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Do You Really Need to Write a Memoir or Biography?

Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing advocate and author of nonfiction books, eBooks, and audiobooks. She is a former trade newspaper editor.

Your legacy book may have more personal value than market value

Your legacy book may have more personal value than market value

The Legacy Book

I get a lot of questions from first-time authors who are interested in self publishing what I would call a “legacy” book. This is usually their autobiography or memoir, or the biography of family members. They’ve never published anything before, yet seem ready to attempt an epic work, often in a short time frame. Usually, too, there’s a phrase somewhere in the email similar to, “If I could make a few book sales (or a little money), that would be great.”

Then I throw a bucket of cold water reality on their dreams. Why?

Personal Value Versus Market Value

There’s really nothing wrong with wanting to memorialize one’s personal or family history through the written word and pictures. In fact, I’d encourage it as a gift to your future generations. I want to emphasize “your” future generations.

Here’s where these authors get mixed up. Due to their inexperience with publishing, they equate the personal value of their stories with market value. Since these first-time authors often don’t have an author platform, or fan base, they have no pool of prospects who are anxious to buy and read their books. They don’t realize that the market value of the stories of random, non-celebrity people like themselves is very low. No one will be searching for their books or stories on Amazon or Google. And even if there were people looking for legacy books like these, there are thousands of other choices available. It’s very competitive.

My First and Only Book

Legacy authors often tell me that this work is their “first and maybe only/last book.” Immediately I know I’m working with someone who has no idea of the scope of the project they are attempting.

As always, the media liability issues of libel, slander, privacy rights, and more apply to their “true” stories. Just add that to the list of things they don’t know they don’t know when they decide to publish in the real world.

I also know I’m dealing with a newbie because they often inform me that their books are long, like I’ll be impressed. I critiqued one such book manuscript that was 175,000 words. Another said his family’s book was 500 pages. That’s a long book that could be up to 125,000 to 150,000 words. These newbies err in equating words per pound of printed book with value. While there are plenty of popular books with heavy word counts, those that are lighter are more aligned with the publishing marketplace. A traditionally published novel could be in the range of 40,000 to 70,000 words, with about 100,000 words being extraordinarily long.

These authors also don’t know they might need serious editing to make it market worthy. When I’ve read manuscripts of this type, the level of detail can be excruciating to read. These manuscripts can also be play-by-play accounts of mundane or insignificant events. This is often what makes them so long.

And they don’t know how to develop a relevant story line derived from real events, which is an advanced writing skill. So they just put in everything because they may have a grandma who will read it and be upset if that one special Christmas dinner held decades ago, and a description of the whole menu, wasn’t included. This points to the real problem.

These authors don’t care if their books don’t make the grade because they’re not writing for readers in the general public. They’re writing for themselves and their own inner circle, and they’ve mixed up the personal and market value.

Selling a Few Copies

I love that these legacy authors almost always tell me that they don’t care if they make any money with it, but it would be great if they could sell a few copies. Then I confirm that a “few” copies, as in count on one hand, is probably right. Because they are not writing for any market other than themselves, they might sell a copy or two to grandpa and grandma, parents, aunts, uncles, kids, and friends.

Really I think these authors, if you can legitimately call them authors, just want a nice presentation of their own or their family’s story in a printed book, usually with photos. So I encourage them to use self publishing platforms like Lulu which offer high quality book printing on coated paper stock which is great for photo printing. They can sell it direct to family and friends through Lulu’s print on demand ordering. If they want it sell it on Amazon to satisfy their egos, Lulu can do that for them, too.

Sometimes I even suggest that they use a service like Shutterfly which helps people create a print on demand hard cover photo book. They can also include text to accompany their precious photos. I’ve even done this myself with beautiful results. These make great gifts for their family and friends, who are the real market for these books.

For others, I've even suggested that they hire a videographer to put together a video of them telling their story. Talented videographers can ask great questions to help guide the subject in telling their story and focusing on the most important things. This is a much richer experience than any book for both the storyteller and viewers. And if they truly aren't interested in making money, they could post it on YouTube to share with the world.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2020 Heidi Thorne


Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on September 08, 2020:

Adrienne, that's exactly why memoirs and biographies are not on my TBR (to be read) list. I can't remember the last time I read one, other than as an editor.

I think people see seemingly random people getting book deals with publishers for ordinary stories and think, "Hmm, I could do that, too." What they don't understand is that these random ordinary people may have extraordinary connections to the publishing world.

Thanks for chiming in! Have a wonderful day!

Adrienne Farricelli on September 05, 2020:

Hi Heidi, I can sense why many readers wouldn't be interested in books where the writer writes for the sole purpose of benefiting themselves. Unless it's somebody I know, or someone who has undergone some unique experience or a person I am curious about (such as a celebrity) I would pass reading a biography.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 04, 2020:

Thanks, Denise! I know, a lot of people do want to do this. Appreciate you stopping by. Take care!

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on August 04, 2020:

This is really good information and good to keep in mind as so many are thinking of their memoirs.



Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 02, 2020:

Hi Dora! Agreed, understanding your purpose and your circumstances is so critical for these projects. Glad you found this insight helpful. Thanks so much for stopping by and have a wonderful day!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 02, 2020:

Pamela, I do hope that it's an "eye opener" for those folks! :) I'm just glad to see that you have a healthy humility about your own book. BTW, I won't be writing a book about my life either. :-D Thanks for stopping by and adding that perspective! Have a beautiful day!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 02, 2020:

MG, agreed, these books need to be written with the reader in mind. Otherwise, it will just be a private work. Your example proves that someone at any age can start their writing career. Thanks so much for sharing that! Have a great day!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 02, 2020:

Hi Donna! You're right. These books could offer support and comfort to others in a similar situation. But the problem is getting it to them.

My experience and research has estimated that about 1% of the author's fan base (social media followers, email or blog subscribers, networking contacts, etc.) will actually buy an author's book. The problem with many of these authors, even if they have a great story, is that they have no buyers for their books. Building a fan base can take years... and so can the sales. So if the person wants to sell 100 books, they'd easily need to have a community 10,000 loyal fans who follow their work.

Plus, these books are usually one-off efforts. So the authors usually lose interest in maintaining their fan bases after a while, and the fans lose interest, too. So the sales die.

It's a daunting challenge for sure! Thanks for bringing up that important issue. Have a beautiful day!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 02, 2020:

Oh, Flourish! I'm sure your uncle was quite a character. I can only imagine. :)

I have a videographer friend who does these legacy type videos, especially for seniors. They are so engaging! The person's personality really shines through. Of course, it takes a great videographer who understands the storytelling art. But when it's done right, it's a treasure for the family, and sometimes for the rest of the world, too.

And you're right, even if it's family, that doesn't mean family will want to read a book like this, except out of obligation.

Thanks so much for sharing your story on family stories! Have a lovely day!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 02, 2020:

Linda, that's wonderful that your father thought to write down these things. You've definitely found, as I emphasized in the article, that these works have a lot of value for the family and friends of the writer. But the outside world might not have the context to find it interesting.

Thanks so much for sharing your experience! Have a beautiful day!

CaribTales on July 31, 2020:

Heidi, your title question grabbed me and I like you answer. We need to be clear on the reason we write, and if it's not for money, you certainly tell it like it is. Thanks for sharing such valuable insight.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on July 31, 2020:

I would hope your article would be a real eyeopener for those that want to "sell a few copies" of their first ever book. Heidi, I think you explained this situation quite well. I won't be contacting you about mine. LOL

MG Singh emge from Singapore on July 31, 2020:

Very interesting article.I remember the famous Indian writer Nirad C. Chaudhary rose to fame when he wrote his life story titled " autobiography of an unknown Indian.". He wrote his first book when he was past 50 and died at the age of 99 and then after his book was published recognized as India's finest writer. Writing a memoir or an autobiography is definitely a plus point if you can incorporate it in such a way that it attracts readership.

Donna Herron from USA on July 31, 2020:

This is another wonderful article, Heidi! We have a family friend who self-published a memoir about losing her child to a rare illness. It probably will not sell a huge amount of copies, but offers comfort and support to other families who are facing a similar situation. Which brings up the question of how large should your target audience be to consider publishing an account of a personal experience?

FlourishAnyway from USA on July 30, 2020:

Oh, yes, you have said it! My dear departed mentally ill uncle published two volumes of autobiographical gibberish, some of it real and some of it delusion with famous people mixed in. No one knows exactly what is what. He co-opted famous people’s quotes and their experiences and made them his own with a twist. If you ever met him, you’d never forget him. Even so, he was much more entertaining verbally and I actually enjoyed listening to him talk. I like your idea of memorializing family history through video instead. Get it in photos and people’s own words and voiceover narrations with music transitions. Post to YouTube. Most people don’t want to read this type of thing unless they are family and then they still may not want to.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on July 30, 2020:

You've shared good advice, as always. This article is of personal interest to me. I've recently started going through my deceased father's things and have found the memoir that he was creating. I've started reading it and have learned some fascinating facts about my grandfather that I didn't know. I very much doubt whether anyone outside the family would be interested in the memoir, as you mention in your article, but it's a wonderful link to the past for me.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on July 30, 2020:

Miebakagh, they sure do go out of style! But I think we're getting better with web/cloud use that isn't so device-dependent. Thanks for chiming in!

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on July 30, 2020:

Agreed that the cassettes and video goes out of fashion. Much Better device replace the old so to speak. That's the advantage of technology. Great, it goes on and on.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on July 30, 2020:

Liz, the technology question is a real problem! Luckily, I think it's becoming less so as more file storage is web/cloud based and less device based.

Appreciate you adding that aspect to the conversation! Have a great day!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on July 30, 2020:

Priya, true, they just don't understand that brevity can be powerful, and that editors can help them turn their raw writing into art. Thanks for emphasizing that point! Have a great day!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on July 30, 2020:

Miebakagh, yes, writing these can be personally fulfilling. But if you plan to make it marketable, it needs to be good for the reader, too.

Thanks for highlighting that point! Have a great day!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on July 30, 2020:

Hey, Bill! Congrats on being the first commenter!

I'm glad you wrote your memoir, too. It truly was a good read. But then that wasn't your first book writing rodeo. You had done multiple books and online writing for years before you attempted it.

Both memoirs and autobiographies are advanced writing forms. But these naive writers think it's just dumping every possible detail into the book without rhyme or reason.

It's 80s here, but the high humidity is challenging for sure. I'd go for 65 every day, too.

Stay cool and thanks for sharing your wisdom as always!

Liz Westwood from UK on July 30, 2020:

Having recently edited a book, which was mainly autobiographical for a family member, i have read your article with great interest. I thought your suggestions of other ways to leave a legacy were excellent. My only reservation might be that modern technology has moved on so quickly that there might be a risk of an audio or video format becoming obsolete. This comes to mind, as I am clearing the loft and have come across cassette and video tapes, that are now no longer in regular use.

Priya Barua on July 30, 2020:

I agree plenty of authors equate more words with more value when in reality, they need a good editor to strike out all the extraneous things.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on July 30, 2020:

I like the idea. But writing for my readers woukd seem best. Thanks.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on July 30, 2020:

I'm first to comment! How about that? The early bird is snatching this worm, and proud of it.

Yes to everything you wrote.

I'm glad I wrote my memoir. Hopefully some of my family will feel the same, if they ever get around to reading it. lol It was a cleansing process for me, and I'm happy I wrote it. I may or may not write another one. It may or may not be read by anyone. It's all good. I enjoy writing so there you go.

More of this 90's crap today, and then a cool off. I am not fond of 90's. Truth be told, I'm not fond of 80's. I would be perfectly happy with 65 day after day after day. :)

Happy Thursday my friend!