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2. Who Are You Writing For?

Your quick and easy-to-read guide to life-story writing, by Anna Foster

At the outset, think about your readership. It will influence the material you include, your writing style and how you distribute copies.

For Family and Friends

Most life stories are written for family and friends. As the facts may well be familiar — weddings, births etc — they will want to hear your slant on them.

Incidents from childhood, early schooldays and first loves, are riveting material for those who met you after these events. Include as many relatives and friends as possible. Everyone likes to be in a book.

Sensitive Areas

It can be so easy to offend someone unintentionally by leaving them out, printing an unflattering photograph or getting facts wrong. Check names and dates.

Be careful about the impact of sensitive material on your audience. Imagine the reaction of people as they read about your interpretation of their divorce. Show them a draft copy of what you intend to write first.

Occasionally, someone decides that he or she does not want their book to be read until after their death. This may be the only way they can reveal an old affair or a love-child.

If you are considering writing a book to break the news about a secret part of your life, ask yourself if this fair on the individuals concerned. You won't be there to answer their questions.

For Your Local Community

Your audience may extend to the local community or a specialist group of people.

You may include fewer tales about home life, but more anecdotes relating to your career and colleagues. You can even request contributions from friends or colleagues.

How will you distribute your book? Will you give it away or sell it? On a local basis, you can sell through bookshops, gift shops, art galleries and the corner shop.

Compile a list of local retail outlets and ask them if they would be interested in selling your book. Give a copy to your local library.

For the General Public

If you seek a wider audience still, find a (general) commercial publisher.

General publishers have the marketing and distribution networks needed to get your book into major retailers.

How do you find a general publisher? In the first instance, write a synopsis of your intended book and a couple of sample chapters, and consult the industry bible, The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook (A & C Black), for appropriate publishers and further guidance.

Some life stories that would not attract a general publisher may be legitimately self-published. Even so, you will probably have to market the book yourself and you are unlikely to make much, if any, money.

Vanity Publishing or Self-Publishing

Vanity publishing is when you pay for the publication of a book in order to sell it. It is still frowned upon by the publishing industry and you are likely to lose money.

Self-publishing is when you pay for the book to be produced but not necessarily in order to sell it.

The distinction between the two is grey, so apply some common sense. Here are a few pointers:

  1. Search on the internet for suitable companies, read testimonials from their customers and find out at the start how much it will cost.
  2. When you choose a company, do not print more copies than you can realistically distribute or sell.
  3. Make sure you understand the exact terms of the deal. Will the publisher sell your book for you? How many copies will you receive? Will you have to buy additional copies from them?

It’s worth repeating that vanity and self-publishers simply do not have the clout to promote your book to the largest retailers, such as W.H. Smith or Waterstone’s.

This book is aimed primarily at people writing their memoirs for family and friends, or a local audience. It won’t tell you how to produce a commercial winner.

Case study — Elizabeth Publishes at 90

Over the years Elizabeth had given many talks to her Local Fellowship Group. As she approached her 90th birthday, she decided she would like to produce a volume of these addresses.

She had originally typed the pages on an electric typewriter so now she had them professionally transcribed and edited.

Her family urged her to include stories of her childhood in Scotland and wartime years in the cipher section of the Army. She duly wrote the chapters and chose around 30 photographs as illustration.

With members of the Fellowship showing interest in the coming publication, Elizabeth decided to have 100 copies printed by YouByYou Books – a handful as gifts for her family and the rest for distribution to the Fellowship Group.

She priced the books at £10 and sold all the copies. She recouped half her total costs.

Was the project a success or a failure? Had Elizabeth wished to make a profit, then clearly it was a failure. However, she had decided to spend some of her life savings on the publication and, therefore, getting half her money back felt like a bonus.

Do you have any questions from this section? Please email me and I will try to help you.