What Is A Memoir And Why It Might Be Quite Hard To Sell

Hard To Sell A Memoir

Self-publishing has allowed many new writers to get their stories into print or ebooks. For many, the first book they self-publish is a memoir.

Writing a memoir is often the final stage in a cathartic experience or journey through an episode in life. It is not unusual for such a story to start from a collection of notes, journal, or diary entries.

It might be 20 years later that a writer collates these memories and decides to write a book. The motivation to write a book based on a personal life event is often about wanting to leave more than footprints in the sand.

The result is a book that family and close friends can read for years and years to come. However, if your motivation is to sell thousands of copies and make a lot of money, there may be disappointment ahead.

What is a memoir or an autobiography?

Some might categorize these two genres together.

But there is a distinct difference between them.

What is an autobiography?

An autobiography is a formal, factual account and a detailed chronology of the life of the subject.

Above all else, writing an autobiography is based on hard facts, dates, events, and movements and is a historical record. Very often, a collaborative writer will be involved in the writing of the book.

What is a memoir?

A memoir is not fixated on facts and is much more informal.

The story emphasizes emotional honesty and relates to memories about a specific section of the writer’s life.

It usually ends with how the writer feels afterward.

It is written by the subject, usually in the first-person point of view.


Selling personal memories is tough

Writing, publishing, and then selling self-published titles is not easy. But there are authors who achieve success.

Generally, though, these authors are experienced writers who publish in popular fiction genres such as romance, thrillers, crime and detective or fantasy, and paranormal.

Nonfiction, self-help, and personal development are also popular selling genres.

But for memoirs, it is very tough to succeed unless you are a famous name or a celebrity. Even then, books by ex-presidents, politicians, and actors have a relatively short sales span.

If you have written and published a memoir, you probably know that marketing a memoir and getting sales can be tough.

Very often, a memoir may have local appeal, so publishing and marketing to a local readership can be more successful.

From the perspective of traditional publishing or a literary agent, it is a similar story.

It is worth reading Jane Friedman’s article explaining the difficulties and problems that are involved.


Why memoirs don’t sell well

There are so many reasons why a book fails. This will involve a little bit of tough love advice.

It took a long time, and you certainly put your heart and soul into writing your book – it was a labor of love.

Your story is vitally important to you and your life but is it a story that will resonate with thousands of readers?

It is a fact that very few self-published books by first-time authors sell more than a handful of copies. This is especially true for a book about a very personal episode or turning point in life.

Here are four of the main reasons why a book of this kind fails to succeed.


1. Poor writing

The most common reason is that it is a writer’s first book, and it shows.

Writing a good story and writing well is not easy.

Often it is not until the third or fourth book that a writer starts to learn how to write well and to write for readers.

For many new authors, the process of writing a book of this type is cathartic and an exercise of release.

But little or no thought is given to how personal stories will gel with a reader.

If you equate writing with painting, you can start to understand how much your skills need to progress before you can do either well.

So many first books are poorly written, badly or not edited at all, and are not proofread well enough.

Typos, spelling mistakes, and grammatical errors are instant turn-offs for readers and book buyers.


2. Who is interested?

Take a moment to think about this.

How many times have you bought a book like yours by an Indie author?

Do you regularly purchase books about someone’s emotional experience during separation and divorce or how they overcame a drug addiction?

Do books about how someone fought back after cancer treatment or the loss of a spouse at a young age appeal to you?

On a brighter note, would you be eager to read a book about someone’s year-long backpacking journey through Europe or a six-month humanitarian mission to Africa?

If you have not bought and read any books similar to these in the last year, why should someone buy yours?

Personal and emotional stories written in the first person have extremely limited appeal.


3. No one knows who you are

If your name is not Michelle Obama, you will struggle in the memoir genre. Not even Hillary Clinton manages a ranking any longer for her book.

One of the biggest selling points for a memoir is name recognition.

But even then, only names that are currently in the news managed to sell reasonably well. Very few people have an interest in reading yesterday’s news.


4. There is a lot of competition

There are thousands upon thousands of newly self-published memoirs every year on Amazon.

memoirs 3

When you publish a memoir, you will need to find a way to climb up past more than 100,000 other titles to achieve a sales rank.

Even if you can manage to climb, it is not a high-selling genre like romance.

So the number of copies sold each day is far fewer, which makes the competition for sales more difficult.


What can you do to improve your memoir?

If you have written your first book based on an emotional, eventful, or stressful period in your life, and it is not selling, you do have some choices.

It depends on your motivation and whether you are prepared to put in the effort to help improve your book.

Here are a few ideas to help you.


1. Start again on your manuscript

Writing is always a learning experience. Sometimes you have to stop writing your book and have a rethink.

You can use your original text as a base, but you should think about a complete rewrite. Look at what you can improve.

If you received some book reviews, what did readers say? Have you had feedback from friends on social media?

Have you asked any of your friends what they really think about your book? If you belong to a book club, ask your fellow members if they can help you.

Get as much honest feedback as you can get, and then use it to improve your story.

Another tip is that new writers almost always use way too much passive voice. Make sure you work on changing as much of your text as possible into the active voice.

It will take a lot of time and effort. But then make sure you edit and proofread your manuscript meticulously.


2. Consider a new title and cover

If you did not give much thought to it when you picked your book title, it might be a good idea to reconsider it.

Another factor you should look at is your book cover. Did you create it yourself?

Think about getting a professional to design the cover for your book. It will have far more appeal to readers.


3. Reposition and repurpose your book

What is a memoir? There is a similarity between a book about a writer’s life memories and a book offering advice on how to manage and handle difficult times.

The only difference is in how you write it. You have probably written your book in the first person, which is all I, I, I, me, me, me, and mine, mine, mine.

But if you re-write your story using the second-person point of view, it will be all you, you, you and your, your, your, and it will become advice.

If you change your voice, you will probably find that switching from the past to the present also comes naturally.

For example:

First-person. When I was told that I had been fired, I was mortified. My heart sank.

Second-person. When you first receive the news that you have lost your job, you are naturally going to be shocked. Your heart will sink.

By making this change to your point of view and tense, you can transform your life event into a self-help or personal development book.

Both of these genres sell better, so it will give you more opportunities to gain sales.

Alternatively, you could think about turning your story into fiction. Again, it involves a change of voice into the third person, and you become the protagonist.



For first-time authors planning to self-publish a new book, one of the biggest advantages is that you can always try again.

If your first book about a life event is not doing as well as you thought it would do, you have the option to try something different and republish.

You might remove your book completely and start over, or you can make changes and republish it with your existing title.

The worst choice you can make is to give up and do nothing.


Related reading: How Many Words In A Novel? It Depends On Your Genre

2 thoughts on “What Is A Memoir And Why It Might Be Quite Hard To Sell”

  1. I appreciate your analysis on why memoirs don’t sell. Mine don’t. Now I know why.
    The books follow your advice on attractiveness of the production & cover design (professionally edited,. designed and produced) and I have advertised them widely including Whiz Books.

    My intent was to add to the history of the times from a personal perspective (what happened to me, when) rather than as an exercise in emotional revelations. but the experiences of civilian POWs in WWII is not of much interest (apparently not even to WWII historians) nor is the observation of the changing face of nursing over time of interest even to nurses.

    I had hoped that historians might be interested. Apparently not.
    Thanks for telling me why.

  2. Thanks for this informative article, Derek.

    I am an unknown author with no name recognition or significant network of connections.

    However, I’m elated by what I’ve accomplished with my first literary endeavor.

    Though my first book, indie-published in 2014, was memoir, it did quite well (and continues to do so as of this year) because the setting takes place at a popular tourist destination: Martha’s Vineyard.

    I guess you could call it a “niche” book, but because of the Vineyard’s popularity, I’m very fortunate that the book gets exposed to new potential readers every summer.

    Also, having acquired endorsements by Nikki Giovanni and Charlayne Hunter-Gault was a big factor in the book’s appeal. I honestly feel that their stamps of approval was instrumental in boosting the book’s legitimacy and sales!

    The moral of my response is that if you’re going to write a memoir, make sure it’s well-written, professionally edited, has an appealing cover and book description, and make every effort to get a blurb from someone that can influence readers to take a chance and purchase your masterpiece!

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