How to Start a Life History Writing Business
One of the first businesses I started was writing life histories, so I was excited to discover that a friend is considering starting her own memoir writing business.
“How much did you charge to write a life history?” she asked me in an email this very morning. What lovely memories that simple question raised! As I was emailing her back, I realized that I have heaps of ideas about how to start a life history writing business – and I didn’t want to cram them all into one email. So, below are my tips. Of course I can’t tell you every last little thing you need to know about starting a small business, but I do share how I attracted clients and actually made money from my little home based business venture…
The best way to learn how to start a business in any niche is to just go ahead and do it. The experience you gain will be priceless, and you’ll learn more by just jumping in than you ever could in a business course or self-employment workshop.
That said, however, there’s a lot to be said for picking another entrepreneur’s brains for tips and ideas…
7 Tips for Starting a Life History Writing Business
Before we jump into my business and marketing ideas, pause for a moment. Remember that this isn’t just a wonderful and important small business idea. You are embarking on a journey with someone – your client – who has secrets, hurts, joys, and precious memories.
Walk softly with your clients, and hold their memories gently. Be a scribe who has a message from the king. Here’s one of my favorite writing quotations, from 8 Tips on How to Write Your Life Story:
“Take a deep breath and tell us your deepest, darkest secret, so we can wipe our brow and know that we’re not alone. Write like you have a message from the king.” – Alan Watts.
Write like you have a message from the king. Isn’t that awesome? Encourage the people who hire you to write their life histories to share their secrets. Help them see this will help their readers – their family and friends – see that they are not alone.
Ok! Onwards – let’s learn how to start a business writing life histories…
1. Find out the going rate for memoir writers
I don’t remember how much I charged when I started my life history writing business. That was way back in 1997! I think it was $15 an hour; today I personally would charge $30 per hour today because I have tons of writing experience. I also have three university degrees as well as a couple years’ experience writing life histories – so I believe I am worth it.
If you’re not sure how much to charge – or whether you should charge by the memoir or by the hour – do an internet search for phrases such as “companies that write life histories” and “hire someone to write my life story.” Search with both the quotation marks and without — you’ll get different results. Explore the websites of companies that write life histories, email the business owners and ask how much they charge.
In Freelance Writing Pay Rates – Newspaper and Magazine Articles I give an overview of what writers charge for their services.
You might even hire a memoirist to write your life history. It would be valuable to go through the experience as a client. Not only will this give you the client’s perspective of what it’s like to hire a small business owner to write your life history, it’ll also give you the inside scoop on how other memoirists work.
2. Know what memoir writing services already exist in your area
Years after I stopped writing life histories I met a couple who created gorgeous books that pictorially and textually represented people’s lives. They charged a TON of money, like $2,000 for the whole book. They charge per project, I believe – I think they gave an estimate of at least $2,000, and it would increase depending on the length of the book, time spent writing, time spent interviewing, etc. Their life history writing business was for wealthy people who could afford to spend at least $2,000 on their memoirs.
When you’re thinking about starting a life history writing business, research what already exists. There may be a few businesses already active in your area – and that’s okay! Don’t let that stop you from starting a business writing memoirs. Just find your niche. Don’t duplicate the services that are already there; create your own specific life history writing niche.
3. Be clear about how much you charge to write a life history
If you charge by the hour, it’s really important to tell clients upfront how much they can expect to spend (give an estimate!). I invoiced my clients every two weeks because I wanted them to see how much time I was spending on their memoirs. I didn’t want to hit them with a $400 bill at the end. I also kept track of how I spent every hour, and gave them my “timesheet’ along with my invoice.
Being professional and even a little formal is one of the most important tips on how to start a business. Whether you’re writing life histories or mowing the lawn, you need to establish and maintain boundaries. This is healthy for both you and your client. Money is one of the trickiest things to handle for small business owners – especially when the business is as personal as writing a life history for someone.
4. Create a “demo” or sample life history
Do a test run by writing someone’s memoir for free. Before you begin, ask them if you can use their life history as a demo….because you’ll want to show prospective clients an example of what you will provide if they hire you.
As your life history writing business unfolds, you should be gathering a variety of memoirs that you created. These demo memoirs should be in several different price ranges to show prospective clients all the possibilities. Make sure you get permission before you use a client’s life history as a demonstration, though!
5. Write a “how to write your memoirs” booklet for clients
As part of my service, I gave clients a booklet called “How to Write the Story of Your Life.”
This was to prompt their memories and get their creative juices flowing. They hired me to write their life histories, so they didn’t actually need my booklet – it was just to help them start thinking about their past.
In my booklet, I even included reactions of family and friends after they read the memoir. Here’s one of them: “Dad, we loved reading and rereading your book. There was so very much about you and your family I never knew, and I feel I know you so much better having read your life history.”
6. Consider starting a blog about writing life histories
I haven’t done an internet search for “life history blogs”, but I bet there are many of them! Anytime you’re starting a business, you should consider starting a blog. Blogs can drive traffic to your business, which will help you get clients. Even better for writers, blogs can help you improve your writing skills and learn more about being a professional memoirist. Blogs are also a great source of information for people who want to learn more about writing their own life history.
For an example of a blog post about writing life histories, read 4 Tips for Telling the Story of Your Life.
7. Teach memoir writing workshops and classes
One of the best ways to get clients – because I can’t write an article about how to start a business writing life histories without talking about marketing! – is to conduct free workshops and classes.
I offered several memoir writing classes through my local community center, and was always surprised when they filled up. I used my “How to Write the Story of Your Life” booklet as the structure of my workshops, and I sold copies of that booklet to people who couldn’t afford or didn’t want to hire me.
What to Do Next
Read The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr. Do not assume that just because you’re not writing your own memoir, you don’t need to learn how to write a life history! If you want to start a business writing life histories, then you need to become an expert in writing life histories. And how do you become an expert? First, by doing. Second, by reading how others did it.
“Show not so much how you suffer in long passages, but how you survive,” advises Karr. “Use humor or an interjecting adult voice to help a reader over the dark places.”
Interview a memoirist. This is probably the best way to get solid, helpful tips on how to start a business writing life histories. Contact someone who is actually “in the biz” and interview them. They’d be happy to share their wisdom and information – especially if you offer to buy them lunch or a coffee.
Read You Write, They Pay: How to Build a Thriving Writing Business From Nothing by Susan Anderson. Remember that you are starting a BUSINESS. In this book you’ll learn how to approach projects when you don’t think you know anything about the topic, how to get paid, how to get good clients (who pay you well!), and how to find work when you’re just starting out. This book isn’t specifically geared towards starting a life history business, but it will help you learn how to approach writing professionally.
I welcome your thoughts below. I can’t offer business advice, but you may find it helpful to share your ideas. If you want to incorporate freelance writing into your life history writing business, read 8 Things You Need to Know About Succeeding as a Freelance Writer.
Happy writing, fellow scribes!