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Writing Non-fiction

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So you want to write non-fiction?

The market and competition

You’ve chosen a huge area which can be broken down into a large number of different sub-categories, so the first thing to say is that it’s important to think hard about exactly which readership you’re going to aim your book at. Once you’ve worked that out, research into what is available and what the competition might be is a must. You don’t want to find that you’ve spent a lot of time working on a book on a subject that another writer has already covered. Even if your book is better, it will be tough to follow in their footsteps.

It’s possible that another writer is working on your subject but has not yet published. This is certainly a harder scenario to deal with, and can be heart-breaking if you find out once you’ve already put in a lot of work. If it’s a specialised area, you might find that you can discover whether anyone else is working on it. Ideas are free though, so don’t think you have a monopoly on a certain book idea just because you’ve been working on it for a while.

Try to be as detached as possible about the subject of your book and, before you start work, do think about what market there might be for it. You may have chosen a subject that is of great interest to you but has very little appeal to anyone else. Publishers reckon they’re quite good at spotting trends, so you may find that it’s impossible to interest them if your subject is too narrow or of very minority interest.

You may of course be planning to self-publish your work and the good news is that self-publishing really does work better for non-fiction, where it’s easier to publish a book with a small market, using print on demand to keep the costs down and reduce the risk, and reaching the market through your own contacts.

Planning

With non-fiction it’s important to have a very clear plan of what your book will cover. Whether or not you intend to try to find a publisher on the basis of an outline, I would strongly recommend that you should write one. It’s important because it helps you to focus your ideas and think about the structure of your book and how to approach your research.

Make sure your research is well-organised so that you can retrieve what you want and take some advice on this if you tend to be a bit disorganised (see below).

Make sure that if your book relates to a particular event or anniversary, or is best published in time for Christmas, that you do meet the deadline, even taking into account that writing and publishing (particularly if you are trying to find a publisher) can take quite a long time.

Selling your book

There are two schools of thought about how to submit non-fiction books (self-publishers may want to skip this section). Either you can try the old route and send the agent or publisher a letter, a chapter outline of your book and three sample chapters, or you can write the book itself and then try to sell it. The advantage of the former is that, if the agent or editor think it’s a good idea, they may well not only offer a publishing deal but also give you input which makes it an even better book. They are likely to know more about the market and what it might require than you do, although this is not necessarily the case if your book has a very specific subject-matter.

If you do go for the first approach of trying to sell the idea before you’ve written the book, do put in a lot of hard work before you send your material to anyone. Your idea must be clearly formulated and expressed, and your outline needs to be really strong. It goes without saying that you need to do your research first and to have a clear idea of how the book will be organised. The letter in your submission package is there to sell the project and the three chapters are included to prove that you can write and that you have adopted the right tone for your market. You might also want to include a note about competing books and the market for your book.

If you’re of a more cautious disposition, then write your book before trying to sell it. This is harder in some ways, but likely to be more convincing to a publisher in these tough times. An alternative might be to plan it all and then write a substantial proportion of the work before trying to get an agent or publisher interested.

Legalities

Do be aware of copyright issues and libel, as sometimes a non-fiction book, such as a biography, may be much more open to these risks.

Presenting your work

Like any other book you should make sure your work is in the best possible shape before submitting it, and that includes checking the grammar and punctuation. Depending on the kind of book it is, you may need to provide sources and notes, and perhaps even an index (although that can come later). If you want the book to include pictures or photos, it strengthens its appeal if you can include at least some of these with your submission.

Self-publishing

As noted above, non-fiction works better than fiction for self-publishers, especially if you know how to reach the market. I would urge you though to be as rigorous as possible about your project and to follow the suggestions I’ve made above about research, planning and writing an outline. You can always amend your outline at a later stage but it does give your project a shape which you can write to.

Don’t think that self-publishing means you can skip copy editing, notes, sources or having an index, if these are appropriate. You will want your book to be as professionally presented as possible if it is to be taken seriously and to end up as something you can be proud of.

Top Ten Tips for Non-fiction writers

Research - Writers' Factsheet 4 by Michael Leggat

The web as a research tool

Our review of Research for Writers

WritersPrintShop - our self-publishing service

Other articles in this series:

Writing Crime Fiction

Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy

Writing Romance

Writing Historical Fiction

© Chris HolifieldChris HolifieldManaging director of WritersServices; spent working life in publishing,employed by everything from global corporations to start-ups; track record includes: editorial director of Sphere Books, publishing director of The Bodley Head, publishing director for start-up of upmarket book club, The Softback Preview, editorial director of Britain’s biggest book club group, BCA, and, most recently, deputy MD and publisher of Cassell & Co. She is also currently the Director of the Poetry Book Society; During all of this time aware of problems faced by writers, as publishing changed from idiosyncratic cottage industry, 'occupation for gentlemen', into corporate business of today. Writers encountered increasing difficulty in getting books edited or published. Authors create the books which are the raw material for the whole business. She believes it is time to bring them back to centre stage. 2009

 



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