Should You Write A Memoir?

A lot of people come to me with an idea or a desire to get a traditional book deal to write a memoir. More often than not, I steer them a different direction.

You see, memoirs are tricky. They are true stories that need to have the dramatic tension and emotion of a page-turning novel. It also helps if the story has some sort of social relevance, and it’s never enough anymore just to have a rags-to-riches or “how I overcame my abusive childhood” kind of story.

The industry is highly selective on which memoirs they publish. This does not mean you can’t  sell your memoir, but before you try, check your odds. Put yourself through these three tests. If you pass just one, you at least have a shot.

The first test is: are you a household-name celebrity?

Obviously, most people fail this one. Yet a celebrity’s memoir is often the easiest to sell to a publisher. Honestly, any household name celebrity who wants to write a memoir could probably find someone who would want to publish it. Think of all the politicians, actors, athletes, and musicians that have come out with memoirs. Regardless of the writing quality,  publishers buy these memoirs largely due to the author’s giant platform.

But you don’t have to be a Keith Richards- or Elton John-level superstar to sell your memoir. You could be the CEO of a high-profile company. You could be any high-profile person who has had an interesting life with compelling challenges that you’ve overcome.

The second test is: do you have a personal experience that speaks to a larger social issue?

…and can you tell your story from a unique point of view that would create some excitement around publishing your memoir?

One of my favorite examples of this is The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore. In the book, he tells the story of the trajectory of his life in contrast to another young Black man with the same name who grew up in the same neighborhood in Baltimore. The Wes Moore who wrote the book ended up giving a speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention where Barak Obama accepted his nomination for President, and the other Wes Moore ended up in jail for murder.

Wes Moore wasn’t a household-name celebrity, but he connected his story to a bigger issue. He highlighted the realities of growing up Black in America. Plus, he had a decent-sized platform, and these two factors helped his memoir become a complete success.

The third test is: are you an outstanding, and by “outstanding,” I mean freaking outstanding, writer.

For example, Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren and Educated, by Tara Westover. Both of these authors are scientists, but their level of writing, to quote one of my literary agent friends, was “M.F.A level.” A Master of Fine Arts in writing level is where you need to be to sell your memoir based on the writing.

Truth is, the people I know who work in the publishing industry love great writing, and they value great writing. They want to support the dissemination of great writing and great stories. So, you don’t necessarily have to be famous to get your life story out there.

Still, the bar is extremely high if you’re going to sell your memoir to a publisher based on your writing skills alone. It helps if you already have some writing street cred. For example, if you’ve published essays or articles in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, or other prestigious outlets.

Just as a side note, Barak Obama’s first memoir, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance is one of the few memoirs that meets all three tests (though at the time it was published, Obama was known, but not yet a household name).

The Bottom Line: 

To have the best shot at selling your memoir to a publisher, you must pass at least one of three tests.

1) Be a household name celebrity.

2) Tell a story that speaks to a bigger social issue, and/or,

3) Be an extraordinary writer.

If none of these apply, you can still write a successful traditionally published book. Just use other genres to share your ideas (and your stories), such as reference, essay, and how-to.

If after reading this you decided that writing a memoir is not for you, check out this article on How to Start Writing A Book That Grows Your Business.