What’s the Deal with a Memoir?

Cindy Sproles, @CindyDevoted

I have a memoir. It’s done. It’s good. But no one wants to look at memoirs. Why are they so hard to sell?

It’s important to know the facts and remember there is always an exception to the rule. There are some writers who end up in the right place, at the right time, with the perfect manuscript, but for the most of us, our hard work doesn’t supersede the obstacles . . . especially with a memoir.

We all have a story and some are amazing feats of overcoming obstacles and hardships. There’s no doubt the path you followed could help others wade through their own rough patches, but the buyer’s market looks at things a little differently. Readers are greedy with their money and rightfully so. Most readers do not care about the average person’s plight. They fight their own battles, overcome difficult situations, survive illnesses. Why would yours be any different?

Your memoir can be different as long as you avoid the hazards that can easily snare you.

New York Times writer, Neil Genzlinger, best described in his 2011 article, The Problem with Memoirs, why memoirs are not successful for most authors.

Memoirs have been disgorged by virtually every­one who has ever had cancer, been anorexic, battled depression, lost weight. By anyone who has ever taught an underprivileged child, adopted an under­privileged child or been an under­privileged child. By anyone who was raised in the ’60s, ’70s or ’80s, not to mention the ’50s, ’40s or ’30s. Owned a dog. Run a marathon. Found religion. Held a job.

Does this mean you cannot write a successful memoir? Certainly not, but it is important to understand snags that will cause your memoir to fail.

  1. Platform is a must – “What is your platform? Who can help you sell this book?” Publishers must financially invest in opportunities they feel will help keep the lights at the office, so they take your platform, or lack of, very serious. Building that tribe of individuals to whom you can sell and who will also help you sell your work, is vital. Medium sized publishers are more likely to contract memoirs if the story is truly compelling. Still, they insist on knowing what the author can and will do to help sell the book. Larger houses lean toward the celebrity side for obvious reasons. Celebrities have thousands of followers. Though it’s sad, we love to read about our favorite actors and how their lavish lifestyles cause them to slip and fall. Smaller publishers will publish the memoir, but it’s important to remember their arm into the market is shorter and their ability to market even less. Self-publishing will put your book out there, but all the marketing is your responsibility. Is your platform big enough to help you regain what you invest to self-publish? This is something to seriously think about.
  2. Readers don’t want to suffer – Many times a memoir focuses on the pain and agony of an issue forgetting the good things in the lives of those who have lived the story. The author wants the reader to feel their pain – and if feeling the pain once isn’t enough, they beat the reader over the head thinking that incessant reminders will help it “sink in.” Readers are smart. They understand the pain and suffering. There’s no need to force feed them the agony. Learn to show the incident with balance and control allowing the reader to become sympathetic and interested, rather than put off.
  3. There is no real meaning – Often writers tell the story of a hardship they’ve experienced and it ends leaving the reader unfulfilled, with no sense of closure. No sense of accomplishment. It was simply a story about overcoming a disease. Remember the run of movies in the 80’s that started out as pretty good movies, but when they ended, there was nothing? No resolution, no joy, nothing. The movie just ended. You felt cheated. When a memoir ends, there should be resolution and an end, that even if it’s tough, shows some sort of hope or determination to persevere. Be sympathetic that not everyone overcomes. 
  4. Avoid a cry for sympathy for the author –We live in a world of “it’s all about me.” Readers are not interested in feeling sorry for someone when they have their own troubles. Writing a compelling memoir pushes the author to the side and tells the real story without constant author interruption.
  5. Dig into the hardship not just the person – How can you write a memoir without digging into a person’s life? It happens when authors allow the story to encompass nothing but pain, no hope, no depth of impact to others around them. It’s easy to allow the manuscript to become a pity party and self-absorbed rather than pulling out the heavy “I” and allowing the impact of the story on others to show as well. Good memoirs cover a life, not just the tragedy.
  6. Seek out a new twist on an old subject. Remember if you have experienced something, chances are, thousands of other have as well. This is good in that there are others looking for how someone else handled the same situations – bad because there are thousands of others who have written the exact same story. Hence, why Genzlinger remarked as he did in his New York Times article. Dig into your soul for the twist that makes your unique story stand out. This event has deeply impacted your life. Now make it dig into the heart of your reader by showing the life lessons, not just how you overcame the problem. 

If you choose to write a memoir, research, practice. Look for your unique twist. Seek guidance from someone who is accomplished in writing a memoir. Their guidance will be valuable. A good memoir doesn’t just talk about an accomplishment, it helps to change lives.


What’s the Deal with a Memoir? By Cindy Sproles (Click to Tweet)

snags that will cause your memoir to fail.~ Cindy Sproles (Click to Tweet)

A good memoir doesn’t just talk about an accomplishment, it helps to change lives.~ Cindy Sproles (Click to Tweet)

Cindy K. Sproles is the cofounder of Christian Devotions Ministries, a best-selling author, and a speaker. She teaches nationally at writers conferences as well as mentoring new writers. Cindy serves as the managing editor of SonRise Devotionals and Straight Street Books, both imprints of Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas. She is a contributing writer to The Write Conversation and Novel Rocket.com. You can visit Cindy at www.cindysproles.com.