Where We Stand on Selling Non-Fiction vs. Fiction

Today I am honored to have as a guest blogger Seymour Garte, PhD.  Dr. Garte is Professor of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences of the Graduate School of Public Health, University of Pittsburgh, and a member of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute in Pittsburgh PA.  Dr. Garte writes:

Last year I became a published author for the first time. How did I get so lucky, you ask? Do I have sister in law who is a literary agent? Did I write a masterpiece that was saved from slush pile oblivion by a saintly and brilliant junior staff person at a prestigious publishing house? Did I send out 15,000 query letters until an agent finally decided to actually look at my synopsis, and loved it? Did I succumb to the temptations of self-publishing, and sell my book out of the trunk of my car, until word of mouth led to huge sales, and a great book deal with a real agent and a real publisher? Am I lying?

No, none of the above. What I didn’t mention is that my book is not fiction. Which means all the rules of how to get published listed above do not necessarily apply. Yes, there is a world of difference in publishing non-fiction compared to fiction, especially if the non-fiction book is a technical expert author book, like mine.

My book Where We Stand: A Surprising Look at the Real State of the Planet (Amacom Press, 2007) is about environmental trends that takes a very different approach from most books on the environment. The tone is optimistic, and rejects the atmosphere of doom and gloom that pervades this category of books. I instead point to the enormous improvements that have been made in the environment and public health over the past decades, and discuss how these changes came about.

Non-fiction books fall into a number of categories of course, but I like to think of them as one or the other of two main types. My own book is typical of the expert-written book, where the author is, (and is touted as such on the cover) an actual expert in the subject of the book. This would include medical and diet books written by doctors or dieticians, books by lawyers (the Nine by Jeffrey Toobin, a lawyer, was very successful), cook books by cooks, and much more rarely, science books by scientists. There are some great science books by scientists, such as Lewis Thomas, SJ Gould, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan, Oliver Sachs, etc. but most non-fiction books on science are written by non-scientists.

Most non-fiction books, in general are not written by experts, but by people who are writers first (often journalists) and experts either second, or not at all. The reason for this is simple. People don’t buy textbooks unless they have to. If they buy a book on the Supreme Court or the life of Einstein, or the state of the environment, they want pretty much what they want when they buy a fiction book — good writing. Even if they buy the book because they want to learn something more than to be entertained, good writing is the first requirement. Accuracy, research, and good coverage of the field  are all critical, but if the book is not written very well, people wont read it.

And most experts are not good writers. At least for the public. Scientific writing for example is completely different from “real” writing. In scientific writing, the passive tense predominates. Not so in books for the public, as my copy editor told me pointedly and repeatedly. Jargon is critical for a scientific paper, but terrible in a mass market book. In fact the best compliment I got for my book was when I saw an email from an editor to the acquisitions editor saying, “I read part of Garte’s book. It’s good. The writing is not at all scientific.”

So how did I get this book published? Actually, as happens quite often with technical books by experts, I was invited to submit a proposal. I was picked from a list of environmental experts and got an email. I responded with a proposal (standard publisher book proposal form), and two sample chapters, table of contents, a statement of audience, etc. It went back and forth, was eventually approved and a contract signed. That gave me one year to write and submit the actual book.

This is similar to the process for publishing monographs, and other technical books for specialized audiences, like textbooks, and for some mass market technical books. But it is not how most non-fiction books are sold. If you write a biography of Charley Chaplin, or a book about your own experiences as a young American traveling through Europe, or a book describing the best way to meet singles, or any other non-fiction book that does not fit into the expert category, you will need to do pretty much what fiction writers need to do, get an agent, pitch the idea, and the market, and hope for the best in a tough competitive climate.

For any non-fiction book, (as opposed to fiction) there is always an element of personal biography of the writer in the pitch. This could relate to experience, expertise or knowledge. Publishers want to know this upfront. If you have written an amazing new diet book (heaven forbid) it is helpful if you yourself lost 250 lbs using your amazing new diet method. Perhaps you are writing a new history of the American West. The publisher will be happy to learn that you possess some diaries of an ancestor who went west for the gold rush in 1849.

In my case, my credentials as a Professor of Environmental Health and Ph.D. in Biochemistry were critical in getting the book accepted. If you have strong credentials in the field of the book you want to write, it is possible to contact a publisher directly, without going through an agent. This is especially true if you use one of the many University Presses, which generally publish monographs, and a few mass market books by experts. These publishers tend not to do extensive marketing, so don’t expect huge sales from a University Press, although there have been exceptions.

If your credentials are on the light side, and you do not have an in (like many journalists, free lance writers and others already in the business have) you will need to find an agent to sell the book, and that means the queries, the synopsis, and all the angst you need to go through to sell your first romance, sci fi or other fiction book. There are agents who specialize in non-fiction, and in certain types of non-fiction, such as memoirs, humorous, travel, biography, etc. As for any non-fiction book, your query should include who you think the audience is, why they will want to buy THIS book, and any experience or background that sets you apart.  (“I wrote this book on blind dates, after having 35 blind dates in two months.”)

This pretty much sums up the big difference between selling a non-fiction book as opposed to a fictional work. For non-fiction, you need to sell yourself as well as the work, much more so than for a novel. I don’t know if it’s easier to sell non-fiction, but I do know that good writing is essential. This is true not only for selling the work to a publisher, but for selling it to readers. Which is a whole nother story. Maybe for next time, if Pat wants me back.

Also by Dr. Simon Garte:
Selling Your Book to Readers — Part I
Selling Your Book to Readers — Part II

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16 Responses to “Where We Stand on Selling Non-Fiction vs. Fiction”

  1. zhadi1 Says:

    We want Sy back for another post!

  2. Pat Bertram Says:

    Zhadi, I definitely agree. We want Sy back. I enjoyed this article tremendously.

  3. Pat Bertram Says:

    Dr. Garte, I found it interesting that you would mention both Stephen J. Gould and Richard Dawkins. I think I’ve read all of their books, and it was a particular thrill for me when I realized how much of their writing (especially their articles) was a debate between the two of them. Not that they mentioned names, but they did mention theories.

    Not being an expert, I’ve had to go the long way around to get published. Reams of queries, years of rejections.

    Thank you for consenting to be a guest. I enjoyed having you here.

  4. Sy Says:

    Thank you Pat, it was a pleasure. And you are right about Gould and Dawkins. Although both fervent evolutionists and wonderful writers, they had many disagreements. Despite this, Dawkins wrote a very moving tribute to Gould after the latter’s terribly untimely death. I am thrilled to hear that you have read all of their books. I wish everyone would.

  5. Sy Says:

    Thank you Zhadi. My pleasure

  6. Pat Bertram Says:

    They were both readable authors. Although I know a lot of people disagreed with Gould’s hypothesis in “Wonderful Life” it sure fueled my imagination, thinking of all the asymmetrical creatures that might have been.

    Thanks again for “guesting.” And when you get that second article finished, send it along.

  7. ~Sia McKye~ Says:

    Sy, a very informative article. “For non-fiction, you need to sell yourself as well as the work, much more so than for a novel.” I understand how that would be true.

    I’ve often wondered about the differences in selling fiction and non-fiction. To be sure, I’ve seen and read quite a few books written by non-experts in the field. Admittedly, their research is well done and their presentation easy to read–which is not always the case when the ‘experts’ write.

    I, for one, would love to hear how you as an author of non-fiction would go about selling your book to readers.

  8. Shirley Ann Howard Says:

    Wonderful article, Sy.
    I’m curious to know where your sales are generated.
    Do you sell books at conferences?

  9. jalex Says:

    I always wondered why “experts” would waste their time writing a book in the hopes that it will sell. At least now I know they sell it first. Good article, Seymour. Best of luck with your book.

  10. Xelene Says:

    The whole publishing industry is changing, especially for fiction, that now it seems that all authors need to be “experts” no matter what they write. It’s hard to find a novel nowadays written by a novelist. They are lawyers and doctors and forensic specialists.

  11. James Rafferty Says:


    Thanks for the background on how your book got published and tips for other non-fiction writers. I bought your book a while back and am looking forward to reading it.

  12. Sandy Says:

    Another good article. I have many friends who write non-fiction.

    Thanks for being here.

  13. GABixler Says:

    Thanks very much for your insight! I’m wondering…though nonfiction may be easier to publish when an “expert,” are sales fairly decent…or better? And do you do much marketing for non-fiction books or wait to have interested individuals find you?

  14. Second Wind Publishing Says:

    Pat, thanks for hosting this event with Dr. Garte, and for posting the text of this interesting and down-to-earth author. (& 3 cheers for Gould and Dawkins, too!)

  15. Sy Says:

    My next two posts are about marketing non fiction. The short answer is that marketing is essential.

    Sy G

  16. Mona Malhotra Says:

    Just what I was looking for. I’m writing a technical book on Law as well and totally agree with – go directly to the publisher :-).

    Would need to read your next blog on how to distribute and market the book once published.

    And very importantly – who fixes the price? and how?

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