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.
At Chapters/Indigo, memoir is generally shelved in the “biographies” section, even though biography and memoir differ in both authorship and scope. A biography is a comprehensive life story written by someone else, whereas a memoir is a first-person account that often focuses on a theme or period of one’s life. Autobiographies (sometimes called memoirs) are shelved in this section, too. An autobiography differs from memoir in that it spans the full life of the author.
Memoir is also scattered throughout the store in sections like adventure and literary travel, humour, sports, science and nature, self-help, music and performing arts, diets 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 don’t recall whether I had even heard of it. I was just looking for something on extreme sports that my son would like.
The category 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 in the biographies section.
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. Apart from travel memoirs, which have their own section, other memoirs are shelved in biographies.
The exception to the “one section” rule is the special display areas in the store, like tables near the entrance or in wide aisles, end caps (the ends of shelves), and book stands. Titles featured in these displays will also have a spot on the shelves. Publishers buy this prime real estate through “co-op advertising,” an arrangement whereby they pay the bookstore a percentage of the sales for prominently displaying their books.
I think that memoir has come of age, and it’s time to give it a section of its own. Just like fiction. What do you think? Please leave a comment — I’d love to hear from you.