Should I write my personal story? And what about publishing it?

Several years ago I went to a writing conference that drew in authors and agents, and it was a good conference…until Sunday morning. The last panel was composed of mainly agents, discussing publishing. They worked it up to a feverish point and concluded by expressing the view that the publishing world had collapsed, there had been major changes, and basically we attendees were probably not going to be published — and self-publishing was frowned upon by the traditional publishing world. The room fell silent. Wait, I just spent a thousand dollars to come here and discover there’s no hope? It was a downer that ruined the whole event, and I left for home stunned.

I’m always skeptical about conferences now. Agents come…looking for that author and story that’s going to make money. It’s business, after all. They look for people with platforms — national champions, football heroes, a country music star, the frat boy who spent a summer in Central Park with the homeless, someone with a lot of media attention. Someone who can draw crowds and produce a best-selling book.

I was reminded of this the other day when I read Chip’s blog at MacGregor Literary. “Should I write my cool personal story?” I encourage you to read the whole thing, but if you don’t have time, here’s the gist of it.

1. There’s very little market for personal story books.

2. It’s where we are in today’s publishing economy. No matter how successful these books used to be…publishers just aren’t selling enough copies of personal story books to make it worthwhile anymore.

3. Network TV is filled with personal stories (reality shows), there are 20 million blogs, and the web is filled with people who want to tell the world about their stories. There are cool personal stories everywhere — and they are FREE!

4. The internet is killing nonfiction book sales. People can find the answers to their questions and self-help needs on the web for free.

5. That’s taken away the incentive people have to purchase a personal story book, unless there is a great sense of celebrity or media associated with the book.

Sounds like a real downer, huh?

But Chip goes on to say MORE. And it’s the same thing I’ve heard at creative nonfiction conferences and workshops and the same thing I teach in every venue I have an opportunity to speak.

Consider turning your personal story inside out. Don’t focus on your personal story — focus on the principles for living that come out of your story. Don’t just use the book to tell what happened — use the book to share the principles for living you’ve learned, and use your story to illustrate those principles.

In other words, it’s not all about you. Remember the reader. Draw the reader in, give the reader something, teach the reader what you learned while going through your personal experience. Reflect. Make something of your story.

I will never forget…at the first Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference in 2008, I went through a manuscript critiquing session with Dinty W. Moore. We began discussing my manuscript. Then, he tossed it aside and with a sneer said, “Who cares?” My mouth dropped open. “Who cares?” I got his point. And it was the best thing that ever happened to me.

IT’S NOT ALL ABOUT YOU. Get over yourself. Give the reader something. Because if we don’t have readers, we don’t have anything. The reader needs to walk away after reading your story feeling as though he bought something worthwhile. He has spent time with you (gotten to know you as a character) and learned with you and from you something that will help him in life and gained insight that will be valuable if he ever encounters a situation similar to yours. It’s not about you — it’s about the reader.

I’ve said it a million times: Writing that is all about you will never see the light of day in print.

(And self-publishing, Print on Demand, is very likely the way to go in today’s publishing environment.)

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One Comment on “Should I write my personal story? And what about publishing it?”

  1. Agatha Nolen says:

    Kathy,
    this was sure timely. My “personal story” that I’ve been working on for about 2 years morphed into a novel of the lessons learned on a New York vacation this Summer! Exactly what your post is about. And also interestingly, at the AUTHORS CIRCLE meeting at Meridees last Thursday two authors talked about their success/happiness with CREATESPACE for self-publishing. Sounds definitely like the way to go. Thanks for your insight into the industry and your encouragement to authors.


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