Australian publisher: “If you can Google it, it’s not a book.”

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information you need for free, would you purchase a book with similar information, especially when the details might be out of date before the ink is dry on the printed pages?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 I have no idea whether this is something that will appeal, so please let me know!

This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. Hi Virginia
    Thanks for this – it’s great advice. I’m drafting a nonfiction book proposal now and thinking on all of this so I’m clear about the what, why and who of the project. It’s a very different task from writing fiction. I truly hope the story hunger you mention exists … I’ve seen no evidence of it yet 🙁
    With kind regards,

    1. Hi Kirsten,
      Thanks for your comment. Story hunger does exist. The difficulties that writers have typically relate to (a) the strength of the story or (b) the execution — or sometimes both. A writer might feel strongly about her story’s value, but there’s something that’s not getting across to readers. And it’s not the reader’s fault. Is the story sound in terms of characterisation, motivation, credibility? (I highly recommend Robert McKee’s STORY for this purpose.) Is there another way of telling the story? To answer that you need to investigate questions of structure, point of view, time, pacing. It’s incredibly difficult to write a good book. I wish you well with your fiction and nonfiction projects and am happy to discuss further if you wish. –Virginia

  2. Thanks for the blog. I followed the advice above and googled for Personal Finance in Australia and just from the website of Penguin Books Australia there are more than a few books in this category … and of course there are other Aussie publishers. This will be under your Prescriptive Nonfiction project. I have the education background and work experience in this area, but no publishing and talking on this subject. It seems that the only way to breakout is to write in a different approach than the other many books … and I started writing. My question is if you read personal finance books and did you conclude that something is missing and you would like to see a new book in this area? And if someone co-write with an Australian author, will you consider taking the two authors just for one project? Thanks and best wishes from the country that is covered in snow.

    1. Hi Giora, thanks for continuing to read the blog. You raise a few interesting points here, which I might use for a subsequent post. Briefly, you are correct that whatever your chosen subject, you do need to differentiate yourself from other authors/commentators on that subject. You mention personal finance as a potential subject, but I myself don’t have an opinion on whether ‘something is missing’ in the market for those books. It’s the query letter/submission from a subject matter expert that needs to show me, as the potential agent, that (a) a market exists for books on your subject, (b) yours meets a need or fills a gap in the books currently available, (c) you are the best and only person to write this particular book. Whether or not co-writers are involved is a secondary concern. Hope that helps! –Virginia

  3. Hi Virginia
    Your words ring true, as always.
    I agree it’s never the reader’s fault if writing doesn’t quite hit the mark – I’m a keen reader, too, and I treasure the books that manage to work in every way.
    And I’ve read Robert McKee’s book. It’s terrific. I don’t know if I have the skills yet to put all his counsel into action, but…I don’t have it in me to stop writing.
    All the best

    1. Kirsten, you will succeed simply by virtue of the fact that, as you put it, you can’t stop writing. Most people give up. I almost gave up twice on my own manuscript in progress, which has taken years longer than I ever suspected it would. But my writing has improved dramatically and if it’s strong enough then I believe it will find a publisher. So you keep going. Perhaps you put away your own work in progress for a few months and start something fresh. I know someone whose writing has been transformed by a very close, slow study of the McKee. I myself have found that working closely with a tough first reader/mentor has helped me identify patterns in my draft material that now, armed with the knowledge, I can address earlier in the writing. So you keep going. Best wishes — Virginia

  4. Hi, Virginia,

    I read an older article of yours about Pan McMillian accepting submissions every Monday and I read on their website they say “first Monday of every month”. I was thinking to submit and I don’t understand exactly when should I.
    For instance in April, I should submit on Monday 7?
    Or I can submit now in March 24 as well?, or on April Monday 1st, too?
    I mean it’s every Monday or only first Monday of each month?
    Thank you, if you could answer me, it would be great because I want to submit to them an MGnovel.

    1. Hi Alexa,
      If you’ve read my post about the Australian publishers’ electronic submissions channels, then you will know I recommend authors to be wary of them. Macmillan makes it pretty clear here about the precise coordinates of their First Monday submissions, and if you stray outside these guidelines that will simply disqualify you and your project. Beware and good luck. — Virginia

  5. Hi Virginia

    I am currently writing the first draft of my memoir titled – “Divine Inscrutability – My Spiritual Journey with Autism” – 20 years of my journey with my son who is a high functioning autistic and how my spiritual journey with the teachings of Sathya Sai Baba had helped me evolve and help my son’s social and emotional development.
    The manuscript is not ready yet and I am hoping to get the first draft penned by May and start the editing process. I would like to ideally publish this by September as a birthday gift to my son (Am I dreaming?)
    I am very new to the entire publishing business and have no clue other than the fact that I MUST write this story.
    My website is a blog that talks about the spiritual path that I am on and is not about the book I am writing as such.
    How do I go about this? Do you think there is a market for a book of this kind? Can you offer any suggestions at all? Any help would be greatly appreciated.
    Padma Ayyagari
    Albury NSW Australia

    1. Hello Padma,
      If you want to give your work in book form to your son in September, the only way to do that is to self-publish. Trade (commercial) publishers work on much longer lead times, typically around 8-12 months. Assuming that they (a) wanted to acquire your work and (b) it was accepted without the need for further editorial development! The wheels of publishing turn much more slowly than many writers would like, that’s for sure.
      To attract the kind of publishers I work with, a nonfiction book of this kind must have a compelling story that the publisher believes will appeal to a broad range of readers. I hope that helps a bit, and good luck. –Virginia

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