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Memoirs don’t sell?

by Jane

So I just saw this story about Justin Bieber’s memoir at age 16 (which really isn’t a memoir because that would be ridiculous, right?), and it made me think of a recent experience I had with a project in this category.

We had discovered an author who had previously published a couple of true crime books but who now sent us material for a possible memoir. Her voice was simply superb and I was thrilled as, after all, this is why we do what we do—to find those voices that stand out. The discovery of wonderful writing is what our business is all about.

We helped this writer develop her proposal and I thought we would put it into the newsletter we distributed last May and sell it shortly thereafter. First, though, I thought I would send it to three publishers just to test the waters. I picked three very good publishers and three very good editors. And despite the fact that the material was superb and the publishers and editors were very strong, they all turned down this excellent proposal. Why? Because their marketing and sales people said that “memoirs don’t sell.” At one of the houses I submitted to, the editor didn’t even take the time to read the material.

I found this absolutely shocking, but I wasn’t giving up. I couldn’t believe that in the business of reading people weren’t reading.

And so some weeks later, after the newsletter had gone out and a number of editors had expressed interest in my client and her work, I sent the proposal out to several other houses. We had seven bids at auction and in the end the material ultimately went to Knopf, a terrific publisher. We sold it well. Fortunately there are those in our business who still do read and who aren’t daunted by purely commercial considerations, and all I can think is thank goodness for that!

Do you all read a lot of memoirs?

10 Responses to Memoirs don’t sell?

  1. Rebecca Wells says:

    I definitely read memoirs. Not all kinds of memoirs, but I'm addicted to certain kinds, specifically travel memoirs, food memoirs, and writing memoirs. So really, memoirs don't sell? I don't buy it.

  2. Bill Peschel says:

    Generally, no, but I'm interested in true crime books, so I might be interested in this one. The true crime market has gotten flooded with paperback lookalikes, but I love the ones that feature a unique voice and in-depth research. This one sounds promising.

  3. Cassandra says:

    None. Biography (of significant figures, not celebrities) occasionally. Sorry.

  4. Anne R. Allen says:

    Non-celebrity memoirs don't sell? So I guess that's why "Eat, Pray, Love" was such a total fizzle? As far as I know, Elizabeth Gilbert never married a Rolling Stone or touched the garment of Justin Bieber, but somebody took a chance on her, too. Congrats on the auction and fantastic deal.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Although I love biographies, I don't read many memoirs or even autobiographical novels. I'm feeling particularly gun-shy since I recently took a chance on a celebrity memoir and read Marlee Matlin's I'll Scream Later. Dreadful.

  6. Hillsy says:

    I find people who talk about themselves incessantly in the office rather annoying. If someone has the hubris to write an entire novel about themselves, I'm not entirely sure I'd find the person appealing to read about anyway.

  7. Sarah N Fisk says:

    No, sorry. The only memoir I've ever read through the end is BORN ON A BLUE DAY, but that read a little more like a NF book on autistic savants than a memoir.

  8. Stephanie says:

    That's surprising to me- I read a LOT of memoirs. In a good year (one when I'm not obsessively writing, i.e., a year that is not this one), I can plow through upwards of 140 books, and a good portion of them are memoirs. Having recently organized the list of books I want to read, there are over 30 memoirs on there. I love true stories that can place me smack-dab into another person's life. I adore a good memoir.

  9. Tara says:

    I'm reading more memoir than I used to because they employ a lot of the craft-related strategies of fiction and poetry, while talking about specific human experiences.

  10. Karik says:

    I feel so much haipper now I understand all this. Thanks!

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