‘All memoirs need is an author whose writing enables the reader to cross the gap in understanding of experience. Bring
the reader into your life: that’s all to do with literary ability really.’ Helen Conford
The market Public demand for autobiography is strong: sales figures for Penguin’s The Islamist are around 80,000 and The Junior Officers’ Reading Club recently sold 16,000 in its first six weeks. Misery lit memoirs have tended to do even better: Cathy Glass’ Damaged, a memoir of the author’s relationship with an abused child she fostered, is knocking on sales of 300,000; her second foster memoir, Hidden, may well repeat the success. However, figures like this for misery lit are now the exception rather than the rule. In May 2008, The Bookseller reported that, in an overall market showing 5.5 per cent growth year-on-year, sales for the top bestselling misery memoirs had decreased by 27 per cent from the previous year.
The competition As in many other areas of the publishing industry, competition is stiff: ‘I receive over 20,000 submissions across all categories a year and might take on 0.1 per cent,’ says Lownie. ‘At a guess, I receive about 1,200 memoir submissions, and might take on three annually.’
The money Advances have been known to reach up to £100,000 for unknown writers, usually due to an amazing idea and exceptional writing. In the current climate, most mortals can expect a fee nearer £5,000, with celebrities demanding the lion’s share of those high, six-figure sums. ‘Advances have pretty much halved in the last year or so,’ says Anna Swan, whose memoir Statues Without Shadows won The Biographers’ Club Prize and was short-listed for the prestigious JR Ackerley Prize. ‘My advances were £35,000 five years ago. Now I’d get £15,000 if I was lucky.’
The best strategy >> Familiarise yourself with the
market. Read the bestsellers and shortlisted books, and study their various approaches before you begin. >> ‘Hone your voice by writing daily in a journal in a way that focuses on description,’ suggests Conford. Try to vary sentence lengths and paragraph beginnings. >> Plan your structure. Chronological order may be straightforward but not necessarily the most interesting. Your story may be more engaging arranged thematically. The reader will thank you for omitting the boring bits. >> Choose only details that reveal the story and characters. If it’s not useful or beautiful, leave it out. >> Find your voice. ‘You’re inviting the reader to sit next to you while you tell them a story,’ says Swan, ‘Voice is crucial. I found mine six months into writing the book – you have to settle into it.’ >> Make it readable: nonfiction should engross and transport the reader and have just as much narrative momentum as fiction does. ‘Readers of nonfiction still want to feel that the text is alive,’ says Conford. ‘Piers Morgan’s The Insider has an almost chicklit/thriller writing style that makes you want to read on.’ >> Exercise detachment from the subject matter. ‘I held Graham Greene’s “splinter of ice in the heart” as a template,’ says Swan. >> Develop your themes early on: ‘Have an aim for your book – a message you want to impart to your readers,’ Glass advises on her website. ‘It may be one of courage, faith, hope or sheer bloodymindedness. And remember in writing your true-life story you have an emotional contract with your reader that you don’t have with any other book.’ >> Do your damnedest to get an agent. ‘Apart from looking after an author’s interests, agents help authors formulate their material into the best pitch and have inside knowledge of editors’ tastes,’ says Conford. Elizabeth Whyman
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58 | Mslexia.co.uk | Oct / Nov / Dec 09