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Are You Writing a Memoir or a Self-Help Book? Advice From Thomas Hauck, Book Editor and Ghostwriter

Advice from Professional Ghostwriter and Book Editor Thomas Hauck

As a professional editor and ghostwriter, it’s often part of my job to help my client focus on the core purpose of his or her book. I ask my client straight out, why do you want to offer your life story to the public?

Are you a celebrity, and therefore among readers is there existing interest in your life? Or do you offer inspiration and hope to your readers, that they, too, could survive misfortune, as you have? The former is a memoir; the latter is a self-help book that happens to be based on your life story.

Here is an excerpt of an actual email that I sent to one of my clients.

Memoir or Self-Help Book?

Dear Client:

The biggest question that needs to be decided is the genre of the book. In your email, you said, “The illness I suffered from spanning over 20 years of my life is dangerously misunderstood not just by the medical profession, but other organizations we hold in esteem. My program of recovery is not only unique and unprecedented, it is needed. I believe my three books are necessary as they all tally. I am passionate about healing other sufferers; it works, and I am proof.”

Based on what you are saying, and what I’ve read, your book can either be a memoir or a self-help book. This is how publishers view the market.

A memoir is a biography. It is not instructional. It does not offer a prescriptive solution to the problems faced by the reader. It is simply a glimpse into the life of someone either extraordinary or newsworthy. In order to sell your book as a memoir, it needs to be one of two things:

1) The life story of a famous person, like Hillary Clinton or Paul McCartney. Alas, you are not famous. That choice is not available to you.

2) A story of a life so extraordinary that it commands attention. A story like that of Anne Frank, or a coal miner trapped for thirty days underground, or someone who spent years in the Soviet gulag.

I understand that you believe that your life story is worthy of category #2. Your life certainly has had its challenges, and even amazing trials and tribulations. But I can tell you right now that as an editor, I see endless streams of book projects written by well-meaning people who have had horrific lives full of drug addiction, rape, abuse, and family horrors. To a literary agent, such books are unfortunately quite commonplace, and therefore have little market value. No one reads them simply as biographies because they all sound the same. If you?re a drug addict who happens to be famous, like Keith Richard, you can easily sell your story. But unfortunately you are not famous. If your memoir has broad political implications – for example, if you were kidnapped by Boko Haram – then your story would have market value. But you suffered no such fate.

The other direction is a self-help book. In a self-help book, you write with a purpose. Your purpose is to convey information to your readers that can directly impact their lives and help them solve their problems. A self-help book shows the reader the way to kick a drug habit, lose weight, make more money, understand their teenaged kids, cook better meals, make Christmas decorations?the categories are endless. Some are trivial and silly, while others address very serious issues.

Do you want to help your readers in some way? Do you want to open their eyes to injustice, or help them manage an abusive relationship, or find a cure for a crippling disease? Then you are writing a self-help book. You want your words and your message to have meaning and to help people change their lives. You want to touch your readers deeply and give them a way to live a happy life.

If, on the other hand, you want to simply say, “I’ve had a terrible life and you should read about it,” then that’s a memoir, and you will not find a publisher for it, because you are neither famous nor unique.

Offer One Book, Not Three

Let’s talk about your plan for three books. This idea frightens literary agents and publishers. They do not want three books from an unknown author. They want one book. They want your very best shot. They want you to go all-out and not hold back. It is better to have one amazing book that sells instead of three average books that lose money.

You say, “My program of recovery is not only unique and unprecedented, it is needed.” If this is the case, then this is what has value to a publisher?and to your fellow human beings! Your story of abuse and addiction is, unfortunately, all too commonplace. It has no market value. But if you can reveal information that helps people to live happier lives, then you’re offering something that has market value!

A self-help book need not be boring or pedantic. You can tell your story; in fact, you should. But if you approach the job with the attitude that you are going to give the reader a gift that can help them to be happy and healthy, your writing will reflect this.

My advice is to listen to your agent. Write one book. The theme of the book should be, “How I overcame terrible events and a horrible disease – and how you can too.” For of what value is your experience to the reader if they cannot apply the lessons to their own lives?

Thomas Hauck ghostwriter, book editor, author






– Thomas Hauck is a leading independent ghostwriter and book editor serving both emerging and published authors. For your free consultation, contact Thomas today.



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