Writing a Nonfiction Book? Don’t Be Misled

Does the following advice — which is exactly half right and half wrong — seem familiar?

“If you’ve written a nonfiction book or book proposal, you need to write a detailed sales document to accompany it. Explain who will buy your book and why; what makes it different from its competition, including a book-by-book analysis of similar books; what you will do to publicize, promote, market, and sell it; and why you’re the right person to write it.”

I’ve read variants of this advice in many writers’ books, magazines, and websites, and I’ve heard editors deliver it in person at writers’ conferences. But it’s 50% wrong. Here’s why:

With rare exceptions, each book of prose falls into one of three categories:

  • A work of fiction that tells a story;
  • A work of nonfiction that tells a story; or
  • A work of nonfiction that instructs, informs, and/or inspires.

There’s no need to create a sales document to accompany a novel or a collection of stories, because few people buy fiction based on content. “I’d like to read a novel set in nineteenth century France featuring a young woman who works in a hotel. Do you have something like that?” In fiction, people just look for a great read — and this greatness can’t be quantified. Publishers thus have to rely on their guts and guesses to anticipate what readers will buy.

Readers generally buy nonfiction that tells a story — memoir, biography, history, journalism, and 95% of what’s dubbed creative nonfiction — for the same reason they buy novels: They want a great read. And, as you know, this greatness can’t be quantified. Nonfiction that tells a story has far more in common with fiction than it does with diet books, Dummies guides, and Let’s Go Mexico.

In contrast, a nonfiction book that instructs, informs, and/or inspires rarely sells because of its sparkling prose or compelling voice. “You’ve got to read Alternative Cures for Diabetes. It’s brilliantly written, with great imagery and wonderful inventiveness. I couldn’t put it down.” Instead, people buy it because it teaches them a skill, deepens their knowledge or perspective, addresses a need, solves a problem, helps them feel better, or inspires them to act.

This sort of book should be supported with a detailed sales document, so that editors can learn why the book is valuable and viable, whom to sell it to, how it can best be promoted and sold, and what competition it will face.

Unfortunately, editors and agents typically crunch down all the information I just gave you into the following half-wrong shorthand: “Nonfiction needs to be supported with a detailed sales document. Fiction doesn’t.”

Not true. Nonfiction that instructs, informs, or inspires needs to be supported with a detailed sales document; nonfiction that tells a story doesn’t. (One exception: if you’re writing about a specific subject that’s been widely covered before — 9/11, for example — then you also need to explain why your book is unique.)

If your own nonfiction book tells a story, don’t waste your time — and drive yourself crazy — trying to create a useless sales document to “support” your book. Instead, let your work stand or fall on its own merits, just like any other story worth telling.