Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Looking for...Biography, Autobiography & Memoir

I spent last week in Florida visiting my father. It was a sobering experience, I must admit. My dad is about to turn seventy-two and just underwent extensive surgery to his back, with fusion and rods and most of an Erector Set installed, I think. Needless to say, it got me thinking a lot, about him, about my life growing up, about where my life might go in the future. It got me thinking a lot about yoga and Pilates so that my back stays healthy, and about what other states than Florida have no state income tax, because I hate humidity. So let’s talk about my life....

Ok, stop groaning. I am not going to actually write here about my life, because while my life may be interesting to some, it is not going to be interesting to a very wide audience, I’m sure. That said, I am looking for:

  • Biography
  • Autobiography
  • Memoir
Now, wait. Rein in that impulse to start querying me. Let’s talk a bit about what works and does not work in those categories.

First, when it comes to biography, the subject of the biography is the most important thing. Living or dead, the question is always going to be, Are readers interested in this person? The next question is, How can I quantify for a publisher that readers will be interested in this person? When my client, Kathleen Winters, came to me with a new idea for a biography of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, it wasn’t a struggle to think that was a good idea. There had already been a huge one, but that book almost completely overlooked Lindbergh as a pilot and as crew on her famous husband’s flights. So know that your subject is marketable and be prepared to prove that in your proposal.

Next, who the heck are you to be writing this biography? If you are writing about an historical figure, it’s always nice to have a background in history. Perhaps you don’t have to be a PhD in history, but it doesn’t hurt. Kathleen was a pilot with a background that included writing about flying. In all honesty, her book might have sold more quickly if she were an historian or a reporter in the aviation industry, but it sold in the end and has been wonderfully reviewed. Still, the writer’s résumé counts. Be sure that yours is appropriate for writing such a book.

On the subject of autobiography, one must always wonder, How big an ego does this person have? And do they deserve to have it? Bill Clinton’s autobiography? Sure, I can see the justification. K-Fed’s? Not so much, though I’m sure it might sell. If you are going to pitch me on representing your autobiography, you should be someone I recognize and am honored to represent. Or you should have such an incredible story, such an amazing life, so many lessons to teach, that I am humbled by all you have done. Otherwise, you most likely have a project that will best be appreciated by your blood relatives. No offense. It’s just business.

I think the same can probably be said of memoir. You must have an incredible, amazing life that leaves readers shaking their heads in awe. Or your experience must be so original, so unlike what others have experienced, and your viewpoint so fresh and original, that readers will be attracted to your memoir, informed by it, and inspired by it.

Oh, and by the way, did I mention, you must know how to write! I don’t care if you are K-Fed, if you can’t write, you cannot succeed. That said, K-Fed, I can find you a writer to help you. Still, if you have never appeared in People magazine, it’s unlikely you have an autobiography or memoir that warrants being written with a ghost writer.

I apologize if this seems harsh. I don’t even know K-Fed. Heck, I had to Google how to spell it. But I get a ton of queries every year from writers who feel they have something to say and are convinced the world wants to read it. And I have rarely agreed. In fact, I have agreed three times. Mark Patinkin’s original articles, on which his book UP AND RUNNING are based, left me crying at the kitchen table so often I kept having to stop and regroup. Kathleen Winters’ proposal for what became ANNE MORROW LINDBERGH was exciting and truly seemed to show a fresh viewpoint on a fascinating historical figure. And Paul Offit’s proposal for what became VACCINATED left me shaking my head in awe that I had never heard of Maurice Hilleman and that he didn’t win several Nobel Prizes.

I think, in the end, I would like more books like VACCINATED. Figures in science and medicine are fascinating to me and I’m sure I’m not alone. But I am also interested in military figures, both recent and historical. From Hannibal to Petraeus, I’m interested. And then there’s politics and current affairs. I’m fascinated by the movers and shakers and by those who shape our country. I think we could all benefit by seeing the DEAD CERTAIN treatment applied to far more political figures. And let’s not forget business biographies or autobiographies. Surely there are more business leaders we’d like to know more about. Richard Parsons is the CEO of Time Warner and, as such, he has tremendous influence over American Culture, from Time magazine to The Sopranos. Why can’t I find a biography of him?

For nearly every nonfiction interest I have, there is likely a biography, autobiography, or memoir subcategory to be filled. Just make sure you have the credentials, yourself, to be filling it.


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