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I want to write a non-fiction book - part 1 - Is my idea a book?

As I mentioned recently, not everyone is a writer - but plenty of people would like to write a book. I've had over 50 books commercially published, so thought it might be useful to do a short series on the essentials of writing a non-fiction book and getting it published. See the end of this post for a summary of the series.

The good thing about writing non-fiction is that, if successful, you sell the book to a publisher before you write it. By contrast, fiction has to be written first, and in most cases has to be presented to publishers via an agent. But even if you intend to self-publish (more on this later), it's still crucial to establish whether or not you have an idea for a book before putting too much effort into it.

The chances are, the topic is something you are enthusiastic about - and that's great. When an author loves their topic, it can come through very effectively to the reader. However, this doesn't mean that there is a readership out there that will be equally fascinated. Your readers are not you. Just because you've been engrossed, say, watching the birds in your back garden, does not mean a book about them would be a natural bestseller. (I'm not ruling that out as a topic - but it needs thinking about.)

Broadly there are three things to consider - is there enough material for a book, have you something new and interesting to add, and who will buy it.

My former agent's first question was always whether an idea was a book or a magazine article. A topic can make for an absolutely riveting article but may not be worth giving, say, 75,000 to 100,000 words to discussing it. A great way to explore this a bit more, which will be useful for the second step of the process too, is to break down your topic into a series of headings. You can do this as a list, or, if you prefer, with some kind of visual structure, such as a mind map. Say you have around ten of these headings. Could you write 7,000 to 10,000 words on each (around five magazine articles), or would you struggle to put together more than a few of pages?

If there isn't enough to go on, this doesn't mean you have to abandon the idea - though in some cases that would make sense - but rather to think more widely about your overall topic. If, for example, this is a biography, but not enough is known about the individual, you could bring in headings covering various contexts. This might be about some major historical event they were part of, or something more on the specialty area that makes this person worth writing about... context is key here.

The second point was whether you have something new to add. This means doing some research. What's already out there? What other books might overlap with yours on the topic? If yours is about a very personal subject, the overlap might be in the type of story involved. For example, if the key to your book involved your grandparents' unusual upbringing, look for other memoirs that have this kind of subject.  If you are writing about something more general, then others could have already written a book on the topic.

Note that there being other books out there doesn't mean that you can't write one too - but you need to find your unique selling point. What is it about you and your take on the subject that is truly different? It might be there is new information to add, or a topic is particularly timely because of an anniversary. It could be that you have new stories to tell, or can approach the same topic in a totally different way. It may be that your personal experience gives you a unique insight. Each or all of these could apply. Remember, though, that it is not enough just to be different from the rest. You need to be different and appeal to your audience.

That leads us neatly on to the third question - who will buy your book? When we get onto a proposal - the document you need to put together for a publisher, but that is also worthwhile as a guide if self-publishing, you will need to identify exactly who your audience will be. It's not enough to say 'Everyone would want to read this.' Not only is that extremely unlikely, it doesn't help at all. Give some serious thought to the kind of person you will be aiming your book at, and whether such people will be willing to pay the cover price to get hold of a copy.

One final consideration at this stage and throughout - the importance of narrative. I've mentioned the 's' word (story) a couple of times already. You may be thinking 'But I want to write non-fiction - why is he wittering on about stories? Surely non-fiction is about facts?' A collection of facts is not a book in the sense I'm trying to help with, it's a list. It might be a useful list. It may even be one you can sell in book form (think, for example, of something like the Guinness Book of World Records). But it isn't what we normally think of as a non-fiction book - it's a reference, a gift book or a novelty title. If you are to write a successful general non-fiction book, its success will depend on your ability to draw the reader in and get them interested. And that means telling stories. More on that in the next part of this series.

To finish, here's an outline of the topics this series of posts will cover.

  1. Is my idea a book?
  2. Outlining
  3. Other parts of a proposal
  4. The pitch letter
  5. Finding a publisher (or agent)
  6. The contract
  7. Publicity (and extra earnings)
  8. Self-publishing

Image by Nick Morrison from Unsplash

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