Thomas Hauck
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Memoirs and Biographies: An Overview

People’s lives are endlessly fascinating, especially if the life revealed is of a celebrity or someone who has experienced something extraordinary.

If you’re thinking about having your memoir ghostwritten and published, the first thing to think about is this: Who will want to read your book? Are you a celebrity, and therefore the general public is interested in your life? If so, then you might consider getting a deal with a publisher. If you’re not famous, perhaps you’ll want to publish your life story in a limited edition designed for your family and business associates. I’ve ghostwritten or edited plenty of memoirs and family histories that have never shown up on Amazon.com because they were never released to the public.

By the way, there’s a difference between an autobiography and a memoir. The former is the chronicle of an entire life. The latter has a more narrow focus and may be more story-like. It has been said that a biography or autobiography tells “the story of a life,” while a memoir often tells “a story from a life,” such as touchstone events and turning points from the author’s life. For convenience, in this book I’ll just use the umbrella term “memoir” for both.

You might offer inspiration and hope to your readers that they, too, could survive misfortune, as you have. In this case your memoir is a form of self-help book that happens to be based on your life story.

One of my clients wanted to write his memoir. He sent me an email, of which this is an excerpt:

“I want to tell my life story because the illness from which I suffered for over twenty years 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 am passionate about healing other sufferers. My program works, and I am proof.”

I wrote back to him that the biggest question that needed to be decided was the genre of the book. Based on what he had told me, his book could either be a memoir or a self-help book. It was not my distinction; 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 story of a famous person, like Steve Jobs or Oprah Winfrey.

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.

My client believed that his life story was worthy of category #2. His life certainly has had its challenges, and even amazing trials and tribulations. But I told him that as a ghostwriter I hear about 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 sell your story. But unfortunately my client wasn’t famous. If his memoir had broad political implications – for example, if he had been kidnapped by terrorists and survived – then his story would have market value. But fortunately he suffered no such fate.

I want to be clear: You have the right to hire a ghostwriter to write your life story and publish it. It’s your choice. But your ghostwriter must not flatter you by telling you that your memoir will be a best seller. In fact, any ghostwriter who attempts to assure you that any book will be a best seller is a charlatan and should be avoided. The publishing industry is intensely competitive and very few books make a profit. When I consult with a client, I tell them that my goal is to make their book competitive and as good as any comparable title. I want my client to be proud of the book that bears their name. That’s all anyone can hope for.

For the person who has survived misfortune and can articulate a program that others can follow to avoid the same challenge, the logical solution 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 fun, 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’re 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.

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

The theme of the book should be, “How I overcame terrible events and a horrible situation – and how you can too.” Your experience will have value to the reader only if they can apply the lessons to their own lives.

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