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.