Memoir Publisher Marketing Issues

If you spend enough time in library stacks, you’ll see plenty of multi-volume memoirs from semi-famous people who lived hundreds of years ago. In many cases, their semi-fame is entirely derived from the fact that they wrote a multi-volume memoir and had the money to pay a publisher to put it out. It also means they had the leisure time to write the thing, and probably to pay a personal secretary to transcribe it into better handwriting with some of the more obvious spelling and grammatical errors corrected.

A lot has changed since those early days. There are now millions of retired people with the leisure time to write memoirs, computers to do the quick spelling and grammar checks, and any number of inexpensive subsidy publishers willing to print them. Another thing that’s changed is that very few people paying to have a memoir published today can expect to be semi-famous on account of it a couple hundred years from now, nor can they expect to see their memoir acquired by libraries, beyond the local branch they frequent.

I’ve read a number of memoirs by people nobody has ever heard of and I’ve enjoyed them all. The problem, from the perspective of a memoir publisher, is getting people to buy them. I haven’t paid for any of these unknown memoirs I’ve read, and the truth is, I wouldn’t have been a customer. It’s not a question of quality, it’s simply that it would never occur to me to buy a book by somebody I never heard of about somebody I never heard of unless the marketing was compelling, and I have yet to encounter that situation in real life.

Unfortunately for authors who are self-publishing a memoir, selling the books beyond a small circle of family and friends to whom you should really be giving free copies is almost as hard as selling poetry. Maybe it’s because they are both so personal, but the sad fact is that you basically need to achieve fame before you can sell a book about you, not the other way around. When you see memoirs by people who were "unknown" before their memoir was published, you’ll usually find that there’s a catch. Either they had a platform as a journalist, blogger or a speaker to promote the book (and attract the publisher), or they nailed a market niche, often by bending the truth.

If you can identify with a major trend in current events; a war, a health issue, a religious chasm, and if you can hold your nose and write your memoir to make your life appear to be a perfect example of one or the other side’s view in the controversy about it, then you have a marketing plan. If I sound more cynical than usual, it’s because I suspect that to be the case in nearly every commercially successful memoir of a non-famous person I see, and there aren’t many. When people ask me about publishing memoirs I generally tell them not to look at it as a commercial enterprise. Lying about your life to get people to read about it strikes me as pretty self-defeating, and if you’re in it just for the money, there are easier publishing nuts to crack than memoir. Before you fork over your money to a specialty memoir publisher, do your research and find out if they sell any books outside the same friends and family you can reach by self publishing. If they do, drop me a note, because it will be the first I’ve heard of it.

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