I Was Miss Snark's Love Slave!

Dear Miss Snark,

A friend writes memoir and is under the impression she does not necessarily need a platform -- just an exquisitely written manuscript.

My sense of the market (which seems to be re-assessing itself in the wake of 9/11, media mergers, tight economy) is that mainly celebs and those with platform are having memoirs published. The caveat being that there are always exceptions to the rule, which of us is correct? Also, is memoir submitted to agents in standard book proposal format?

By the way, I'm hoping she wins this bet because I love well-written memoirs by ordinary people overcoming extraordinary situations. Thanks so much for your help. Love you and your blog.

Memoir is the platypus of publishing: it's non fiction that's sold like fiction- you have to have it finished and you generally don't need a complete proposal. It's also promoted and marketed like fiction. You'll see the same kinds of blurbs "gripping" "well written" "enticing" that you see on a thriller.

But memoir is very very tricky to sell. Lots of editors and agents hate it. Here's why: it’s VERY hard to write it well. And even if it IS well written, it's got be something that hasn't been done already. A life altering event to you is often time a ho-hum "seen this before" event to an editor or agent. Breast cancer? been there, done that. Horrific abuse? yesterday's news. Held hostage by the Chinese? last year's headlines. Adopting a baby from a war ravaged country? ho hum.

Every editor and agent I know HATES memoir pitches at conferences cause it's not something you want, and rejecting it, it's hard not to feel you're rejecting the person herself. Contrary to what you might think, telling a mom who lost her sixteen children in a five alarm chocolate factory fire where they were indentured servants to Satan is not all that much fun. In fact, I'd rather shave the cat...without gloves.

So, contrary to my usual advice to just write well and ignore the market, if you want to sell a memoir, check to see what you're up against. Go ahead and write it for your own self, but once you decide you want to publish, it's not all about you and your recovery. It's a business. Get ready to be treated like a product. And clean up that chocolate that spilled on the floor!


Ira Rosofsky said...

Welcome back. You should check the article from the Times the other day about Frankfort. I read that they don't drink beer there, preferring Ebbelwei, a cider. How's the gin? Is that you hiding behind a book on the picture that comes up on this web page?


Where's the line between memoir and narrative nonfiction? I'm writing about my professional life--I'd say distantly related to "All Creatures Great and Small"--and it's being peddled with proposal, not with a finished manuscript.

I've seen a mixed attitude expressed among agents about memoir. Some say, like you, market it as fiction. Others deal with as nonfiction, as is my agent.

I wonder if this distinction could work: If the focus is on what you observe, reportage, it's narrative nonfiction. If the focus is on how you feel and internalize what you observe, it's a memoir. I'm not sure there's a bright line here though.

Lois Lane said...

"And clean up that chocolate that spilled on the floor!" Hahaha! Good advice with a huge belly laugh at the end. Thanks!

brainlesionssuck said...

I love that you cut through the crap and tell it like it is.
Kathie at housewifecafe.com