Write Your Memoirs… First, Decide How to Publish

You want to write your memoirs? Great! It can be a very satisfying project. One of the first things to decide is how you are going to publish them, as that will shape many details of creation. There are essentially three approaches to publishing your book: very simply, like for family members; self-publishing, as I have done for many years: and traditional publishing, which will require that you start by finding an agent.

[1] Memoirs for Family and Friends

If you are writing solely for family and friends, you can use the very simplest methods of publishing. This could be handwritten pages (if your handwriting is better than mine). You can make a few sets by having copies made. That’s extremely minimal but you can at least get something done. A lot of people think about writing memoirs but don’t ever get started, so by doing this you would be ahead of the crowd.

A more fruitful method would be to type on a computer. This has the advantage that you can rearrange or add things. Suppose you are writing chronologically and have finished writing about your childhood but you suddenly remember that time in fifth grade when you hit a home run with the bases loaded. On a computer, it’s easy to insert that story among your other fifth-grade tales. (I hope you don’t have one that I do from that year, about how half of my elementary school burned down one night. Come to think of it, was that fourth grade? If I can’t figure it by googling or from my notes, I wouldn’t dither about when it was in my memoirs, as the exact date is not that important to my story.)

Back to this simple method.  You can insert photos by making copies of any legible photos you have. Scanning them in and then using photo editing software like Photoshop or the one I often use, its simpler cousin Photoshop Elements, gives you countless choices. I once spent many happy hours making photo collages of family members. A free online photo program I haven’t used but many people have is called Canva. Once you have some photos, you can pick a simple method to include them.

When a cousin came to visit me a few years ago, we looked through my physical childhood photos and selected about twenty. I scanned them onto my laptop, using my printer which is also a scanner/copier. Then I made a PDF with patterned green background on the pages and the photos at slight angles. It was easy to email it to our other cousins. Here is one 1950s photo from that little project.

My husband quite often makes short hard-cover photo books for birthday or holiday gifts. He does this at a website called Shutterfly. He got on their mailing list and he watches for their frequently-offered bargains. It’s amazingly reasonable even for one or a few copies.

[2] Self-Publishing Your Memoirs

I self-published my first book Living with Llamas back in 1985, under the publishing company name Hartworks which my husband and I continue to use.  The first book did well and as a result, every book I have written since then has been self-published. Some have done better than others in terms of outreach and income, which reflects two things: that I am better at writing books than at promoting them and that some topics had an intrinsically broader interest than others.

To be successful at self-publishing, you need to develop a variety of skills:

Writing

You need to be a self-starter or at least have a close friend or family member who checks up on you from time to time. The stronger your motivation, the more likely you are to keep going. If you are a good writer, so much the better but if you aren’t all that great, you could hire an editor.

You really should have a computer or at least a tablet that you can write on. While some authors have written books on public library computers, it’s best to have your own so you can write at any time.

Scrivener: By writers, for writers.There are many writing programs you could use. I’ve used MS Word and its free clone LibreOffice, but now I write in a program called Scrivener. It’s great for organizing. Clicking on the image takes you to its website, in a new tab.

Some people prefer to use dictation software, such as Dragon Naturally Speaking. Recently, when I hurt one of my thumbs while playing with my dog, I thought I might need to dictate but I’m getting along fine with typing. Still, some people absolutely swear by dictation.

Proofreading and Formatting

Proofreading will inevitably catch errors. I do my first-pass proofreading by myself, and I have found that reading aloud is a great way to catch things like using the great word great three times in a sentence, as I just did here. I normally move on to formatting after this because once the book is formatted, I have several writer friends (including my husband) who will give the book an eagle eye examination. They catch most things.  I typically give them a PDF version. You can also hire a proofreader.

To format a memoir, I use a special program which does a really good job for both physical books and electronic formats. It’s called Vellum. It’s only available for Mac computers, and I’ve kept an old Mac I rarely use for anything else, just for formatting my books. That website explains it. I like the choices I have for inserting my photographs. Also, if I think of a way I want to edit a paragraph once I’m in Vellum, it’s easy to do. Here is an example showing a page from my memoir about spending the summer of 1963 on a work camp in Sierra Leone, West Africa. I could center the photo or put it on the other side while in Vellum. I could add captions or a different border. Fun!


If you don’t have a Mac there are other programs you could use. MS Word can do quite a lot of formatting.

Once you have had some advance readers read it, you will need to make whatever corrections they come up with, providing you agree with their thoughts, of course! One friend I have used as an advanced reader says I don’t use nearly enough commas. I have to evaluate where I want to follow her ideas and where I don’t.

Promoting Your Memoirs

This involves quite a few steps.  I think I will do another blog post about it. Once I do, I’ll link to it here.

[3] Traditional Publishing

If you are famous, mainstream publishers will be more interested in your memoirs than if you are not. I am not famous, though my father was. In addition, there are some topics that they will be more interested in. I have not experienced the level of suffering that might make a good tale for traditional publishers.

I do admit to being biased against going this route because I have been self-publishing for so many decades that I don’t have an inclination to go traditional. Some writers feel that they haven’t been REALLY published unless it’s traditional. It’s certainly true that with the growth of self-publishing a lot of mediocre, badly edited books are out there, but since I know mine are well done I don’t worry about that.

Which Approach Will You Use for Your Memoirs?

If you read books or websites about creating memoirs, some of them will assume you are going to take one of these three routes. They may not even mention the other ways. For example, a book about writing and selling a memoir may assume you will use a traditional publisher. One about writing your life story may assume it is for your children. When I get around to reviewing books and sites on this general topic, I will make it clear what approach any given book or website is taking.

You can start working on your memoirs without deciding the approach, but after a while it will come up. I hope these ideas will help you decide how to write your memoirs.

14 thoughts on “Write Your Memoirs… First, Decide How to Publish”

  1. Yes to POD. I have used print on demand for years (well, decades actually). I haven’t done it since Amazon changed from Createspace to KDP but I believe it will be about the same.

    Scrivener is great for organizing! I even do to-do lists in it.

  2. One of the easiest ways to see if you can write a memoir about yourself is to just start writing. You should be able to tell after a couple of hours or so if this is a project for you at this time. Hey, I didn’t start mine till I was a LOT older than you, guessing from your photo. Of course, if you haven’t changed your gravatar in a very long time, then maybe we are closer in age. But if your self doubt is still strong after writing for a while, then put memoirs on your bucket list for later. Don’t have a bucket list? Start one!

  3. Glad it was helpful to you. Your relative probably knows a lot more about how to do it than you do, and since he knows lots of journalists he will have some good contacts for promoting his new book.

  4. Hi Zana, I enjoyed your post with the options for publishing your memoirs and it has reminded me I need to write some more for mine. I attended a half-day workshop on writing your story, a few months back, but alas I still have not written much. I was looking into Kindle and maybe self-publishing. Can you set your book up for print on demand? I have been trying Scrivener and I like the way you can move your ideas or chapters around. I can jump around and write about experiences are I remember them.

    Row

  5. This is so timely for me!  My daughter is a landscaper and considering submitting a book so wrote in college for publishing.  I don’t know anything about self publishing or the other route.  This was very informative.  It gets me thinking again.  I think she’ll go the self-publishing route.  

  6. This was so timely for me. My daughter is a landscaper and considering publishing a book she had to write in college. I have heard about self-publishing and never knew much about it. It sounds so fascinating! Thank you for all of your information!

  7. Zana, thanks for sharing your insights to writing memoirs and how to publish them. I never knew how it was done. I read the Amazon Kindle publishing process a while back. I found your post interesting because one of my sisters’-in-law husband’s memoirs in coming out in the fall. He has written several books already including a book on Mongolia; Nomad Empire of Eternal Blue Sky. He was a USAID worker in Vietnam who ended up working as an AP reporter covering the war. He then became the Newsweek Desk Officer in Sydney, Australia. So he knows lots of journalists. His new book should be an interesting read, which I am looking forward to reading.

  8. You can use both MS Word and Photoshop, one at a time. I suggest  that when you have a section or a chapter written in Word, then scan in your photos and work with them in Photoshop or in another graphics program. Size them at 300 dpi if you plan to make physical copies of your book but if you are making a KIndleor PDF then you can do about 60 dpi.

    The reason I think it’s best to get the writing done first is that then you can size the images to fit around the related text. Use captions or note as  you please.

  9. Hello Zana, 

    Without any confusion your blog is excellent. In your post, you included the methods of writing memoirs. I want to write my book on my family and friends. I will use the computer to write my book because it can help me adjusting some memories which I forgot. Your post will help me to write my book because you gave clear information about writing memoirs simply. Thanks a lot for your post. I will share your post with my friends. Can I use MS word and Photoshop together for adjusting some pictures of my family and friends in my book? 

  10. Interesting write up this is and surely I enjoyed the read. I think my life is interesting enough to be written on and as much as I am willing to write on it, I always feel a sense of self doubt and incompetency. I really do wish I can write a memoir about myself and I will try to check out most of the tools highlighted on this post. Thanks

  11. Yes, I think you should consider following your dream! Your English in your comment is perfectly clear. If you aren’t sure if your life is interesting enough, try writing some and have your friends read it… your most honest friends. Most people have interesting tales to tell.

    I didn’t talk about money in this post, but as you can imagine this is not a way to earn a lot fast. But it also can be done for very little money.

  12. Love your post and thank you for the Vellum tips. I have a Mac and I have been pondering about writing a book for a while now. Two things stop me, first I am not English and even though I want to write in English I think it won’t be good enough for anyone to read and the second thing I guess is myself and the lack of confidence anyone would ever want to read what I have to say. Still, I love your post and made me think again that maybe I should follow my dream.

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