Mar 16, 2018
Readers like learning something new. Is your life the story of Mr or Mrs Average? A plod through school, going ‘off the rails’ in your teens, running a pub, getting married, going bankrupt, getting back on your feet, getting divorced, getting rich, and retiring to an executive home in Macclesfield… or similar? A reader is probably living much the same life and won’t learn much.
Publishers know this and won’t pick up your book however literate you are. If you had name recognition, on the other hand – they love books by well-known names because readers buy them. People will buy the autobiography of Jeremy Corbyn (trust me – he’ll need a ghost) or Elon Musk or Beyoncé because they know enough about them to be interested.
So if you’re not famous, or not famous enough (yet) to have any hope of publishing your personal story the traditional way…
Think about whatever, or whoever, has most influenced you. What made you succeed in business? What’s your secret? Writers who are not celebrities HAVE sold thousands of copies. They’ve sometimes done it by describing a newsworthy event in their lives, but more often they’ve just found an original angle on the person they’ve become. Here are just three: books about parents, passion, and profession.
More than one great autobiographer takes an amused look at Mum n’Dad. Blake Morrison’s When did you last see your Father? is about filial love, and his father’s personality. J R Ackerley’s My Father and Myself recounts his research into Roger Ackerley, duplicitous tycoon, but between the lines, we discover JR’s secret life too. In Keeping Mum Brian Thompson’s wartime coming-of-age story is the background; the main thread is his mother’s increasing eccentricity.
T E Carhart wrote The Piano Shop on the Left Bank. You could say it’s a wonderful book about pianos and making music, but it’s really about T E Carhart rediscovering his own passion for both. Hawk by Helen MacDonald is about gently training and caring for a goshawk, and how the bird’s presence helped to heal a human who was grieving.
Do No Harm, by the brain surgeon Henry Marsh, is about his work. It tells us everything we need to know about an everyday hero, and no more. We don’t much care where he went to school or how he met his wife because we are over-awed by a man who can open people’s brains up knowing that an unfocused thought or a tiny diversion of his scalpel could wreck a life.
These books are beautifully written, and autobiographical – but far more than birth-to-retirement life stories. Find an angle on your life.