When Mary Karr's memoir, The Liars' Club, was published in 2005, the book cracked wide an area of the book industry that had been mostly reserved for celebrities and "important people." The message — that readers are interested in the extraordinary stories of ordinary people — has led to a tidal wave of memoirs that continues to surge. The first rush books mostly dealt with the stories of the terribly abused or otherwise down-and-old, like Dave Pelzer's A Boy Called "It" and Jeanette Walls' The Glass Castle. That trend continues with story after story of kids – mostly daughters — traumatized by their parents — mostly mothers — as is true in Three Little Words, Swallow the Ocean and Her Last Death.
The market has since splintered into specific subjects, such as travel, as in Frances Mayes' travel memoir Under the Tuscan Sun, and James Salant's story of drug addiction, Leaving Dirty Jersey: A Crystal Meth Memoir, and Ishmael Beah's account of being abducted and turned into a child soldier in Sierra Leone in A Long Way Gone.
So where do memoirs by less-traumatized people fit into the market and is there room for more?
So asks GGW member Byddi Lee:
So you've spend three years travelling the globe and writing your memoir only to discover that a book is hitting the shelves that chronicles a very similar subject matter. Is it a good sign or a bad sign - what I mean is - should you cry and rip up your manuscript because someone beat you to it, or rejoice and send the manuscript to the same publisher because there is a "fashion" for this kind of writing? Discuss...!
My first instinct is to tell writers:
1. The market for memoirs does not seem to be diminishing.
2. Interesting and always-marketable subjects — travel, extraordinary adventures, unusual childhoods, soul-searching, participation in historical events, etc. — do not go out of fashion and can be told in many different ways.
3. The trick is to pitch your story as different than those currently on the market and within the same subject area as your own.
Gina Panettieri, and agent with Talcott Notch Literary, seemed to say the same thing in her advice via Dan Gibson's article What Would An Agent Say About Your Memoir:
You don't need to be a famous name to sell a memoir if your story and your style are appealing and promotable. Humor is always popular and selling especially well in this economy, but serious 'issue memoirs' (divorce, loss of a child, mental illness, sexual abuse) are also well-received, but with these, you need to be able to distinguish your story from others on the market, so do lots of research on what is already out there. It never hurts to have a well-developed marketing plan, too! Even if you're not a celebrity yourself (yet!) it helps to show publishers you have or can develop inroads into your target market.
And keep in mind, a memoir need not be the story of your entire life. Many memoirs cover a very limited period in the author's life, a pregnancy, a fight with cancer, a year of trying out some lifestyle changes, a journey, etc. and many blend the memoir of the author's life with an exploration of a theme that recurs or impacts that life.
So march on, memoir writers! Take succor in the knowledge that each person's story is unique. Therefore, no one can tell your story like you do.