Paying to get your biography done

Maria de Jong (Left) and Karen Jarvis, biographers from Life Stories.
DAVID WHITE/FAIRFAX NZ

Maria de Jong (Left) and Karen Jarvis, biographers from Life Stories.

Maria de Jong is a biographer for hire with Life Stories, earning her living helping people turn their life stories into books.

It's a growing industry, with an increasingly wealthy, and ageing, population providing a customer base of older folk with one eye on posterity.

Biography-writing is a labour intensive business, and professional biographies don't come cheap.

By 2036, one in 4.5 Kiwis will be aged 65 or over.

For a full biography, with all the interviewing, fact-checking, writing, design, and a print run of 100 shop-quality books, costs anywhere from $10,000-$20,000, says de Jong.

People could do a DIY biography, and many do, but some who have done well in life are honest enough to realise if any of their descendents is ever going to read their biographies, they need to hire a professional ghost writer.

"It's all in the writing," says de Jong. "No-one will read it if it is badly written, even if the pictures are pretty and the paper is good quality."

"It can seem like a lot of money, but there is a lot of work that goes into a biography.'

Many of the books Life Stories has created are of successful people who know their skills, their limitations, and are used to paying for professional help.

They pay a professional biographer because they don't want to leave an amateurish testament to their life's journey, and with property prices having risen so high, biographers' fees barely make a dent in th estates being left to the next generation.

They include farmers and business people, including Ian Devereux, the founder of the globally successful Rocklabs business, whose biography To Cut a Long Story Short has just been published.

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Those who've had a crack at writing their memoirs with disappointing results someones ask de Jong to edit their efforts, and get their books designed and printed.

The labour can be less in such cases, so the cost can fall as low as $5000.

Rather than being driven by arrogance, often people have to overcome feelings of doubt over their worthiness to pick up the phone to a biographer.

"It's quite a big thing for people to open up their lives and to talk to people," she says. "Most New Zealanders are pretty humble and often have to be pushed into it by their children."

Some are less reticent.

Before he made it to Parliament, National Party MP, and now Minister for Commerce Paul Goldsmith made his money writing biographies for business people and politicians like Tony Gibbs and Don Brash.

Part of the cost is the sheer number of books people need in order to be able to distribute it widely enough not to offend anyone, or damage their chances of it remaining in circulation in the family.

"People typically want 80 as a minimum. If they don't do 80-100, it is generally not enough, and they come back for more," says de Jong, who also teaches memoir-writing classes.

It's not only to family that people leave their biographical legacies. Many gift copies to their local libraries, and the National Library so it is there for future generations of historians to draw on.

Biographers-for-hire have to have a mix of skills, and tact. Many people need their memories fact-checked, and historical context researched, says de Jong.

Some can require a lot of coaxing to tell their stories. Getting information out of people who profess to want their biographies written can be like getting blood out of a stone, de Jong says, though as a former journalist, she's skilled at interviewing.

And there are often difficult or troubling sources of people's lives that they do not want to gloss over, but need handling with tact, especially if some of the protagonists are not yet dead.

For people who want to use the biography genre to create a special keepsake, there's another tier, which produces memoir books suitable for more private distribution.

One company is Forget-Me-Not Life Stories.

Kate McCarthy, one of Forget-Me-Not's biographers says the company's motivation is to help families capture the rich experiences that will otherwise be lost. The life stories are presented in luxurious, coffee table style books, which can be crafted using a flexible binding so that more chapters can be added as lives are lived.

"If you don't tell your own story, after two generations, it is lost," McCarthy says.

Shorter biographies with a limited number of books for family circulation can start at $5500, but McCarthy says giving quotes is hard, as the hours to produce each biography vary.

Often people paying for her services want younger generations to know how different their lives were, including their experiences in war, and depression-era New Zealand.

The experience often helps people reflect on the contribution they have made in life, she says.

 

As in all walks of life, there's an online start-up looking to slash the cost of biography using a digital process.

And one British company is hoping to use the internet to make a profit from under-cutting professional biographers using an online process.

Story Terrace uses an online system to connect people with jobbing biographers who will produce hardcover books of 45-150 pages for clients costing $800-$4000 (NZ$1410-$7055).

It says it will do biographies for anyone, anywhere in the world, including New Zealand, but postage may add to the price.

It's even developed a range for Harrods' super-rich customers, with the "art memoir book" costing anywhere up to pounds17,500 (NZ$30,800).

 - Stuff

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