Blogger: Wendy Lawton
Location: Books & Such Central Valley, California Office
First Published: August 11,2009
Did I give you new things to worry about yesterday? I hope not. But if forewarned is forearmed, I want to be the one to give you a heads-up where it may be helpful. Last week Janet blogged about the trouble with the new “free” business experiment. I’ve begun to notice another possible effect from what I call “free” fallout.
I’m finding it harder and harder to sell nonfiction. A normal person might chalk that up to a tough economy, publishers trimming their lists and more competition for available reading time. But as I began to consider the whys, I remembered what someone once said to me about another writing friend. “His motto is, let no word go unpublished.”
Those were the days.
Nowadays, we still publish every thought but we do it via the web and the many social sites instead of creating a product that can be sold. Words and ideas are everywhere. For free. Just ten years ago, if your child received a diagnosis of, say, juvenile diabetes, you’d leave the doctors office and head for the bookstore. You’d probably buy a book on the disease, one that dealt with helping your child live a normal life with a chronic disease, a cookbook and, perhaps, a picture book about the disease that you could read to your child. Four books.
Now you only need log onto the juvenile diabetes association website and voila! It’s all there with the latest findings, best recipes and perhaps even a coloring book for your child. Up-to-date. Succinct. Convenient. Free. But what happened to those four authors who would have written the books you would have previously purchased?
I’m not saying blogs, websites and the like can’t be used for promotional purposes and to introduce people to you and your message, but with the plethora of online resources, including the new free online novels, a reader could go a lifetime without having to purchase a book, magazine or newspaper and still be well-informed, well-read, and entertained.
So back to the sluggishness of nonfiction acquisitions. Too many publishers are no longer willing to take a risk unless the book is an obvious standout. So how do we get around this aversion to risk? You know the stock answer– write a book to which they simply can’t say no. Okay, that doesn’t help a whole bunch. Let me try to break it down some. Here is a partial list of the books that stand a better chance of making it through the gauntlet of naysayers:
- The author with “platform.” Also called the go-to person. The book on a popular subject written by the very person who is the poster child for that issue/idea. The author only speaks to this one issue, and if a talk show booking agent were booking a show on this subject, the author is the first person who would come to mind.
- The person who has paid his dues and invested time and energy in his audience. A book written by the person who knows and is known by the particular niche at which the book is aimed. Often successful regional authors fit this category.
- The trusted author. A book written by a person we’ve come to trust or appreciate. For example, when Philip Yancey writes a book, we trust it will be rich. Or take Malcolm Gladwell. We want to see how he’s looking at the world these days.
- The unique book. A unique book that either tackles an old subject in an altogether fresh and engaging way or opens up a whole new subject or idea. Caveat: Most authors would put their nonfiction book in this category, but editors and agents look at hundreds of potential books each month, making it easy to spot the ones that make you pause.
Of course, those categories don’t address books like memoir (all about voice), biographies and popular history (all about scholarship mixed with style), and the myriad other nonfiction books from cookbooks to true crime. But when we talk about mainstream nonfiction, there’s a growing resistance born of caution. Each potential book is not only evaluated on its own merits but publishers also are asking, “Is there a need for this book? Can the reader find similar information for free on the web? Is this author able to make the book stand out?”
It’s a lot to think about. But don’t forget, there are miracles and anomalies that happen every day. (Enough of them to keep those of us who share our opinions ever so humble.)
How do you buy nonfiction books? What kinds of books and authors do you look for?