Why Your Memoir Won’t Sell

memoir won't sell

Note from Jane: This week, I’m kicking off a 5-week online course on how to write a nonfiction book proposal. If you’re a memoirist preparing to pitch your work this year, it may benefit you, and it’s not too late to register.


Of all the projects I’ve heard pitched over the years, memoir is the category with the most intractable, hard-to-solve problems. Partly this is a function of what memoir is: something that’s very personal. People have a hard time achieving any distance between the meaning and importance of their life’s events and the commercial market that might exist for it.

What I’m about to write may come off as cold and insensitive. File it under “tough love for writers.” It’s not that your life is unimportant or without value. Quite the contrary. Everyone has a meaningful story to tell, but not everyone’s story (or writing) is going to deserve a commercial publishing deal.

Here are the most common problems I encounter in memoir pitches and manuscripts.

The memoir is the first piece of writing you’ve ever attempted.

It’s often said that a writer’s first manuscript never gets published; it’s the third, fourth, fifth (or later) manuscript that gains acceptance by a publisher. While this principle is common in relation to fiction writing, I think it applies to any type of storytelling. If your memoir is the first thing you’ve written and finished, it’s unlikely you knocked it out of the park on your first try. Of course, anything is possible, but you’re relying on being an outlier.

Your memoir is primarily pain focused, or an act of catharsis.

This problem often goes hand in hand with the first. Someone has experienced something traumatic, and as part of their therapy or recovery, they write about the experience. Before long, they have a book-length work, and friends and family say (as a form of well-meaning support), “You should find a publisher.”

No, you probably shouldn’t. If your writing was:

  • undertaken as a way for you to deal with a painful experience
  • if that painful experience is in the recent past (within the last few years), and/or
  • if you have no other writing experience or ambition …

… then publishing a memoir isn’t the best next step for you. It’s great that you’ve used writing to aid in recovery, but it doesn’t mean you have a book that’s appropriate for the commercial market. (Unless you’re Hillary Clinton and you lost the 2016 presidential election.)

Your memoir consists of diary or journal entries, letters, or other ephemera from the past.

Don’t do it. One of the fastest ways to get a rejection is to pitch your book as a collection of entries from a diary or journal you kept or a family member kept, or letters sent and received.

Okay, maybe if you’re a celebrity, notorious for some reason, or otherwise in the public eye, perhaps these materials will hold interest to a general readership. But for the most part, a collection of journal entries is going to elicit a yawn from those in publishing.

Use diaries, journals, and other personal written materials as the basis of research to write a proper, narrative-driven story. But don’t use them as the story itself, or use them very sparingly within a larger narrative.

(Yes, I know Sedaris is publishing his diaries. You’re not Sedaris.)

Your memoir is really an autobiography.

This happens about half the time I read a memoir chapter outline or synopsis: it begins in childhood and ends in the present day. In other words, it looks more like an autobiography.

Most memoirs should be limited to telling a story about a particular period in time. A distinctive lens or angle is applied—which means many chapters (and characters) of your life will not enter into the picture. While many phases of your life may be referenced, or there might be flashbacks or flash-forwards, the narrative ought to have a clear focus, or a beginning-middle-end, that isn’t defined by the day you were born and the day you started to write your life story.

Sometimes you can get away with something very broad ranging indeed, but it requires a skilled storyteller, who knows how to weave together scenes to create a cohesive narrative.

You’ve written a series of vignettes.

A vignette is a story that stands alone and is little more than an anecdote about your life. Some memoirs consist of nothing but back-to-back vignettes. They might be beautiful and touching vignettes, but the manuscript lacks a narrative arc. There’s no real story; there’s no question that keeps us turning pages.

Some authors can get away with publishing essay collections or something that looks like a collection of vignettes. Again, people love to reference David Sedaris, as well as Erma Bombeck, as a way to say, “But look how popular they are!” But you are not them, and you won’t get the same latitude if you’re a relative unknown.

You’ve written the memoir of someone else.

You have a family member and they have an amazing story to tell. But they’re not a writer, or they don’t care to write it (or they’re dead). But you’re motivated to do something. So you embark on writing the memoir (or sometimes biography) of their lives.

This type of project is unlikely to go any further than your computer hard drive unless you self-publish it. There is great value in writing and self-publishing such a story for the family legacy, but unless you have a track record of writing and publishing amazing stories about (or for) other people, prepare to be disappointed in the reaction of editors and agents.

Your story is like a million others (and the writing just isn’t special enough).

This is the hardest thing to tell a writer: “Sorry, but your story of addiction or cancer survival or loss of a child just doesn’t seem that special.” In other words, your story sounds like everyone else’s story. It’s not written in a way that makes it stand out, or it could be written poorly. The only antidote to this problem is to either become a better writer, or to find a more interesting story to tell.

For more tough love on memoir, I highly recommend this agent roundtable published in Writer’s Digest in 2010. It’s still relevant today.

Posted in Getting Published.
Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (March 2018).

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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35 Comments on "Why Your Memoir Won’t Sell"

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Lynne Spreen

Great points, and BTW, your title of your post should get some kind of marketing award. Tough love indeed, and necessary. I’d add two other points: if your book isn’t written like a novel, with dramatic tension, pacing, character arcs, etc., forget it. And if there’s no lesson, no takeaway for the reader, ditto. Unless you’re relating the details of a life so wildly interesting on its face (growing up as a child of Michael Jackson, for ex.), people will be looking for a nugget of learning. Even Cheryl Strayed’s journey included a theme.

Desertphile

It makes me wonder if HDT’s _Walden_ could find a publisher these days.

Richard Stuart Gilbert

Wise advice here. As a writing mentor used to say, “Writing and publishing are separate.” I hope even those who want to self-publish will take the implication in this post that studying and practicing the highest craft is the path to art.

Sallie Rodman
Jane, We met at the Yosemite Writer’s Conference many years ago and you had words of wisdom then. I agree with most of your comments, however, sometimes people seek out memoirs just to know they aren’t alone in their process. I agree it has to have sharp writing, tension and good characters. But for us widows seeking solace, reading someone else’s story can help us to go on. It certainly helped many I have met on my social media grief pages. Just keeping it real and telling it like I find it. Love your pithy writing. You were tough at… Read more »
Desertphile

Douglas Preston loves my memoir and said he “could not put it down.” He even read some of it to his spouse….. which means I must remember to blush the next time I see them.

C. S. Lakin

Jane, this is so terrific. I find myself explaining all these points to my clients who’ve written memoirs. Now I can just give them a copy of your post and direct them to your site. Thanks so much!

Roberta Codemo

Good advice. I’m a cancer survivor and have been contemplating writing a memoir. Yes, I know there are a million out there. What sets mine apart, I believe, is what I’ve chosen to do with my life post-cancer. I’ve become an advocate, I write about gynecological cancers, and I’ve produced a one woman show. The experience changed my life, in a good way. Whether that’s enough, I don’t know. But this piece has made me think if I have something to contribute to the market.

Marie Fricker

Very painful to read this blog, Jane. But I believe you.

Ruth Harris
Let me add our experience writing a memoir that did sell. Michael Harris (my DH) wrote a memoir about his experiences as a young soldier sent to “observe” the US H-bomb tests in the South Pacific. THE ATOMIC TIMES was published by Random House and became a NYT bestseller in its e-edition BUT it took Michael many false starts and 50 years (literally) to get enough perspective, access to previously classified material, find a voice, see the dark humor + a novelist/editor wife (that would be me) to ensure, as Lynne says above, that the book provided the dramatic tension,… Read more »
Shellie Blum

Very interesting, thanks!

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[…] Your Memoir Won’t Sell (Jane Friedman): This is tough love for memoirists, so brace yourselves. But once you’re clear-eyed about […]

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[…] “Why Your Memoir Won’t Sell”: expert insights from Jane Friedman. […]

Wendy Beckman

Great post, Jane! This tough love for writers resonated with me for my own writing and for many of the books I’ve edited.

I’ve edited many books written by women who overcame addiction or abuse, found religion, and wrote a book. Sadly, that in itself is not a unique story.

When I was 12 years old, I wrote my autobiography. My mother told me I hadn’t done anything yet that people would be interested in reading about. Tough love, yes, but it taught me early about rejection and audience.

Rhonda Eason
Tough love indeed, Jane, and spot on. My memoir was completed a year ago. I immediately got a huge agent who said from the outset it was going to be a tough sell. She was right. Every house in NY passed for the same reasons: I have a small platform and my topic is too narrow. Nevertheless, I’m publishing anyway because I think I have an important story to tell and it might prove entertaining and useful to someone else. I don’t expect to get rich off memoirs or fiction. But I enjoy writing and if I make a couple… Read more »
Patti

Oh how I wish I’d found you before spending thousands on memoir writing, publishing and coaching. I felt so good going in the door and now, nine months later and lighter in the pocket I’m discouraged and almost ready to give up writing…first love is difficult to let go of, though…but you surely saved me additional grief with this post. Thank you.

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[…] wait, I also have chaos in a third department: publicity and marketing. I saw a post this week from Jane Friedman that said: ‘Don’t publish your diaries. You’re not Sedaris.’ Later, it […]

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[…] “Why Your Memoir Won’t Sell,” Jane Friedman offers seven reasons why a memoir won’t move copies. To […]

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[…] Memoirs with common story lines—such as the death of a loved one, mental illness, caring for aging parents—but no unique angle into the story (you haven’t sufficiently distinguished your experience—no hook) […]

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[…] For budding memoirists out there, Jane Friedman has some tough love while explaining why your memoir won’t sell. […]

Lisa Littlewood
Very good advice, but certainly hard to hear. I had to laugh as I read this because I happen to be ‘writing a book for a family member who has an amazing story’ AND, while it is supposed to be memoir-ish, it has turned into “autobiography” (“let’s start at the very beginning…a very good place to start”…LOL). All that said, I still believe it is a good story, I’ve LOVED the collaborative writing (and am hoping to do more in the future), and I DO believe his story will sell!! Though we are certainly ready to self-publish if necessary. This… Read more »
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[…] "Why Your Memoir Won't Sell" by Jane Friedman, publishing industry expert and Editor of @HotSheetPub, a newsletter for professional authors (click here) […]

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[…] Why Your Memoir Won’t Sell by Jane Friedman. I like almost all the advice Jane gives and this provides so great tips for those who want to write a memoir. […]

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[…] “Why Your Memoir Won’t Sell”, Jane lists seven things that make most agents and publishers reject a […]

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