Many people write memoirs. We believe sharing our stories with one another truly does make the world a better place. All memoirs—whether dramatic stories of shocking wars or quiet stories of growing up on a farm—deserve to be written and read.
Once your memoir is written, the best way to get it out into the hands of readers is to get a literary agent to represent your book. That said, when literary agents are looking for a memoir that is going to be a big, commercial success, there are a few key factors that can influence their level of enthusiasm:
The Celebrity Factor
If you’re on the A-list, you’ll get a book deal. ’Nuff said.
If elements of your personal story have been covered by local or national news media, or if you’ve been interviewed, featured, or honored as a result of your life experience, that publicity will go a long way toward drumming up enthusiasm for your memoir.
But if the only camera pointed at you is on your own cell phone, that doesn’t mean you don’t have a shot at nabbing a book deal for your memoir. It just means your story has to be exceptionally compelling. If you’re not famous, then your life story has to be fascinating enough to potentially make you famous—or at least famous enough to sell a fair number of copies of your book.
The Uniqueness Factor
The most important element of a memoir written by an average person is the content of the story. After all, if you’re not a celebrity, you can’t count on your fame to move your books off the shelves. So what makes your memoir special? What about it will get readers’ pulses racing? What will make them say, “I want to read more about this person’s life”?
If you’re worried that your story isn’t unusual enough to be picked up by a big publisher, don’t feel like you have to fabricate or exaggerate. While there’s a place in this world for shocking and flashy memoirs, stories about “regular life” can also strike a chord with readers in a big way. Some of the best memoirs are the “quiet” ones: stories that move us to cry or smile simply by their poignancy or great insight and the beauty of their prose. Readers enjoy stories by people who are grappling with the same fundamental human conundrums we all face. So write the most emotional, insightful, entertaining, and provoking book you can. That’s what will make your story unique.
The Craft Factor
A good story told badly is a bad story. So you’ve got to be sure your writing does justice to the story of your life. It can take years to learn the craft of good writing (some authors say it takes 10,000 hours). So if you’re not yet writing with a very high level of skill, consider working with a line editor, content editor, or ghostwriter. Don’t expect a literary agent or publisher to brush up your manuscript for you.
The Readership Factor
There are two ways of approaching this question. The first is impersonal: If you’ve written a memoir about birding, then you know you have a potential readership among the country’s birders. You don’t need to dedicate yourself to creating a new trend in bird-watching, per se. Agents will love knowing that there’s a preexisting audience for your subject matter.
The second way to approach this question is personal: What have you been doing that will suggest to agents that there is a precedent for interest in your memoir? Are you blogging to a substantial audience that loves to read posts based on your real-life events? Have you been asked to be a speaker because of your experiences? Have you published excerpts from your memoir in reputable magazines? Memoir writers do not need to develop an author platform with the intensity that an author of popular nonfiction needs to—but every little bit helps.
The Bottom Line For Pitching A Memoir
Many memoirs are written every year; few get book deals with traditional publishers. If being a commercial hit (or spreading the word about your experience to the masses) is your idea of success, we recommend you do everything you can to put together a compelling reason for agents and editors to say YES to your memoir. Good luck!