I’m going to outline a scenario. See if it sounds familiar. You’re reading an article, a very personal article, a confessional of sorts from someone who has had something go very wrong in their life. It’s moving. It might even be heartbreaking. And it’s taken something beyond courage to write the piece and allow it to be published.
And then beneath it is a small line in italics that tells you the author of the piece currently has a book available for sale.
There are variations on this theme – the article might be about something less personal but currently topical and the author, in a former life and before becoming a writer in earnest, was once an expert on the subject – but the last line is always the same. There’s a book and the only reason the writer wrote the article is because they want you to buy it.
As much as any other indie author, I understand how hard it can be for one small and insignificant voice to break through the noise of everybody else trying to do the same thing for their fifteen minutes of fame. Not just writers but musicians and mumpreneurs and a thousand other categories of people trying to achieve their dreams.
But the sob story as marketing particularly riles me. Because the idea that the writing of someone who has been through a difficult life is more worthy of being read than the writing of someone who hasn’t is just a crock. Finding a point of differentiation is the easiest way to market both a person and their work but sometimes that point of differentiation is so irrelevant and intentionally playing on emotions that my stomach turns when I see it.
The writers themselves aren’t always to blame. Sometimes it’s the publishers, publicists and press just being lazy and insisting on a narrative that is more myth than reality. JK Rowling is a case in point. A single mother on the dole and writing in a coffee shop. Because her lengthy stay in the middle class wasn’t nearly as dramatic as the brief time she spent struggling after her marriage failed.
I don’t have a sob story. I’m a reasonably well-adjusted woman, educated, lucky enough to have the love and support of my family and friends as I write and write and continue writing despite my lack of anything approaching overnight success. My defining features are being a cat woman (not a crazy cat lady!), a brainwashed-from-birth Collingwood fan and a perpetual but happy single who is determined to remain that way. I’m not poor. I’m not rich. I’m not normal because there’s no such thing. But there’s no story of divorce/rape/disfiguring disease/scam relieving me of my life savings.
And even if there was, I would not use it nor would I consent to anyone else using it as a way of marketing a book I had written. Maybe I’m naïve. Maybe I should be prepared to do anything and everything in order to get my writing the attention it deserves. Maybe I should change my author photograph to something that shows a little more of my cleavage. But I suspect the kind of people who read a book based on the author’s breasts aren’t the kind of readers I want. In fact, they’re the kind of people I go to great lengths to avoid.
The sob story as marketing especially lends itself to a particular kind of book and that, of course, is the autobiography. There are a plethora of them these days about people who haven’t done anything other than survive the same things that many, many other people have survived before them and will continue to survive in the future.
I’m not making a judgement about any of these kind of books because the thing that defines whether they should be read or not is how well they are written, not the sob story itself. I’ve read and enjoyed both Cleo and After Cleo: Came Jonah by Helen Brown. (Cleo was a kitten Helen’s family was considering adopting. After the death of her young son in a road accident, adopting her seemed like the last thing she wanted but it turned out to be crucial in the recovery process. After Cleo died, the family adopted another cat named Jonah and around the same time, Helen was diagnosed with cancer.) Both books are well worth a read.
Writing a book after a devastating life event or even just a moderately upsetting life event is becoming more and more common, so much so that I wonder if therapists are recommending it as a therapeutic technique. If so, I’m sure it’s a valid form of treatment. I’m less convinced, however, that they all need to be published.
I recently discussed a topic that appeared on one of the LinkedIn groups I’m a member of, which essentially asserted that everyone wants to write their autobiography. I proposed that those who feel the need to write their life story might consider not publishing it, just putting it in a drawer where it could wait to be discovered after their death. I want to propose the same thing for those writing books as part of their therapy.
I know some people think that everyone has a book in them but I’m not convinced that all those books are worth reading. So go ahead and write your therapy book. But then think long and hard about whether it really needs to be published.
Then again, I’m more likely to read your therapy book than a biography of a footballer and there are thousands of those. Oh, who am I to tell anyone what to do? Publish and be damned (or saved, as the case may be). Just make sure you come up with some clever marketing and spare me the sob story.