A body of advice on salable memoirs

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At this weekend’s Agents and Editors Conference here in Austin, agents broke down the basics of getting a memoir sold to a major publisher these days. You know, the era where the memoir A Million Little Pieces by James Frey turned out to be about a half-million pieces made up, with the remainder remembered.

“We’ve beaten the brains out of this genre,” one agent said, which probably sent a shiver through a serious section of the 200-plus writers in the Marriott meeting room Sunday. Lots of memoir-driven books out there among attendees, from my informal conversations.

Another agent was frank about a form that big publishers have driven to the point where they’ve glutted the market. It’s not enough to be famous, even, or have lived a good chunk of a very interesting life. “You’ve got to stop my heart with your story,” the agent said. That’s a body shot, as the boxing term goes, to a lot of memoir. There’s always the smaller presses, where the agents don’t like to play. It does not pay well enough for them.

The panel of agents — who outnumbered editors 3:1 at the conference — showed a good share of old-school thinking about several topics, and all shared horror stories about submissions and queries. “Don’t stalk my authors,” one agent warned. Hopeful and eager writers had contacted a few of her authors to find out if she was any good as an agent.

Okay, there were some gasps from the audience. But what other profession do you know where seeking out a recommendation or a customer reference is referred to as “stalking?” (Even brain surgeons have references a customer can contact. Agenting isn’t brain surgery.) The clock is probably running out on this kind of thinking. That’s a prospect that will stop a few hearts among the agent industry, or at least such elite gatekeeping practices.

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