First a note to fiction writers. Even though I’m blogging about a non-fiction topic this time, you really do need to pay attention to what’s happening in the publishing world, regardless of whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. As I teach in my workshops, I fully believe that at least 40% of an author’s success will be based on factors other than his or her writing ability. Largely, those factors involve a willingness to learn about publishing as an industry.

So today, as promised, I want to blog a bit about the memoir/autobiography/personal experience genre. In the world of secular publishing, this genre is extremely successful. Books like Angela’s Ashes, All Over But the Shouting, and the more recent bestseller The Glass Castle have all found a wide audience. But in the world of Christian publishing, that’s far less true. Memoirs or personal experience stories that do well are extremely rare. And some that do succeed must appeal to the secular book buyers as well. A perfect example is the current Tyndale House bestseller Son of Hamas: A Gripping Account of Terror, Betrayal, Political Intrigue, and Unthinkable Choices by Mosab Hassan Yousef. That book, about the conversion of a Muslim, is in the Amazon top 100 and on the Publisher’s Weekly bestsellers list. Not only does it appeal to readers beyond the Christian community, it also affords the author a great opportunity to speak about his book. I’ve seen him at least once on a major TV program and no doubt he’s been on several others.

This genre has not always been so dead among Christian readers. Some of us remember books like The Hiding Place, God’s Smuggler, The Cross and the Switchblade, Run Baby Run, and others. Where are their counterparts today? It’s certainly not because editors want to say no to this genre. Most editors I know at Christian publishing houses are eager for this genre to pick up steam. We get excited at the occasional successes such as Don Miller’s Blue Like Jazz or Girl Meets God by Lauren Winner. The latter, though, was published by a secular publisher. Why? Would it have sold as well if a Christian publisher had published it? Likely not.

Another current personal story that’s selling well—due to the movie of the same name—is The Blind Side by Michael Lewis, published by….you guessed it…a secular publisher, W.W. Norton. There again, what if that book had been published by a Christian publisher? Would it have been as popular? Would Sandra Bullock have an Oscar on her mantle tonight?

Sports books as memoirs can do well. Tony Dungy’s books have been bestsellers. So was Kurt Warner’s. I see that Tyndale will be coming out with Superbowl winning Saints quarterback, Drew Brees’ autobiography. I hope it does well….but I hope we eventually see the breakthrough of other, non-sports related personal stories.

Will we? I just don’t know the answer. To be honest, the questions surrounding this genre baffle and frustrate me no end. I’ve had to pass up some very good book proposals because, even I’m convinced they won’t sell—unless like the Mosab Hassan Yousef book or a sports story, they can reach out to that part of the market that DOES read memoirs.

Right now in my role as a writer, I’m working on a memoir with an actress from Hollywood’s Golden Age and we are expecting it will take a secular publisher to see the potential in her book, even though it is a solid Christian testimony. Go figure.

Next week I’m going to be at the Mount Hermon Christian Writer’s conference. I hope to see some of you there. GO if you can! At this conference, I will likely buy the newest memoir that I’m aware of published by a Christian publisher. That will be Mary de Muth’s Thin Places. I hope it does very, very well. I hope, in fact, it opens the floodgate for more memoirs. Hats off to Mary–and to Zondervan–her publisher, if it does.

Finally, let me add that presently the best way to have your memoir/autobiography/personal experience book published is to self publish it and promote it like crazy. When it sells well, publishers will be interested.

If you have comments on why you think this genre fares poorly among Christian readers, I’m all ears. All the more ears if you have a solution.

Next time: back to fiction—and one of my pet peeves. Don’t miss it.

12 replies
  1. Mary Hampton
    Mary Hampton says:

    I appreciate your insight Nick, especially since I’m working on a memoir project of sorts too. Maybe we’ll have the chance to chat about the subject at Mt. Hermon!

    Reply
  2. Kathy Nickerson
    Kathy Nickerson says:

    This seems so strange, doesn’t it? It surprises me that we, as readers who who happen to be Christians, aren’t intrigued enough by other people’s stories to buy their books. Do self-help books sell better than memoir because we are more interested in ourselves than in others? I certainly hope not. But, it does make me wonder. (assuming self-help still sells.)

    Reply
  3. Shannon Dittemore
    Shannon Dittemore says:

    I’m not a huge memoir reader, though I have picked up my share. Usually, I’ve done so because they have been recommended by a friend, or I’ve seen part of the author’s story via some other medium. As a reader, I’m looking for one of two things: 1. Entertainment and/or 2. Inspiration. I usually find myself pleasantly surprised that a memoir has accomplished one or both of those things, but when I head back to the bookstore, it’s the fiction shelves that scream “Entertainment!” Maybe the marketing has something to do with it?

    Reply
  4. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    I like the insight about self-help possibly selling better than memoir. Do you think that’s true, Dad? I think one of the reasons I have limited interest in memoir as a Christian reader is that there are too many of us with yet impoverished spiritual lives and I don’t want to read about that. The exception for me being Barbara Brown Taylor right now – I’m really enjoying her work. (HarperOne has her latest.) And though I’m not looking for either entertainment or inspiration in my reading (in general), either fiction or nonfiction, I am pursuing growth of some kind and I wonder if that’s true of the market in general. It’s always a problem that the “good” stuff doesn’t sell, isn’t it? Fiction or nonfiction? Don’t we need a market that wants to be challenged?

    Reply
  5. Linore Rose Burkard
    Linore Rose Burkard says:

    Autobiographies have always been one of my favorite genres to read. It is sad that the Christian market isn’t open to these, but part of the problem may be that there are so many ways to experience God, and Christian publishers don’t want to step on toes, or turn off the people who can’t identify with some types of that experience. Yet personal experience is, in fact, the likeliest way (in my opinion) to reveal truth–and possibilities–to others.

    Also, books like, WILD THINGS HAPPEN WHEN I PRAY, while not a memoir or autobiography, do give writers some space to share bits and pieces of their lives. But an outright autobiography or memoir would appeal to me even more–the catch is, the person writing it must already have an appeal. For instance, I read the autobiography of Langston Hughes because I loved his poetry. I read Lillian Hellman’s PENTIMENTO because her work interested me.

    But both of these people were good writers. A really good autobiogrpahy is not just about the life that was lived, but is about the telling of it. I like to think–hope, maybe–that a really well written life story with universal touchpoints would sell, even in the Christian market.

    Good thoughts, Nick. : )

    Reply
  6. Maxine J. Bersch-Lovern
    Maxine J. Bersch-Lovern says:

    I am a professional storyteller and I am also a Christian writer. I have published the book, “Storytelling in a Nutshell” Maxine J. Bersch. LifeWay Press. c1998 now in its fourth printing, coauthored and published, “A Voice in the Wilderness,” (my sister’s book), edited and did the rewrite on my brother’s book, “Rosin for the Bow.” Now I am busy on my memoirs for I will be 93 in a few weeks. Many of the tales I tell are of my West Virginia heritage, and for years people have said, “Have you written these down?” Now I am doing that. In my workshops and in the book, I hold that while the Christian storyteller may entertain, this should never be the primary reason for telling. We take the Master Storyteller, Jesus of Nazareth, for our model, for he told stories with meaning. There is an undercurrent between the teller and the listener, and the teller chooses a story that holds meaning, something that may cause chuckles, but the story will linger in the mind and its deeper meaning will be pondered. We have a saying, “The Naked Truth is made acceptable when we clothe it in a story.” I was born in 1919, and almost a century has rolled by since I walked the West Virginia hills as a child. I lived through the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, World War II. and all the years since. I had a fantastic romance with the man I married. The romance was never on the back burner while we had three children and four grandchildren bringing them all up steeped in my storytelling. I am proud of them all. They are my fans and keep me constantly excited about life and all that it holds. As you see, I have possession of all my faculties, and my skills on the computer I would consider upper-intermediate. At 79 I published the first book, and I hope to get this one finished before the 94th. Be looking for the memoirs of Maxine J. Bersch, for I still use that pen name and watch for the title, “Under the Gooseberry Bush.”

    Reply
  7. Shannon
    Shannon says:

    I see this post was written over 3 years ago and I’m wondering if you’ve noticed any change in this trend since you wrote this? I personally feel it is still the case, but I’m researching because I’m writing a memoir now. I’ll be curious to hear your thoughts.

    Reply
    • Nick
      Nick says:

      Shannon, it’s still hard for a memoir or personal story to be published by a mainline publisher. Self-publishing with Print on Demand and an e-book are the best way to go. If it succeeds, a royalty publisher will want to pick it up. I wish that weren’t the case, but it pretty much is.

      Reply

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