Is your book a memoir? Or is it nonfiction?

The Merriam Webster Definition – “Memoir”

Main Entry: mem·oir
Pronunciation: \ˈmem-ˌwär, -ˌwȯr\
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle French memoire, from memoire memory, from Latin memoria
Date: 1571

1 : an official note or report : memorandum
2 a : a narrative composed from personal experience b : autobiography —usually used in plural c : biography
3 a : an account of something noteworthy : report b plural : the record of the proceedings of a learned society

mem·oir·ist \-ist\ noun

I know everyone often hears an agent (including me) rue of the fact that our representative categories are often ignored during the query process.  From writers assuming they will be the “exception” to blind query submissions, it results in a large number of rejections from the agents, let alone the time required for us to send out those rejections.  I won’t go any further on this point, but trust me we love it when queries actually match our representative categories. 

At Red Sofa Literary, one of my NON-representative categories is personal memoirs, i.e. I do NOT represent personal memoirs.  It’s nothing personal to the writers who pen this these books, it’s a business decision on my part.  Personal memoirs are very difficult to sell to publishers, especially when so many people are writing them, often without a noticeable writing platform or large readership (who’d actually buy into the book). 

Understandably being an agent who represents primarily nonfiction,  it’s easy to see that anyone who gets published in this category will (need to) have a life invested into the topic being written about.  That my friends is the foundation for starting a good writing platform.  However, this doesn’t allow the writer to make a nonfiction, i.e. prescriptive book, a story primarily about his/her life.  At that point the book can easily enter the gray area of “memoir,” if too much 1st person perspective is put into the narrative.   A true nonfiction book can usually be classified as “prescriptive.”


The Merriam Webster’s Defintion – “Prescribe”

Main Entry: pre·scribe
Pronunciation: \pri-ˈskrīb\
Function: verb
Inflected Form(s): pre·scribed; pre·scrib·ing
Etymology: Middle English, from Latin praescribere to write at the beginning, dictate, order, from prae- + scribere to write — more at scribe
Date: 15th century

intransitive verb

1 : to lay down a rule : dictate
2 [Middle English, from Medieval Latin praescribere, from Latin, to write at the beginning] : to claim a title to something by right of prescription
3 : to write or give medical prescriptions
4 : to become by prescription invalid or unenforceable

transitive verb

1 a : to lay down as a guide, direction, or rule of action : ordain b : to specify with authority
2 : to designate or order the use of as a remedy <prescribed a painkiller> <a prescribed burn to restore natural forest conditions>

What a good prescriptive, nonfiction book needs to do is GUIDE and give DIRECTION on a particular topic, with AUTHORITY (i.e. a good writing platform).  However, it will not be 100% one’s personal life experience, as respectable outside resources need to be brought into the mix as well.   

So when writing a prospective book proposal (or book), look at the bigger picture.  Is your book a memoir, i.e. your life story?  Or is it nonfiction. i.e. working with outside sources/information?  If the book idea leans too much in the area of 1st person experience, it may be a memoir.   Taking the time to think this over = a better query process, as this will determine the best agents to contact.