View Full Version : Non-fiction or fiction?

01-09-2005, 07:23 AM
When I first started out it took me about four years to write
a dozen novels. Five of them were circulated, via agent, with no luck. So I tried non-fiction--you know, put a different slant on a business, occupation or skill, or come up with a new subject?

Bang! First book sold. Bang! Second sold. Third, everybody wants it!

Now, it's been stated that non-fiction outsells fiction 3--1. That's because we're an information hungry nation. But I had no idea that small pub houses and university press were mad for the stuff. So I guess I was destined to be a science writer and I'll never get rid of that stigma. In my heart of hearts I want to write that novel, but when it comes to it, I guess I better stay where I have the most success.

I've also just read from many different sources that a good agented non-fiction book typically pulls $15,000 to $30,000
advance from a major house. Am I reading this right? Have I been away from it for that long? The smaller guys will get you $2,000 to $5,000 without an agent, all day long. And that's where I was. If big advances are typical today, I think I'll stay right here.

What are your thoughts about non-fiction v.s. fiction? Are we
really where the money is?

Are some people just better non-fiction writers than fiction writers? Is it because non-fiction requires more of a template and a little more organization is involved? Are we a certain breed? More clinical, less imaginative?



01-09-2005, 08:03 PM
Hey Tri!

I have much the same story as you, except that I began as a screenwriter instead of a novelist. Never did go back to screenwriting once I began selling nonfiction books.

I sold several books to small presses for advances in the $2000-5000 range. For major houses, my offers for advances have been $20,000-45,000, and steadily climbing.

Now, you can do that with novels too, mind you-- some novelists get far better advances than that, and I don't just mean the famous ones. But without a doubt, it's easier to sell nonfiction and a far less fickle market. For me, too, it fits my personality because, believe it or not, I'm not a huge "idea" person. For most of my books, someone else came to me with the assignment; I didn't have to come up with the book concept.

When I feel the need to satisfy my urge for fiction now, I write children's books. Fun, less of a time risk for me if it doesn't sell, and a thrilling reward if it does.

But it doesn't have to be a one-or-the-other decision. I know some writers who've successfully done both (nonfiction and novels). Kelly James-Enger comes to mind. She made a great living by writing nonfiction books and articles, but decided at one point to take a break from it and do the "heart" project-- the novel. It sold and so did the second. Possibly because her writing was strengthened by all the nonfiction writing she had done.

I would never have thought I'd have been happy as a nonfiction writer if you asked me when I first started writing. I would have thought it was "uncreative." But I've found plenty of room for creativity here! The style, the way you tell an anecdote, the metaphors, painting pictures so readers will understand concepts... it's not exactly like creating a world from scratch, but it's a lot less dry than I would have imagined.

01-10-2005, 02:48 AM
Thanks for that reply, Jenna. Yeah, success did come early
with the non-fiction. You're right about injecting humor and style in non-fiction manuscripts, because certainly no one wants a boring, clinical treatment--no drill instructions, please.
So I guess we can't say that we're not without imagination. I don't think we're in a rut, either. More like we know how to get someone to take their medicine pill (how to) with a different and palatable approach. Maybe, underneath it all, we're teachers and just don't know it.

I did sell short fiction to the large slicks and even a couple of radio horror scripts. A screenplay and novel are the only things I haven't landed yet. Maybe one day....


01-10-2005, 11:58 PM
I tried to respond to this earlier but EZBoard kept knocking me off.

Tri, I'm in the same boat. Fiction is my first love, even though I've had more success getting nonfiction titles published/requested. Part of me thinks that it's because I don't put the same energy into marketing my fiction as I do my nonfiction, but sometimes I wonder.

Even though I've got more nonfiction titles than fiction, I'm still going to try to break through that ceiling and get my novels published. Money or no, this is the kind of thing I want to do. I don't really know if I'm a better nonfiction writer than I am a fiction one, but I do know that I plan to continue to write both. Whether or not I'll be able to get published equally in both remains to be seen.

01-11-2005, 02:26 AM

I agree. I nearly optioned my last novel to a huge movie company so I know that my fiction is adequate. I'll use non-fiction as a money maker to allow me to pursue the fiction end of it.


02-01-2005, 09:07 AM
From what I understand, non-fiction has a longer shelf life than fiction. Makes sense. A novel may tend to be trendy, or just sell for a certain amount of time, but a how-to book or something you may need to research a project, or even a biography, will have interest for years.

My book is non-fiction - memoir. I myself only read non-fiction, can't stand fiction.

02-01-2005, 07:25 PM
Hullo again, Eldragon.

You're absolutely right when you say that non-fiction has a longer shelf life and that's particularly true in book stores. Non-fiction is the old "dependable" and just sits there waiting for knowledge-hungry people. I myself, love "true account"
books, like THE PERFECT STORM, ALIVE, HELTER SKELTER, and tons of crime nonfiction. It's because I always think I'll learn something useful there. Fiction, on the other hand can have many rings of truth to it but it's mostly entertaining, and a lot of people are more prone to pop in a video game or rent a movie nowadays. That's kind of sad, when there are some really good fiction novels out there. But I understand where you are coming from.


02-01-2005, 08:48 PM
Hello again, Tri! I have read every true story of shipwrecked, castaways that I have ever found! I am the person to have aboard your raft, if in fact, your ship ever sinks.

I love true stories, no matter what they are about, as long as they are well written. Stuck in the mountains, trapped in the desert, abandoned in an old mine... I'll read it!