Several years ago, a successful entrepreneur approached me about ghostwriting his autobiography. His goal was to share his business acumen and personal values with employees and family members; given his accomplishments, it's likely the book would have found an audience. We discussed the project in detail, but it quickly became apparent that he couldn't spend the time needed for interviews and subsequent edits.
This man wasn't alone in wanting to write his memoirs: the urge to tell one's life story seems to spreading. The Association of Personal Historians, a trade group for those who produce personal histories, has grown from 12 members at its founding in 1995 to over 700 today. Approximately half the members create print biographies, with the remainder divided between video and audio biographies.
Subjects initiate their own memoirs in some instances, but while it's tempting to attribute the growing interest in memoirs to self-obsessed Baby Boomers, industry sources say that motivation accounts for a relatively small part of their business. R.J. McHatton, owner of Inventive Productions LLC in Bellevue, Wash., started filming video biographies as a side business 19 years ago and switched to a full-time service one-and-a-half years ago. He assumed initially that affluent seniors or business owners would be his primary market. "But the audience is the market," says McHatton. "As boomers are getting into their 50s and 60s, they're starting to think about their parents' and grandparents' legacies. So it's the kids and grandkids buying this service for their parents and grandparents as the subjects."
Bob Norris, founder of The Personal History Group in Lombard, Ill., provides print biographies with the audio interviews on accompanying CDs. Norris has found that many parents don't commission their own biographies because "there is a certain amount of modesty" and a concern that their lives haven't been particularly interesting. When their children commission the memoir, however, parents often say it's an honor to participate because someone wanted to hear their story. Consequently, the subjects' children commission 60 percent to 70 percent of Norris's projects.
Some financial advisors believe that memoirs can play an important role in sharing formative experiences and values between the generations. Randy Kim, CLU, ChFC and owner of R. W. Kim and Company in Bellevue, Wash., started urging clients to consider autobiographies several years ago, and he now refers clients exclusively to McHatton. "Years ago the price for a high quality video production was out of sight," says Kim. "But today's technology makes it much more cost-effective. I plan to discuss biographies in every annual review with my clients."
Mark LaSpisa, CFP and principal of Vermillion Financial Advisors in South Barrington, Ill., works with clients between ages 50 and 70. As dynasty-planning techniques became more popular over the past decade, he found that the focus of estate planning changed from leaving assets to the next generation to setting up transfers for multiple generations. In turn, the longer horizons led clients to consider other aspects of their legacies, such as passing on the family's values and history.
LaSpisa introduces clients to the idea of writing a memoir by posing a hypothetical scenario. "I ask them if they would rather leave their heirs $1 million or $995,000 and their life story," he says. "When it's presented that way, most clients start realizing that documenting the family history is important. My clients understand mortality. They've had friends and spouses die; their health may not be the best. There is a saying: When an elderly person dies, the library is closed--that history is gone forever." Most clients react positively to the idea and LaSpisa estimates that 10 to 15 have commissioned the project, but that is still less than 10 percent of clients who expressed an initial interest.
Kim's experience has been that clients are frequently "somewhat mesmerized" by the idea, but that reaction is often tempered by self-doubt. Some clients doubt that their story is sufficiently interesting, and many are camera-shy. Others are concerned about the cost and counter that they can create the video themselves. Kim acknowledges their concerns but points out the value of having professionals create the memoir. "There is nothing like having a professional do it," he says. "The images, interview, and story all come together in harmony.
An interview or series of interviews is the initial step in capturing the subject's story, whether the memoir will appear in audio, print, video or multiple media. Consequently, the interviewer's ability to draw out the subject is critical to uncovering interesting material. Jane Wollman Rusoff, a journalist and author in Los Angeles, Calif., had over 20 years of interviewing experience--including numerous celebrity interviews--before launching Family Star Productions in 2005. She interviews her subjects by phone or in person; the process usually requires a one-hour initial interview and one to two hours of follow-up conversations as needed. In Rusoff's experience, a subject's lack of celebrity is not an obstacle to a compelling story. "I don't think there is any life that doesn't lend itself to a legacy profile," she says.
Inventive Productions' initial interviews take two to three hours, and the interviewer provides subjects with cue cards and a teleprompter so they don't have to rehearse their responses. The interview starts with a personal timeline: parents and grandparents, childhood, school years, work and military careers. That's interesting information for descendants, but McHatton believes the most effective part of the video is what he calls the "wisdom section." In this latter part of the video, subjects share their thoughts on why they are who they are, the defining moments of their lives, and who had the most influence on them. "We ask them about the regrets or unfulfilled dreams they might have," says McHatton. "What advice do they want to give their descendants who aren't even born yet?"
The Personal History Group (PHG) takes a two-stage approach. The first stage typically requires eight to 12 hours of interviews in four-hour sessions. PHG compiles this material into an unedited transcript; subjects can stop the process at this stage if they wish and PHG will deliver the raw transcript and the audio files. In the second stage, PHG takes the material through editing to book format. Norris says that the time required from the first interview through to book delivery is six to 12 months, depending largely on how quickly the subject completes each phase.
Production costs vary with the medium selected, and each of the biographers cited gives subjects several options. Rusoff's average cost for a written Legacy Profile is $2,500. Inventive Productions offers five production packages; the average charge for a full video biography is around $6,000. PHG's fees range from $3,500 to $5,000 for the first stage services; $7,000 to $11,000 for a biography; and its professionally written and illustrated "Miography" costs between $20,000 and $30,000.
There are no credentials or required training to write memoirs, so clients will want to see work samples and get referrals. Advisors and clients interested in locating historians for potential projects can search the Association of Personal Historians' online membership directory at www.personalhistorians.org. For firsthand experience with the process, consider commissioning the biographer. Both Kim and LaSpisa have done this for their family members, and the insights they gained into the process sparked their enthusiasm for recommending memoirs to clients.
Admittedly, suggesting that clients create personal histories falls outside the usual range of financial services, but it can benefit both advisors and clients. Rusoff suggests introducing the idea of writing a memoir when the advisor is learning about the client in the first part of the relationship. She notes that the memoirs give advisors additional insights into a client's life, values, and what their dreams were and might still be. In her experience, memoirs encourage a deeper bond with clients for advisors seeking consultative relationships. Kim shares that assessment: "I don't think that an advisor whose model is driven by the numbers--that is, their goal is to be best in class at investing money--will benefit from this. But an advisor who has a relationship-based practice should consider this."
Tell Your Story
Some resources for the memoir-oriented client:
o Association of Personal Historians: www.personalhistorians.org
o Family Star Productions: www.familystarproductions.com
o Inventive Productions: www.inventiveproductions.com
o The Personal History Group: www.thepersonalhistorygroup.com
Additionally, clients who wish to write their own memoirs can find dozens of how-to guides on Amazon.com.--EM
Ed McCarthy, CFP is a freelance writer in Pascoag, RI.