Why Your Memoir Won’t Sell

memoir won't sell

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 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) will find an agent or receive a commercial publishing deal. Many memoirs ultimately have to be self-published. Here’s why.

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 story. 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. The more experience you’ve had as any kind of commercial writer or storyteller, the better your chances.

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.”

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 to publish …

… then publishing a memoir is rarely the next best next step. It’s great that you’ve used writing to aid in recovery, but it doesn’t mean you have a book that will appeal to agents or big publishers. (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.

If you’re a celebrity, notorious for some reason, or otherwise in the public eye, these materials may hold interest to a general readership. But for the most part, a collection of journal entries is going to elicit a quick rejection from those in publishing.

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

Your memoir is really an autobiography.

This happens the majority of 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, and many facets or times of your life will not enter into the picture. You might use flashbacks or flash-forwards to include critical moments, but even so, the narrative must 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, but it requires tremendous skill.

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 celebrities or well-established authors can publish essay collections or something that looks like a collection of vignettes. People love to reference David Sedaris, as well as Erma Bombeck, as a way to say, “But look how popular they are!” But 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 own desk 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, editors and agents will likely pass.

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

This is the hardest and most awful thing to say, yet it’s true: “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.

So, what should you do if your memoir has a problem?

The first step is realizing and accepting this problem stands in the way of you getting an agent or a big, commercial publisher. Then you can decide what compromise you’re willing to make. Your key options are:

  1. Self-publish the book. You can still have a satisfying and successful experience of publishing your book, and it doesn’t have to cost you much money. (In fact, I suggest you avoid investing too much; it’s money you’re not likely to earn back.)
  2. Write another memoir—one that fits what agents and publishers want. Learn how to build a compelling narrative arc. Avoid the pitfalls of memoir. Try starting afresh with this list-making method.
  3. Hire a development editor or coach to help you revise your existing manuscript. This can get very expensive, and there’s no guarantee that the investment will lead to a publishing deal. Here’s how to decide.

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

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Posted in Getting Published.

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 publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.

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. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.

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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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.

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.

Susan Taylor Brand

Yes. That’s exactly how I feel. And yet … I knew these things. Intellectually. Sometimes you need them brought home by repetition. As Garrison Keillor wrote, “We know right from wrong. But knowing is not the problem.”

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!

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

[…] “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.

linda schwartz

Jane, I’m not interested in the commercial potential of my work but do want to be read. I share my vignettes in beginners level workshops and with friends, receiving my small share of accolades. I’m 66 and do not aspire to fame or fortune. Still, it would be nice to see my words in print somewhere, somehow. Thoughts? Linda

[…] 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 […]

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

[…] 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) […]

[…] 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 »

[…] "Why Your Memoir Won't Sell" by Jane Friedman, publishing industry expert and Editor of @HotSheetPub, a newsletter for professional authors (click here) […]

[…] 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. […]

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

Jane Thomas

I’m curious to hear more about this premise that it’s impossible to sell a memoir written about someone else. I’m working on a project illustrating how acts of government shape self-concept and lived day-to-day experience and reality, using the Choctaws of Oklahoma (the U.S. government has made many treaties and passed bills relating to “Indian Policy”) as a key example. I believe that my grandfather’s life (and in some respects my own), illustrates these trends in a surprising way. The thought is: can I tell his story, relating it to key historical moments and political decisions, as a way to… Read more »

Jane Thomas

Yes, that is a very good distinction! I suppose the real aim here is to advance an argument that policy decisions in Washington actually shape the lives of people, working and building houses and getting married and doing what people do, in meaningful and lasting ways. My family’s story, with an emphasis on my grandfather’s, offers a vehicle to interweave a story with the history, which of course can sometime feel dry and removed. This woven together history and narrative would be something in the vein of Lydia Reeder’s recent narrative nonfiction Dust Bowl Girls: the Inspiring Story of the… Read more »

Jane Thomas

Thank you!

Cynthia Brideson

I have been working on a memoir for nearly ten years and just got it finished and sent out to agents. It’s 109,000 words and starts in the present but then goes back in chronological order. I thought about splitting the book in half, but it wouldn’t make sense if I did. I know I have no chance of getting published with this word count and pretty much chronological order. My book is about my twin sister and I and our struggles growing up with undiagnosed Asperger’s and anorexia and ends with my sister’s suicide at age 26. It sounds… Read more »

Cynthia Brideson

Thanks for the suggestion. I’ve spent 10,000 on editors, who have helped me get the word count down but have not helped with structure. What a waste of money that I don’t gave, ha ha. I’ll look at Gornick’s book!

Kelsey

I really enjoyed reading this and glad I came across it! I am in the process of writing a memoir about a four year period of my life where I was physically and mentally abused by my drunk husband, a year later my own sister completely betrayed me in almost a hilarious way ( now looking back) and then a year later my ew also abused and choked my husband. Reading this really makes me second guess looking into getting it published. My main goal was to show how great I’m doing now and how much life can throw at… Read more »

Carol Es

This is the kind of thing I’ve been hearing from editors of agencies that haven’t even yet heard what my book is about. I think the word “memoir” is a curse. Always have, always will. As soon as someone calls my book a memoir, I want to rip the vision-balls out of their skull (ragey much?). I’ve been writing my entire life. I’ve had very little success with it (small press stuff), and — sorry! — this is my first major work: a narrative nonfiction piece about my first 40 years on the Earth, all of which weren’t easy. Few… Read more »

Lucas Marcello

What would you suggest for someone who wants to be an author in the future, but wants to be a content writer in the meantime to make some money? I used to write for a content mill, but only one of my articles can still be found online. I need to create a good portfolio of published work to get hired. What do you suggest? Thanks.

Nik Pop

Dear Jane, now that I feel I am close to finishing my work, I started searching around for ways to publish and very soon landed on your page. As it seems, you have done an excellent job of covering many of the questions, inexperienced authors like me, are asking themselves. And you have done it in a very neat and ordered way. I had no idea in which category my product falls, but gradually navigating around your links, I am now convinced it falls among memoirs. Then, I landed on this article and was terrified. I must admit that although… Read more »

Katherine

No disrespect, but it is still one persons opinion. If you feel you need to get this published do it anyway! At the end of your life would you have regrets that you did not try? Go for it I say despite what others may say. I was told a long time ago my work wasn’t good enough for the publishing market. Well I ignored that ‘advice’ and did it anyway. I have eight books published and I don’t intend to stop.

Timothy Berman

This is the first link that came up in my Google search. I’m not looking to write a “memoir” so-to-speak. More like poignant letters relating to specific life milestones, lesson’s learned, and an interwoven tapestry of coming into my own authentic sense of being. I’m not even looking to make money off it – be great if I did. And, yes, I have had one failed novel years ago (only available printed copy is apparently on sale at amazon.com for $65.00 and I don’t think it’s worth that much, poor editing as there were no editing). I do write, maintain… Read more »

Valerie Todesco

I love your idea.

Ann E Price

Actually, I am encouraged by this article–
First piece of writing – well, yes, but I’ve rewritten it a gazillion times–does that count?
Pain focused/catharsis – no.
Diary/journal/etc. – no.
Autobiography/vignettes/family member – no
Like a million others – not at all!! My story is unique and riveting. I worked with a coach/mentor for two years, and study everything I can find about writing. Me write good now!
Your Publishing 101 book is quite helpful–thank you.

“Of course, anything is possible, but you’re relying on being an outlier.” – Yes, it is. Yes, I am.

Valerie Todesco

Bravo, Ann! I think we can make it! Wishing you success and creative fulfillment! Is there any place I can go to support your efforts?

Meli

Thank you for the advice! What do you call the type of books that some Christian speakers write? Like Lysa Terkeust, Priscilla Shirer, etc… Some books by these offer have personal examples/information…are they considered memoirs, or simply books with Christian teaching? Is there a specific name for these types of books?

Debbie Barnett

Hi Jane: I enjoyed your Blog. I am delving into my first memoir that spans years of my life from early childhood to late teens with the focus on sexual abuse by several people both a family member and others. Lately I’ve heard that publishers do not want a memoir in chronological order…is this true? If it is true can you expound on it a bit. Thank you Jane!!

Elaine Faber

When I tried to point out this specific ‘truth’ to a new writer, I was chastised by my writer’s organization which led to our separation. I guess you have to be famous in order to tell the truth without consequences. Thanks for sharing this post.

Tali

Would writing about the experience of someone with bipolar and BPD be interesting? Or is that kind of like cancer survivors and overdone?

Valerie Todesco

Okay, whie I understand as well as appreciate the whole “tough love+” thing, I’m calling poppycock on this! I get that there is relevance to what you say. Truly, I do. I am maybe even the very person you are addressing, therefore the irony of my disagreement is also not lost on me. However, let me explain myself. I have a great sense of humor, try not to take myself too seriously, and like to keep my focus on humility and integrity. I am a grammar nazi who has had to correct my own mistakes at times. I am queen… Read more »

Valerie Todesco

Sometimes, providence leads us to what appears to be a dead end for the purpose of reminding us how we have creatively navigated a lifetime of inhospitable terrain that many others would never have attempted to cross, were it not for our sincere desire to show them the way. Sometimes what looks like a heart’s demise turns out to be a blessing in disguise. Thank you so much for your gracious response. It looks like I stumbled exactly where I needed to be after all.

Heidi Durig Heiby

Hi, Jane! I’ve met you more than once and admire you and your writing advice. I was wondering, what do you suggest one do with a series of vignettes? I have written about 35,000 words-worth of them about my time working attached to a Green Beret battalion. There’s the story of my time there in a sense, but it’s generally short and funny anecdotes with no names other than CPT A and Major R. Any advice? Hope to see you at Erma Bombeck again this year!

Heidi Durig Heiby

Thank you so much for this. I had actually thought about self-publishing or blogging it. I definitely want to do something with it. I am going back through and tweaking at the moment, but I’m hoping that 2020 will be the year for this “story.”

Wacky Travel

I appreciate the tough love. What is the commercial potential of a travel memoir? I’ve been to 49 states, 6 continents (will get #7 soon), and 50+ countries. I go as cheaply as possible, traveling with just a carry-on backpack, and staying in hostels, couchsurfing, camping, riding local buses where I don’t even know the language, etc. So, getting from point A to B is often half the adventure. The theme focuses on the “wacky stuff” happens on the road. Like blowing up the engine of a 70’s sportscar a week into a 3 month trip, booking a one-way flight… Read more »

Don Tomlinson

I so enjoyed reading your frank comments. I have written my story. I just would like find a professional who I don’t know and who doesn’t know me. I’d like them to read my manuscript and give me an honest, educated and professional opinion .Is it something others might want to read oe should I just keep my xeroxed copies in three ring binders for my family and friends to read? My goal is not to have a best-seller or to make money. I am just curious if my writing has any merit for a niche market.

Amanda Webster

Mine doesn’t fall into any of these and I have been pitching for months. I just don’t know what to change to snag the deal at this point. The ones that do reply give good feedback and say that it is unique as is my writing, but no requests for my full manuscript yet.

Suzanne Cook

I think, in many respects, memoirs are the lowest class of writing. I cringe every time I hear someone call themselves a “writer” and all they’ve managed to produce is a mediocre memoir. I’ve read both good and bad memoirs. You are very correct that a well written memoir SHOULD behave like fiction, especially if the author plans to produce fiction at a later point. And, if you produce a memoir (despite your long held grudge that memoirs shouldn’t brandish someone with the title of “author”) and are told that no such market exists for your book, you can always… Read more »

Mike Rozeberg

With all due respect, what qualifies you to give this “tough love”? Surely, as a fellow author, you’re speaking from experience you gained authoring dozens of Best Sellers? That might add some credibility to this incendiary rhetoric you have disguised as concern. While I appreciate your good intentions, at the risk of discouraging aspiring and future authors, you titled this article to generate shock value, which undermines the concern you claim to have. The underlying assumption in your “tough love” is that all authors are publishing with a profit motive. This is a gross generalization. Not every author publishes their… Read more »