I get asked about how I wrote a book about my mental illness all the time. My book is Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar, and I published it in 2016. It has done very well for me, and I don’t regret writing the book for a moment. That said, writing a book about mental illness is not for the faint of heart. It’s harder than you think, and many people find it less rewarding than they think. If you carefully think ahead, though, you can avoid some of the pitfalls.
Why Do You Want to Write a Book About Mental Illness?
There are many reasons not to write a book about your mental illness, but only basically one reason to write a book about your mental illness:
Do not write a story of your mental illness:
- For the money (more on that later)
- For other people
- To get famous
Really, the only reason to write a book about your mental illness is for you. You might help other people; you might not. You might sell many copies; you might not. You might get positive reviews; you might not. The only thing that matters is if you wrote it for you. Because if you did, you can withstand all the rest of it.
What Will Your Book About Mental Illness Be About?
Many people want to write about their lives because “everyone says they should.” Well, here’s a secret: most people’s lives aren’t nearly as interesting as they think.
Remember that guy who cut off his own arm with a pen knife in order to free himself from some rocks and survive? Remember those guys in the mountains who ate some of their party in order to survive? Remember those extraordinary people who rescued a soccer team stuck in a cave in Thailand?
Those are people with an interesting, once-in-many-lifetimes story. Most people can never say that, in comparison.
And that’s okay. But make no mistake, that’s what constitutes an “interesting” story that “must” be written.
If you want to write your story, it will likely come down to the telling of it, not the facts themselves, as the facts themselves are mostly not nearly as interesting as you think. (This is normal, by the way. We all think we’re more interesting than we are. That’s just because our life means more to us than anyone else — and that’s a good thing.) This means the quality of your writing really matters. I.e., you better be a good writer.
One other note, be very careful about including other people in your book. In my experience, people truly dislike seeing themselves in print, even when you don’t say a bad thing about them. You should probably get their permission — even if you choose to protect their identity with another name. (Also, think carefully about the implications of going public with your mental illness too.)
Writing a Book About Your Mental Illness Will Be Very, Very Hard
I had written millions (yes, millions) of words before I wrote a book about mental illness. I was a professional writer when I did it. I essentially knew what I was getting into. Most people do not.
So, consider these things:
- How many quality words do you write a day? A book is about 75,000 words. How long will it really take you to write that, given things like interruptions, occasional writer’s block, illness, other distractions, etc.? Have you ever attempted anything even half that length?
- How and where will you do your writing? Do you have a desk at home? Do you have quiet? Do you have time?
- Are you prepared to scrape your soul? Yes, that’s right, scrape your soul. Your book won’t matter unless you do.
- Do you have the supports in place to physically and psychologically write what you need?
- How will you produce something of such quality and uniqueness that others will want to read it?
- This will be harder than you think. Remember that.
At this point, many people realize that writing a book about their mental illness isn’t very reasonable, so they look to a ghostwriter. Well, I’m happy to ghostwrite your project for you. The trouble is, it will cost you at least $25,000. Yes, that’s a going rate. No, you will not make that money back in sales. I’ve been involved in these projects, and I can tell you that ghostwriters are only really for famous or rich people. Sorry. (But hey, if you happen to be in that group, let’s talk.)
How Will You Publish the Book About Your Mental Illness?
Okay, so let’s say you’ve gotten past the last section, and you’ve decided you can take this on. Great. Have you considered publication?
Here are some things to know:
- If you wish to be published by a major publishing house, you will need an agent. You may or may not be able to get one, and getting one can take (seriously) years. Agents get thousands of applications every year and might only pick one or two out of the pile.
- If you get an agent, the agent must sell your book to a publishing house. This can be difficult in and of itself.
- As a first-time author, you’ll likely receive no advance for your work.
- You will make way less money than you think after paying people like your agent.
- And remember, while publishing houses used to support authors and put money into promotion, that is a rare thing these days. Count on promoting and selling the book yourself.
And remember: no real publisher will ask for any money from you up-front! If that is being asked of you, you’re into a hybrid publishing scenario or what people used to call “vanity presses.” I don’t tend to like this setup, but I’ll leave that to you.
Of course, you might also select hybrid publishing or self-publishing. Both have plusses and minuses. I would suggest that most authors with a decent following (tens of thousands of people, say) will likely make the most money self-publishing. But that’s just my opinion. For an expert opinion on the plusses and minuses of the various forms of publishing, see here.
Who Will Edit and Lay Out Your Book? Who Will Create the Cover?
These things are very important. Without a good editor, you will sound like an idiot. That’s nothing personal; that’s just because you will make mistakes that you won’t see, but another person will. I have edited and proofed books. It’s not easy. Get the best person you can afford for this. (Note that if you are being published by a publishing house, they will provide this for you.)
Expect many edit passes with a good editor. You will write. They will make/suggest edits. You will get their feedback and incorporate it. You will send it back, and the process will repeat itself. This takes more time than you think.
Someone also has to lay out your book. This is where someone formats your document for publication (you’ll need it both for eBooks and paper books). Don’t skip this step, or the end product won’t be readable. (Again, if you are being published by a publishing house, they will provide this.)
You also need a cover. This is critical. This is what will make you stand out online and in person. Don’t underrate the importance of this. Hire someone to make your cover who is skilled in this field (and in your genre), whose work you like, and who can walk you through it. (A publishing house will also provide this.)
(A quick note on what a publishing house provides: A publishing house may provide these things, but they may also charge you for those services. This will come out of your cut of the book sales. Note that some people never even sell enough to pay this off.)
How Will You Make Money from Your Book About Your Mental Illness?
Okay, so say you’ve read the above and have the resources and have the people and have decided to move forward. Great. But will you see money from all this work?
Even if you self-publish on a shoestring, you may not sell enough copies to make that money back without a decent following. Again, we’re talking tens of thousands of people. Selling a book is not easy. You will need a marketing plan that takes you from prepublication to months after publication. You may need help with this.
Keep in mind, you might write the book for six months and then work on it for another six, but selling is a forever-after job. And it’s a hard job.
The break-even point will be different for everyone, but you might want to calculate it ahead of time and see if you can reasonably sell that many books.
Should You Really Write a Book About Your Mental Illness?
Look, I’ve outlined just a few of the issues to consider before writing a book about your mental illness. There really is so much to know. And while it sometimes seems like a great idea to see your life print, some people do regret it in the end because of the money, or the effort, or they just regret being so open about their lives in a book. Remember, once you do this, there is no taking it back.
All that being said, writing a book about your mental illness might be the right thing for you! I did it, and others have too. Yes, it’s hard, but for some people, it’s worth it. Just think carefully about the roadblocks, because there are many of them. Think carefully about what you want to make public because it can bite you later. And create a realistic plan on how you want to get your words out there and sell them.
But it is kind of a magical thing to be able to hold your words on paper. That’s probably something to remember too.
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