The Difference between Getting Published in Fiction and Nonfiction

Elizabeth Camden Writing Life 1 Comment

I know there are a lot of writers who read this blog, so I thought I would take a short diversion to discuss the rather stark differences between the process of getting a book published in fiction versus nonfiction.  

When I was fresh out of graduate school, I impulsively decided to write a book.  I had a terrific idea about a timely topic, and as a brand new librarian, I researched the process of putting a book proposal together, wrote it up, and submitted it to eight different publishers.  To my delight, I had offers of publication from three of them.  I took the offer from the publisher with the best reputation, and ten months later I submitted my first draft of the manuscript. A year after that the book was on the shelves.

 The above example is true, and illustrates the huge difference between publishing in Fiction and Nonfiction.  Let me count the ways:

 1)   When writing nonfiction, you always write a proposal before you get a contract.  The proposal should be fairly detailed, with a comprehensive outline of the book’s scope, one or two sample chapters, an analysis of competing titles, likely markets, and projected sales.  These proposals typically range from 40-80 pages. 

2)   Because you are only submitting a proposal, rather than a 400 page manuscript, it is acceptable to submit to multiple publishers simultaneously.   Simply state in your cover letter that it is a multiple submission.

3)   An agent is not essential in nonfiction.  In academic publishing, an agent is almost unheard of.  I have written four nonfiction books for the academic market and never had an agent until I began writing fiction.  In fiction, there are very few publishers who will allow submissions from un-agented writers.

4)   For a writer, delving into fiction is a much bigger risk than nonfiction.  A book proposal can take a couple of months to research and put together, but you will not sink two years of your life creating characters you come to love, a plot that you are profoundly committed to, and a manuscript which may never see the light of day.  I’ve had nonfiction book proposals flop and it is a disappointment, but nothing compared to the grinding wall of misery that comes along with getting a novel rejected.

Because of the relative ease I had breaking into the nonfiction market, I thought I would be able to waltz blithely into writing fiction.  Not so!  It took me about five years of writing, learning, and pushing through the misery of rejection before I got my first novel published.  I think that is why I feel much more proud of The Lady of Bolton Hill than my other books (all published under my maiden name.) 

I also hope I have not given the impression that writing nonfiction is a walk in the park.  You must have credentials, a good idea that hits an untapped market, and a professional approach to the business.  I loved writing academic books, but am ready to move on.  My heart is now in fiction.  Writing for the academic market was work, writing novels is something I do for sheer, boundless, and irrational love.

Photo courtesy of Karen Cox

Comments 1

  1. Mittie Kwilosz

    Excellent read, I just passed this onto a friend who was doing a little research on that. And he just bought me lunch since I found it for him smile So let me rephrase that: Thanks for lunch!

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