Monday, October 29, 2007

Why Nonfiction?

Last week, a couple of people asked me to tell more about why I always beg agents and authors to submit nonfiction. So a brief overview.

Publishing is a very narrow profit margin industry--I've heard the number 4% tossed around, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was even lower. To the best of my knowledge, every single publishing company in the world has a significant number of years in its history in which it ended in the red, and so general strategy is to try to do a little better than next year (but no one holds their breath).

Nonfiction is the savior of these terrible margins (or at least, lets us drag out the pain for one more year). Most publishers try to sponsor their fiction with nonfiction (in a 1:1 ratio or so) and increasingly companies and imprints are turning toward entirely nonfiction lists. Why?

Libraries!! There are libraries all over the country who subscribe to library journals that tell them what new books are available from publishers each week. Depending on a particular library's clientele, a novel may or may not be of interest to them. Most don't buy much fiction unless there is significant buzz or an established track record. However, a core number of libraries (between 1,500 and 2,500, depending on the subject of the book) will definitely buy a copy of any serious nonfiction book published.

1,500 guaranteed sales just about pays for the cost of printing your book. That means barring strange and unfortunate disaster your nonfiction book will pay for itself (although upside is no guarantee). This means that your publisher is filling a publication slot with something it can be pretty sure won't COST it money in the long run.

Similarly, nonfiction has a stronger sales track in brick and mortars. Most books purchased by consumers are nonfiction. Most people are surprised by this, because most people think of their own predominantly fiction reading habits, but diet books, cookbooks, disease handbooks, parenting guides, topical histories, and celebrity-endorsed projects sell HUGE numbers. And don't forget the huge and constant appeal of anything history related--many consumers, predominantly men, feel more secure buying and reading history than fiction because they convince themselves it is less indulgent. Which maybe it is, who knows.

Nonfiction also tends to backlist better than fiction, since there will ALWAYS be an audience who needs to know the 5 steps to take when you are diagnosed with fibromyalgia, and there will always be people who want to know how Alexander made it all the way to Persepolis and whether he was really bi or just interested in men, etc.

Fiction, meanwhile, is not a safe bet. Obviously, the libraries don't NEED to pick you up at all, and many of them won't WANT to pick you up until you've distinguished yourself elsewhere. But even the bookstores aren't a safe bet. Just because your editor liked your book at the time of acquisition doesn't necessarily mean it's going to resonate with the subject Buyer at an account or at an independent bookstore. So there is not a single copy that is a guaranteed sale on a novel, especially a debut novel. This means that your publisher may actually not be able to afford to print. Of course, publishers [almost] always print when they have committed to a book, but they will be reaching into their own pockets to do so if the initial orders are bad, and this can negatively affect the retail price of your book and the marketing attention it gets at your house (if you're hemorrhaging cash, you have to cut losses at some point).

Also, there is much stiffer competition in fiction. There are more authors who want to write fiction, and there are more publishers who are trying to humor them. That means that of the novels published at major trade houses each year there are still going to be books that never make it onto bookstore shelves. (This is why getting a book deal alone isn't enough, and why authors need to be super proactive about promoting, buzzing, and making themselves available.)

You're a writer with good style and execution (not to mention discipline). Why not use those talents on a nonfiction topic? Step back, research something for awhile, and make it sound good. Editors are tired of dealing with qualified nonfiction authors who are lousy writers but get book deals anyway.

Also, your successful nonfiction platform will make you a more attractive candidate to publishers when you switch over to fiction.

Also, you're much more likely to make more money with your book if you publish in nonfiction. Nonfiction bestsellers are made in hardcover, not paperback, so tons more royalties for you; also, with some notable exceptions (ahem KITE RUNNER and DA VINCI) nonfiction bestsellers sell more copies than fiction bestsellers. Most books purchased, after all, are nonfiction books.

Hope this helps. Let me know if I can elaborate.


Ello said...

You know I've been thinking about this for awhile and I have a couple of great ideas for nonfiction books - but the trouble will be building a platform, I think.

Jill Myles said...

I think that's the thing I get hung up on as well. It's constantly hammered home that you need a platform to publish a non-fiction book.

So what do you do if you are a poor unedumacated shmuck with no degree? Exactly how much does life experience (or simply being a fan of something) count for?

angelle said...

seriously. i wonder what kind of non-fic book i can write...

Conduit said...

Interesting post. I echo the previous comments about platform. There's been so much talk about Mrs Seinfeld's success with her cookbook, and the consensus seems to be that so long as you're a big name, you can sell just about anything.

I actually have a great idea for a non-fiction book that I've had for a couple of years (at least I think it's great - I know I'd buy it), but it would require being able to interview certain hard-to-access people. I know I couldn't get access to them without having some kind of credibility. It's the same old problem, you need a name first, but you can't build a name from nothing.

I suppose that leads to a question: would you ever consider a proposal from a Joe Nobody if the topic was interesting or original enough, or is platform as crucial as some say?

I have written guitar tutorial material in the past (I teach in my spare time) with the view to putting together a book, but that's a very specialised market. And somehow, I don't think the Conduit Lectures will ever make it to hardback either.

David L. McAfee said...

The problem (imo) is that for writers of fiction, the desire to write fiction coincides with the desire to create. To me, writing nonfiction is more like taking notes. I know I am probably way off, but nonfiction has less to do with creating a story than it does relating information.

This is not meant as a slam on nofiction, just a possible reason why so many writers want to write fiction. It's the need to create something from nothing.

That said, if I had any kind of platform, I'd write something nonfic, but I have zilch. Zero. And to be honest, I have no idea what kind of nonfic book I'd wite.

Hmm....maybe "Tales of the unpublished author?" one would read it. :)

pacatrue said...

Really useful post and particularly encouraging to me as I've had a bunch of nonfic book ideas that I'd love to do. As everyone says, however, one big hesitation has always been "platform". My guess would be that the importance of platform changes from topic to topic.

Josephine Damian said...

David: Take some forensics classes, qualify for master's degree, mix in a crap load of homework and, voila! - platform!

Ello, being a lawyer and a teacher seems like platform enough to me, sistah.

Conduit, I'd buy that "Chronicle" book in a heart-beat. Don't sell yourself short about being a "nobody" - people love talking about themselves - especially to a writer! The fact you're writing a book about them will be enough.

Moonrat, VERY informative post - confirms what I've believed about why it was a good idea to get that master's degree. I already have one non-fiction (article) publishing credit under my belt and got that as an undergrad.

moonrat said...

yeah, the point about creative world-building/character-creating--that's something that's a little hard to replicate in nonfiction. hence the appeal of the novel, i guess.

as for platform, that's a great question and i need a new post to address it.

Bernita said...

I sold a non-fiction book once.
I fact I sold it twice.
The first publisher developed severe money problems money and released the contract. The second promply went belly up, but I got to keep my advance.