Enjoy today’s post by Solstice instructor and author Chris Crowe. To register for Crowe’s Solstice class on writing nonfiction for teenagers, click here.
How’s the publishing business?
Sales are down 2% from last year, but the business is still pretty healthy. Publisher’s
Weekly reported that last week (ending March 23, 2013), readers purchased more than 10 million
books. In 2013, total sales exceeded 470 million copies.
That’s a lot of books.
And 55% of those books were nonfiction.
You read right: nonfiction. Even in the shadow of blockbuster novel-movie series like
The Hunger Games and Divergent, nonfiction still outsold its flashier genre sibling, fiction.
Well, if you’re an aspiring writer, you should care. While it’s incredibly rare for any
single work of nonfiction to match the sales and audience-reach of a best-selling novel, the
aggregate sales of nonfiction regularly outstrip the aggregate sales of novels. That means that
there are far more nonfiction books than novels published each year, and that means that the
nonfiction market offers far more opportunities for writers to break into the business.
It also means that writers, interesting and creative people like you and like me, can write
about almost anything that interest us. Try this: go to Wikipedia, and search for “categories:
fiction books” and count the categories listed. Then search for “categories: non-fiction books”
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Non-fiction_books. There’s a whole lot more going on in
nonfiction than in fiction.
* * *
Years ago, I had the chance to interview Bruce Brooks, a successful author of fiction and
nonfiction for teenagers. His first novel, The Moves Make the Man, earned him a Newbery
Honor in 1985, and his next few novels continued to impress and please readers. But in the face
of a rising career as a novelist, he wrote a nonfiction book. And then another. When I asked
him why, he said, “Well that’s the best thing about my job. I get to be interested in lots of
different things and turn those interests into books. In some ways, a book is just an another
excuse for getting deeply intrigued with something else.”
That’s one of the things that attracts me to nonfiction: I can follow my eclectic interests,
and by doing so, I can learn about all kinds of things. In fact, nonfiction writing may run counter
to one of the old truisms of writing, ‘Write about what you know.’ It’s often the case that good
nonfiction arises from turning that dictum on its head: ‘Write about what you can learn’ or
perhaps ‘Write about what you’re interested in.’
Digging into a topic you’re curious about take a lot of work—sometimes very hard
work—but like many difficult tasks, it’s work that’s intellectually and creatively stimulating.
And that’s something people, even experienced writers and avid readers, tend to forget:
nonfiction can be as interesting and creative to write and to read as fiction is.
* * *
Where’s nonfiction come from?
But most of the time nonfiction comes from curiosity and inquiry.
Here’s an example of how a childhood curiosity later led to a successful nonfiction book:
For his 10th birthday, James L. Swanson was given a framed engraving of the
pistol that John Wilkes Booth used to kill Abraham Lincoln. . . . Accompanying
the engraving was a clipping from The Chicago Tribune of April 15, 1865, the
morning Lincoln died. ‘I remember reading it over and over again and seeing
that sentence and wondering what happened next.’
Eventually, Swanson grew up and got to find out what happened next, and he shared
what he learned by publishing Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer.
But it wasn’t curiosity alone that created an opportunity for that book. People wonder
about all kinds of things all the time, but few books result from casual wonderings. When
curiosity spurs a writer to action, the process of inquiry begins, and that’s what plants the seed
for a book.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘inquiry’ this way:
The action of seeking, esp. (now always) for truth, knowledge, or information
concerning something; search, research, investigation, examination.
It’s the “seeking” for “truth, knowledge, or information” that leads to nonfiction, and that
seeking may take many forms. For a personal essay, it might mean remembering and reflecting
on one’s life experiences. For a biography, it might require interviews and library research. A
history might need field research and library research, and who knows what else. The process of
seeking is a large part of what makes nonfiction satisfying to write. Well, that and the learning
that comes from the seeking. And the freedom to pursue your own interests. And the
opportunity to share what you’ve learned with others. And the opportunity to leave the crowded
fiction market for the open field of nonfiction. And the opportunity to read, to think, to learn,
and to write.
* * *
By bragging on the benefits of nonfiction, I don’t mean to disparage fiction. I love
reading and writing novels, but novels have snared more than their fair share of attention in our
society. Nonfiction books, in their infinite variety, occupy more shelf space than novels do, but
even with all of that space they’re taking up, there’s still room for your book on that shelf.
Opportunity awaits you. Watch. Wonder. Work. Write.