More retirees are self-publishing their memoirs as family legacy
Experts say seniors aided by affordable access to technology that enables production of professional-looking books.
San Jose Mercury News
SAN JOSE, Calif. — Eighty-three-year-old Betty Chiang has never taken a writing class in her life, but that didn't stop her from publishing a memoir.
Her son jokes that the family has found it quite a stretch to think of their Chinese-born matriarch as an author. Still Chiang, whose career was in catering and food service, spent four years writing and publishing "Immigrant: A Memoir by Betty Chiang," which came off the press this summer.
Since then, she has given copies to her relatives and sold about 50 books to her friends at Channing House, the independent-living home in Palo Alto, Calif., where she resides.
The softcover book has a professional look to it, including glossy cover, sturdy binding, nice paper and good reproductions of marvelous family photos dating back to the early 20th century.
Chiang is among a growing number of first-time, self-published authors in the 65-and-older age group. AJ McDonald, a spokesman at Lulu.com, one of the popular websites providing DIY publishing tools, says 17 percent of the 1.1 million people who have used the site are seniors. (Of those, 6 percent have even published e-books.)
Experts credit the growing ranks of noncommercial memoirs to a convergence of two forces: a powerful desire felt by many older people to impart their wisdom to a younger generation, and affordable access to technology that enables production of professional-looking volumes without any need for the author to jump through hoops in the publishing world and risk getting a pile of rejection letters from houses whose primary goal is selling books, not accommodating first-time writers.
"I want the world to know my story," Chiang says. "My father's death was a rock in my heart. I want my grandkids to know what happened."
Arthur Chiang, 54, of Moss Beach, Calif., is quick to say his mom "isn't really a writer." Still, he and his girlfriend, neighbors and friends helped her with the project, serving as editors, tech consultants and writing coaches. In the book, she details her life experiences — from her birth in Shanghai in 1928 through her country's war with Japan, her father's death in 1949 as a prisoner of war, her move to the United States and her marriage, family and career. So what if the writing is at times a bit dry or clunky?
"I learned a little more about my mother's life," Arthur Chiang says, "and now it's all together in one place. This is a solid accounting of her life to be passed down, and it gave my mother a purpose in writing it."
Elizabeth Fishel comes at self-published memoirs from a different perspective. She has been teaching journalism at the University of California-Berkeley for 20 years and also has taught memoir-writing out of her Oakland, Calif., home during that same period.
Fishel says memoirs are hotter than ever, and older writers have jumped on the bandwagon, often with help from their web-savvy kids or grandkids. Thanks to what she calls the "Oprah-fication" of our society, people feel comfortable now telling all, and the memoirs are largely replacing autobiographical novels as the vehicles. She says, "People are just more willing to come out emotionally than they were 30 years ago."
Then, add in an aging population.
"Older folks go through this life review," Fishel says. "A lot of seniors are at home and are filled with memories. They reflect on turning points in their lives. And many are motivated to write it down and pass along these lessons. They want to share this gift for posterity."
The accessibility of self-publishing tools online is enabling self-publishing "in leaps and bounds," Fishel says. The ability to upload photographs and design and print hard- or softcover books is relatively easy and affordable. "You just wouldn't have seen any of this 20 years ago, because the technology wasn't there," she says.
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Some older writers aspire to do more than just hand out their memoirs as family gifts.
Ronita Johnson, 63, of Pleasant Hill, Calif., says she has spent almost $25,000 to self-publish the soon-to-be-released "Coming to Forgiveness: A Daughter's Story of Race, Rage and Religion" (www.comingtoforgiveness.com). A little of that money went to a publishing website, but most went toward creating a highly polished product: Johnson hired editors, a photographer and a book designer.
She considered enlisting a New York agent to help find a commercial publisher for her tale of growing up in the South while being mentally and physically abused by her father, who was a minister.
But one agent was frank enough to tell her, it would be nearly impossible for her to get picked up by a publishing agency. And though she talked with other agents, "it wasn't encouraging," Johnson says.
Still, she was determined to get her story into print; she wanted to take her world of hurt and use the writing process as a way to achieve "energetic spiritual healing." Practically, she figures she may be able to recoup her expenses by selling the memoir at her church, Oakland, Calif's Heart and Soul Center of Light, and through her global network of friends. She thinks they will be eager to read about her journey from anger to compassion.
She found the tools for publishing the 300 books coming in her first print run at CreateSpace.com, a division of Amazon. Johnson says she realized that, "with all this technology, you really can do this."
And now, Johnston reflects on living with the pain, putting it down on paper and in a month or two, sharing her story with the world.
"It is my dream to use this book as a catalyst," Johnston says, for others to "discover their own journey, ... trust their life path and see only beauty when they look in the mirror."
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FOR MORE ON SELF-PUBLISHING
— Lulu: Self-publishing tools for books and photo books, how-to's, tips and pricing
— CreateSpace: Amazon.com affiliate for self-publishing books, CDs, DVDs, video downloads and MP3s
— iUniverse: Self-publishing tools for books, with plans starting at $599
— Blurb: Tools for self-publishing photo books
— MyPublisher: Tools for self-publishing photo books, photo calendars, cards and scrapbook pages
— Shutterfly: Tools for photo-sharing and self-publishing photo books, cards and stationary
— "The Fine Print of Self-Publishing: Everything You Need to Know About the Costs, Contracts, and Process of Self-Publishing by Mark Levine (Fourth edition, 2011). Bascom Hill Publishing Group, $16.95 (paperback).
— "The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing: Everything You Need to Know to Write, Publish, Promote and Sell Your Own Book by Marilyn Ross and Sue Collier. (2010) Writers Digest Books. $24.99 (paperback).
— "Dan Poynter's Self-Publishing Manual, Volume 2: How to Write, Print and Sell Your Own Book" by Dan Poynter (2009). Para Publishing. $14.95 (paperback).
— "Aiming at Amazon: The New Business of Self Publishing, or How to Publish Your Books with Print on Demand and Online Book Marketing on Amazon.com "by Aaron Shepard (2007). Shepard Publications. $20 (paperback).
— "Self-Publishing For Dummies" by Jason R. Rich (2006). For Dummies. $19.99 (paperback).