Jennifer Campbell: Starting and Running a Personal History Business

Call for book reviewers. See note below.
Jennifer Campbell

Book Review: Start & Run a
Personal History Business
Jennifer Campbell
Self-Counsel Press, 2011
Softcover, 179 pages, with CD for Windows

This book is on my reading guide at

There are thousands of books on how to write and how to make money writing. And there are thousands of books of memoirs and how to write memoirs. Based on my preliminary research, this is the only book I’ve found on how to turn writing memoirs into a business. Please let me know if you find others.

Whether they are called memoirists, lifestory writers, or personal historians, they do the same work: “help people tell their life stories and publish them.” Campbell takes readers through the essentials of getting paid for their work:
  • What you need to succeed.
  • Who your clients are.
  • Where to find clients.
  • How to price your product for profit.
  • Finding your niche.
  • Communicating the value of your services.
  • How to market yourself.
  • Sales and public speaking.
  • Ongoing education.
  • Listening and interviewing.
No educational degrees or coursework are required to become a personal historian; only a strong enjoyment of dealing with people, gathering information, and being creative. People with all kinds of backgrounds get into this business: teachers, writers, broadcasters, counselors, health-care workers, genealogists, scrapbookers, and people involved in eldercare.

Campbell says a personal history business has low overhead, your office can be anywhere in the world, the work is important and satisfying, there are few barriers, and it’s a young industry with unlimited potential. It can be a part-time business or a full-time business.

Prepare a business plan
She includes a personal assessment quiz to match your skills with desirable qualities. If you are ready to get started after taking the quiz, your next step is to learn everything can about the field. Search the library and Internet, find out about professional associations, and join a writing group. Then, prepare a business plan. Her business plan template includes the following questions about your potential customer:

“My target client is _______________.”
 “He or she is facing a problem about _______________.”
 “I can help him or her because _______________.”

In all, Campbell provides twenty sample forms or quizzes on the printed pages which are reproduced for downloading on the CD. The forms range from a start-up to-do list to an interview outline and include sample client agreements. The CD also includes a list of resources.

Interviewing is at the heart of it
She says the interview is the heart of personal history. “It is possible for anyone to press an ‘on’ button and ask some questions. It’s how you ask them and what you ask, and the rapport you build with your narrator that will determine the difference between a mediocre story and a special story.” As with all aspects of her book, she takes you carefully through the process of the interview: preparing yourself and your client, information gathering, time and place selection, keeping on track, family influences, and working with the frail elderly and terminally ill.

Campbell recommends developing a marketing plan that focuses on selling the benefits of your services and products. A marketing plan template helps you with that. Marketing materials include business cards, stationary, brochures, presentation kit, media kit, and business video. Related, but not under the heading of marketing, is information on setting up a website, using social media, and producing a sample book to show potential clients.

Jennifer Campbell is a professional writer, editor, personal historian, and owner/operator of Heritage Memoirs, a personal history business. She may be reached at

Photo courtesy Jennifer Campbell.

Have you turned writing memoirs into a business? What tips do you have for making it work well? Leave your comments  below.

Call for book reviewers. I’m seeking reviews of memoirs and of books on the craft of writing memoirs. Send me an email if there is a book you would like to review. 

Linda Joy Myers: Do Memoirs Have a Gender?

Guest Article by Linda Joy Myers
Linda Joy Myers

Wayne, I’m glad you are pursuing the discussion we began at the National Association of Memoir Writers' roundtable on May 12 about men and memoirs. I have followed with interest your posts at the Life Writers Forum, too.

As a therapist for the last thirty years working intimately with people of both sexes, of course I’ve observed some differences between men and women, but most of the time people challenge the stereotypes. I really grew tired of the old saw that all abusers were men and that all women were tender and more emotional and kinder and more available. I just do not see it playing out that way, although stereotypes are based on some kind of observable phenomena and a lot of subjective feelings. It is possible for both sexes to feel connected to each other's experience through empathy and compassion—we are not foreign to each other, really. We are all human, and many factors define and help to foster emotional openness, warmth, and availability for empathy. Men and women contain similar chemical hormones in our bodies, just in different amounts. I do not believe that we must walk in the exact same shoes as another to understand that person at depth.

When women could not be heard
I think for a time, particularly in the feminist-oriented world and women’s experiences before the 1960s, there has been an urge to re-balance the off-balance experiences most women have had where their voices were lost. For centuries, most books were written by men, and women had to conceal their identity to be heard--the Brontes, George Eliot, for example.

In classes, women have experienced men raising their hands more and being louder and more opinionated at times in their style of communication and comments. But the tide has turned, and I can see how you would feel the way you do through your observations of how women speak about men, that women still feel they are a minority group. Actually, we are no longer a minority, and while things still need to be addressed, women physicians in medical school now outnumber men, for instance. Things have changed a lot for women over recent decades. Granted, in some ways they have not changed enough, but it is not all the fault of men as a group.

I created the National Association of Memoir Writers the way I did—open to all—because I wanted memoir writers of both sexes to be in conversation with each other. I was urged by several women entrepreneurs to make NAMW only for women because of the statistics regarding women readers and other factors tilted toward women. But that approach didn't make sense to me. Some of the kindest, most sensitive, compassionate people I have known—and read—were men, and as the mother of sons I wanted to invite both sexes to be part of the conversation about writing, literature, and human experience. I have been given a new perspective by men that I wouldn't have had otherwise through reading their memoirs. I have learned from men about how it feels to be at war, to be the sons of fathers who don't understand them, or how it feels to be the son of a mother and how it feels to live in a male body—and through that I'm helped to become a better person, or I try to be. My best mentors and teachers have been men, and they have changed my life for the better, even saved my life in many ways. I see no difference in teaching men or women—people have individual differences and needs of course, which are not based on gender, it seems to me.

Generalizations really don't work
I don't think that every woman reacts the same way in the presence of a male voice. For some women, a male presence invites a more complex and direct emotional response, and a different kind of intellectual challenge. Just as men can be unbalanced in some of their reactions, so can women. Again, generalizations about women and men really don't work. Each person has his or her own reaction due to their own complicated psychological make-up, no matter the sex.

Perhaps what you are seeing in the literary world has been a kind of re-balancing. With your comments and pithy questions about the “women’s club” in memoir writing, you are creating a new conversation that suits this century, this time on our planet. Your voice is being heard in the memoir world, along with Jerry Waxler who has been out there for a long time with his lovely, sensitive, and intellectually interesting responses to memoirs. I recommend heartily several men’s memoirs, including the classic This Boy’s Life and Frank McCourt’s books. One of my favorites is John Lanchester’s Family Romance: A Love Story.

Dr. James Pennebaker and several of his colleagues are the ones who began the research on the healing power of memoir, and only last month I had one of the most enlivening NAMW member teleseminars of my career with Mark Matousek, whose memoirs took me on a journey that moved me profoundly.

There is much more to know and learn from the community of human beings that we all are a part of. Let’s all keep talking and keep learning from each other!

Thank you for joining the conversation in this way!

Linda Joy Myers, Ph.D., is the prize-winning author of The Power of Memoir--How to Write Your Healing Story, and Don't Call me Mother. She enjoys meeting people who are passionate about capturing the stories of their lives. She may be reached at National Association of Memoir Writers.

Photo courtesy Linda Joy Myers.

What are your reactions to Linda's take on gender and memoirs? Share your thoughts and experiences.

Mars and Venus among Memoir Writers

I have more questions than answers. 
A man at his computer.

I briefly searched the World Wide Web and found links to hundreds of memoir-writing workshops. Only three were specifically for men (I didn’t view all 1.5 million hits.) Send me the links if you find some for men. I estimate thousands of websites, blogs and forums are devoted to helping women understand and write about their memories. I found none specifically for men. The number of workshops, membership associations, forums, and individual coaches and trainers catering to men and women were more than I could count.

“It does seem that out there in the blogosphere there's a lot of pink and purple and flowers on sites devoted to writing,” Tracy Seeley, author of My Ruby Slippers, told me. “Outside the rarified world of well-known male writers who've published memoirs, there's not a lot of space or encouragement for other men to be writing their stories.” She directed me to the Men’s Story Project; helpful, but the project is not for memoir writing as such, although it could lead to that.

Do the experiences of men and women differ significantly enough to cause support for male memoirists to be minuscule, or is there something inherent in the genders?

Differences that persist
“I prefer to read memoirs by women because they are honest and often spiritual, I can relate to them better and they always teach me something,” says Isabelle Allende, whose novels have sold more than fifty million copies. “Men’s memoirs are about answers; women’s memoirs are about questions. Most male authors want to look good in their memoirs and have a place in posterity, while most women know that posterity is what happens when you no longer care. Women want to connect with others here and now, they couldn’t care less about legacy!”

The matter of questions and answers was taken up by John Gray in his Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. He theorizes (I’m not sure he proves) that men complain about problems because they want solutions, while women complain about problems because they want to be acknowledged.

The Mars-and-Venus effect gives rise to questions regarding Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha, a book of fictional confessions rather than a true memoir: Do Japanese men view geisha differently than women they might marry? Do geisha view men differently than ordinary women view men? How well does Golden pull off writing from a female perspective? How would a female have written this novel differently?

Scientific studies, many of which are controversial, declare innate differences between men and women when it comes to long-term memory, food, fashion, children, animals, emotions, communications, and health (how many men’s doctors and clinics for men are you aware?), to name a few.

Stereotypes galore
Perhaps our stereotypes of Mars and Venus have contributed to a lop-sided leaning toward Venus coaches, instructors, and workshop presenters of memoirs. Women are soft and emotional. Can men be soft and emotional? Men are tough and destructive. Can women be tough and destructive? Men are assertive and dominant. Can women be assertive and dominant? Women share and discuss problems, while men want to solve problems alone. Can those roles be switched? Where are the Mr. Moms?

Here is another stereotype: "Men tell stories of how they changed the world. Women tell stories of how the world changed them," quoted by Matilda Butler of biographer and memoirist Jill Ker Conway, the first woman president of Smith College and a Time Woman of the Year in 1975.

Butler believes women have more layers than men: “When you read women’s memoirs you see these wonderfully multi-faceted lives with more texture to write about.” Do you suppose those limitations were known by Frank McCourt (Angela’s Ashes), Tobias Wolff (This Boy’s Life), or Dinty Moore (Between Panic and Desire)? Butler instructs women on writing memoirs and is the author of Rosie’s Daughters, a book about the first women to achieve distinctive status after WWII. The title is a reference to the Rosie the Riveter character.

I’m sure you noticed I quoted only women. Send me the links if you find quotes from men on this topic.

Maybe there is a dearth of instructional support for male memoirists because the techniques for writing memoirs are the same for men and women: A good story, well-told, structurally sound, that in the end changes the writer. Maybe that’s the answer to my questions. Maybe not.

Photo courtesy Neilon Márcio Batista da Silva

How do you feel about memoir-writing support for men? Leave your comments.

Joel Friedlander: Plan Your e-Book as an Extension of Your Print Book

Joel Friedlander
Guest Article by Joel Friedlander

The influence of the internet, combined with new technologies to make it faster and easier to produce print books, has caused an explosion of interest in self-publishing. Tens of thousands of books that might not otherwise have been published have gone to press.

Most of these books will sell less than one hundred copes and I don’t see much of a downside to that. Keep in mind that many of these books are virtually private publications, done by the author for just a small group of people, family and friends, or a professional group, or as giveaways. Since other people never see or hear of these books, I don’t see why this great outpouring of stories, history, imagination and fantasy can be a bad thing.

In some ways self-publishing reminds me a bit of the great project StoryCorps that collects live recordings of people telling, in their own voice, significant stories from their lives. It’s this recording of history and ideas that have traditionally been lost that really fascinate me. Get those books out from under the bed or out of the bottom drawer of the desk and publish them. Enrich the world.

Profit is not always the main thing
Making money usually is not an issue. This might come as a surprise, but after producing books for dozens and dozens of self-publishers over the years, I’ve found that money or profit is often a very distant consideration when authors decide to publish their own works. They want to leave a record, or to promote a new idea, or to support a charity, or to enhance their standing in a professional field. There’s still nothing like the esteem you get from people when they find out you’re the author of a book, whether you published it yourself or not. And some studies have shown that the value of being the author of a book can top $100,000 to a consultant or business person.

The new technology of e-books is not a fad. It’s the future. There are a lot of forces at work right now that are propelling e-books into a prominent place in book publishing, and those forces aren’t going to change soon. The internet itself, by making communication between writers and readers easier, is having its own effect. It’s because of our networking and the connectivity that the internet provides that, for instance, can lure people with the idea of downloading an e-book in minutes, rather than getting in the car to go visit a bookstore.

E-books may become the dominant format
Between the economic advantages of e-books, the improving quality and lower price of new e-book readers, and the advantages to publishers who never have to worry about reprint costs or inventory stocking levels or shipping—books are quite heavy for the retail price they command—e-books are going to be the dominant form of books in some genres very soon.

Most self-publishers these days are using print on demand to produce print books economically. It makes sense to plan your e-book production as an extension of your print book. Partly this means a bit of extra planning in the production phase to make sure the book will translate well for e-readers, and partly it means using the final, corrected version that’s developed for print as the document from which the e-book will be created.

Almost all the sales of e-books right now are in two formats, Kindle and ePub. You should get your book converted into both formats. The Kindle format will work for the Kindle store, the largest vendor of e-books at the moment, and your ePub files will work for almost all other e-book readers. Finish your print edition first, and then use those final files for conversion to e-book formats. All the graphics have to be in line, and a lot of formatting needs to be simplified. Other than that, the most important thing is finding the right person to do the conversion for you.

Joel Friedlander is the author of A Self-Publisher’s Companion, a book designer, and the proprietor of Marin Bookworks in San Rafael, California, a publishing services company where he has helped launch many self-publishers since 1994. More on his work and his book at

What has been your experience with self-publishing in e-book or print format? Select comments to let us know.

Photo courtesy Joel Friedlander.

Sharon Lippincott: There is No Right Way to Write Your Memoir

Sharon M. Lippincott
Book Review: The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing: How to Transform Memories into Meaningful Stories
Sharon M. Lippincott
Lighthouse Point Press, 2007
Softcover, 276 pages, with bibliography and index

This book is on my reading guide at

Computer or pencil and paper? Detailed plan project or a story idea? Notes in a file folder or an index-card box? A complete life history or a few key stories?

"There is no 'right' way to do things," writes Sharon Lippincott, "but there are ways of making your work easier to understand and more interesting to read. All planning and editing guidelines are optional. Use the ones that make sense and appeal to you and ignore the rest."
A clear sense of purpose, rather than planning, should drive your writing. Planning is good but it is not a substitute for writing. At minimum, she suggests you select a framework for your memoir so you will know to whom you are writing, what effect you want from your writing, and how best to achieve that effect. Options for your framework include chronological, vignette, thematic, and scrapbook.
The basic journalism techniques of who, when, where, what, why and how will help you make your key points. Throw in some dialogue, humor, time travel and photos and you’re on your way.

“A few lines of dialogue pull readers right into the heart of a story. Even a couple of lines can make it sizzle.”

Other techniques she covers include:
  • Write without stopping. Don’t edit along the way for spelling, grammar, or accuracy. Just write.
  • Write in the first person. This is not egotistical or self-centered. And it avoids confusion.
  • Write like you talk. It gives a natural tone to your stories and is like telling a story to a friend.
  • Write like a child. This means with “wonder and enthusiasm, not childish language.”
  • After you’ve finished the first draft let it rest for a while and then go back to polish the details.
In her chapter on writing about secrets and shadows, she asks you to consider whether you have the right to tell the dark and private stories and whether exposing the secrets will harm relationships among family and friends. Writing about the dark side can help you learn about yourself, help in healing, give depth to your stories, and inspire or teach. She suggests telling your stories to a trusted friend and possibly recasting your written stories out of respect for those involved. Many times, less is better. Unless you are writing a tell-all book about a celebrity, it is better to keep some things private.

Similarly, on stories that wounded you, she says to write them and decide later whether to publish them. If you publish them be sure to tell about your feelings rather than inflict punishment on others. Or, write the stories and then burn them. You have the constitutional right in the United States to write anything you want, as long as it’s not libelous. Using good judgment is preferred to harming others. You can tell the truth, but not all the truth is worth telling.

Sharon Lippincott is the author of two nonfiction books and hundreds of short stories, vignettes, essays, blog posts and articles. She is a writing coach and teaches at Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes at Carnegie Mellon University. She is co-founder of the Life Writers Forum on YahooGroups and sits on the board of the National Association of Memoir Writers. She may be reached at

Photo courtesy Sharon Lippincott.

Where are you on your memoir-writing journey? Tell us how you went from planning to writing and how it benefited your results. Select comments below or send an email.