Understanding the Nonfiction Market
to Make Your Impact
There are all kinds of books on how to write; you’ve probably read your share. But believe it or not, writing it may not be the most important aspect of bringing your nonfiction how-to, inspirational, or self-help book to market. Here’s why: Before you ever write a word, having your platform and marketing strategy in mind—in other words, knowing why you’re writing the book and who will buy it and how—will help you reach the largest audience possible. And that translates into solid sales and a solid impact.
Similar to running a business, writing nonfiction is most successful when you do three things from the very beginning:
Understand your market. Your market, simply put, is made up of the folks who are going to buy your book. Who are they? Why do they need your book—what problems are they trying to solve? What unique insights are you offering that someone else hasn’t already provided as a solution? The answers are not as easy as you might think. Do your homework so that you understand how big your market is, whether it has already been saturated by similar types of books (say, a niche market dominated by a single big-name leader), and where and why certain readers would look for the kind of information you’re providing (free and quick online answers vs. more in-depth solutions in printed books). In short, make sure there’s a compelling reason to go to all the effort of writing your book. If you’re worried everything’s been said on your topic because there are dozens of books on it, you might be surprised to find out how the nonfiction market really works and how much room there is for new voices. (A great place to start in understanding the nonfiction market is found in the books and resources at the end of this article.)
Figure out how to best reach your audience. Today there are more options available for publishing than ever before, and the choices you make need to be based on one thing: your market. What’s the size of your audience? Are they concentrated in a particular geographic area or are they spread out over the globe? Are they a niche group (say, private detectives, nurses, etc.) or half the human population? And how can you best reach them (back-of-the-room sales after a speech, an online ebook, subscriptions to your newsletter series, through their memberships to a particular organization or a media interview)? The answers to those questions will determine things like whether you’re best off using a traditional publisher or if you could successfully self-publish, whether you’ll need an agent at some point, and how big of a production or promotional budget you’ll need. (Check below for five easy-to-access online articles that will get you started with a clear view of your options.)
Develop your hook. Every person who buys a nonfiction book (other than a narrative-driven memoir) is trying to solve a problem. If you want your book to sell, give your readers the solution, but delivered how they want it. Most new writers make the mistake of laying out all the solutions up front or going on too long about non sequitur personal experiences. You’ll want to organize your book from the other direction—around the problems your readers still struggle with (and sometimes even helping them discover problems they didn’t know they had). Just providing information isn’t quite enough to get most books sold. You’ll want to make sure you include that problem-solving information in an engaging and reader-friendly way: give readers a reason to trust you and what you’re going to propose; share some stories that will move and motivate them; provide simple and clear takeaways (along with logically organized chapters that naturally build toward a culminating conclusion), and a fresh voice to which they’ll feel connected. Do this right and your readers will shell over hard-earned cash to get the information you’ve worked hard to share. (While getting into your reader’s mind in order to best organize your material might sound difficult, it’s doable with just a little training and practice. If you’d like a sample download of how to organize a chapter, shoot us an email.)
Do This Now
1. Go to a few bookstores or get online and do some serious browsing. What can you offer that free online information can’t? Find what’s already out there on your topic and figure out what your unique angle is. What hasn’t been covered? Determine what’s going to set your book apart from all the others (this can be anything from the nature and depth of the content to your unique voice)—and why your audience will have to have yours.
2. Buy a copy of Damn! Why Didn’t I Write That? How Ordinary People Are Raking in $100,000.00 … or More Writing Nonfiction Books & How You Can Too! by Marc McCutcheon. Make it your intro to understanding the nonfiction market.
3. Do your homework about the basic publishing options and the pros and cons of each. Read the following articles in our Resources/Archives:
- Traditional or Self-Publishing?
- Editor’s Nightstand: Recipes for Success (more resources on nonfiction genres and markets)
- How to Write a Book Proposal (clues on why publishers buy)
- Why You Need an Agent
- How to Find an Agent
- See our “Book Promotion/Platforms” category for a few ideas on book promotion; look for our article specific to promoting nonfiction later this year.
4. Contact us for a free sample of how to structure a chapter around a clear problem-solution format, using stories and examples for maximum impact—and then get writing!
Kate Willoughby has worked in the publishing industry for forty years and sees hundreds—sometimes thousands—of nonfiction books every year. She’s on the receiving end, and knows exactly what it takes to sell a publisher, agent, or market on a book.