Frequently asked questions about why and how to publish a memoir

by Jerry Waxler

Read my book, Memoir Revolution, about how turning your life into a story can change the world.

Once you write your memoir, you are ready to find readers. That means creating a book, and letting potential readers know why they should read it. Here are some answers to Frequently Asked Questions about the ins and outs of taking that next step.

Why should I seek readers?

There are many reasons why memoir writers want readers. You may want to be known or validated. You may want to make money. You may hope your story will teach a lesson, or leave a legacy, or share a witness to history.

My favorite reason for wanting to publish is that when you extend your mind toward strangers, you must become a smart communicator, shaping your thoughts so they are understandable. As you form your life into a story that can be understood by others, you become a storyteller. What does that mean? A storyteller provides the right amount of background, artfully steering between the extremes of too much information and too little. From the beginning, your protagonist draws readers in and motivates them to turn the page. After you find even one stranger who is willing to read your story, you have assumed a new role, as a contributor to the vast pool of literature that makes us a literate civilization.

Why would strangers read about my life?

People read stories for all kinds of reasons: for entertainment, information, curiosity, and escape. Memoirs break down barriers, inviting readers to set aside their own lives for a few hours while they walk in yours. Even ordinary lives, when written in a well-crafted story, can fulfill the reader’s interest.

Is it possible to actually publish this thing?

Traditionally, to publish a book you convinced someone to edit, print, and distribute your work. These days, if no company will perform these services for you, you can do them yourself. To decide how to steer through all these options, you need to do plenty of research and learn the pros and cons of each path.

Self Publishing Pros and Cons

Self publishing requires that you do everything yourself. In addition to writing the book, you need to figure out a title, hire a cover designer and an editor, choose a printer. And then once you print it, you must convince people to buy it.

Publishing the book puts you in complete control, and after you hold the book in your hands, you will be a “Publisher.” For some people, this is a fulfilling accomplishment in its own right. If you want to call yourself a Publisher then you have been born at a perfect time. It has never been easier or cheaper. But it is not free. It takes money and time, and very few self-published authors even break even, let alone make a profit.

Commercial Publishing Pros and Cons

To publish commercially, the hurdles are formidable. You must write a detailed proposal in which you describe what your book is about, who will buy it and how many you will sell. The proposal must be good enough to make some agent reach for the phone to offer you a contract. But it’s up to you to find that agent. This requires an astonishing reservoir of tenacity. Many successful writers have persisted despite hundreds of rejections.

If one agrees to represent you, they must then convince a publisher that your book will be a good investment. You then will work with the publisher to finish and edit the book, and then after the writing is complete, the selling begins. The publisher who buys your proposal expects you to arrange speaking engagements and book signings, and actively promote yourself on the internet.

Caught in the middle, which path should I take?

Some writers feel clear about which route to take. For example, if you are a lecturer, and simply want to offer your audiences a printed version of your material, self publishing is an obvious choice. At the other extreme, if you dream of the day your novel will be a bestseller, you will continue to look for an agent until you find one.

However, many writers are indecisive. They would be delighted to see their book on the shelf at bookstores, but don’t know how to get into the system. Naturally, there is the quality issue. Writers must constantly strive to improve their craft and product. But there is no way to know if the fault is quality or salesmanship. Writers face this choice: a) continue to develop the book, b) strive harder to find an agent, or c) publish it themselves.

There are many factors to weigh, such as the amount of money and effort you are willing to invest at various stages, your beliefs about which path is most rewarding, and your choice of mentors. There are strong advocates of each path. You will also be governed by your patience or lack of it. It all takes time. Common wisdom is that from the time you start proposing a book for commercial publication, two years or more could elapse before the book is on the shelf. Whereas if you publish it yourself, you could be shipping it electronically in weeks.

How will eBooks affect my choices?

Authors can now can distribute electrons instead of paper, which completely changes the economics. No longer must we cut trees, print books, ship them to bookstores and customers. However, the transition will mean we must relinquish our relationship with those old familiar physical objects.

I feel a sort of warmth, connection, and even reverence when I think of all the years I spent pulling books down from the bookshelf at the library or bookstore, turning them over, thumbing through them. The tactile relationship seems so intimately associated in my mind with the whole business of reading. What would it have been like to grow up without that?  I’m not sure if the coming world of eBooks will be better or worse, but I am sure it will be different.

Will the Publishing Industry die?

While options have increased exponentially, it requires specialized skills to move a book from your desk to the hands of readers. To do it effectively, we need help from experts. Collectively, those experts are called the Publishing Industry. The economics and technology are changing, but we continue to need specialists who know how to reach readers.

How much will I make?

Financial rewards are tantalizing and like the proverbial carrot, draw us on, but in reality most authors earn a modest sum from their sale to a commercial publisher and self-publishers often spend more money than they earn.

For more answers to frequently asked questions see these articles:

Answers to Frequently asked questions about “How to write a memoir”

Frequently asked questions about “Should I write a memoir?”

Frequently expressed fears about publishing a memoir

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my short, step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.