How Will Your Memoir Sell?
October 29, 2020 § 6 Comments
Read that question again. Not as “Do you need a PLATFORM to sell a book,” but as “Do YOU need a platform to sell a book?”
We usually think of “platform” as “social media.” But there are literary platforms and mass-media platforms, too. Some memoirs sell on powerful writing alone.
How do you know if yours is one of them?
Memoirs fit roughly into four categories, and each category needs different elements to sell. Yes, a strong social-media platform can be one of those elements, but it’s not the only one. Let’s break it down:
Voice-Driven memoirs are collections of anecdotes, essays or loosely-connected stories. David Sedaris falls into this category, as does Jenny Lawson—authors we want to spend time with, to enjoy whatever story they want to tell because they’re telling it. Comedians’ memoirs are also in this category. Their plot might be “I grew up, I worked hard and then I got famous,” but we want to hear that story from the person inside it.
Character-Driven memoirs are often generational family stories through the eyes of the narrator, like The Glass Castle or The Liar’s Club. Or the reader navigates a particular situation or time in close concert with the narrator, as in The Year of Magical Thinking. The journey is through time and personal change, rather than up a mountain or around the world.
Plot-Driven memoirs focus on a journey, from Point A to Point B. There’s usually a physical element: sometimes these are places on a map, as in Wild; sometimes the journey is through addiction, or traveling from sickness to health as in Porochista Khakpour’s Sick.
Personal Record memoirs survey a place, culture or time. Orange is the New Black (women’s prison), Kitchen Confidential (professional cooking), and Maximum City (Bombay) each encapsulate the writer’s personal intersection with a larger phenomenon. “Legacy” books—collections of family letters, parent biographies, community histories—fall in this category.
The sellability of each type of memoir—to agents, publishers, and ultimately readers—tends to spring from these elements:
Voice-Driven Memoir: Come Spend Time with Me
- Personal Fame from public speaking or a public career like theatre, dance or politics.
- A unique, consistent, often funny, voice.
- Mass-Media Platform: publications in newspapers and newsstand magazines.
- Social-Media Platform: a high-engagement blog with hundreds of comments per post, or social-media accounts that regularly receive thousands of likes.
Character-Driven Memoir: Personal Change, Beautiful Writing
- Excellent writing with a strong narrative voice.
- Deep insight into oneself and the human condition, expressed on the page.
- A “hot essay”—a literary or mass-media publication that draws wide attention.
- Literary connections: teachers and workshop leaders who promote you to their agent and publisher, and will blurb your book.
- Literary platform: a body of work in literary journals and upscale mass-media; places at selective residencies; literary awards and contest wins.
Plot-Driven Memoir: The Journey Is the Story
- Newsworthiness of your journey, especially if a physical journey has been reported in mass media or an internal journey is related to an emerging hot topic.
- Cultural relevance of your journey, like a significant generational, ethnic, or gender experience.
- A “hot essay”
- Literary platform
Personal Record: My Experience with an Interesting World
- Self-publication and niche-marketing to the community the book is about (your relatives, a geographical area, etc.), though traditional publishing is also an option.
- Cultural relevance, especially if you are an expert on or native of a world that’s becoming newsworthy or topical.
- Social-Media Platform, including incredible visuals that invite readers into the world OR
- Mass-Media Platform, especially regular publication in niche venues about your world, such as popular travel or cooking websites OR
- Literary platform if your writing is voice-driven.
You don’t need to tick off every element in your category. But the more you can achieve, the better your chances of selling your memoir.
If you want to focus primarily on your writing, you’ll need to consciously improve your craft, seek publication in top-notch journals, and cultivate ongoing connections with your teachers. If your physical journey is the fascinating part, try to interest a reporter in your story, or learn to pitch to mass media yourself. If you want to build readership online until you reach critical mass, make improving your reach and content on social media a large part of your writing practice, and write a book that makes social media a positive contribution to your time.
As Jane Friedman says, “Everyone has a meaningful story to tell, but not everyone’s story (or writing) will find an agent or receive a commercial publishing deal.” Your book is worth writing. If you want to sell it, start educating yourself now on how that’s likely to happen, and how you’re cultivating and connecting with the readers who need your book.
Need more platform information? Want to know how to build an audience with or without social media? Join Allison K Williams and Ashleigh Renard for The Writers Bridge Platform Q&A Zoom chat today at 1PM EST (recording will be available). Always free. Sign up here to receive the zoom link.