We receive quite a few memoirs, a good number of self-help books, and, unfortunately, far too many that straddle the line between the two. And there is a line (we’re not the only ones who think so either—check out this great article by Jane Friedman). There is a natural tendency to take an inspirational story and try to weave lessons into it, but the problem is that consumers are generally looking for a memoir they find uplifting or a self-help book with actionable, structured advice written by an appropriately credentialed author. A book that tries to be both of those things usually fails at one or the other.
Based on the difficulty we see with these two genres, I’ve put together a distinct profile of each genre that may help guide you as you write or revise your book. Try to make your book fit into one of these categories without creeping into the other.
DO THIS: Target a specific area of personal improvement. It’s all about focusing your content and providing unique direction to readers. Pick a topic like changing a habit, letting go of anxiety or fear, becoming more confident/organized/patient/etc.
NOT THIS: Speak broadly about happiness, achieving goals, or spirituality. Writing on vague ideas like “life goals” provides no marketing hook and little helpful advice to your readers—plus, the market is saturated with books on these topics.
DO THIS: Use your professional experience and credentials to establish yourself as an expert in the field pertaining to your book. It’s crucial for the retail success of your self-help book that you have a certification, degree, or career in fields like therapy, psychology, or holistic healing. Alternatively, it can be helpful to have significant experience as a life coach or professional mentor or own a successful business that relates to your content.
NOT THIS: Write a book solely based on overcoming a personal struggle. Publishers, retail buyers, and consumers are generally not interested in reading a book by an author whose sole credentials are personal experience.
DO THIS: Structure content in a clear progression towards an end goal for the reader. For example, your book may be divided into three sections: 1) Acknowledging the problem and developing a plan 2) Implementing the plan and overcoming the problem 3) Following through and sticking with the plan. Despite my trite example, the point is there needs to be forward momentum and ideas that build to a solution.
NOT THIS: Write free-form thoughts about self-improvement without a sense of order and advancement. Writing this way provides little help to the reader in solving the problem they bought the book to address.
DO THIS: Offer clear, actionable advice such as bulleted to-do items at the end of each chapter (or interspersed throughout) that build on the content and require reader involvement. This is the imperative for a successful self-help book. People buy self-help books so that they can learn tools to better themselves, so you absolutely must give readers a takeaway. Otherwise, the content is just fluff. For example, if you ask your readers to answer questions, make sure to give them guidance as to how to interpret their answers or what to do based on the results.
NOT THIS: Give your readers vague questions and platitudes like “Think about a time you struggled and how you overcame it” or “The power of positive thinking will help you achieve your dreams.”
DO THIS: Establish a story arc. Even though it’s a story about your life, it still has to have some of the elements and structure of fiction to make it compelling. Consider how you will tell your story based on what elements you’re trying to emphasize. Remember, you still need character development, a compelling struggle, and a resolution.
NOT THIS: Include every detail of your life in your memoir. If you’re focusing on your relationship with your siblings, don’t put unnecessary details in about your college years or your European vacation with friends unless it relates directly to the story.
DO THIS: The inspiration needs to come from the story. If you’re writing an inspirational memoir, it’s the story, the characters, and the action that should incite emotion. When you read an amazing memoir, it’s not uplifting because the author is telling you it is; the inspiring nature of the book is written into the story.
NOT THIS: Tell the reader why the story is inspiring. Don’t say things like, “In overcoming my illness, I finally realized how strong I was.” Show your readers how you felt, and let them infer from your storytelling the lessons you learned. This is an important distinction between self-help and memoir, and a key place where authors unintentionally blend the two.
DO THIS: Find your hook and emphasize an element of your story that makes it unique and marketable. Telling about your struggle isn’t enough. Research comparable titles and figure out an angle for your book that is new and different from what is already out there.
NOT THIS: Write a very broad book about overcoming a difficult situation. For example, instead of a book about addiction, write a book about beating alcoholism with your supportive, madcap Southern family at your side.
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Title: Free Fall
Author: Rae Padilla Francoeur
Publisher: Seal Press
Free fall, Rae says, is a choice: Let go. Be here now. Open up to the possibilities. Stop trying to control everything.
In a word, Free Fall is beautiful. It startles with skillful prose and vivid imagery, creating a sensation that is both unexpected and eye-opening. As you read, you feel as though you have been let in on a secret, viewing every stark detail of the author’s life as she deals with stress and struggles and learns to let go and enjoy a furtive love affair.
The label of “erotic memoir” is somewhat misleading. Though there are distinct and graphic erotic passages, at its heart this book reveals a journey, an awakening after many years of strict adherence to duty as Rae stands beside a man deteriorating from mental and physical disease. The reader partakes in every sensation, every high and low, as they are surrounded by layers of textures, smells, sounds, and emotions. After experiencing her life this way, it is impossible to judge her.
This book was a joy and a welcome surprise to read. I recommend it for those looking to view the world with all of their senses, free of judgment and full of beauty, no matter where they are in life and love.
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ReganBooks, known for Jenna Jameson’s How to Make Love Like a Porn Star and José Canseco’s steroid exposé Juiced, has a long history of courting sensationalism. But the publisher—or more accurately, its parent company News Corp.—found the stopping point. Last week HarperCollins (owned by News Corp) announced that its imprint ReganBooks was to publish a book titled If I Did It by O.J. Simpson. The release would follow a two-part interview series set to air at the end of November sweeps on Fox (also owned by News Corp.).
The television tie-in immediately produced problems. Ratings and advertising revenues during sweeps help television networks set their advertising rates for the rest of the year. News Corp. decided to air the O.J. Simpson interview on Fox on two of the last days of sweeps and follow it up with the release of the book on November 30. Broadcasting companies often use outrageous ploys to pull in higher audience numbers and increase ad revenue.
This time, media buyers thought the sensationalist stunts had gone too far. Several buyers told Fox flat-out that their clients would not be advertising during the program. Some reports said Fox’s ad salespeople didn’t even try to sell the time because they knew the response would be negative.
Bookstores were just as reluctant. Although the book had hit Amazon’s top 20 list before it was released, Borders, Inc. announced it was going to donate all net profits earned on the book to a nonprofit organization for victims of domestic violence.
The message to News Corp. was that no one wanted to touch the project. Both projects were scrapped when News Corp.’s chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch issued a public apology.
“I and senior management agree with the American public that this was an ill-considered project,” Murdoch said. “We are sorry for any pain that this has caused the families of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson.”
The backlash is considerable, and the incident is unique in the history of the entertainment industry—although Simpson’s “hypothetical memoir” was something of a singularity as well. All the books that had been shipped will be returned and then destroyed.
The question that remains is the long-term effect on the industry as a whole. Is there such a thing as a limit to our sensationalist appetites—and have we discovered it?