What Types of Memoirs Sell?

Getting published can feel like such a crap shoot. No wonder memoir writers doubt whether they have a story that’s compelling enough to appeal to publishers. At Write My Memoirs we believe that every life is interesting and worth documenting, and we help our writers self-publish so that they will have a book to hand out to friends and family. But getting a monetary offer from a publishing company that wants to publish your book is a whole different kettle of fish.

As I look over the 2019 “best memoirs” lists, I’m finding several common themes among the books that get published and then land on these lists. The books from 2019 tend to break down into four categories:

  1. Celebrity. Being famous is the obvious way to get a memoir published. Unfortunately, that route is not open to all of us. But you can be barely famous if you’re around celebrities all the time and will dish on things you know about them—or if you’re related to, or a good friend of, someone very famous. This summer saw the release of Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs, the daughter of Apple founder Steve Jobs. So her memoir sort of doubles as a biography of her famous dad, who’s the one readers are more interested in.
  2. Highly unusual life event. This seems to be the dominant category for the non-famous writer. If any segment of your life—job, childhood, illness—is way off the typical path, people will be interested in reading about it. Tara Westover’s Educated and Karen Keilt’s The Parrot’s Perch: A Memoir are good examples of this. And, as with celebrity, you can write from your own perspective if the person with the unusual life event is a close friend or relative, as Tom Weidlinger does about his father in The Restless Hungarian: Modernism, Madness, and The American Dream.
  3. Moderately unusual life event. Lots of people have had cancer, but writers keep finding new ways to share the experience. You can perhaps focus on the aspect that was the most unusual or talk about your very individual way of processing it. In No Happy Endings: A Memoir, author Nora McInerny tells what it’s like to lose a father, husband and unborn child all within a year. While that much loss all at once is not typical, it’s also not unheard of, but McInerny has a way of connecting with the reader. Another popular 2019 memoir, On Being Human: A Memoir of Waking Up, Living Real, and Listening Hard by Jennifer Pastiloff, takes the reader through the author’s experience of triumphing over her own difficulties by helping others heal at yoga retreats. There are tons of yoga teachers out there, but Pastiloff tells a new story.
  4. Fresh twist on ordinary life. Although this strikes me as the toughest category to break through in publishing, a very gifted writer can do it. You just have to be a keen observer of life. We all are players in some story every day; it’s the way you look at it that makes it uniquely interesting. While this type of memoir can be poignant, typically it’s written with humor. With this year’s release of Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, author Trevor Noah joins a long list of comedians who put their humorous spin on their life story. Sharing life’s true experiences in some form of memoir is a regular pastime for Mindy Kaling, Chelsea Handler and many others. And although the celebrity factor plays here, their humor and writing is part of what made them famous, so the books stand on their own.