Is your book self-help or a memoir? Our non-nonsense guide

One of the most common reasons for writing a nonfiction book is “I want to help people change their life”. For many authors, this means writing a self-help book. For others, it means writing their life story, also known as a memoir. However, the line between self-help and memoir has become blurry these days, and it’s easy to categorise your book in the wrong genre, meaning it doesn’t help as many people as it could. So, here’s your no-nonsense guide to self-help vs. memoir.

What is a self-help book?

In its simplest sense, a self-help book helps the reader to help themselves. It:

  • Primarily contains practical, how-to, instructive information. This can be advice, tips, knowledge, or solutions.
  • Is broken down step by step to make it easy for the reader to make changes.
  • Often contains reflective tasks or action tasks to get the reader actively involved.  
  • May use examples, such as the author’s personal experiences, to illustrate the concepts, but these are not the main focus or portion of the book.
  • Primarily uses a direct teaching approach, talking directly to the reader. For example, “It can help you to have a routine.” 
  • Contains the words “you”, “your”, and “yours” (the reader) much more than “I”, “me”, and “my” (the author).
  • Is about and for the reader. They are the primary focus.

What is a memoir?

In its simplest sense, a memoir is a written account of your personal life story and experiences. It:

  • Primarily contains the author’s life story and experiences. This can include challenges overcome and successes.
  • Is framed around the author’s life story, often from birth or childhood to the present day. 
  • May include reflective or action elements for the reader.
  • Can contain some direct teaching for the reader, but this is not the main focus or portion, and the reader is required to do their own critical thinking outside of the book.
  • Primarily uses an indirect teaching approach, “I found it useful to have a routine.”
  • Contains the words “I”, “me”, and “my” (the author) much more than “you”, “your”, “yours” (the reader).
  • It is about the author. Their story and experiences are the primary focus.

The inspirational memoir

The line becomes slightly blurred with “inspirational memoirs” as they both tell the author’s story and aim to inspire the reader to make changes in their life. However, in an inspirational memoir, the focus is on the author’s story and experience, through which the reader reflects. The majority of the content is the author’s story. In essence, an inspirational memoir ticks more boxes from the memoir list than it does from the self-help list.

The blurred line

In recent years, some authors have blurred the line between memoir and self-help by framing the book as their life story or experiences, but also including a very large portion of how-to, directive information and tasks for the reader. This kind of “self-help memoir” requires an even balance of both types of content (information and story-telling), and it needs to integrate the two smoothly. It doesn’t read well if Part 1 is your life story and Part 2 is self-help—more like two books sandwiched together. Instead, use your personal experiences as examples of the how-to information you’re delivering and weave them together seamlessly.

Choosing the right genre

Whether you choose to write a memoir or a self-help book, there is a market for both. However, it’s important to get your genre and categories right because:

  1. Self-help readers are looking for something different to memoir readers. Self-help readers want the author to directly solve their problems; memoir readers want to read the author’s story and reflect on their problems.
  2. Self-help and memoirs have different genre standards to meet. Self-help is practical, reader-focused, and informative. Memoirs are compelling, unique, and inspirational stories.
  3. The cover, title, blurb, and description will be different depending on whether the book is self-help or a memoir.

Mis-categorising your book can be a marketing disaster, because the book won’t meet your readers’ expectations—and unhappy readers leave bad reviews. It will fail to help the people you were intending to help, so it won’t achieve your aims. And it won’t perform well in its category, hampering your chances of getting a bestseller.

The important thing to remember is that both self-help books and memoirs are incredibly popular, in fact, they are both two of the most popular nonfiction categories, so whichever you choose can be incredibly successful and helpful. The key is knowing which your book is so it can help the most people.

How to find out

It can be difficult to be objective as an author, so if you’re not sure whether your book falls within the memoir or self-help genre, ask a handful of people to read it and provide feedback on what category they felt they were reading. Even better, hire a nonfiction editor and ask them to perform an editorial assessment. A good editor can read one chapter and tell you whether the book is memoir or self-help. If you need help figuring out your nonfiction book’s genre, get in touch. Happy writing!