I frequently get proposals telling me about someone’s cool personal story. Right now, I’m looking at a New York cop who busted several organized crime figures, a guy who spent his life in the bush, the child of an on-the-road professional musician, a former Islamic soldier who came to see the world differently, and a very talented poet and songwriter who survived breast cancer. These are all fairly interesting stories, and I doubt very much I’ll take any of them on. Why? Because there’s very little market for personal story books.
Here’s what I consider to be a hard truth: You may have led a fascinating life, seen incredible things, and even had miracles happen to you. But in today’s market, there’s not a ton of interest in publishing this information in book form. And while you may not like that truth, the fact is, it’s where we are in today’s publishing economy. No matter how successful these books used to be, or how interesting your story is to you, publishers just aren’t selling enough copies of personal story books to make it worthwhile anymore.
I mention this because I’ve been seeing more and more personal story proposals cross my desk. (In hard economic times, MORE people create proposals, apparently thinking they’re going to cash in and make some easy money. Ha!) But right now network television is filled with reality shows — and these are basically personal stories. There are 20 million blogs — many of them people sharing their stories. In fact, the web is filled with people who want to tell the world about their stories. So there are cool personal stories everywhere, and they’re free. And 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. I represented Lisa Beamer’s post-9/11 memoir, LET’S ROLL, a few years ago, then did Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis’ UP, UP AND AWAY, a couple years ago sold THROUGH THE STORM authored by Britney Spears’ mom, Lynne, and last year hit the New York Times list with Mike Hingson’s THUNDER DOG. All of those books did well, but a couple had major celebrities tied to them, and the other two were about one of the biggest media stories in our nation’s history. Would anyone have published Lisa’s account of her life with Todd if he hadn’t been killed while heroically trying to take back a plane from Islamic terrorists? No, they wouldn’t. Would a publisher be willing to listen to a Louisiana mom talk about the lessons she’s learned if her eldest child hadn’t become one of the world’s biggest music stars? No way.
You see, in our contemporary culture, there are a million great stories. It’s rare for one of them to stand out enough that it needs a book to share that story with the world. It’s why I’ve rejected at least a dozen books from finalists on various reality TV shows (Biggest Loser, Survivor, America’s Next Top Model, etc). In the market’s view, someone who has come close on one of those shows has HAD their fifteen minutes of fame. A book isn’t going to put any extra time on that clock. If you have a great story, you may want to share it in other venues (such as the internet) in order to get your message out.
Speakers seem to have the hardest time hearing this lesson — “But I’ve got a GREAT story! People who hear me speak at a conference all rave about me. Their lives change. They’re never the same. They wet their pants in excitement!” Uh-huh. I think that’s great. But unless you’re going to be there, to tell your story to potential readers and hand-sell each copy, that doesn’t do the publisher much good. And that’s why even busy speakers these days are finding it tough to get a deal on their personal story book. (And that’s why I routinely encourage busy speakers to consider self-publishing. An audience in a room CAN be persuaded to buy a book… and the speaker will make more on those self-pubbed copies than if he or she were getting a royalty anyway.)
Instead, if you’ve got this cool story that needs to be told, consider turning it inside out. In other words, 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. You see, people still want to live effectively. They want to learn how to lose weight, or make money, or be successful, or find peace with God. But they don’t want to buy your book and just hear about your life. That said, they’re still willing to buy a book that offers a big promise, that answers their questions, that solves the big problems of life. So if you feel you’ve got some sort of dynamite story, don’t focus on re-telling everyone what happened in your life. Instead, focus on the lessons learned, write about them, and use some of your story as examples in your text. A much more effective method these days — and, if you have a platform, far more likely to help you land a publishing deal.
And one more word… What’s clear recently is that the internet is killing nonfiction book sales. People have discovered they can find those same answers on the web for free, so nonfiction sales are in often struggling right now. Publishers, authors, and agents are trying to stay ahead of that curve by figuring out what nonfiction books readers ARE willing to buy… but the prospects in nonfiction self-help are sketchy. People still want answers to the evergreen questions (how can I be healthy? how can I make money money? how can I be at peace? how can I know God? how can I ever be as cool as Chip if I’m not Scottish?), but we’re not sure they’re going to continue buying those answers in book form if they can get something just as good for free. There are still some cool stories that get told (we’re working with Kylie Bisutti to share her story of moving from being a top Victoria’s Secret model to talking with women about modesty and body image), but without celebrity or significant media attention, it’s an uphill climb.
So before you decide to pen that cool personal story about how you kicked drugs, lost weight, found your muse, made a fortune, and learned to glow in the dark, be aware that there may not be anyone interested in reading it in a book.