Memoirs for Readers, Reality Television for Viewers

I sent the manuscript for my book to an editor a couple of weeks ago.  It’s possible that I forgot to tell him that I was writing a memoir, but he was clearly turned off by either the genre, my writing, or both.  He wrote back that the book lacked “broad general appeal.”

I have to say that I was a bit befuddled by the remark.  I can’t think of any book that lives up to that kind of standard with the exception of a few bestsellers.  It kind of reminded me of the Hollywood chase where filmmakers are always trying to make the next greatest drama for adults, when the real money is in children’s films.  In the small screen game, it’s reality TV that’s made great strides in the last decade.  Broad appeal?  The term almost sounds past tense, kind of like when we all watched the same TV shows, and listened to the Top 40 on radio.  Nope, we’re in an à la carte world these days.  We watch Netflix, listen to Pandora, and read books from Goodreads, all based on recommendations determined by “genius” predictive algorithms as to which titles we’ll like the best.  Collectively, our personal preferences represent millions upon millions of niche interests.  Sure, there are still a few hits from time to time, but in today’s world I’d rather flourish as a specialist, than flounder as a generalist.

Okay, so I’m bitter about the rejection.  I never thought about sending my manuscript to a publisher.  I had always planned to self-publish it on Amazon using CreateSpace.  Now, I have the sting of a rejection from an editor.  I’ve heard of rejections from publishers or agents, but never editors.  However, I’m aware that there is a bit of a stigma associated with memoirs.  Everyone wants to write memoir, and many are written, but does anyone really want to read one?  Why aren’t memoirs as popular as reality TV?

Do regular people make it to the memoir big leagues, or is the best-selling memoir material reserved for celebrities, a witness to an extraordinary event, or a survivor (or not) of a horrific disease?  Do people read “regular” memoirs, where regular people do regular things relative to their time and place in history?  I decided to do a bit of informal research.  I reviewed Goodreads for the new releases in the memoir genre.  The results are shown below, captured in the order in which they were displayed on Goodreads.

1. “Lean In,” by Sheryl Sandberg –> Business Celebrity @ Facebook

2.  “Wave,” by Sonali Deraniyagala –> Survivor of 2004 tsunami

3.  “The Still Point of the Turning World,” by Emily Rapp –> Mother of boy with rare disease

4.  “Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church,” by Lauren Drain, Lisa Pulitzer (Contributor) –>  Cult-like church experience

5.  “Until I Say Goodbye: A Book About Living,” by Susan Spencer-Wendel –> Last year of life with Lou Gehrig’s disease

6.  “We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter,” by Rachael Hanel –> Life of a gravedigger’s daughter

7.  “Winning Balance: What I’ve Learned So Far about Love, Faith, and Living Your Dreams,” by Shawn Johnson, Nancy French (Contributor) –> Olympic gymnist

8.  “The Secretary: A Journey with Hillary Clinton to the New Frontiers of American Power,” by Kim Ghattas –> Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State

9.  “Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA,” by Brenda Maddox –> Scientist involved with DNA

10.  “Bringing Mulligan Home: The Other Side of the Good War,” by Dale Maharidge –> Son who researches his father’s military past

Goodreads displayed the books that had been tagged as memoirs, and I’m a bit puzzled by the results.  For example, I would have characterized some of the books, such as the Hillary Clinton or the Rosalind Franklin books, as non-fiction rather than memoirs.  Clearly, some of the books fall into the category of celebrities, diseases, or extraordinary events (tsunami).  From the list above, I’m most interested in #6, and #10, as they both seem to represent ordinary people.   A little further down the list (not shown above) was a book about growing up in Alaska titled “Still Points North: Surviving the World’s Greatest Alaskan Childhood,” by Leigh Newman.  I’m keen to read that one too.

Which types of memoirs are the best-sellers?  I can’t say for sure, but I know which ones that I’ll read first.  🙂

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