You’re an Australian writer with a great idea for a nonfiction book. Are you sure? Perhaps you should check with Google.
We can thank Internet research for many things, but every innovative technology leaves unintended consequences in its wake. Google has given us much — bringing information of all kinds instantly to our desktops and mobile devices — but it has also taken away.
In book publishing, it has taken away entire categories of books.
Self-help. Astrology. Cookbooks and how-to books of many kinds have shrunk in number or simply disappeared, like the Amazon rainforest, never to return.
Many travel books, for example, once upon a time a golden genre of publishing, have been sideswiped by the fact-based research, user recommendations and patron reviews now freely available online. And when you can get the information you need for free, would you purchase a book with similar information, especially when the details might be out of date before the ink is dry on the printed pages? I know I wouldn’t.
Okay, you may not personally be mourning the loss of self-help and astrology books. But if you’re writing nonfiction and hoping to interest an Australian publisher, you need to be aware of the implications of the changed publishing landscape for your project.
But first, a question: What kind of nonfiction book are you writing?
You need to be clear about whether you’re writing prescriptive or narrative nonfiction.
Prescriptive nonfiction is fact-based and information-rich, often written by a known expert in a particular field sharing his or her expertise. Current examples: Michelle Bridges’ Superfoods Cookbook; Mark Nixon’s photographs of well-worn teddy bears, Much Loved; Quiet, psychologist Susan Cain’s defence of introverts in our extroverted culture.
Narrative nonfiction tells a story that is based on fact, whether personal or historical. The writer’s voice on the page and storytelling ability is what counts. Current or recent examples: The Happiest Refugee by Anh Do, Anna Funder’s Stasiland, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild.
My tips for querying an agent or publisher with a prescriptive nonfiction project
It is imperative that as a prospective nonfiction author claiming expertise in a given field, you must demonstrate a need or a community of interest that a Google search alone cannot satisfy. Here are some questions to consider before contacting an agent or a publisher, who will most certainly ask them:
- Have you published articles and essays on your subject? If not, why not?
- Do you regularly speak in public about your experiences or expertise?
- What kind of traffic and engagement with readers does your website have?
- What do you mean, you don’t have a website?
- If I’m persuaded by your expertise, then what books on the subject already exist? Almost every subject has already been covered, so you need to be aware of what’s out there, even if it’s more than ten years old.
- How is yours different?
My tips for those writing narrative nonfiction
I receive many queries from people writing memoir of one kind or another. Aside from most manuscripts being terribly undercooked, the main problems I encounter are that the subject has been done to death, or that the writer has forgotten to tell a story. A reader will only stay with a book-length work if you tell a story or offer a compelling through-line that engages the reader throughout.
Because of the primacy of story to their effectiveness, narrative non-fiction and memoir remain appealing to publishers, as I’ve written elsewhere on this blog. In order to increase your attractiveness, I recommend these tests of whether you are ready to submit your manuscript to a publisher or agent:
- Do you have a complete manuscript?*
- Can you answer the question, Why did you write this book?
- Are you able to describe the arc or journey of your manuscript in one or two sentences? This is a lot harder than it sounds. If you’re not able to do it, don’t fret – it just means that your manuscript is not ready for submission. Return to the dot point above this one.
- Who are your ideal readers, and what else have they read that makes you think your book will appeal to them?
I have written these thoughts down in the hope they are helpful to budding nonfiction writers. I am keen to help more of you into print and to find publishers. Despite occasional press to the contrary, Australian publishers really are hungry for great stories, well told, whether fiction or nonfiction. And they are hungry because readers are famished too.
*There seems an opportunity gap here to advise writers who have an idea and a partial manuscript under way. I’m interested to see if anyone reading this is interested in an email-exchange or talking to me for 15 minutes to get my take on your idea and proposed approach. Please either leave me a comment below or email me at info at virginialloyd.com. I have no idea whether this is something that will appeal, so please let me know!