“No one will publish a memoir from a nobody.”

This is what an author told me the other day. What the what? I’m still not sure if this was the author’s cop out for not being published after a long try, but I can assure you that “Nobodies” are published all the time; and here’s why:

Memoir or (Auto)Biography?

First off, we need to get our story straight. Are you writing a Memoir or Autobiography? The terms are often used interchangeably, but there is a difference that writers should be aware of because it means a world of difference to editors.

Memoir:  These are autobiographies that focus on a shorter period of the writer’s life and cover a specific aspect of that time period. They have a message.

For example, Amanda Adams’ fabulous, educational, uplifting book HEART WARRIORS, focuses on Amanda’s son, Liam, and how his being born with half a heart turned her into a Heart Mom/Warrior. Same goes for Ann Meyers Drysdale’s new book YOU LET SOME GIRL BEAT YOU? which covers Annie’s life. The focus remains on how she never let anyone talk her out of her dreams; and because she fought hard to stay true to those dreams, she is one of the most well-known women basketball players of all time.

As you can see, Memoirs are often about something life-changing.

(Auto)Biography:  These cover the whole enchilada of the author’s life, or a large portion of it. There usually isn’t a particular focus other than the author’s life. This is fertile ground for well-known people. Readers gravitate to their story because they are in the public eye.

This is where unknowns have a harder time getting a bite from a publisher. As hard as this sounds, there is a “who cares?” factor. Because no one knows the author, where is the hook to reel in readers? Oftentimes, these books are lovely for friends and family.

Memoir/Autobiography is an important distinction that many writers don’t understand, and it’s the difference between “No thanks,” and “Please send me pages.”

A Rocking Story to Tell/Something to Say

Again, I look no further than our own authors. Each book has something valuable to say – something that inspires, educates, and invites introspection. There’s a distinct point to our authors’ stories, and I can define each of them in one sentence.

What about your book? Is there a message, a hook, that you can define in a single sentence, or does your story look more like a diary of “First I did this, and then I did that.” Those tend to be snooze-fests unless you’re famous.

If you can define your story’s hook, then it’s vital that you stay there; on point. It’s easy to veer off the railroad tracks because it’s hard to stay objective. After all, this is your life, and it’s so easy to talk about the time Auntie Janie got a bit tipsy and danced on the bar wearing little more than a lampshade and her Manolo Blahniks. Depending on your story, Auntie Janie’s evening with the grape may be appropriate. And that’s the operative: is it appropriate? It may be a funny story, but it may lack context with your subject matter.

Veering off course is easy to do, and I often suggest making a chapter outline so that you’re forced to stay on track. If you refer to that outline, you’ll know exactly what it is you want to say in each chapter, and you’re less likely to stick in extraneous stuff.

Always ask yourself:  Does this scene fit the message to my book?

Is it Unique?

Memoirs have a specific focus, and many times that focus is far from unique. There are jillions of books that cover addiction, midlife crisis, divorce, cancer, mental issues, and editors tend to glaze over when we see another one of these memoir queries drop into our in box.

It’s ok to write in these subjects, but you have to make sure you’re saying something different from everything else already on the market. That means you have to read your competition in order to know that you have a unique story. The fact that it’s your story isn’t enough to send you to the top of the class.

Barry Petersen’s book, JAN’S STORY, fits this bill. There are tons of Alzheimer’s books already crowding bookstore shelves. But it’s a whole different story when it comes to Early Onset Alzheimer’s. And at that, the story has to have a definite point other than, “My wife/husband has Early Onset.” Barry’s book focused on watching his wife slip away from him while he was still in the throes of a very busy professional life as a CBS journalist, and how Early Onset robs people of their life when they are still very young – quite unlike Alzheimer’s.

Too many times, authors make no better argument for their story’s unique qualities other than, “Well, it happened to me.” Yes, you are special, but I’m in the business of selling lots of books, and as lovely as you are, that isn’t a selling feature because it lacks a hook. Know your competition and be able to advocate your book’s specialness.

Who is Your Audience?

Many authors write their books and don’t give a thought about who will read them, so it can be challenging when I ask who is their intended audience, and how/where do I find them. The more well-defined your book is, the easier it is to know how and where to find your potential readers.

Platform

I know, I know, there’s that naughty “P” word again. But it’s there for a reason, which is the ability to get the book widely read. It’s not enough to have a great memoir about being a Las Vegas detective who takes down a pimp who savagely beats his “girlfriend.” The wider issue is human trafficking and how it’s far more pervasive and deadly than anyone has ever known before. So it’s no small wonder that Chris Baughman is in high demand with the human trafficking/child trafficking conferences, going so far as to capture high praise of someone in the government.

If you’re writing a memoir, you must have a platform that establishes you as an authority on your subject matter. Minus that platform, you’re going to have a hard time selling your book to a good publisher. I can’t be any plainer than that.

Is There Some Conspiracy?

An author asked me this at a conference after a tough day of agent/editor advance readings. No one wanted her memoir.

The quick answer is no. Having read her advance submission, I could understand why no one wanted her book. It simply didn’t have anything to say, and she had zero platform. I understand that constant rejection can lead to acid reflux and the idea that everyone is out to get you. But it simply isn’t the case. Don’t look without…look within. If you’re getting constant rejections, it’s a clear indication that something is wrong with your memoir.

Now, do agents and editors discuss particular horror stories? Yes. We’re a gossipy lot, just like authors. But we also talk about the cool authors just as much.

Do they blacklist? Eh. Depends on what you did. If you threatened to kidnap an agent’s kids if they didn’t read your manuscript, then this would spread like wildfire. But do agents and editors go out of their way to blacklist someone? Who has that kind of time? In short, there is no conspiracy or secret decoder ring that belches out an author’s name.

Should I Fictionalize It?

I’ve been asked whether it’s a good idea to fictionalize a memoir if the author has had a lot of rejections. It’s impossible to answer this. How much are you fictionalizing? Is the story big enough to fill a fiction billing with a great story arc? Also, are you a good fiction writer? It may seem a silly question, but I’ve seen many authors whose nonfiction is lovely and their fiction…well…isn’t. The talents that go into fiction differ from nonfiction, so you have to analyze whether you have the stuffing to write great fiction.

There are plenty of books I’ve seen that have “Based on a true story” stamped on the cover, and this makes it easier to promote because the author is talking about their life, even though the book is fiction. There’s a natural bridge.

I’ve seen stories that were fictionalized and I wished they’d made it a memoir. It’s a tough call, and you have to go with your gut.

But the endgame is that ‘Nobodies” get published all the time, and if your memoir is unique, has a clear message, you have a platform, and defined audience, then chances are that you could be among those who are looking at a contract offer. Good luck to you!

3 Responses to “No one will publish a memoir from a nobody.”

  1. abookwriter2 says:

    My memoir is ‘finished’ but for editing and your post heartens me greatly!

  2. Team Oyeniyi says:

    Wonderful news! Thank you for providing some much needed encouragement! I can see from your article that I do have an opportunity!

  3. I appreciate this informative post and will share it with my memoir-writing students! Thank you.

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