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types of memoirs

Three Types of Memoirs that Sell

“Do you think my memoir can get published?”

A client recently posed this question at the top of the hour we had scheduled for a book consultation. If I’m honest, it’s a question I sort of dread.

It asks for a black-or-white answer to a question that’s decidedly gray.

When this kind of question lands on my desk, I have to strike a delicate balance. A balance between what I know to be true about traditional publishers…and the infinite possibility of an expanding universe.

On the one hand, nothing is ever set in stone. Books I wouldn’t have expected to find homes are published by traditional houses every day. The book business is highly subjective, and industry insiders are surprised all the time.

On the other hand, I’ve learned a few things over two decades in the book business. I tend to have a pretty good eye for which books will interest a traditional publisher, and which are better candidates for self-publishing. After all, I spent 12 years as an acquisitions editor at traditional houses; I know what they’re looking for.

So unless I’m asked directly, I tend to keep mum on the question of traditional publishing potential. And when someone asks me point blank, I try to answer as honestly as I can.

That day on the phone, I carefully explained to the author that there are three different types of memoirs that seem most likely to catch a publisher’s attention. That way, he could decide for himself whether his book fell into one of these categories.

It seemed helpful to my client, so now I want to share that same information with you.

Category #1: Celebrity Memoir

The title here is self-explanatory. Most of these memoirs are penned by ghostwriters on behalf of already-famous people. They’re often published to correspond to a big promotional opportunity—a movie release or the start of the TV season, or a big election if you’re a politician.

Why are publishers interested? Because celebrity sells. Readers feel like they already know famous people. And when you know someone, you’re more likely to shell out cash to read their story.

I’m not going to go into this category too deeply, since statistically speaking, it’s unlikely many household-level celebrities are reading this blog.

(If you are such a celebrity, feel free to have your people call our people—we’d love to help pair you with the perfect ghostwriter.)

Bestselling Examples:

We’re Going to Need More Wine by Gabrielle Union

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

Promise Me, Dad by Joe Biden

Category #2: The “Trial or Triumph Trainwreck” Memoir

This is the category into which fall memoirs of unspeakable childhood abuse, terrifying rescues at sea and death-defying heroics mere mortals cannot imagine. In other words, human stories so unusual and compelling that we can’t put the book down.

Many of my authors have devastating stories to tell of childhood trauma, the loss of a partner or child or a difficult divorce. Others have inspirational tales of healing from disease, against all the odds.

These narratives are central to the author’s life—and to many readers’ lives. But the themes they rest on are common enough that the competition is fierce. Unless the story is extremely unusual, it is unlikely to catch the attention of distant readers.

I say “distant readers,” because these stories are often very compelling to those who already know the author. Every one of us is a “mini-celebrity”—famous within our own circle. If you have a growing audience, self-publishing your story of trial or triumph may be a great way to engage the audience you already have.

But unless your story is so dramatic it’s made the local (or even better, national) news, my experience is that you’ll have a hard time finding a home with a big publishing company.

Bestselling Examples:

Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey Into the Afterlife by Eben Alexander

The Girl with Seven Names: Escape from North Korea by Hyeonseo Lee

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah

Category #3: The Novel-Like Memoir

This final category is one that is super hard to explain, because it’s all about art and not so much about teachable craft. These memoirs get acquired because the writing is: evocative, literary, page-turning, hysterically funny or novel-like.

If the above sounds subjective, you’re a quick learner. For what makes a memoir stand above the crowd in this way? I can only say we know it when we read it. It generally combines a magical, tragic, funny or highly inspiring story with truly outstanding, world-class writing.

It’s a bar that can only be described in generalities. These memoirs show, rather than tell. They are most often written by people who are/were already writing for a living. They span the spectrum from “really good” into “utterly unputdownable.” In other words, most people—even people who love to write—are going to be hard-pressed to produce a memoir that crosses this bar.

Bestselling Examples:

Educated by Tara Westover

The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie

Personal Favorites of Mine:

The Dance of the Dissident Daughter by Sue Monk Kid

Caravan of No Despair by Mirabai Starr

Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott

A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel

So—what to do if you already know your memoir isn’t a direct hit for any of these categories? Don’t despair. As I said earlier, you’re already a celebrity to the audience you already have. Self-publish your book, and these folks will eat it up because they love you, support you and are naturally interested in you. It’s a smaller audience, sure, but it’s viable and can help you grow your business and your influence.

Other suggestions:

  • Hire an editor to learn how to give your memoir the most original, compelling, poignant angle possible
  • Work with a story coach to generate a more novel-like narrative arc
  • Collaborate with a writer-for-hire who has the world-class writing skill your story needs
  • Self-publish—and let the raving fans you already have begin to hand-sell the book to their own friends and families

As always, our tribe of talented writers, editors and coaches are here to help. Just fill out our questionnaire if you’re ready to have a chat about your own memoir!