How to make your memoir stand out

Two agents and publishing veterans share insider tips for pitching in this popular genre.
By Marilyn Allen and Coleen O'Shea | Published: December 29, 2011


We want to help you understand the perspective of literary agents, to show you what agents and publishers are looking for, and provide you with tips to make your book proposals and manuscript submissions stronger. The industry is going through enormous changes, and we’re here to assist you in successfully navigating the shifting field.

One of the hottest categories within the writing community—and probably the toughest sell on the publishing side—is memoir. We see more memoir submissions than anything else. At writers conferences, memoirs represent the majority of projects discussed at pitch sessions. For example, at the Writers’ Institute in Madison, Wis., last summer, almost 80 percent of Marilyn’s one-on-one sessions with authors focused on memoirs, and half of those had abuse at their core.

We see an endless stream of memoir submissions and know that few are picked up by editors. Many stories seem familiar and don’t feel unique. Unless you are a celebrity, such as Keith Richards, Bill Clinton or Jane Lynch, or you can write like Frank McCourt or Joan Didion, it is hard to make your memoir stand out. We hear from editors, too, that they are overwhelmed with memoir submissions, few of which are ready for publication.

Publishing is a business—like all businesses, it is about making a profit—and editors are tasked with buying books that will sell, and sell well. But don’t despair—there are steps you can take to help avoid some of the common mistakes we see and improve your chances to match your work with the right publishing partner. Here are ideas to improve your chances of finding an agent and editor, and hopefully achieve success with your memoir:

Read, read, read

Often, the memoirs we read seem more like journaling than publishable works. Journaling can be helpful and healing, but in a book the writing must be strong and the story must be fresh and compelling. We encourage everyone to write and share their stories with family and friends, but if you want to take the next step—to place your work with a publisher—it is important to educate yourself about the market.

Writers should read widely among published memoirs to understand what makes them work; this will give you a deeper understanding of the structure and style of various memoirs. Memoirs must offer good storytelling, powerful writing, and universal themes. They also need the same elements as fiction—characters, plot, setting, scenes and dialogue. It is critical to have a strong opening to your story. Editors need to be hooked. After all, they’re your first readers.

Join writing groups and workshops to share your work. The tendency with a memoir is to get feedback from close supporters rather than from objective readers who will ask, “Why should I care about your story?” If you think your memoir can pass this hurdle, then you may have a story worth moving forward with. Do not rush the process. Get professional editorial help if you can. Edit and rework your story until it’s as good as you can make it. You really only get one chance to impress, so don’t waste it.

Not autobiographies

Memoirs should not be a linear reporting of your life but rather focus on an aspect or part of your past that has universal appeal. “Memoir” stems from the same root word as “memory,” so select an interesting point in your past and go from there. Choose a story arc that will hold your readers’ interest and resonate with them.

If you are writing a survivor or abuse memoir, you might resolve your story with healing and redemption. We see many memoirs of abuse where the authors seem to forget how dark their stories can be. If the story is too dark, readers may not want to continue. If you are writing an insider memoir—perhaps you worked at a major start-up or traveled with a rock ’n’ roll band—be sure that the central theme appeals to many readers. Many business stories, for example, get dragged down with boring details that fail to hold interest.

Perhaps you have an amazing adventure story to share: You walked the route of Lewis and Clark or climbed Mount Kilimanjaro at age 80. Then launch your memoir at a riveting point, not at your birth. Avoid “cradle-to-present” stories and focus on strong storytelling.

In this tough memoir market, you might consider changing focus and writing a different type of nonfiction book. For example, if yours is a story of dealing with celiac disease, you might discover a better market for your knowledge and experience with a prescriptive-health title. Your Internet start-up memoir could work as a business or career title, and your memoir of raising a bipolar child may be better received as a parenting title. You may find more receptive agents in these other publishing categories.

Takeaways for a strong memoir pitch
1. Reach out to potential review markets or outlets that will help you promote your book.
2. Network to find experts willing to provide blurbs or a foreword for your book.
3. Include specific details (think numbers and statistics) as part of your marketing plan.
4. Submit excerpts from your book to magazines, newspapers or online publications.
5. Compare your book to similar ones, and show how yours will fill a hole in the market.

Memoirs need marketing, too

Publishers are looking for authors with marketing platforms. Memoir authors are no exception. Editors want to be able to see the potential audience for your work and how you can reach it. This is the reason editors love celebrity memoirs; they come with built-in marketing and media muscle.

You too can generate media angles to add to your proposal. For example, if you are writing about raising a child with allergies, you may want to contact national allergy organizations, alternative-healing and nutritional-health groups, and mommy blogs for potential marketing alliances. Prearrange for these groups to review your book when it is ready.

Line up a famous medical or parenting expert to write a foreword or provide blurbs that endorse your book. Find parenting bloggers to cover your publication and interview you. Editors understand that experts will want to read the final manuscript before writing a blurb or foreword, but the fact that you have existing relationships and a commitment to marketing can be persuasive.

If you are writing about your experience starting an online business, think about other successful start-ups, business gurus, college business professors, and organizations that can help you market your book to the potential targeted audience. Spend some time up front making calls and lining up useful relationships before submitting your work.

Whenever possible, add specifics and details to your proposal. To be able to report, for instance, that the website “Entrepreneurial Winners, with 1 million monthly viewers, will feature an article on my work when my book is published” is more powerful than vague references to possible blog-marketing opportunities. Unless, of course, you’ve started a blog on the subject of your memoir and you already have a sizable following. In that case, be sure to feature your successes!

Try to get selections of your memoir published in magazines, newspapers and other markets. An excerpt about your Lewis and Clark journey in Travel + Leisure might be all it takes to excite an editor. If your memoir has a strong regional aspect, you may be able to get excerpts published in local publications. This demonstrates that your work is of interest to a clear and defined audience. Think creatively to assemble a strong marketing page in your proposal.

The whole package

Getting memoirs published is a tough process but not impossible. Become as knowledgeable about successful memoirs as you can. Which ones are being acquired by publishers, and which ones are selling well in stores and online? Check Amazon reviews to understand readers’ comments about various titles. What did they like? What disappointed them? Be able to cite comparative titles and defend why your work will be successful. Line up some smart marketing opportunities prior to submitting your proposal.

We often say that publishing a book is like putting up a tent; the book itself is only one pole. Author platform, a clearly defined audience, targeted marketing and comparative analysis are other “poles” you need to get in place.

Finally, write a great query letter to introduce your submission to an agent or editor. Be smart. Invest time in laying the groundwork for your memoir—your story is worth it.

Marilyn Allen and Coleen O’Shea, authors of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Book Proposals & Query Letters, are former publishing executives and partners in the Allen O’Shea Literary Agency.

  • Donna Smith McGuinness

    Marilyn and Coleen, I know this is a few years late and I hope you are still seeing your article comments but I’ve finished a draft on my memoirs from my early childhood, growing up in England, traveling in a Dodge Van through out the states and the British isles because my dad was a minister. Living in hundreds of different homes, permanently moving to the USA via SS France during a hurricane, describing my childhood as a preachers kid (discipline, being home schooled, etc) and then humorous times that I remember that make you laugh, it is very much like story telling, at that young age how could you remember every detail. Each chapter flows, but after I read your article on “market analysis” and “the pitch” how do I reach out & measure demographics? Who would I say this book can be directed to? I’ve read so many books on memoirs and I don’t just concentrate on hard times or goody times, how would I start to propose this? I just need a few pointers. I just wanted to explain my whole package. If anyone sees this I would love feedback.
    Thanks! I also have a blog where I started the whole thing DMGEORGEwriter.wordpress.com If anyone wants a sample…if not no biggie