Biography and autobiography: How to write a bestseller 

Biography and autobiography are two popular narrative forms of non-fiction literature that recount the life of an individual. While both genres explore the human experience and provide insights into the historical context of an individual’s life, the two have significant differences. A biography is a written account of a person’s life, typically written by someone else. At the same time, an autobiography is a self-written account of one’s life narrated by the person who experienced it.
This article delves deeper into the similarities and differences between biography and autobiography and provides tips on how to write and publish a successful autobiography or biography.

Biography and autobiography: Similarities

  • Non-fiction: Both biography and autobiography belong to non-fiction literature.
  • Narrative focus: Both biography and autobiography are narrative forms that recount the life of an individual.
  • Human experience: Both genres explore the human experience, capturing the subject’s life journey, struggles and achievements.
  • Historical context: Both provide insights into the historical context of the individual’s life, reflecting societal, cultural and personal changes over time.
  • Character development: Both genres involve character development, showcasing the growth and evolution of the individual throughout their life.

Biography and autobiography: Differences


  • Biography: Third-person perspective, providing an external and often more objective viewpoint.
  • Autobiography: First-person perspective, offering a subjective and personal account narrated by the individual.


  • Biography: Authored by someone other than the subject, usually an external biographer.
  • Autobiography: Authored by the subject of the narrative, providing a first-hand account.

Sources of information

  • Biography: Relies on external sources, interviews and research to gather information.
  • Autobiography: Draws directly from the author’s experiences, memories and reflections.


  • Biography: Tends to be more objective, presenting a balanced and researched perspective.
  • Autobiography: Subjective, reflecting the author’s opinions, emotions and biases.


  • Biography: Often covers the subject’s entire life, offering a comprehensive overview.
  • Autobiography: May focus on specific periods, themes or aspects chosen by the author.


  • Biography: Provides external interpretations and analysis of the subject’s life.
  • Autobiography: Offers direct insight into the author’s thoughts, feelings and motivations.
PerspectiveThird-person (external author)First-person (subject is the author)
Source of informationResearch, interviews and external accountsPersonal reflections, memories, experiences
ObjectivityGenerally more objectiveSubjective, influenced by the author’s viewpoint
CoverageEncompasses the subject’s entire lifeSpecific periods or the lifespan up to the point of writing the manuscript
InsightExternal interpretation and analysisDirect insight into the author’s thoughts and feelings
Differences between a biography and an autobiography.

How to write a bestselling biography?

Writing a bestselling biography requires a combination of compelling storytelling, thorough research and effective communication. Here are some tips to help you craft a successful biography:

  • Select a captivating subject: Choose a subject with a compelling and interesting life story. It could be a public figure, a historical figure or someone with a unique and inspiring journey.
  • Thorough research: Invest time in extensive research to gather accurate and detailed information about the subject’s life. Utilise various sources, interviews and archival materials.
  • Uncover unique aspects: Identify unique or lesser-known aspects of the subject’s life that will intrigue readers. Offer insights that go beyond what is commonly known.
  • Compelling storytelling: Tell the subject’s story in a compelling and engaging manner. Use vivid descriptions, anecdotes and storytelling techniques to bring the narrative to life.
  • Balanced perspective: Provide a balanced perspective on the subject, including strengths and weaknesses. Avoid excessive bias or portraying the subject in an overly positive or negative light.
  • Humanise: Bring out the personal and human elements of the subject’s life. Readers connect more deeply when they can relate to the emotions, challenges and triumphs of the individual.
  • Show, don’t just tell: Instead of simply listing facts, show scenes and experiences. Allow readers to visualise and experience events alongside the subject.
  • Explore influences and relationships: Delve into the subject’s relationships and the influences that shaped their life. Highlight significant connections with family, friends, mentors or adversaries.
  • Capture historical context: Provide context by integrating the subject’s life into the broader historical, social or cultural context. Help readers understand the significance of the individual in their time.
  • Incorporate reflection and analysis: Include thoughtful reflections on the subject’s life, actions and impact. Offer your analysis and insights into the broader implications of their story.

How to write a bestselling autobiography?

Writing a bestselling autobiography involves a combination of compelling storytelling, authenticity and effective communication. Here are some tips to help you craft a successful autobiography:

  • Identify a unique angle: Consider what makes your life story unique or different from others. Find an angle or theme to captivate readers and set your autobiography apart.
  • Authenticity is key: Be genuine and authentic when sharing your experiences, emotions and insights. Readers connect with sincerity, and authenticity adds depth to your narrative.
  • Compelling storytelling: Craft your narrative in a way that engages readers emotionally. Use vivid descriptions, dialogue and storytelling techniques to make your experiences come alive.
  • Show, don’t just tell: Instead of simply stating facts, show scenes and experiences. Allow readers to visualise and experience the events alongside you.
  • Organise: Decide on the structure of your autobiography. You can follow a chronological order or organise it thematically based on significant events or themes in your life.
  • Include challenges and triumphs: Share both the challenges and triumphs of your life. Readers appreciate the authenticity of someone who has overcome obstacles and achieved personal growth.
  • Incorporate reflection: Reflect on your experiences and share the lessons learned. Discuss how events have shaped your perspective and influenced your growth.
  • Capture emotions: Describe your emotions and thoughts at key moments. Emotional resonance allows readers to connect with your story on a deeper level.
  • Connect with your readers: Engage with your readers through book signings, interviews and social media. Building a connection with your audience can lead to word-of-mouth recommendations and sustained book sales.

How to decide what to write — biography and autobiography?

Deciding between writing an autobiography or a biography depends on your goals, preferences and the nature of the story you want to tell. Here are some considerations to help you make a decision:


Subject’s story: If you are passionate about someone else’s life story and feel compelled to research, uncover and share the experiences of another individual, writing a biography is suitable.

External perspective: Writing a biography involves taking an external perspective on the subject’s life. This can provide a more objective view and allow you to explore the impact of the individual in a broader context.

Research and discovery: If you enjoy researching and uncovering historical or unknown aspects of a person’s life, a biography allows you to delve into archives, conduct interviews and gather information from various sources.

Exploring influences and relationships: Biographies often provide an opportunity to explore the subject’s relationships and the influences that shaped their life. It goes beyond the individual’s reflections.


Personal perspective: If you want to share your own life story and provide a first-hand account of your experiences, an autobiography is the way to go. This allows you to express your thoughts, emotions and reflections in your own voice.

Control over narrative: Writing your autobiography gives you complete control over the narrative. You decide what to include, how events are portrayed and the overall tone of the story.

Direct connection with readers: Autobiographies often create a strong personal connection between the author and the readers. It is a way for readers to understand your journey, struggles and triumphs from your perspective.

Intimate and personal: Autobiographies can be more intimate and personal, allowing you to share details and insights that may not be available in a biography.

Other considerations

Personal comfort: Consider whether you are more comfortable sharing your own story or delving into the life of another person.

Story’s significance: Think about which perspective will better convey the significance and impact of the story you want to tell.

Audience connection: Consider the connection you want to establish with your audience. Autobiographies often create a more personal bond, while biographies offer an objective view of a subject.

Research inclination: Assess your inclination towards research. A biography may be more appealing if you enjoy investigating and discovering details.

Scope and scale: Evaluate the scope and scale of the story. Autobiographies typically cover the author’s entire life, while biographies can focus on specific periods or themes.

How to prepare a biography/autobiography manuscript for publishing?

Preparing a biography or autobiography for publishing involves several key steps to ensure a polished and market-ready manuscript. Here is a guide to help you through the process:

Professional editing

Invest in professional editing services to ensure your manuscript is free of grammatical errors, typos and structural issues. A polished manuscript increases your chances of acceptance by traditional publishers or success in self-publishing.

Developmental editing

Developmental editing is the initial phase in refining your manuscript. This type of editing focuses on the overall structure, coherence and thematic development of your narrative. A developmental editor will assess the flow of your story, the pacing of events, and the depth of character development. Moreover, they provide valuable feedback on plot arcs, character motivations and narrative consistency, helping to shape your story into a compelling and engaging narrative. This process ensures that your biography or autobiography has a strong foundation before moving on to more detailed editing stages.

Line editing

Once the developmental aspects are in place, line editing comes into play. Line editors work on the sentence and paragraph level, refining your prose to enhance clarity, coherence and overall readability. In addition, they pay attention to the nuances of language, addressing issues like word choice, sentence structure and stylistic elements. Line editing aims to create a smooth and polished writing style, ensuring that each sentence contributes to the overall flow and impact of the narrative. This stage adds finesse to your writing, making it more engaging for your readers.


Copyediting is the meticulous process of reviewing your manuscript for grammar, punctuation, spelling and syntax. A copyeditor ensures that your writing adheres to the conventions of language usage and style guides. They correct errors, eliminate redundancies and maintain consistency in language throughout the manuscript. This stage is crucial for producing a professional and error-free final draft. Furthermore, copyediting may involve fact-checking and addressing any copyright concerns that may arise from the content.

Traditional publishing

Self-publishing and traditional publishing are distinctively different publishing routes, each with its pros and cons. Self-publishing may offer higher royalties and more control but will require more effort, time and money investment from the author to ensure the success of their biography or autobiography. In turn, the chances of getting one’s manuscript by a traditional publishing house may be slim but if successful, the publisher will take care of editing, printing and marketing.

Craft a compelling book proposal

Develop a comprehensive book proposal with a synopsis, information about the target audience, a market analysis and your author bio. This document is essential when approaching literary agents or publishers.

Research literary agents or publishers

If you wish to pursue traditional publishing, research literary agents or publishers who specialise in your genre or have a track record of success with similar books. Follow submission guidelines closely.

Prepare submission materials

Prepare a compelling query letter and include any materials requested by agents or publishers, such as sample chapters, the full manuscript or the book proposal. Tailor your submissions to each recipient.


If traditional publishing does not align with your goals or if you prefer more control over the process, consider self-publishing. This involves hiring professionals for services like editing, cover design and formatting.

Design a compelling cover

A well-designed book cover is crucial for attracting readers. Work with a professional designer to create a cover that reflects the tone and content of your biography or autobiography.

Formatting and layout

Ensure your manuscript is properly formatted for publication. This includes consistent font usage, appropriate spacing and adherence to industry standards. The interior layout should be reader-friendly.

Secure endorsements or reviews

If possible, secure endorsements or reviews from individuals in your field or those who might influence your target audience. Positive testimonials can enhance your book’s credibility.

ISBN, barcode and copyright

Obtain an International Standard Book Number (ISBN) and a barcode for your book, which are essential for book identification. Additionally, consider registering for copyright protection.

Examples of bestselling biographies

  • Diana: Her True Story (1992) by Andrew Morton provides an intimate and revealing portrait of Princess Diana, offering unprecedented insights into her personal life, struggles and the challenges she faced within the royal family. It sold 7 million+ copies.
  • Unbroken (2010) by Laura Hillenbrand is the incredible story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic athlete turned World War II bombardier who survived Japanese prison camps. It sold 5.5 million+ copies.
  • Steve Jobs (2011) by Walter Isaacson is a comprehensive biography of Apple co-founder, providing insights into his leadership and innovations. It sold 3 million+ copies, according to the Times.
  • Elon Musk (2015) by Ashlee Vance provides insights into the entrepreneur’s ambitious ventures. It sold 2 million+ copies.
  • Hamilton by Ron Chernow delves into the life of America’s Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton. It sold 1 million+ copies, according to Penguin Random House data.
Biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
Biography of Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance

Examples of bestselling autobiographies

  • Long Walk to Freedom (1994) by Nelson Mandela recounts the inspiring life journey of the iconic South African leader and anti-apartheid revolutionary. It sold 15 million+ reproductions, according to the Independent.
  • Becoming (2018) by Michelle Obama, the former First Lady of the United States, offers an intimate exploration of her life, values and experiences. It sold 4 million+ copies.
  • Spare (2023) by Prince Harry offers an honest look at the realities of growing up int he public eye. It sold 1 million+ copies according to Forbes.
  • Born a Crime (2016) by Trevor Noah, the celebrated comedian and host of The Daily Show, humorously chronicles his childhood in apartheid-era South Africa. It sold 1 million+ copies.
  • The Woman in Me (2023) by Britney Spears unveils the pop icon’s personal and professional struggles, offering a glimpse into her life and the challenges she faced. It sold 1 million+ copies.
The autobiography of Prince Harry, "Spare."
The autobiography of Britney Spears, "The Woman in Me."

Final thoughts

In conclusion, biography and autobiography are two distinct forms of non-fiction literature that offer unique perspectives on an individual’s life. While biographies provide a more objective view of the subject’s life, autobiographies offer a personal and subjective account narrated by the individual. Both genres share similarities in exploring the human experience, showcasing character development and providing insights into historical context. Writing a successful biography or autobiography requires compelling storytelling, authenticity and effective communication to engage readers emotionally. 

By following the tips outlined in this article, anyone can write a bestseller that captivates readers and offers insight into the complex lives of individuals. Contact me for a free sample edit of your manuscript (and remember to use my early bird discount). I am an experienced editor working with non-fiction, academic and business texts. I can help prepare your text for publication, from a big-picture analysis through bringing to the fore your authorial voice to ensuring the correctness and consistency of the language.

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I am an editor, indexer and a lifelong lover of literature with a PhD in literary history. I am an Intermediate Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP), a student member of the Society of Indexers and a vetted partner of the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi).