As an agent who reps memoir, I’m a firm believer that everyone should write it but few people should try to publish it. Here’s what I mean. One of my most prized possessions is my great grandfather’s manuscript. It’s about 500 dense pages that get pretty granular about his philosophy and what his profession taught him about life. I absolutely love it, and I don’t know of anyone else not related who would.
If your goal is to not just leave something behind for your family but to have your memoir widely published and sold in stores, we move from the realm of cherished heirloom to commercial product, and in doing so, we start running into third-party requirements, outside competition, and other hurdles that are unreasonable for most to clear.
This month we’re celebrating the release of TIED UP IN KNOTTS, the debut memoir by Karen Knotts about growing up as the daughter of iconic funnyman Don Knotts. Let’s look at publishing memoir with that in mind, namely, how can you get an agent’s attention if you aren’t famous? Bear in mind that there are exceptions to every rule, and the aim here is to give you the best chance of success. For one, even Karen’s memoir wasn’t 500 pages long. Though memoirs of that length do exist, hers came in at 288 pages, well within the norm for the genre.
Aside from platform or celebrity status, one of the most important elements of a viable mainstream memoir is a unique angle with a strong commercial hook. This is tricky because, unlike fiction, where you can invent anything that the book needs, not everyone’s life story will naturally have that. The commercial hook is that extra twist, the difference between a story of getting lost while hiking and Aron Ralston’s BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE. A lot of folks slip up here in seeking to write the “everyman” memoir, where the goal is to tell the story of numerous unsung people via a book that could feasibly be written by any of them. You can absolutely write a memoir that represents a group, but in order to convince publishers and ultimately consumers to part with their money, you need to be a standout member of that group, and you accomplish that with either a preexisting platform or a commercial hook, often both.
A prominent hook of Karen’s memoir is that she grew up on the set of The Andy Griffith Show. Few people not named Ron Howard can say that. With the show being one of the most successful of all time (and with Ron being busy directing films), Karen is in a unique position to fill a huge demand.
Also keep in mind that memoir is not just a sequence of events. It needs a plot that delivers a calculated result within a three-act structure. A very ineffective but common memoir pitch is “I’ve had an interesting life” followed by a list of things the person has done. The problem with that is, it leaves the agent with a sense of “I know what happens, but what happens?” In other words, what is the point? What experience is the book trying to provide other than just presenting a slice of life? Commercially viable memoir won’t just list the coolest events in the author’s life, it will curate the events that contribute to a singular goal and present just the details of those events that also contribute. That’s why I say that memoir is the hardest genre to write. It’s not what to include, it’s what to leave out. You have all of the material ahead of time, and everything feels important. Yes, everything that happened to you did make you into the person you are today, but not everything belongs in one book. I know someone who had to remove the story of their favorite aunt dying from cancer because it didn’t contribute to that particular memoir. That’s the kind of discernment you need when writing a commercial memoir vs. an heirloom for your family. If a story you cut is compelling enough it might have a place in another memoir, and yes, you can write multiple memoirs.
With that said, memoir is not like genre fiction in that it doesn’t lend itself to series. Each memoir must stand alone. Another common mistake is pitching a memoir as part one of a trilogy, for example. If the first book is a major bestseller, you may then be able to write a book that leans heavily on it, but it will still need to stand on its own. Not even celebs get deals for memoir trilogies.
Karen’s memoir covers a great deal of ground, but it has that clear structure. She also left out a lot of material that would otherwise have been included in a book just about The Andy Griffith Show or just about her coming of age without regard to her father. She did a fantastic job of curating, and her narrative is tight and snappy because of it.
Speaking of, writing quality matters in memoir, and if you want to get published without a big platform, you really need to show your proficiency. The page is obviously one place to do so, but another commonly overlooked opportunity is your author bio. While you are writing your memoir, which should be finished and polished prior to submission, submit short stories and articles to literary magazines and other publications fit for your subject. If your author bio features A-list bylines and the kind of awards that are plentiful in the short-form world, you’ll have a huge leg up on your competition.
Karen didn’t have a publication history to speak of, but her writing was actually very good, a quality I’d credit to the amount of time she had dedicated to her craft. Her decades of experience writing comedy and onstage dialogue instilled a clear voice with its own unique snap and a stand-up-like comedic delivery.
In the end, regardless of her family and status, Karen worked hard to present a strong commercial memoir. It caught my attention right away, and I’d like to see a lot more of that quality in my inbox.