Memoirs, the genre that most wants to be read. As storytellers, we gravitate toward evocative and vulnerable writing that tells us more about the writer and the world we live in. We all have stories, but will every personal story sell?
Autobiography vs. Memoir
Often writers begin to write a memoir and then the scope becomes much larger, the writer’s entire life is nestled within the pages of the book. But that’s an autobiography, not a memoir.
An autobiography usually begins during early childhood and moves chronologically, detailing key events and challenges they faced. These are often written when the author is older, as there would be more content to pull from. The author writes their motivations and thoughts based on specific life events.
Memoirs are selected memories from the author, using the memories to reflect on a larger theme. Memoirs are more focused on certain aspects of an individual’s life rather than giving all information like in an autobiography. In Brian Broome’s recently released memoir, Punch Me Up to the Gods, he reflects on masculinity, Blackness, and addiction. The scenes are not chronological but are carefully selected to create an emotional story - making the private life, public.
Types of Memoirs: Celebrity, Trial or Triumph, and Novel-like
Best-selling memoirs have specific qualities making them stand out from the many.
A person’s fame and public reputation leads to more sales. Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, sold 10 million copies after 15 days of publication. Celebrity memoirs offer a view of the person behind the fame, making them alluring and marketable.
Trial or triumph memoirs focus on a specific part of a person’s life like surviving a plane crash, beating a disease, or unspeakable childhood trauma. These are stories that are so compelling that readers can’t put the book down. An example would be Augusten Burroughs’ memoir Running with Scissors which details his abnormal childhood after his mother sent him to live at her psychiatrist’s house.
The novel-like memoirs read like fiction. They are page-turners where the writer focuses more on showing, rather than telling. A Life of Extremes: The Life and Times of a Polar Filmmaker by Max Quinn focuses on his experience filming in polar climates and all he’s witnessed in a frigid landscape.
Memoirs that Don’t Sell
Like all books that sell, there has to be a market for your memoir. Publishers will let you know of this, but we’ll provide a few examples of what is least likely to sell.
We all have a story about our life. We may think our story is unique, but it may relate to many other people’s stories and not sell well among the many other memoirs on the market. This doesn’t mean your story is unimportant, it only means that your story doesn’t stand out.
Publishing a diary, journal entries, or series of letters may be more interesting for research than to fill a book. Again, it lacks marketability to read a regular person’s letters to their significant other, for example.
If your memoir is an act of catharsis, filled with pain, you may want to wait to publish. There are repercussions to publishing personal memoirs, with many authors facing defamation lawsuits. Also, it may not read very well given its heavy content. A memoir tackling difficult events requires time to have the necessary distance to reflect. It will also be difficult to receive craft-oriented criticism if the subject matter still causes pain.
Publish My Memoir
After writing a memoir, revisions will be necessary. Consulting your book with professionals is the best way to receive constructive feedback to ensure your memoir has a focus and is marketable. Exisle Academy’s Memoir Mastery Course is ideal to break down every aspect of what your memoir needs to be successful. The course can help you narrow your scope, assisting with its marketability.
Your friends and family may be interested to read your memoir about your family history, but the general population of readers may not. Self-publishing is a possibility if the memoir has a specific niche that doesn’t translate to a broader audience.
When writing a memoir, it helps to have read a few. You can then see how memoirists have organized their book and what makes their story stand out. I've selected recently published or popular memoirs with a simple synopsis.
A Life of Extremes: The Life and Times of a Polar Filmmaker by Max Quinn - unique adventures in freezing temperatures
Punch Me Up to the Gods by Brian Broome - exploring masculinity, addiction, and Blackness in rural Ohio
Hunger by Roxane Gay - exploring pleasure, consumption, appearance, and health in relation to a fat -Gay's preferred term- body
Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon - written in the form of a letter to his mother, Kiese explores weight, identity, friendship, and the national failures that impacted his view of how to responsibly love
The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir by Kao Kalia Yang - a family memoir exploring what it means to belong
In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado - a novel-like memoir exploring Carmen's abusive same-sex relationship
Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs - the story of Augusten's abnormal childhood living at his mother's psychiatrist's home
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Wells - focused on Jeannette's dysfunctional, yet vibrant family