by Margot Starbuck
Have friends and family told you that you should write a book about your story?
If you have a very unique and compelling life story, it’s possible that others have told you that you should write a book. And maybe you should. I want to help you think it through as you consider your decision.
1. Are you wanting to sell to readers you don’t yet know, or is this a personal project?
First, you need to decide whether this project is meant to reach readers you don’t yet know or whether you’re capturing your personal story for you and your loved ones.
• If you’re seeking to sell lots of books to strangers, know that it’s hard. Whether you seek a traditional publisher or choose to self-publish, it’s difficult—for just about all of us!—to sell books.
• If you want to capture your personal story for family and friends, you’re spared that pressure.
2. Are you seeking a traditional publisher, or do you plan to self-publish?
Second, you need to decide whether you’ll seek a traditional publisher or whether you’ll self-publish.
• Traditional publishers can only accept 1% of the proposals they receive. And many of the 99% whose proposals are rejected can be folks with incredible stories and even those who are excellent writers. While there’s no simple formula, tradition publishers have to see 3 things in order to say “yes.” They need to see a unique and compelling concept that meets the felt needs of a reader. They need to see that the writer, with a robust and/or growing platform, is already reaching readers. And, of course, they need to see strong writing. (Which actually is the last thing they’ll see, after you’ve checked those first two boxes.) If you plan to seek a traditional publisher, your first step is to craft a strong book proposal.
If you’re planning to self-publish, you’ll need invest time, energy, and money to offer readers a well-written book that makes them keep turning pages. The writing, cover, and interior design need to be top-notch. And if you hope to sell books to strangers, you should have a strong strategy for marketing and selling your book.
3. Can you write a strong book on your own, or will you need a ghostwriter?
Third, you’ll need to decide whether you’re equipped to craft a strong manuscript or whether you’ll need a collaborator, called a ghostwriter.
• If you’re a particularly strong writer, who understands how to craft a memoir that makes readers want to keep turning pages, you may be able to write your own book, with the help of strong editors.
• If you’re not a writer, you will likely need to enlist the help of a ghostwriter. A writer’s fee can start at ten-thousand dollars, and go much higher.
4. If you intend to reach readers, do you have an effective strategy to sell books?
Fourth, whether you are among the 1% of writers pitching books to a traditional publisher who receive a contract, or whether you’re self-publishing, you need a plan to sell books.
• Today, traditional publishers expect authors to partner with them in reaching readers to sell books. Even publishers’ marketing teams don’t have a foolproof plan to sell books.
• If you’re self-publishing, you are ultimately responsible for selling each and every book. If you plan to recoup your costs, you need to be sure, in advance, that you have an effective strategy to sell books.
5. If you plan to self-publish—either as a personal project or to reach new readers—are you prepared to invest a lot of dollars?
Finally, if you plan to self-publish, you need to be prepared to spend money to produce a quality product.
Readers have been trained—by traditionally published books they’ve read—to expect excellence. (You know how it feels a little exciting when you discover a misspelled word, or botched punctuation, in a traditionally published book? It’s rare because traditional publishers have many eagle-eyed professionals reviewing the book before it goes to press.) When a book is self-published, a few misspelled words or funky punctuation can cause the reader to lose confidence in the book and set it down.
Clearly, hiring professional editors, proofreaders, and designers before publication, and possibly a marketing or PR team after publication, means that you’ll be spending lots of money to create a great book. (Tip: do not pay your neighbor’s child who’s majoring in art in college to create your cover. My daughter, a graduate of a strong design school, is a genius designer, but there is a particular art to the craft of “book covers.” Go big or go home.)
I want to see you be the best steward of your story that you can be, and that might mean publishing a book.
For years I wanted Colin Kaepernick to write a book, but in late 2021 he released a drama series created in partnership with producer Ava DuVernay and Netflix. And, in retrospect, I suspect that was the most effective way to steward that story and reach his audience!
Your story might be best shared in a book. But you also might consider converting some of your old journal entries into digital files. Or creating voice recordings that can be transcribed and edited, to create a written record of your story. Or you might invite a grandchild or neighbor to interview you and have those recordings transcribed.
Be the steward of your story,