Is nonfiction publishing’s red-headed stepchild?

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

As some of you will recall, my first blog for 2013 was to ask you what your favorite book was that you read in 2012. You may read that blog here, if you’d like. I didn’t specify fiction or nonfiction, yet only 10 nonfiction titles were suggested while 44 novels were mentioned. Why?

Maybe we all just got caught up in thinking about novels. But I suspect there’s more to it than that.

Is nonfiction publishing’s red-headed stepchild?

Here are the reasons it just might be:

1. Fiction connects readily with our emotions. When it comes to recalling a favorite book, we tend to retrace our reading experiences. That takes us down the trail of how we felt when we read a book rather than down the path of what knowledge we gained. And that tends to take us to fiction. I don’t see that as a ding against nonfiction; it’s just that story passes through our hearts on its way to our brains. A memoir or narrative nonfiction also has our hearts as its trajectory.

2. Nonfiction is harder to talk about because categories offer vastly different types of experiences. Fiction=story. Nonfiction could be a book on apologetics, a devotional, a self-help treatise, a memoir, etc. In other words, when we talk about fiction, we have set categories: the plotline, the characters, the writing. But with nonfiction, we read and talk about each category differently. I think that makes nonfiction more difficult for us to discuss with each other.

3. We don’t always talk about the nonfiction book that was meaningful to us because it was on a personal topic. Do you want to admit the best book you read was on how to deal with unruly children? Um, probably not. We don’t often ask someone why they decided to read a certain novel (and, if we do, the answer is easy), but I think we wonder what made someone choose a particular nonfiction book. And the reader might not want to explain. So a great nonfiction book might not get the same kind of word-of-mouth marketing as a novel. (This, of course, doesn’t apply to devotionals, memoirs or narrative nonfiction. See how hard it is to talk about nonfiction as a group?)

3. Nonfiction often is centered on ideas rather than storyline. My book club just finished reading The End of Money (a book I highly recommend, by the way). Our discussion touched on the writing style, but for most of the evening, we talked about money, using ideas from the book as our springboard. I think talking about a book’s ideas is a more complex, involved conversation than talking about a story. If I say I just read The Paris Wife, I can easily summarize it by saying it’s a novel about Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, whom he viewed as the love of his  life. Voila! I can fill in lots of details, but it’s easy to grasp in a few words. (And, to be fair, The End of Money is easy to talk about simply as well: Why cash is about to become a dinosaur.)

Despite these arguments for why we seem to prefer fiction to nonfiction, I contend nonfiction is not publishing’s red-headed stepchild. If you look at best-seller lists that blend fiction and nonfiction, nonfiction wins the most slots–by a lot. One list that blends the two is ECPA’s (Evangelical Christian Publishing Association). For February, 46 of the top 50 best-sellers are…trumpet, please…nonfiction. I should wish to be such a red-head!

Do you think our reading preferences will change because of e-readers, which people have found are great for fiction but not so satisfying for nonfiction?

What percentage of your reading is fiction vs. nonfiction? If you have a preference, why is that your choice?

Let me add, as a PS, that I will be limited in my ability to discuss my thoughts with you because I’m attending a funeral today. Please enter into a hearty discussion with each other, and I’ll join in as I’m able.

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65 Comments

  • I read children’s fiction (my genre) about fifty percent of the time and nonfiction (marketing) the other fifty percent. I would love to read adult fiction more often, but I would need more hours in my day. Possibly a nice vacation at the beach would help as well! : )

  • The Times says:

    For me its nonfiction all the way. Don’t have time in the day to live someone else’s life for fun. :( But other’s needs will be different. God used fiction with me tremendously when I was young. Can I add to the best Nonfiction of 2012? For the times: The Secure Home and Strategic Relocation by J. Skousen. Something for everyone (they’re the size of phonebooks). Awesome in scope, easy to read, surprisingly balanced, sage, and every family (and single) should own one, and take to heart whether you plan on moving or not. Powerful knowledge in there. How’s that for word of mouth? If I had a million dollars I’d buy cases to pass out.

  • Lisa says:

    I read more non-fiction. I like fiction too, but I find it harder to find fiction I can’t put down. With that being said, I really just love to read! Give me a book and I’m a happy girl.

  • Lori says:

    I usually read and listen to more non-fiction than fiction, however this past year I have been reading more fiction (mostly romances (which is a new category for me) and mysteries). I still listen to more non-fiction, however that seems to be changing. I have more fiction CDs in my pile but if I get a non-fiction book on CD that seems to rise quicker on my pile.

  • I enjoy nonfiction, especially missionary auto-biographies. Pure adventure and amazing examples of the hand of God in the lives pf people who serve on the front lines.
    I’m immersed in fiction right now, simply to study the It Factor that separates the great books from the ones that I cannot put down.

    I doubt that having an e-reader will change what I read.

    And umm, just to give a shout out to my team…I was, for 3 years, until I was adopted by my Mom’s second (and best!!) husband, quite literally a red-headed stepchild. So for me, that phrase is indicative of my new father’s open rebellion toward his family’s and his culture’s prejudice against us, and his great love for my mother. For him, taking on a divorcee and her 3 white kids was a very public “I love them all!”
    So for me, being a redheaded stepchild has meant something completely different.

    Love you, Dad!!

  • Mindy says:

    I am 50/50 on fiction/non-fiction. My area of study is Religion, and I greatly enjoy reading theology, apologetics, church history, etc. My preference, though, is fiction. But I am like Lisa in that I also can’t find a lot of fiction I can’t put down, so more recently non-fiction has being winning out. In fact, I bought an e-reader solely for building my non-fiction library – I am not going to find Charles Spurgeon at my local bookstore or library!

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Thanks for giving insight into why nonfiction wins the day for you. What you and Lisa are saying, in part, is that nonfiction tends to be more rewarding for you to read. Do you think that’s because you are reading more for information while fiction is more for entertainment?

    • Lee says:

      I’m with you, Mindy, with Spurgeon, Chambers and Wiersbe on my Nook. And I try to have one book in progress relating to my day job in health care quality. I get light fiction from the library for diversion. Truth is, I probably finish three novels for every non-fiction book completed–a single paragraph from Spurgeon can fill the day.

      • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

        Lee » You’re so right about the “density” and richness of nonfiction content. When our book club read The End of Money, no one finished it. Why? Several of us looked at the page count and figured it would take us two weeks to read it. Apparently we all under-estimated. Probably because nonfiction is a heavier slog (in a good way) than fiction, which has lots of dialogue that moves us through pages at a rip-roaring pace.

  • Whew… had me worried for a bit. Glad for the twist at the end.

    It’s hard to say which I read more of; I’m always reading both. As a non-fiction writer, I am gratified to see the health in that part of the market. Perhaps it’s a sign of the times: we live in confusing times. Readers turn to books for guidance and transformation.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      I knew nonfiction writers would worry. It just occurred to me that not everyone will read to the end. Oops!
      Readers have turned to nonfiction books for guidance and support for hundreds of years; that hasn’t changed.

  • Jen Rodewald says:

    I had been an all out fiction junkie until a few years ago. Dave Ramsey quoted someone….can’t remember who…saying you will be the same person save for the people you meet and the books you read. That challenged me, so I started into biographies. Hands down, the best book I’ve read came from that turn (Pure Gold – the story of Eric Liddell). It read beautifully and his story is tremendously powerful. After that turning point I hunger for a better balance of fiction vs. non. Those bios keep me balanced and at the same time inspire, because God works mightily in real life.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Jen, that’s a good point about the power of a real-life story. Imagine believing a story like Unbroken if it were a novel. Even if you believed it, it wouldn’t have the same effect.

  • It’s so difficult to choose just one great book from 2012. I read several fantastic novels, some from first-time authors, but I have to say my favorite books last year were biographies.

    If I had to choose just one title, it would be, Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend by Susan Orlean. I adore dogs, especially German shepherds because we’ve had several. They are the most loving, loyal and intelligent breed.

    The Richard Burton Diaries was a fun read. As a journal keeper myself, I loved reading snippets about his life, especially when Elizabeth Taylor added her witty comments.

    As a former Art History student, I found Titian: His Life by Sheila Hale another page turner.

    I do read more fiction than nonfiction and, so far, all have been real books that I can hold in my hands and turn the pages. I haven’t been able to switch to e-readers. Just not my cup of tea.

  • Michelle Ule Michelle Ule says:

    I actually prefer narrative non-fiction and I adore memoir. Part of that is because I’m interested in the question “why?” and who better to explain than the person who did it?

    So, while I read a lot of fiction, between research and personal preference, I’m probably 60-40 non-fiction over fiction.

    I want to come away from a book having learned something. Information or techniques to change my life from non-fiction–or at least something to think about. From fiction, I want a new insight about how to live or to recognize something in my own life, good or ill.

    So, for me, they both serve a purpose, but need to be “worthy” of spending time with them, whatever the genre. :-)

  • For many years, I tried to deny my love of fiction because many parts of our society say that it is pointless. My own mother says that it is a waste of time, so I haven’t even worked up the courage to tell her that I’m writing my third novel. (I’m unpublished, but querying. I’ll have told her by that glorious day when I sign a contract. Once I make some money with it, fiction will become legit in her eyes. But I digress….) But didn’t Jesus do a lot of his teaching through fiction/parables? And what about the power of fiction to teach us empathy? Stories speak to the deepest parts of our souls. Most of the commenters who say they love nonfiction mention biographies. Yet biographies are written as stories. I’ve read plenty of nonfiction and learned a lot from some fantastic books. But fiction should, most definitely, have a place in our lives as well.

    *deep breath*

    Janet, terrific post! I agree with all your points, especially about how we might be timid in talking about the nonfiction books we read because they are so personal. I know I’ve been reluctant to carry a nonfiction book in public because others would see the cover. An e-reader would solve that dilemma.

    • Jen Rodewald says:

      Oh, Absolutely, Meghan! I so agree with your point about how Jesus taught. Story is powerful; we often learn best through it. I think Michelle said it well: they both need to serve a purpose, they need to be worthy of the time they take. Sorry to leave you with the flavor that fiction is worthless. NOT AT ALL! What would we do without Pilgrim’s Progress, or any of CS Lewis’s fantastic stories?

    • “Stories speak to the deepest parts of our souls.” I’ve read stories like this, and I want to write them also.

  • Larry says:

    I do enjoy when an author is able to fuse the two together, such as with “The Moon and Sixpence.”

    It was “narrative non-fiction” nearly half a century before Capote popularized the concept! (Though it may be argued that W. Somerset Maugham placed more weight on the “narrative” aspect of “narrative non-fiction”, from what I have gathered about Gauguin it was necessary to fully represent who he was).

    Amazing when one reflects upon such a feat. Practically inventing a brand new genre! (Of course, I know some historians may disagree, stating that some of the earliest chaps in their profession such as Herodotus could certainly claim to have penned….”creatively inspired” non-fiction, yet I doubt they would claim it as a literary form!)

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Did you read the articles from last week about just how creative Capote was with In Cold Blood?

      • Larry says:

        I seem to have missed those articles, but I have read some previously which discussed the “creatively inspired” part of “creatively inspired narrative non-fiction” in Capotes’ work.

        While there are those who are certainly correct in stating that such “creatively inspired” works or sections of a work may diverge a bit far from presenting to the reader the known facts of what the work covers, I find such works to have their own merit as a seperate genre (and non-fiction could certainly use some distinction! It seems when non-fiction books are discussed in popular culture, they are presented as this singular entity, and the diversity of what is available is overlooked).

        Indeed, there are some modern examples of the non-fiction status of a book causing a bit of controversy. I recall that relatively recently there was some furor by readers of The New York Times Book Review about the placement of certain books on the non-fiction list.

        Hmmm….now that sounds like a fun non-fiction book to read! The marketing, placement, defining of what is “non-fiction”.

  • Alas! What will become of the red-headed fiction writers?

  • Leah E Good says:

    I read more fiction than non-fiction, but I like both about the same. I have noticed that good non-fiction books tend to stick in my mind longer than fiction. For instance, I just finished “Secret Believers” by Brother Andrew and have a strong suspicion some of the stuff I read will be with me for the rest of my life.

  • I laughed when I saw this post, because I specifically remember your original post on favorite books and my thought process about commenting: “Why are all of these fiction books? I must be missing something. Better not post my favorites (which are all non-fiction) in case I’ll look stupid.” :) Ha! The simple but true reason.

    I read almost 100% non-fiction. There are so many topics I’m interested in, and I “yearn to learn.” Of course, you can learn from fiction too, but my very analytical mind absorbs learning best from point-by-point non-fiction. That is what I want to write as well.

    That said, today on my blog I featured a guest post from Christian (adult) fiction writer Regina Jennings – “Why Fiction is Important in the Development of Kids’ Faith” (christianmomthoughts.com/why-fiction-is-important-in-the-development-of-kids-faith/). It was a great reminder of the value of fiction for all of us!

    Now that you have put my mind at ease about sharing non-fiction books we read in the last year, I will pick two:

    Think by John Piper (I am so grateful for the message of this book!)

    Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard (OK, it came out in 1998, but I just read it this year – amazing book!)

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Natasha, you seem to have not been alone when it came to posting favorite nonfiction books on the 2012 favorite books post. I’m glad I brought the subject up again so readers can give a shout-out to the nonfiction books they’ve read and loved.

  • Janet,

    Blessings on you for attending the funeral. My prayers are with the family and friends of the person who has passed.

    I love non-fiction and read more non-fiction than fiction. This has been true since my childhood. The reason for it is that I love to learn–about all sorts of things. History is my favorite non-fiction topic, but books on many other topics as well (writing is an another biggie, too–imagine that! ;))

    Strangely enough, when you asked, “What is your favorite book?” listed three novels and no non-fiction. Why? I have no idea. Apparently I wasn’t alone in doing that though. I think it may have a good deal to with something you mentioned: that novels move us. Although the information in non-fiction books tends to excite me and I devour it, it somehow doesn’t linger in my psyche the way playing in an alternate world of a novel does.

    Happy Monday, everyone!

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      The fiction vs. nonfiction debate is one we all play out within ourselves. Maybe it’s complicated or maybe it’s as simple as whim. I don’t claim to know.

    • History is one of my favorite non-fiction topics as well. Here are a few titles I want to read this upcoming year.

      Social History of the Bicycle-Robert A. Smith

      At Day’s Close:Night in Time’s Past-A. Roger Ekirch

      I explore the nooks and crannies of history so that I can flesh out my fiction world.

  • It’s interesting you had this as your topic. I’d just written a blog post arguing why FICTION was important, defending it on claims I kept hearing that it was a meaningless pursuit. I’ve met lots of people who won’t read fiction, feeling it doesn’t feed their minds. Then, I read a blog where the author wrote that friends told her the same thing.
    I, for one, have a hard time finishing non-fiction. I need something entertaining in my spare time, not something heavy. I think all day long. Sometimes I want to give my mind a rest. Also, as you mentioned, fiction travels through the heart as well as the mind. A well-written story meets us in ways that non-fiction can’t. However, sometimes we need things simply spelled out, so non-fiction meets that need. In fact, I’m reading a great non-fiction book right now—Mark Hall’s “The Well.” But what makes this a good read, is how he employs the use of story.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      I suspect most of us are drawn to story, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. But what do I know? I’m an English major.

    • Elaine Faber says:

      I agree. Fiction is important, especially light fiction, because we all have so many serious or troublesome things in our lives, we need an escape. People used to escape with movies but since the movies have gotten so rotten lately, a good light fiction book is the place to go to rest the little grey cells and escape to another place. Therefore, I write light mystery fiction. Not to say good non-fiction isn’t worthwhile as well, but not my favorite read.

  • I usually read about five or six fiction books for kids every week and one or two nonfiction books for adults every month. Of course that doesn’t count devotionals and the Bible. I like kids’ fiction because I can usually finish a book in an hour or two, it probably won’t be sordid or depressing, and it’s the kind of thing I like to write. The grown-up books (you can see I’m a kid at heart) are usually chosen for practical reasons because I need or want to learn more about a topic. This week I’ve been sick and have read lots of fiction for both age groups from my home library. Fiction is good medicine because it takes me away to other worlds.

  • I’m of melancholy temperament, so I’m a deep thinker. I derive great joy from an intellectual challenge. Normally, I find getting past the third or fourth chapter of a fiction book challenging. It has to be really, really good with a high level of application to my life. For the most part, I’d much rather mine a good devotional book to discover the riches within.

  • Janet – I write non-fiction exclusively, but I read fiction over 90% of the time. Escaping from reality with a novel for a while each evening keeps my brain balanced. (Although my husband and teenagers might disagree.)

  • Susanne says:

    I use to be 100% non-fiction, have flip-flopped to 99 % fiction. I became bored with non-fiction, especially Christian non-fiction. It was so repetitive. (Nothing new under the sun). Now before everyone jumps on me let me state, I have published with traditional publishers 4 books—non-fiction. So…..

  • Amanda Embry says:

    When I think of “my favorite books”, yes, I tend to think of fiction. When I look at what I actually spend money on – nonfiction wins by far. I buy cookbooks, quilting books, knitting books, and devotional/apologetic Christian books new far more often than I buy fiction. When I buy fiction it is either deeply discounted or used, but mostly I check it out from the library. I will refer to nonfiction books over and over. I will read the vast majority of novels once, and only once. So with nonfiction I get a lot more bang for my buck.

    When I was younger, I never bought nonfiction. I spent a great deal of money on novels, but I also tended to read my favorites over and over.

  • Elissa says:

    My first response is to say I read fiction. I love a good story and nonfiction bores me.

    BUT…

    When I look at my actual reading habits, almost all I read is nonfiction. In print: Newspapers and magazines. Online: Blogs, news, and other nonfiction articles. These are every day reading. I also read books that cover my many varied interests (writing, history, music, horses, needlework, cooking, and art, to name a few). It’s funny that none of this “counts” as reading in my mind.

  • Tim Burns says:

    I think in an increasingly shallow world, fiction is easier to sell than non-fiction. How many people can’t even tell you the name of significant elected officials when you ask. (Just watch Leno’s Jay-Walking)

    When we are more knowledgeable of what comes out of Hollywood than that happened in american history and why, non-fiction iw already in trouble.

  • I represent that remark since I have lot’s of red hair mixed with patches of white and black. Quite striking if I do say (bark) so myself.

    It’s okay though – I’ll let it slide this time.

  • Diana Dart says:

    I’m a fiction buff all the way. But funny enough, my fav historical fiction tends to drive me toward non-fiction for the “rest of the story.” My library is full of references, bios and other n-f, but almost every volume was discovered via an amazing piece of fiction. Shrug!

  • Annie says:

    I read a lot of nonfiction – simply because I love to learn. I have only read two nonfiction books cover to cover, simply because by reading the first chapter and the last, I felt I already knew the entire story.

  • Non-fiction can cause us to ‘mull over’ new insights or broaden our knowledge base. But you’re correct when you say that we don’t always want others to know what NF (parenting, marriage books) we’re reading, or why we’re reading it. Don’t want to worry our moms unnecessarily, do we?

    That being said, many things I read in NF make their way into my stories. The Myers-Briggs Personality and Strengths Finder books have helped me a great deal with fictional character development.

    But powerful fiction can initiate life change, and unforgettable characters leave an indelible mark.

  • Peter Bakich says:

    My book is non-fiction about one hundred forty five of Jesus’ commandments, brief commentary, and three or four pithy questions to start the reader’s conversation with the Lord. I’ve used it with a men’s book discussion group and found eager conversation. My only concern with an ebook is the lack of space for reader comment. I believe this kind of book requires this space. The title is “Jesus Told Me To Do What? Looking Beyond The Golden Rule”

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