Unlike many publishers (who accept submissions exclusively through agents), Broadleaf books has an open submissions inbox where anyone can pitch their book to us. I check it every week and have found some incredible projects from unrepresented authors.
But every week, more than half (and sometimes nearly all) of the proposals I see in that inbox are memoirs about grief and loss. A mother’s memoir about losing her son in a tragic accident. A young man’s memoir about surviving a grim diagnosis. An adult child’s memoir about caring for their dying parent. These stories are heart wrenching, beautiful, powerful, and often inspiring. But I have to decline them. Almost none of them will succeed in a traditional publishing model.
A variety of factors make memoir an incredibly difficult category, but one of the biggest is that the memoir genre is saturated with celebrity. Just today, when I checked Amazon’s list of best-selling memoirs, I saw it filled with former presidents, famous actors, and authors who have already hit the NYT Best Seller list in other genres. It is very difficult for memoirs from unknown authors to succeed.
(Side note: I no longer buy books from Amazon, preferring to support independent bookstores. But Amazon has a tremendous wealth of data on buying patterns. Check out their Best Sellers page for by-the-hour updates on the best selling products in every category and subcategory—not just books. It’s fascinating.)
The best memoirists—especially those whose books aren’t driven by celebrity—have found a way to tell their story not for their own sake, but for the sake of their reader. They have moved beyond the initial phases of working through their trauma and grief, and are writing from a scab rather than an open wound. They have a unique and profound perspective to share with their reader and are only telling their story for the sake of sharing that perspective with others. Many of the memoirs I love best are multi-genre—memoir plus sociology, memoir plus feminist theory, memoir plus self-help—for this exact reason: these authors have found a way to make their own story about something much larger than themselves.
But it takes a significant amount of privilege to be able to reframe your trauma for the sake of someone else. It isn’t something we should ask every writer to do. Your story belongs to you and no one else.
And yet, If you want to sell your book, you’ve got to be laser focused on what your reader wants and needs. That’s what the business demands, but it is also what makes for the best nonfiction writing, in my view. We’ve all read books where the voice of the author was too self-important and the needs of the reader too overlooked. I’d like fewer of those in the world, please!
But, whenever I get on my soap box about memoir—trying to convince a new author to choose a different genre, or wishing that our submissions inbox wouldn’t contain so many memoirs each week—I feel a tinge of remorse.
The truth is, I don’t want anyone to stop writing their own stories. Tremendous power for healing and transformation can be found by processing our experiences on paper. By putting words to our past, we can deal with it head on. By writing about our stories, we give ourselves permission to wrestle with our stories. We may grow in compassion for our former selves, learn to forgive those who have let us down, or finally gain the perspective we need to stand up for ourselves now. The process can be transformational.
So, I hope people who have experienced trauma and loss keep writing down their stories. And I hope that more and more readers gain an appetite for this genre. But until that happens, keep writing your memoirs, but don’t try to sell them.