Batting 1000 with Kid’s Non-Fiction: 1- The Basics

In this next series of blogs, I’ll be exploring the non-fiction side of kid’s lit.  It’s a flourishing industry, but like everything else in the publishing world, the market is shifting as the Internet, social media, eBooks and print-on-demand gain in popularity.

book openFirst, though, let’s look at a few basic truths.  Start with a little test.  Take two books – one fiction, the other non-fiction.  Quickly examine each one.  Don’t bother reading.  You haven’t time for that. Simply scan the covers front and back.  Flip through the pages. Glimpse what’s inside.

Done?  Close the books.  Now list the contents of each one.  Don’t worry about the details – just brainstorm what you’ve noticed.

Now let’s look at the list.

Fiction
  • Front cover
  • Back cover
  • Author bio
  • Chapters
  • Lots of pages filled with text
Non-Fiction
  • Front cover
  • Back cover
  • Author bio
  • Chapters
  • Lots of pages filled with text

So far not all that much difference is there?  But wait.  For non-fiction, the list grows longer.   Depending on the book you selected, the non-fiction sample might also have:

  • Photos, illustrations, maps, charts, tables etc.
  • A table of contents
  • An index
  • A bibliography of sources
  • A page titled ‘For Further Reading’
  • A glossary of terms
  • Testimonials from accredited experts
  • A list of photo/illustration credits
  • etc.

This simple test points out some truths about each type of publication, as well as a few hardcore lessons for those writers who want to be published in traditional print formats.

Truth #1

Hands down, non-fiction is more expensive to produce.  All those photos & illustrations, the glossy pages, the washes of colour, the extra pages for a glossary or index – these cost money.  Add the fact-checker that many publishers will hire to ensure accuracy and dollars mount.  Publishers of non-fiction have to be cautious if they want to earn a profit.  And when numbers are crunched, that’s what it’s all about – staying in the black; keeping out of the red.

Lesson: 

320748f081459df49c0864b8cb9152c2Successful non-fiction writers have to tap into subjects that not only interest kids, but also do double duty in school, library, bookstore and eBook markets. More tie-ins = more markets = more sales potential = more profit.

Ancillary Lesson:

Whatever ideas non-fiction writers bring to the table, they must go beyond what kids and adults can find for free on the Internet.  There has to be a unique perspective, a creative spin, an enticing writing style, a delicious brew of information, some tantalizing connection to a hot topic – something out-of-the ordinary – before publishers will slap down money and take the risk.

Truth #2

Fiction is all about story.  Non-fiction is all about ideas and information.  The two are different in form and purpose.  Those are obvious distinctions, but these differences speak volumes about what publishers are looking for in the writers they seek, and even more about what writers must do to secure a contract.

Lesson:  

For fiction, publishers are looking for a story that takes readers on an enticing and ultimately satisfying ride.  For first-time writers, before publishers seal the deal they will likely want to see the entire manuscript from its captivating beginning to its heart-warming or gut-wrenching end. Whether you are a law professor, an accountant, or a mother/father of five – none of this matters much in the final analysis.  Can you tell a masterful story?  That’s the question here.

For non-fiction, the grading system is different.  Check the list at the start of this blog.  Note the ingredients – table of contents, bibliography, glossary, index, pictures & illustrations…   You need a winning idea to get published, but also the chops to drive it home.  In the world of non-fiction, organization, research, accuracy, clarity, precision, and the ability to deliver content in a creative, interesting and unique way are key elements.  Credentials sometimes matter here, too.  If you are writing about UFOs, for example, and have a major in astronomy and a minor in physics, that could work in your favour, though not always as much as you might think.  I’ve written about subjects far removed from my specialty (science).  In those situations, my learning curve is steeper, but the journey is interesting and oh-so rewarding.

Serendipity EffectBecause ideas, concepts and information fuel the non-fiction machine, the approach to publishers is different.  I learned this the hard way.  For my first book, The Serendipity Effect ( re-issued later as Accidental Discoveries), I wrote the entire book – all 35,000 words – before I went looking for a publisher.  I mailed the manuscript to a likely firm and then waited.  Four months later, the package arrived back with a tiny form rejection attached to it.  Figuring that it would take a lifetime to get the book published, I finally did the research I should have done in the first place.  I discovered that while mailing out an entire manuscript might work for fiction, that’s not the norm for non-fiction.

What matters in non-fiction is the idea and how effectively you can pitch it to publishers.  What is your concept or vision for the book?  What distinguishes it from other books on similar subjects?  What markets might it fit?  Why this publisher? What makes you a suitable candidate to write it?  Often publishers have ideas of their own they would like to see included.  It’s much easier to tinker with the concept at the outset, to slant and slope the manuscript to everyone’s satisfaction before the book is written rather than after the initial draft.

For all these reasons, the approach to publishers is much more strategic for non-fiction than for fiction. And that brings up the subject of my next blog in this series: The all important proposal that just might snag you a non-fiction deal.

 

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