Writing and publishing your memoirs

29th September 2005 at 01:00

At the TES we know that some of you toy with the idea of writing books about your teaching experiences. Anyone who's been in a school for a long time has plenty of good stories. If you're one of the many who has a book like that gestating inside you, here are some ideas.

Tell stories
We all like stories. So don't just say you once had a good inspection. Tell a story about what one of the inspectors did one day. Relate the anecdotes you used to take home. Generate some life and emotion.

Why do it?
Why not? You'll enjoy it. You'll have a laugh along the way, and the chances are you'll also shed a few tears on to the page. It's great exercise for the emotions, and if you go out and about to do research, reviving your memories and friendships, who knows where that'll lead. What you mustn't even think about is doing it for money, because the chances of making any are vanishingly small.

How commercial publishing works
An author makes money like this. A publisher likes your manuscript and offers you a modest percentage of each book's sale price. Usually, there's a cash advance in anticipation of sales. The publisher then spends pots of money converting your manuscript into a pile of beautiful volumes for sale. It follows that no publisher is going to take on a book that isn't going to sell enough copies to make a profit.

No fortune, alas
Ask yourself: is my memoir called, "Funny Kids I Have Known" or "Twenty Years of Primary Headship in Dewsbury" going to sell thousands of copies? Is a commercial publisher going to take it on? The brutal answer is no to both questions.

Gervase Phinn is one. Also, if your book is brilliantly written and feisty, and will make readers who have never heard of your school turn the pages and gasp, maybe there's an outside chance that your staffroom stories will be commercially published. If you're well known for other achievements you could have a head start. But the risk's too great for most publishers when there are safer bets queueing up.

Worth a try?
But don't be put off. If you want to try the commercial route, first get the current Writers' and Artists' Yearbook (A amp; C Black; beware of similar but inferior publications). Look carefully at the lists of publishers and literary agents. Their entries state how they want to be approached and the sorts of books they are interested in; it's no use sending your idea or book to someone who explicitly doesn't want it. Also note all the Yearbook's advice about how to prepare and send your work. Do nothing until your Yearbook is well thumbed. From Pitch to Publication, by literary agent Carole Blake (Piatkus) also contains sound and detailed advice about how to present your project to give it the best chance of success.

Or publish it yourself
It's not difficult. Again, there's good advice in the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook. Take particular note of the warnings about "Vanity publishers" (firms who will publish your work at your expense). The best advice is that you can do yourself anything (and more, and better) that any vanity publisher can.
See more on this in my entry on Writing the history of your school.
Also see Johnathon Clifford's free advice pack:

An investment
Self-publishing, naturally, costs money. Still, every time you sell one of your books you'll get a little of that money back. Be realistic, though. Few self-publishers recoup all their investment, let alone make a profit. But that's not why you're doing it, right?

A critical eye
If you self-publish, don't skip the editing stage. Persuade a literate, meticulous and brutally honest friend to read the text if you can't pay a professional. Do the same before you approach a publisher or agent. Do it more than once. A spellcheck is not enough.

If you do other kinds of freelance work, and pay tax on your earnings, then it could be worth your while to get good advice about how, and whether, your financial outlay on self-publishing affects your tax position.


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