Witness: Selling Memoir Without Platform

June 9, 2022 § 12 Comments

Memoirists have it rough. Be a great writer. Tell a compelling story. But first, shake your tail on TikTok until a million people know who you are!

I’ve written before about how platform isn’t social media—social media is an amplifier for messages you’re already sharing in other venues, and a way to stay casually in touch with your audience and your literary community. I divide platform into two categories:

  • Audience grown from the author’s entire life’s work and career, in which the book is a logical next step conveying their existing mission to the world.

  • Audience created to support a forthcoming book, built from more intense work over a shorter time

Ideally, both kind of platforms build on what you already love to do and have spent your life caring about. But you don’t actually need any platform at all. Memoirs can sell with very little public presence: perhaps a few essays establishing the author’s public affiliation with the topic; an awareness of where the audience for that topic exists and how the book can reach them before and after publication; just enough social media that the author understands how to use it when the time comes to amplify their messages around the topic.

The key word here is topic.

A memoir exclusively focused on a personal story is almost impossible to sell—to an agent, to a publisher, to the reading public—without either an enormous public platform, existing connections in publishing, and/or National-Book-Award-level prose. Sorry. That’s the breaks. Work on your writing, figure out the reader takeaway, query small presses, consider self-publishing.

But a memoir centering a topic—an issue percolating through the zeitgeist; a closer look at a past cultural moment; something wrong with society that you personally experienced and impacts a lot of other people—is much more likely to gain the support of a traditional publisher.

In a topic-centered memoir, you’re not just the narrator—you’re a witness.

Your story is still important, but in the larger sense, it’s not about you. It’s about the reader, and a larger issue they’re already fascinated by, or that it’s important for them to become fascinated by, as told by someone with personal experience. Your story weaves in and through the topic, paired with research, interviews or anecdotes, with thoughtful commentary, and importance beyond your level (or lack of) personal fame.

Unlikely to sell: This dead person meant a lot to me and gosh it took a lot to move on with my life.

More likely to sell: Planning for death in a climate-crisis world.

Unlikely to sell: I tried to kill myself and recovery was financially incredibly hard.

More likely to sell: A look at our troubled healthcare system from the perspective of both caregiver and patient.

Unlikely to sell: I survived a violent crime.

More likely to sell: How our nation handles this particular violent crime is deeply wrong.

Each of the selling authors is not just the narrator, but a lens on a larger cultural concern. Their story is an example of why we should care, or an illustration of how we could handle our own situation. Not just what happened, but why it matters.

What does writing a topic-centered memoir look like before and during the writing process?

Brian Watson recently wrote about starting out with hybrid intentions but generating a personal-story focused draft:

My outline followed a unique format—one I know now is called hybrid memoir. I wanted to intersperse the things that I experienced with some thoughts about the culture as it shifted around me. There was data on the number of AIDS cases and fatalities swelled in the US. I could describe how Japan’s gay community evolved in the years before the Internet. And so much more.

When I started writing in September, however, the memoir—its original title, I Should Be Dead By Now, was grim—almost wrote itself. My first draft, completed on the last day of 2020, set most of the interspersions aside. The exorcising of memory consumed me to the tune of nearly 110,000 words.

But early readers (including me!) loved his now-few digressions on the history of gay porn, Japanese culture, and coming out in the 1980s. Watson set out to revise his entire draft, even though it felt like an enormous undertaking:

The research might have struck me as too much work when the actual, coherent transcribing of my memories was already a lot of work. Or I might have worried that those cultural backgrounds and deep-dives would bore readers.

Will it sell? We’ll find out soon (go Brian!). But many agents and editors I’ve spoken to agree: it’s much easier right now to sell a memoir with a larger cultural focus, one that illuminates something we’re all thinking about right now—or should be.

Ask yourself, how does my story reflect an important moment in our history or a problem we should all be aware of? How are my experiences reflected in and reflective of my culture, and how should that culture change? What will I need to research or investigate to support my point of view about this topic?

Traditional publishing is far from your only viable path. Maybe the memoir you personally feel called to write centers entirely on your own story. Maybe you already write National-Book-Award-level prose, or have 8M followers on TikTok (go you!). But if what you really want is to traditionally publish, to see your book in the wider world, and to reach more readers who need your words, it’s time to explore—and write!—how your story speaks to culture.

___________________

Moving through the middle? Join Allison for Second Draft: Your Path to a Powerful, Publishable Story Dec 14th and learn to revise, refine and shape an ugly-duckling draft into a beautiful book. Click here to register/more info.

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