Whether you are actively trying to write a bestselling memoir or not, here are some ideas that will help you appeal to as many readers (and publishers) as possible.
1: Accentuate the positive
Wannabe writers worry that because they’re not famous, no one will be interested in their story. And, fair enough, that’s a legitimate concern.
But we all know that having an A, B, or C-list celebrity name on the cover isn’t a sure sign of a good book (even if there’s a great ghostwriter working behind the scenes)!
Think about what your book has that no other book has…
It’s got you.
No other book, anywhere in the world, has got you! Use your voice and your distinctiveness to make your book uniquely yours.
2: Make yourself relatable
Readers don’t need to have had the same life experiences as you to relate to you. They don’t need to have grown up in the same places, or experienced the same sorts of triumphs or hardships…
But they do need something they can hang onto.
What is it about your journey, your experiences, or the things you’ve learned that will resonate with your readers? What is it about your journey that is universal?
Let’s say you’re writing a story about how you made your millions. It’s safe to say that most readers won’t relate to that experience! But it won’t matter if you can establish connections in other ways.
Your humour, your honesty about the good and bad bits of your experience, and your ability to make readers care will carry you through.
3: Don’t scrimp on the emotion!
If you want a wide audience to read your book, you’ll need to make sure that it hits all the right emotional beats.
Just remember that, if want people to really feel the emotion, you are going to have to be brutally honest about your life experiences.
That takes guts. It takes an unwavering devotion to the truth. But if you’re ready to open up, then readers will hang on your every word.
4: A little bit of temperance
If you’re telling a sad story, don’t make it so unremittingly sad that nobody will be able to read it. Same goes for a funny story. Or a dramatic story. You need to leaven the comedy, tragedy, or drama with moments of contrast.
Many “misery memoirs” often have uplifting endings, or rays of light that help illuminate the protagonists from time to time.
5: Give it some dramatic momentum
Never mind the five Ws, let’s just focus on one W…
With its three peaks and two valleys a W is a great shape for drama.
You start a chapter with a moment of drama or excitement, then let your readers catch their breath, before building to the next high point of interest. Bring the action back down, then build towards the big finish. That’s the dramatic W.
6: It’s not where you start…
Try and build your story to a natural conclusion. Of course, that doesn’t need to be an all-guns-blazing kind of ending. But you want to reach a place in your story that provides a satisfying place to stop.
Your ending could:
- Weave together the important narrative threads of your story.
- Resolve a difference or antagonism between you and somebody else.
- Bring you to a point of catharsis or realisation in your life.
- Answer a question that you posed at the beginning of the book.
7: Use all the tricks at your disposal
How do you keep readers engaged in your story? There are lots of little writing tricks to help you maintain a reader’s interest.
- Pepper the manuscript with questions that need answers to keep readers hanging on.
- Start the book in a dramatic point of your life story, and then move away from it. Your readers will be so intrigued by your little teaser they’ll want to read on to find out how you got to that point, and desperate to know what happens next.
- Cliffhanger chapter endings compel readers to keep reading.
- Don’t be afraid of giving your book a “hooky” title to draw the readers in, e.g. What I Learned About Life by Dying.
8: Find your niche
There are lots of niche publishers specialising in very particular kinds of stories. So if your story seems like a good fit for a publisher, consider emphasising that part of your story to help it fit their requirements.
9: Think about what your book is really going to say
Over and above the story you’re telling, what is your book saying?
A self-published book for friends and family doesn’t need to do anything other than tell your story or memoir, without any hidden agenda. But if you want a publisher to take a punt on your book, you’re going to need to give it something extra.
Is there a theme you can pull out and expand upon? A common issue that you’ve faced and overcome? A battle between ideologies that left you changed? A commentary on a facet of life that affects us all?
All of these things – and many more – will give your book greater relevance, and it will give your publisher more ways to market your book.
10: Is it newsworthy?
It’s easier to write a bestselling memoir that taps into what is going on here and now. So if you’ve got a story about how you were effectively locked into your house as a child, now might very well be the time to tell it!
Whatever you’re writing, ask yourself:
- Why does this story matter?
- Why does this story need to be told now?
11: Help your publisher!
The last two points have really all been about making your publisher’s job easier. The more you can do to give them reasons why your book will sell, the more they’ll be able to do to sell it. And remember, indefatigable self-publicists are a publisher’s best friend:
- If books that are anything like yours are selling in big numbers elsewhere, tell them.
- Talk about your book everywhere you go.
- Use all your social media channels to promote it.
- Do whatever it takes to get your book covered by local media.
12: Think small
… And talking of publishers…
Even if you want to write a bestselling memoir, you should start on the road to writing your book knowing that your chances of landing a really big publisher are very small. But that’s okay.
If the big publishers aren’t interested, there are plenty of smaller, indie publishers out there who will have a more wide-ranging selection process for new authors and manuscripts.
13: If you want to write a bestselling memoir, don’t be a purist
If you’re going to try and attract a publisher, be prepared to make changes, or have changes made to your manuscript. The publisher might like some aspects of your book, but not others. They might want to add material, or more likely, edit material out. They might even want to change the title you’ve had your heart set upon for decades.
Of course you’re encouraged to fight your corner if a suggested change doesn’t make sense to you, but do bear in mind that every suggestion they make will be based on their desire to make your book as good as it can be. Trust their judgement on what their readership wants, or consider self-publishing…
14: It’s okay to self-publish
As I think we’ve established, getting a publishing deal is incredibly hard. And if you don’t succeed, or decide not to try, there is no reason why you should not consider self-publishing.
Even if the idea of self-publishing doesn’t quite fit with your dreams of writing a bestselling memoir, remember that plenty of fiction and memoir writers who have self-published have gone on to enjoy big success with mainstream publishers. In other words, self-publishing can be a very good around-the-houses route to success.
15: Curated moments
When Jordon Belfort, the self-proclaimed Wolf of Wall Street was in prison, he got speaking to his cellmate – Tommy Chong of Cheech and Chong fame – about his life. Chong happened to be working on his own book at the time, and gave Belfort this advice:
Only pick the biggest, saddest, funniest moments of your life.
If nothing else, that is not a bad way to start thinking about your book. Start with the big stuff, and add in the finer details later.
Oh, and just in case you don’t write a bestselling memoir…
Even if these ideas don’t help you write a bestselling memoir, I do hope they help you write a book that you’re proud to put your name to. And if you need any help, just let me know…