Local publisher and author shares why biographies and memoirs are perennial favourites


The Pig and Whistle lounge was packed with booklovers during the lively speaker programme which headlined at the 18th annual Bathurst Book Fair on Sunday, April 30. In the morning schedule, author and photojournalist Marion Whitehead interviewed the author and publisher of Footprint Press, David Hilton-Barber about biographies and why they are perennial favourites with the reading public.

David Hilton-Barber was in conversation with Marion Whitehead about biographies and why they are perennial favourites with the reading public at the Bathurst Book Fair’s speaker programme hosted at the Pig and Whistle lounge on Sunday. Picture: FAITH QINGA

Whitehead started the conversation with asking about the difference between biographies, autobiographies and memoirs. The historian said the distinction between memoirs and biographies has become blurred in recent times. “A memoir focuses on certain memories, experiences or particular aspects of someone’s life. It is less broad and less general than a biography. A memoir is written by the person it is about or written by a professional writer at the request of the person. Usually a memoir has more of a focus on emotions and feelings rather than merely an account of chronological events, such as an autobiography would tell. It may not be based on factual event as much as the person wanting their audience to understand ‘their side of the story’, or their perception of how they were affected by events. Because of this, there is also a more anecdotal, or story-like tone to the writing. It may also be that the person’s account is of a particular noteworthy or famous historical event that is based on their personal knowledge or experience, such as a soldier’s memoir about surviving World War II in a prisoner of war camp.

So when trying to decide whether a story about someone’s life is a biography or a memoir, keep in mind who wrote the story, what does the story tell, how it is written, and what the meaning or purpose the author had in mind when writing the story.

Memoir demands drama, It is narrative nonfiction written in story form like fiction. But a memoirist works with what they’ve experienced first-hand. It is written in first person from the author’s point of view,” he explained.

When asked why biographies are so popular, Hilton-Barber said the way a biography is written and the way it is edited makes a difference. “Unless you make an effort to record the experiences of people, it’s gone. But there are ways of getting the basic story out of people; interviews, their diaries and church records where you can assemble a database of the person and fill it in with the context of the time in which he lived,” he said. 

Whitehead asked about how the historian goes about researching a biography, specifically of a deceased. “What goes into researching a book, especially someone who’s passed on? Where do you find archives, presuming that it’s somebody of significance?” she asked. Hilton-Barber said he gets information from diaries, church records, the internet and libraries etc. “The source of information is widespread but if you dig and delve, you can get the relevant information,” he said. 

During the interview, Hilton-Barber also highlighted the importance of having an opening chapter that grabs the attention of readers. “It’s terribly important to have an opening chapter that grabs attention. Your first chapter should take you into the story. Your first chapter should not be your birth; rather something dramatic. And the closing chapter should be a fitting ending, leaving the reader with the satisfaction of a good story,” he explained. 

When Whitehead asked how the publisher knows when it is the right time to publish a memoir, he said although publishers can recommend when to publish one’s autobiography, the decision ultimately lies with the book’s owner. Moreover, Hilton-Barber highlighted how the end of a biography should still keep readers interested. “The end of a biography of the book must also be something that keeps the reader interested,” he said. 

Taking questions from the audience, Hilton-Barber was asked how to deal with receiving more information about a book after it has already been published and he advised people to have a limited first run, then publish an extended second edition with the new information found. 

In response to the issue of small publishers struggling to get their books at mainstream bookshops, he advised one to try and get as much exposure about the book prior to its publication. This, he said, can be done by asking people who are in the public eye to write a review and also produce a persuasive promotional flyer to generate awareness and interest to as many people as possible. “When it comes to bookshops, it’s not easy. You can’t just walk into the local exclusive and say I’ve just written a book, will you put it to your window?” he sympathised. Hilton-Barber further advised that one must register as a vendor at bookstores and engage with numerous bookshop managers.

When asked about how to go about getting a good editor, Hilton-Barber advised one to look at the Professional Editors Guild as a primary source and he also recommended downloading editing software to clean up the manuscript. 

Hilton-Barber is a fourth generation South African, born in Makhanda and holds a BA Honours degree from Rhodes University. In his later career as a public relations consultant, he also lectured and contributed to the compilation of the communications course at the University of South Africa. He served as president of the PR Institute of SA and as council member for South Africa on the International Public Relations Association. The Associate Member of the Professional Editors Guild relocated to Port Alfred to research and write further historical works. 

Hilton-Barber’s most popular biographies published including Sherry Garlick Stanton’s The Accidental Entrepreneur are available to purchase on his website, footprintpress.co.za


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