Ever considered writing non-fiction books?

Some of the biggest writers in the publishing world happen to be fiction authors. Their best-selling novels sell millions of copies. Their success inspires a new generation of writers to the world of story writing. They are the super-stars signing copies, getting million dollar advances (in some cases, for books that haven’t even been conceptualised). Where does that leave authors who are thinking about writing non-fiction books?

If you didn’t know it yet, here’s the revelation. Publishers and literary agents prefer non-fiction books over fiction, especially when they are considering new authors. That puts non-fiction writers in a much better position compared to fiction authors. Of course, there are strings attached, and we’ll get to that shortly.

Before that, it’s also important to understand the rationale behind this phenomenon. Why are publishers and literary agents more willing to place their bets on non-fiction, when the big money from the sale of novels and subsidiary rights should actually prompt them to favour fiction.

What is the meaning of non-fiction? The simple definition is – Non-fiction is a narrative based on facts (real people, real incidents, real places, real ) as opposed to pure imagination. In the publishing world, it is the opposite (for lack of a better word) of fiction.

Why you should be writing non-fiction books

Here are some reasons why non-fiction can sell more than fiction.

The numbers game

Publishers take a big risk in backing new authors. Even after the excruciatingly painful mating game they play with their authors (query letters, confusing publishing contracts, professional editing, book promotions), a huge majority of the novels that they publish in a tough market end up as duds.

Only a handful of the authors earn back their advances (i.e. sell more books that the publishers conservatively assumed).  The probability of a non-fiction book is better.

The utilitarian theory

Novels take the reader into a fantasy world. Non-fiction books inspire, educate and (the self-help genre) can actually help them solve problems in the real world. You might argue that fiction can also inspire, educate and help. But in the mind of the reader, the primary reason to pick up a novel is for entertainment. Everything else is a bonus.

Bigger bang for the buck

Unless you’ve written a novel that turns into a cult / classic over time or gets picked up by creative writing courses, its longevity is pretty limited. The reader spends a few hours reading the novel, laughs a little, cries a little, pukes a little, reads a few Goodreads reviews (to ascertain if any of the earlier emotional reactions was justified), writes her own review…and moves on to the next book.

Non-fiction (reference books, autobiographies, how-to manuals) could be on the bookshelves for a little longer. The reader perceives it to be a long-term ‘investment’.

Protagonists readers can relate to

For most self-help / how-to books, the author is the protagonist who has done something truly worthwhile to have convinced mainstream publishers to sign her up. Through her book, she is connecting directly with those who aspire to achieve the same skills, knowledge or success that she has. There’s a flesh-and-blood-someone in the book that the reader could reach out to.

In contrast, all the characters (even those based on real life characters) are imaginary. There’s an element of drama and realism added to make it believable. But the reader knows it’s, well, fiction. In fact, novels often carry the phrase ‘inspired by a true-life story’ to build credibility for their book.

In short, the takeaways from a well-written non-fiction are more tangible.

Do you think this is an overly simplistic and biased view (because I’m a non-fiction author)? Probably, it is. So take it as another attempt to explain a seemingly irrational phenomenon with  rational explanations.

But the fact remains that your first non-fiction book has a better shot at (modest) stardom than your novel that demonstrates some excellent story writing skills. In future posts related to non-fiction books, we’ll try to cover other aspects related to non-fiction. It’ll help your evaluate if it’s your cup of tea.

Have you already been thinking about writing non-fiction? What’s the topic? Where have you reached in the publishing process? Share it in the comments below.

7 thoughts on “Ever considered writing non-fiction books?”

  1. Jay

    Hi Sameer,

    The tips you have shared on publishing a book in India are extremely useful, practical and relevant. Thanks a lot for the same! I heartily appreciate the knowledge you have shared!

    I am interested in knowing few things. I would be grateful if you can shred some light on the same:
    1. How do I publish a book on law-specifically on any taxation law? what is the best way of writing as well as publishing the same? I have got a team of tax professionals with me to help on this task.
    2. What is the normal royalty percentage which an author can look forward to? can you please, give me a tentative range? I have been already writing some articles, delivering lectures and known to at least 20 to 30 thousand persons in and around Mumbai.
    3. How do I ensure that the concept is not hi-jacked while sharing manuscripts with the publishers?

  2. Sameer Post Author

    Hi Jay,

    1. The process of getting a non-fiction book published is the same as fiction.

    – Once you complete the book, you’ll have to decide whether you want to reach out to publishers directly or through a literary agent.
    – Then you’d have to send out query letters to those teams.

    2. The royalty rates can vary between 5%-10% for most traditional publishers. If you are lucky, you may get a good advance for your book.
    Self-publishing can give you higher rates, but you’ll have to shell out money upfront and pay vanity publishers for each service.

    3. You could copyright your manuscript. But in general, this is not a big risk.

  3. Ashish Malviya

    Dear Sir,

    I had written a romantic book with my best childhood buddy. We got it published as an eBook on Kindle App where it hit century for sold copies and then it stopped. To reach masses and wider audience as our primary requirement is Marketing and Publicity since we do not have a solid reach and a bigger friend circle which can help in that regard. For debutant writers like me which publishing house can be a best match for marketing and publicity, along with a nominal price for paperback copy which Indian audience can afford. your suggestion and guidance will be valuable for us.

    Thanks,
    Ashish

  4. Micky Douglas

    Hi Sameer,
    Just read your post – ‘Ever Considered Writing Non-fiction books?’ It was great and further strengthened my belief that, in the literary world, NON-FICTION does have a place!
    I am in the process of writing a book on job interviews and I believe that my book answers questions that most first-time job seekers, as well as those that want to change jobs, are looking for.
    But I need your help to get a few things in perspective, like –
    1. Does this genre/niche have a customer base in India?
    2. I am considering a digital version (Amazon) as well as a hard copy? Will this serve the purpose?
    3. How should I price my book?
    4. Any takes on the word count?
    5. And the title of the book? Any suggestions?
    6. How about publishers?
    Would love to get your feedback.
    Thanks,
    Micky.

  5. Hima

    Hi, Sameer.
    I write free verse poetry and want to publish a collection.
    Can you suggest publishing houses to send my samples to and give me tips about the same?

  6. diksha barthwal

    Hello,i want to write the story for woman empowerment….
    If possible than hoping for one opportunity to write ..

    Regards,
    Diksha Barthwal
    Raipur Chattishgarh

  7. Rahul

    Hi Sameer,

    We are in the process of self-publishing a book rather a booklet hence wanted to enquire that is it mandatory to incorporate the printer details.

    Thanks

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