Writing a Memoir? The 5 key facts that you need to know for commercial success

WRITING THE MEMOIR: From Truth to Art by Judith Barrington

Everyone has a story to tell, but does that mean it’s a book? I get many queries for personal memoirs, but I am the most selective about memoirs because the puzzle pieces falling into place have to be so much tighter. This is because of the success of memoirs in the 2000s: the market was flooded with everything from mis-mem (misery memoirs) to business. Now health memoirs have reached saturation. Editors are still open to memoirs, but they have to have terrific writing and a personal story that will inspire, intrigue, and entice consumers to purchase.

So how do you know if your memoir is right for commercial publishing? These five factors:

  • An interesting story to tell *that the mass market would want to know about*
  • Excellent writing (or celebrity status)
  • Actual plotting, pace and characters that readers can invest in and care about their outcome — I know it’s true, but it has to read like a novel.
  • Stories of redemption, loss, love, unbelievable happenings, that tie into current events, the underdog, cultural/political conflicts, humour, sports–you’ll notice that family sagas aren’t on this list and it’s because family saga isn’t a sales point on its own, it has to be tied into another hook.
  • Did I say superb writing?

Unfortunately, the stories told around the dinner table aren’t the right taste for a memoir. A memoir has to be able to generate buzz upon release, garner news articles and have the appeal of a novel, except what happened was true. The expectations are high in this genre, but there is opportunity for success if you think about the general reading public and the kind of stories that appeal to the human condition.

Image via Judith Barrington

Published by Carly Watters

Carly Watters is a SVP, senior literary agent and director of literary branding with the P.S. Literary Agency. She is a hands-on agent that develops proposals and manuscripts with attention to detail and the relevant markets. PSLA’s mission is to manage authors’ literary brands for their entire career. Never without a book on hand she reads across categories which is reflected in the genres she represents and is actively seeking new authors in including women’s fiction, commercial and upmarket fiction, select literary fiction, platform-driven non fiction and select memoir. She occasionally represents children's book projects. Carly is drawn to emotional, well-paced narratives, with a great voice and characters that readers can get invested in.

7 thoughts on “Writing a Memoir? The 5 key facts that you need to know for commercial success

  1. Possibly obvious, but the public seems to expect more when the memoir is about an unknown. It’s almost as though people are thinking, “well, since you’re not famous, you better have a good reason for being the subject of a book.”



  2. Hi Carly, Ok, so I have finished my book proposal (finally!) and have been researching agents to send it to. I have written a memoir about my life as a trafficked teenager on the streets of 1970’s New York, should I try to break it down to exactly what type of memoir an agent likes? Or is the fact that agents list memoir as an interest enough?


    1. Okay, so for a memoir you need a proposal and a finished manuscript. Got it? Check that off the list.

      If an agent represents memoirs then they are open to submissions in the entire category, however you’ll want to do some research and see if there are particular agents that have sold projects in the same vein as yours and target them first. You can find them on Publishers Marketplace, their websites, and in the acknowledgement section in authors’ books.


      1. thanks Carly, I have been doing my best to research each agent I query, and not just send out random form queries, please keep giving us all of your great posts and advice, it really helps


  3. Thanks for the tips – I’m a new writer, having just written and self published, Game for Anything, my memoir on life in the African bush. So far so good with great feedback and reviews (no, not from my family!) I researched the subject of memoir writing for some time before tackling the project, and agree that the market does appear to be saturated with misery memoirs. It’s time to share some stories of success and joy!


  4. Far too frequently publishing houses only want to publish a celebrity book – one that jumps off the shelves with little or no selling; the celebrities previous work as a comedian, footballer etc does all the selling of the book. Nine times out of ten, these books are boring and the story dragged out until the next book takes over the story. Meanwhile, the likes of you, me and any other unknown out there, we’re not getting a look in, publishers turning their noses up at our books, knowing it won’t jump off the shelves as easily as the comedian’s book which……..oh, alright, it was alright for the first three chapters, but after that…zzzzzzz.


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