Writing memoirs – meeting the burden of marketability

Memoirs are a tricky thing because, well, we all have lives that many of us believe would make for interesting reading. And I’m sure there are those who would find your life an interesting read, but as publishers we have to look for the largest common denominator. That means many memoirs and biographies are rejected.

Since memoir and biography are our main focus, I thought I’d share some of the elements that may help you.

The Art of Reflection – It’s All About Me

The most common queries that cross my desk are writers who live through some event, or reach an age where they reflect on their experiences and decide it’s worth putting to cyber paper. These writers tend to have tunnel vision and fail to consider whether they have a marketable story. And why would they? Most aren’t “writers.” They are people who want to tell the world about their lives.

As such, they lack the art of reflection, which means they more than likely haven’t read any other memoirs because hey, “It’s all about me!” I say that without ridicule or judgement because memoirs tend to be trickier than other genres for the simple fact that each story is unique, right?

Wrong.

Since the writer hasn’t read other memoirs, he hasn’t given himself the luxury of comparison, of knowing what’s already out on store shelves. They write their cancer survivor story, blissfully unaware there are a gabajillion other cancer survival stories already jamming the marketplace – and no one is more amazed to hear there is nothing different about their story.

In their “It’s all about me,” the art of reflection failed them, and they had no idea whether they had a marketable story or not. The only way a writer can determine this is to read memoirs that cover the same kind of material. If you’re writing about cancer, a particularly overpopulated category, then you have to understand the elements that make your story different.

What’s the point? The “Who Cares?” Factor

This is a toughie because many writers don’t take a moment to ask this question. They’re invariably brand new to writing and are mired in “It’s all about me.” This is understandable because they don’t know how to think like writers selling to a marketplace. And we can thank Mr. Ego for that because he makes it tough to question our fabulosity with an objective eye.

In a word, we’re going in blind, so we may write something like this query:

I played the drums in orchestras and wrote some rousing tunes for them, learned to race cars, built and sailed a sloop, painted water colors, baked cakes, grew heirloom veggies outdoors and fruit trees indoors, built radios, ran a photo darkroom, taught myself to play the trumpet, made clothing, crocheted, learned the art of topiaries. Also a writer, I published a music textbook, two books of poetry as well as articles on home improvement, music and gardening. Oh, and I was a structural engineer, including the  patents.

There’s no focus to this query, nothing that pops out and makes me think I must have this book, or I’ll cease to live. Instead, it lacks focus. The author basically threw up his life on this page, then sat back and said,”So, how’s them apples? Cool, huh?”

Well…no. There’s no doubt this gent has enjoyed a fascinating, fruitful life, but so what? I’m not saying there aren’t memoirs whose stories focus on, “Hey, look what I did,” but those “somethings” have to be pretty pivotal. Creating penicillin, curing cancer, the life of a rodeo rider, astronaut, or celebrity food chef.

There’s a point.

Many of us are egged on by friends and family who tell us we’re so wonderful that we should write our memoirs. If we hear it enough, we may let our fingers dance along the computer keys and create what we think is a great story. Here’s a bit of advice: Friends and family are unreliable sources. We love them dearly, of course, but they are far from impartial.

So when looking at your life, honor yourself and your story by stepping outside of yourself to see whether you meet the “Who cares?” litmus test.  You can only do this by learning about writing, and learning the publishing industry. Shameless Promotion: Pick up a copy of Tackle Box…I wrote it just for you. If the gent above had done this, he may have decided that, yes, he had done a lot of interesting things, but maybe there really isn’t a story there.

“May you live in interesting times.”

We’ve all heard that, right? We think it’s something nice and positive. A blessing. In truth, its origins trace back to a curse and really means, May you experience much disorder and trouble in your life.

Gah. What a buzzkill.

However…it makes for interesting writing and some terrific memoirs. Why? Because it’s conflict, which is a vital tool in writing – be it fiction or nonfiction. If a story grabbles along all la-dee-da, where everyone is happy happy all the time, then I don’t see them living in such interesting times. It’s that disorder and trouble that make for interesting reading because we want to see how it all works out in the end.

For example, I’m currently editing a wonderful book by Ann Meyers Drysdale titled You Let Some GIRL Beat You? Annie is one of the most amazing women I’ve met in a long time because she put herself into the limelight – by no design of her own – because she simply wanted to play with the best, which turned out to be men’s basketball teams. This was during the 70s when women’s lib was rubbing up against the social mores of the time, so Annie’s exploits were played out in the media – much of it brutal. She simply wanted to play basketball with the best, and often outplayed the men. She had the nerve to shatter the iconic taunt of every childhood memory, “You gonna let some GIRL beat you??”  Well, yeah…and Annie did.

One could say that Annie lived in interesting times. She was unwittingly breaking a glass ceiling because she loves sports. All sports. And many powerful people were trying to keep her down. THAT is what makes an interesting story. Because she dared to put her head down and not let anyone tell her “no,” she became an inspiration to many who found themselves in the same boat – be it sports, life, or the workplace.

So if you’re considering your memoirs, ask yourself whether your story involves living “in interesting times.” If there’s no conflict – which is missing from the example I used above – then what is the glue that binds your story together in a fascinating fashion?

And by “time,” I don’t necessarily mean a physical time, but a metaphorical time.

  • You’re the mother of a child with a congenital heart defect (Heart Warriors)
  • You’re the wife of a man facing certain death if he doesn’t have a transplant, and the only way you can get through this is taking the tough lessons you learned from being on the Ski Patrol (The Next 15 Minutes)
  • You’re the detective who rescues victims of human trafficking, and your unique skills puts the perpetrators behind bars (Off the Street)
  • Your beloved wife has early onset Alzheimer’s and you’re traveling around the world covering breaking stories for CBS, and you grieve over how you’ll take care of her (Jan’s Story)

These are all wonderful examples of people who “live in interesting times.” They stepped outside “It’s all about me,” to reflect on the toughest question of all:  “Who cares?”

Platform

Platform, simply put, is how people know you and why they will listen to you.

Are you the detective who wrote Off the Street? Are you ski professional who wrote The Next 15 Minutes? Are you the Heart Mom who wrote about her child’s CHD? Are you the CBS journalist whose wife has Early Onset Alzheimer’s? Are you the Hall of Famer who wouldn’t let changing mores about women in sports prevent her from doing what she loved most?

These authors have platforms – meaning lots of people know them and will listen to them. They are unimpeachable. And because of their platforms, I am confident about selling lots of their books because the genre buyers are looking at those platforms as well, and order books accordingly.

So it’s not a stretch of the imagination to say that when I look at a query letter, my beady eye shoots straight for the author’s platform. After all, I’ve written about it enough. It needs to scratch several itches:

  • First of all, do they have a platform? This is one of the most common reasons I reject a book. It goes back to the fact that the author doesn’t understand the industry, and has no idea how books are sold. Instead, they live on Writer’s Island and write their book, believing that “if I write it, they will come.” Problem is, they rarely do.
  • Is the platform established? Lots of authors have a platform, but they haven’t done much to get it “out there.” I once had an author whose platform was that he was a high school principal. It fed nicely into his YA novel, and he sold huge amounts of books in his hometown. But outside his hometown, he was a blank slate. There was no question the author knew his subject matter, but he hadn’t established his platform beyond his town. This made it a tough sell in other cities. I suggested that he establish his platform by widening his scope, say, giving talks to parents about what kids are really thinking, which would have fed nicely into his book.
  • How big is the platform? Yes, size matters. I’ll use the example of Kim Kircher, author of the brilliant The Next 15 Minutes. I knew that her platform was that she is on the Ski Patrol at Crystal Mountain, an explosives control expert – meaning she tosses bombs out of her backpack or a helicopter and screams, “Bombs away!” – and had saved lives and seen a lot of sadness in her job. Unimpeachable. Yes, she has a platform, but my job as a soulless creature of the dark was to determine whether her platform would attract a large number of readers. The fact that her husband’s family owns a large number of resorts in the US and Canada, and their name is one of the most respected in the industry, convinced me that a lot of people know them and would want to read her touching, brave, gripping story.
  • Does the platform correspond to the subject matter? I call this “The Crossover Effect,” meaning that the author is known within a particular audience, but their book won’t necessarily appeal to them. I had a query where the author was well known in the home repair community, but his book was about addiction. I had to weigh his platform against the subject matter. Is his standing in the home repair community strong enough to where weekend home repair warriors would rush out to buy his book? Perhaps if it was Bob Villa. I concluded that his platform was too far a stretch to appeal to those who would be willing to listen to him. It would be a different story if he had written a book about the perfect way to plumb a door. I’d have felt that way even if his book was about how being bullied led him to home repair because I didn’t believe his core audience would find this appealing in large enough quantities to warrant publishing the book. Time will tell if I made the right choice.

The most important aspect of platform is one of timing. If your query letter runs along the lines of “I’m gonna..” meaning that once you have a contract deal THEN you’ll begin establishing your platform, then I have to tell you that you’re too late.

Establishing a platform takes time.

You don’t wake up one day and decide you’re going to become the darling of the Reiki community because no one knows who you are. And just because you THINK the Reiki community is your intended audience, it may turn out to be the exact opposite.

I found that out the hard way when I wrote Donovan’s Paradigm. It’s a no-brainer that most docs detest anything that has to do with alternative/complementary medicine. I knew that because I’d interviewed many at great length. Their opinions are what helped me shape the ever-adorable, swoon-worthy, doubting pain-in-the-ass Erik Behler (yes, the company is named after him…long story). Because of docs’ feelings, I felt they were the last community who would read my book.

As it turned out, the Reiki community, and the alternative medicine community at large, ignored my book. I couldn’t catch a cold with these guys. It turned out, they want to read nonfiction. But guess who came in to save the day…yep, the medical community. Knock me over with a feather. Because I had talked to so many docs, word spread about my book. So while my platform didn’t include being a doc, many thought I was, and wrote me to ask what kind of medicine I practiced. Feather, knock me over again, please.

So a word to the wise, it is never too early to establish your platform. True, my book is a novel, so the parameters are different – but the sentiment is the same.

Believability

Hello, James Frey and all the other inverted navels who pulled one over on the buying public. Because we have writers who play fast and loose with the truth, I’m wary about being sucked into someone’s story. I’ve had all kinds of queries that purported to be “the only witness” to crimes committed by government agencies, court cases, espionage, and family dealings.

Many of them sound so fantastical that even the beagle raises an eyebrow. The problem isn’t only believeability, but the problem with verification. If someone tells me they were a groupie for The Rolling Stones, The Dave Clark Five, and The Beatles, and their book is a “tell all,” I’m gonna need some proof…which they can’t provide because, hey man, it was the sixties, and who kept records. But I was invited to contact Paul McCartney or Charlie Watts for verification.

Right. Let me get right on that.

In closing, Memoirs are fabulous things because we enjoy reading about the cool things someone did or lived through. They’re often inspirational, amusing, educational, and thought-provoking.

If you take the time to reflect on:  why you’re writing your story, asked yourself, “Who cares?”, your story took place in “interesting times,” your story is believable, and you have an established platform, then I daresay you’ve met the burden of marketability. Now go out and be brilliant!

13 Responses to Writing memoirs – meeting the burden of marketability

  1. Thanks for posting this. Writers don’t get it when I’ve (gently) tried to explain the problem. Now I’ll just send them here!

  2. Aloha Lynn,

    Thanks for putting so much info on here…. Back at SCWC, I wanted to bend your ears (like the Beagle?) and ask your thoughts on this, and get your advice on that, but now I have a whole essay to peruse!

    Regards and cheers!

  3. Kim Kircher says:

    Phew! Thanks for this exhaustive post. So true that we long to tell our story without wondering how the story will benefit others. I’ve been conducting interviews lately, and a common question is, “Did you write this book as therapy?” I can only imagine what you, Lynn, would think of that. While the early writing of a memoir can have a therapeutic effect for the writer, the final product should be for the reader, first and foremost. If the reader isn’t going to get anything from a book, it shouldn’t be born.

  4. It’s a common question, Kim, the “did you write it as therapy.” What interviewers don’t realize is that writing, in general, is therapeutic because in the act of writing what’s burning in our hearts, we shift from who we thought we were to who we become. Now, that doesn’t mean that what we write is marketable. Just so happens, you’re a brilliant writer with an amazing story! Yay Kim!

  5. Thank you so much for writing another great detailed and helpful post for us memoir writers!

  6. […] Editor Lynn Price helps memoirists consider “who cares,” platform, believability and more…. […]

  7. summerjarviswrites says:

    Good advice!

  8. There’s also another problem with memoirs that aspiring authors need to be aware of — self-publishing authors in particular. That is the lawsuits that can result from writing “negatively” about a living, private human being. You can say what you like about the dead or about a celebrity and usually get away with it, but if you say the same things about a living person who’s not in the public eye, you’re asking for trouble. I’m a book editor, and have to pass on editing most memoirs that come my way, for this reason. Check out my article “Why Only Old Folks Should Publish Memoirs” for the rest of the story: http://bookeditor-jessihoffman.com/why-only-old-folks-should-publish-memoirs/

  9. I’m tempering my original comment because new authors are invariably the ones who run into trouble when writing a memoir that also includes other people – possibly not in a positive light. These days, anyone can sue anyone for just about anything…including hurt feelings. The rub comes in making that lawsuit stick and prove malicious intent or outright libel. One needs to be mindful of writing about those still living, but that’s precisely why one consults an attorney.

  10. Agreed, Lynn, but the problem is that the burden of proof is on the person sued, not on the person claiming libel. So if an author writes in a memoir that her ex-husband assaulted her, she must give proof that he did in a libel suit, not the other way around (In other words, the husband is not required to furnish proof that he didn’t.) So this can get a person in considerable trouble, if proof recognized in a court of law is not available to the author. Besides this factor, a person needs to consider the cost of being sued and defending oneself, even if he/she wins. People just need to be aware of these issues before embarking on a tell-all story.

  11. I have a number of books that we’ve published, and the authors discussed the possible impact of their stories with their attorneys, and careful steps were taken to still tell their stories without being sued. My point here is that authors shouldn’t be kowtowed from telling their stories because they fear being sued. They must seek the advice of a good literary attorney.

  12. The key word there is “literary” — a good LITERARY attorney. I know an author who sought the advice of a general attorney, who told her not to worry, and the author later got sued. I agree that a literary attorney would be much more qualified to help an author determine what is safe or unsafe to include in a memoir.

  13. Yes, it can’t be reiterated enough. Literary attorney.

Tell me what you really think

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: