A Book Proposal for a Memoir?

A lot of clients ask me about book proposals, so let me talk about that here. The first question is usually: “Do I need a book proposal to sell this book?” Here’s an easy answer: maybe. If your book is fiction, you don’t need one. If it’s nonfiction, you do. If you are writing a memoir that purports to be straight nonfiction, then you probably do, but a lot of books in the memoir category read more like novels based upon true stories. Those type of memoirs usually don’t need book proposals. See, the way a book proposal works is it gives the potential publishing agent actual statistics about what kind of people are likely to buy this book and why. The proposal is a very technical document that compiles research on the demographic categories of people that buy books like yours, where they buy them, when they buy them, and why they buy them. A successful book proposal will make the publishing agent think: “This author makes an excellent argument for the notion that this book is guaranteed to sell.” This works with nonfiction, because certain people want to buy books in order to gain certain types of information–how to train a dog, how to get your child into an Ivy League school, the life and times of George Washington, etc.–and those book purchases can be traced and categorized quantitatively. But how do memoirs fit into such a statistical analysis?


Memoirs fall into the category of nonfiction, too, because they are also informational. So, a famous person’s memoir book proposal will simply present statistics on the popularity of memoirs in general; then, statistics on his or her growing popularity; then, statistics proving his or her fans are ardent book buyers. Voilà! You now have statistical proof that this person’s memoir will sell. Of course, such statistics are not always easily found, and therein lies the difficulty of writing a book proposal. So, if you hire someone to write a book proposal for you, you should know that that type of investigative ability is what you are paying for. The writing of the document isn’t so tough, it’s the research that makes up the bulk of the work. Now, the question remains: what about memoirs for nonfamous people? Do they need book proposals?

Nonfamous-people memoirs are some of the best memoirs out there. They are written purely because the stories are phenomenal. However, the writer or ghostwriter of this type of work may not be able to find a whole lot of statistics supporting the notion that this book will sell. The trick is to put your memoir into a category and look for relevant statistics proving that southern memoirs or prison memoirs or cowboy memoirs or Kennedy-era memoirs sell well. However, if, when writing your memoir, you want to frame it like a novel and include actual dialogue and viewpoint elements that are not your own, then your book is straying away from the memoir category. It is becoming a novel based upon a true story. If this is your category, you are in luck, because a book proposal won’t be needed. Publishing agents tend to judge fiction on its own merits, so your first few chapters will stand alone as all the agents need to see in order to know if the book is worthy. This can be a blessing (less work!) and a curse, because the book proposal really does influence agents to see your book as viable. Remember, as much as they love good writing, publishing agents and publishing houses, just like all of us, need to make money. Show that you can make them money, using statistics and other proven facts, and they will take even newcomers seriously.

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