Day #16 – Writing a Memoir and Agents Who Rep Them

By Dawn Frederick

At every single conference attended, there’s inevitably the moment when the agents & editors confirm (within their group) who is seeking memoirs. Why you ask? Because, it seems that one of every three queries is a memoir. That percentage easily carries over into a writing conference too. So it’s always good to know which publishing expert (on site) is seeking out books for the category.

First and foremost, there is nothing wrong with memoirs. I’ve read my share of memoirs over the years, but it was for fun vs. for the agency. Yet, there are days where it 50-60% of the queries received at Red Sofa Literary fall within the memoir category. Despite both print and online listings explicitly stating that we don’t represent personal memoirs.

Here’s an exercise that is worth one’s time:
1. Drive to the nearest bookstore.
2. Take a walk through the store.  Browse the overall layout.
3. Count the average # of shelves for fiction.
4. Observe the # of shelves/sections for nonfiction.
5. Count the # of shelves for JUST the biography/memoir section.

Do you see a problem? The most obvious one being that 60%, sometimes 70% of most bookstores are nonfiction. Memoirs aren’t classified as nonfiction necessarily.

The next challenge would be that most memoir sections barely make a dent in the larger “population” of books available in brick and mortar stores. There’s a reason for this, specifically that the books physically present will hopefully appeal to thousands of readers (vs. a small handful).

Here’s my two cents, if you want to write a memoir, find a unique hook and a specific window of time (in your life) vs. trying to encapsulate ALL of your life. Avoid trying to imitate the people who are already published as it’s important to bring a fresh perspective to the table. Avoid being didactic. Try to remember it’s absolutely essential readers in all 50 states (and internationally) may want to know your life story vs. the book being better suited for a smaller audience (i.e. friends, family, a smaller region). Finally, determine if you are writing this book to gain closure vs. writing a new, fresh story for the general population.

If there’s still room for growth, formulate a plan on expanding that reach. Don’t fall into the trap of writing one’s journey, only to find it’s going to be difficult to get the book placed with publishers.  Instead take the time to write a full book proposal, consider what market segments would be interested in the memoir. Study and compare books that would be direct competition. Make sure that the memoir in your head hasn’t been written already. Consider the writing platform that would be partnered with the memoir; is there a built-in reading audience to match you, the writer?

If this is the case, here’s my personal advice: write that personal memoir, put it aside and approach the writing process with a clean slate to write an entirely new book, one that doesn’t necessarily fall within the category. Many of us would agree, the art of writing is similar to building muscle memory – going through the process of writing a book, and its future completion, is a good start to the writerly experience. Maybe the masses don’t necessarily need to know all the details of your life, but at least there will be the accomplishment of finishing a book, and hopefully the desire to write (and complete) a new one.

As for agents who represent memoirs, there are numerous books and online guides that provide lists of agents, along with the categories they represent. Remember to only query agents who directly state they are seeking personal memoirs. (Blindly assuming that any agent representing nonfiction is seeking memoirs isn’t the best use of one’s time.) The Writer’s Market and Jeff Herman’s Guide Book Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents are good resources to consult, of which I believe writers should have both these books on their shelves.

Here’s to hoping this helps anyone who stumbles across this newest NANO Bite today at Red Sofa.  And just so we’re all on the same table, neither Jennie or me represent memoirs, we’re only trying to help anyone who writes within the category.