What Is A Memoir And Why Is It A Hard Story To Sell?

What Is A Memoir

Writing a memoir is often the starting point for new authors

Self-publishing has given an opportunity to a lot of new writers to get their stories into print or ebook.

For many, the first book they publish is a memoir. Often it is 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 then may be 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 to make a lot of money, there may be disappointment ahead for you.


What is the difference between a memoir and autobiography?

These two genres are often categorised together. But there is a distinct difference between them.


What is an autobiography?

An autobiography is a formal, factual account and 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.

It emphasises emotional honesty and relates to memories about a specific section of the writer’s life. It usually ends with how the writer feels afterwards. It is written by the subject and usually in the first person point of view.


Selling personal memories is tough

Selling self-published titles is not easy. But there are authors who achieve success.

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

For non-fiction, 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 sales are hard to get.

From the perspective of traditional publishing, 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.

You certainly put your heart and soul into writing your book – it was a labour 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 in life.

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


Related reading: What Is The Best Software For Authors Writing A New Book?


1. Poor writing

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

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 it 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? 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, then 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 manage to sell reasonably well. Very few people are interested in reading about 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

If you publish a new book in this genre today, you will need to find a way to climb up past over 93,500 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 book?

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 get you started.


1. Start again on your manuscript

Writing is always a learning experience. You can use your original text as a base, but you should think about a complete re-write. 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 the 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 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 picked your book title, it might be a good idea to reconsider it again.

Another factor you should look at is your book cover. Did you create it yourself? Think about getting a professionally designed cover for your book which will have far more appeal to readers.


3. Reposition and repurpose your book

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 the 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, your life event will be transformed into a self-help or personal development book. Both of these genres sell better, so it will give you more opportunity 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, one of the biggest advantages of self-publishing 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 re-publish.

You might remove your book completely and start over, or you can make changes and re-publish with your existing title.

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


Related reading: How To Publish A Book The Right Way To Reach More Readers


Derek Haines

Derek Haines is an Australian author, living in Switzerland.

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