Should memoir have its own section in bookstores?
Updated: Apr 18
Memoir is an exploding category. More and more, people want to read real-life stories that bear witness to the poignancy, pain, and unexpected joy of life. Curiously, despite the popularity of the genre, memoir does not have its own category on bookstore shelves. Why not?
Memoir is shelved under "biography," which is an account of someone's life written by someone else. Autobiography is shelved in this section, too. An autobiography differs from memoir in that it covers the full life of the author--at least in theory. Presumably, the author didn't write from beyond the grave! A person has only one autobiography in them, but they might have several memoirs. A memoir focuses on a theme or period of one’s life, such as growing up in small-town Ontario, dealing with loss, or hiking the Camino. Memoir is also scattered throughout the store in sections like adventure, travel, humour, sports, science and nature, self-help, music and performing arts, diet and nutrition, and parenting.
Why is memoir shelved all over the place?
The idea is to make a book easy for readers to find. For example, when shopping for my son’s birthday, I found Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer’s memoir about climbing Mount Everest, in the adventure section. I wasn’t looking for this title; I was looking for something on extreme sports that my son would like. I bought the book for him, and bonus, read it myself. The "category" for a title is crucial because it determines where the book will be shelved. Even though a memoir might straddle more than one subject (for example, sports and mental health), it will be shelved in only one category because shelf space is so limited. Since Krakauer’s book is shelved in adventure, I won't find it in the biographies section.
Memoir can be shelved by "genre" in the biography section or by subject in the nonfiction sections. A book goes in one section only because shelf space is so limited.
The category is chosen by the publisher as part of the marketing and sales strategy for each title. Bookstores tend to take the lead from publishers in deciding where to shelve a book, because the publisher has worked intensively on the title and is much more familiar with it. How do publishers and bookstores decide on the category for memoir? My guess is that a memoir on a trending topic by a relatively unknown author will be shelved according to subject, where readers browsing around will find it. In the biographies section, literary memoirs by unknown writers sit cheek-by-jowl with celebrities. By the way, you know those display tables you bump into at the front of the store? I always thought those books were featured because of their exceptional quality. In fact, publishers pay for this prime real estate in the big chains through “co-op advertising," an arrangement whereby publishers pay the bookstore a percentage of the sales for prominently displaying their books. What's more, the special display areas in the store — like tables, end caps (the ends of shelves), and book stands — are exempted from the one-section rule. So titles featured in these displays will also have a spot on the shelves. I think memoir has come of age, and it’s time to give it a section of its own. Just like fiction. What do you think?