Stay calm. Keep your relationship with author professional.
  • Author's responsibilities – Be available for interviews. Answer the phone when the ghostwriter calls. Be forthcoming with materials and information. Allow ghostwriter creative space. Meet deadlines. Help with research. Be open and honest. Keep your relationship with ghostwriter professional.

7. Edit your Acknowledgments page. The purpose of this page is to humbly thank only those who helped make your book possible. One of my clients doesn’t do Acknowledgments pages at all; another client thanks everyone in creation, including dead people not in his family. Make sure your Acknowledgments page just gives credit to whom credit is due. I understand that speakers, entrepreneurs, etc. have legitimate political and business agendas for their books that may differ from literary memoir writers, but still, keep your autobiography on a high level.

8. Author branding. One of those legitimate agendas for the entrepreneurial writer is that every book produced must flow out of and strengthen the author's brand. Read here for more info. Your autobiography will be the manifesto of your author brand, so make sure both you and your ghostwriter, if you're working with one, are on the same page. If something doesn't feel authentically you, throw it out!

I encourage you to read memoirs by other writers to get a feeling for the genre. Donald Trump's books are some of my favorites, more for the lessons in business he provides than the autobiographical aspects, although as far as interesting personalities go, he's "huge." 

For some online publishing services and resources, read this article about services I’ve either used or know a little about.

If you're working on your autobiography and plan to self-publish, or if you have questions, drop me a note. I'd love to hear all about it.

Donna Marie

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