What Kind of Nonfiction Books are Publishers Buying?

There is still plenty of competition for space on the bookshelf, so keep these recommendations from industry veterans in mind to help you get published. (Photo credit: Pexels)

You have an idea for a nonfiction book that will help promote your business, boost your career, or share an idea or methodology, and you’re wondering if any publisher will be interested.

That’s a good question, and only a publisher can tell you for sure, by way of a publishing contract.

But there are some observations about the current marketplace that aspiring nonfiction authors should be aware of. If you can shape your book to reflect your understanding of the current market, your odds of landing a contract go way up. Here’s what we’re hearing from agents, editors, and publishers:

You still need a book proposal. If your goal is to interest a traditional, mainstream publisher, you’ll have to invest in a book proposal that explains your main concept, who you are, why the book is needed, how it’s similar to other bestsellers (but still different), and how you’ll market it. Your author platform is still a key consideration, too, since it’s an indication of how many copies you can sell on your own to your fan base.

Of course, if you intend to self-publish or to work through a hybrid publisher, you can skip the proposal and get started on writing the book.

Longer isn’t necessarily better. Given how time-starved we all are, books over 70,000 or 80,000 words are daunting. The thicker the spine, the more overwhelming a book is to a reader. And the bigger the book, the lower the odds that a reader will ever read it cover to cover. If your goal is to create an effective marketing tool, you want – need – readers to read the whole thing.

A better option is to write a book in the 40,000-60,000-word range. Long enough to explain a concept in detail but short enough to be read on a coast-to-coast flight. If you have more material than that, perhaps you need to create a companion workbook or plan on a follow-up book.

Readers want skill-building. Readers today, especially of business books, don’t just want theory and ideas, they want to learn a new technique or skill. So publishers are looking for books that offer practical advice and how-to information. Try to incorporate exercises or resources that help readers apply the information you’ve just shared.

Target a broad audience. As a group, books aimed exclusively at the C-suite aren’t selling as well as publishers would like, so make sure your book will be useful for readers at several levels within an organization. If you think about it, this makes a lot of sense. Senior execs who’ve made it to the top of an organization are unlikely to be buying and reading books that will help them progress in their careers, but everyone below them who is trying to move up still needs that new information.

Include case studies. Everyone loves stories, so make sure to weave some into your book. Case studies or success stories are great for demonstrating how a particular approach or method can be applied. Shorter anecdotes can be used to quickly illustrate a point, or to share experiences – good and bad – that other people and organizations have had.

You can take a Malcolm Gladwell approach and string a single story through a whole chapter, or a Jay Conrad Levinson approach, which was to throw in multiple examples per chapter, to help the reader imagine how they could use a particular marketing technique.

Publishers want you to have a solid marketing plan to sell your book. Publishers today are risk-averse. They’re afraid to take a chance on a first-time author with no track record, especially since they’re relying on you to do nearly all the marketing (book tours and signings are a thing of the past for all but celebrity authors).

One way to allay their fears is to develop a comprehensive marketing and promotion plan that shows how serious you are about making your book a success, including how much of your own money you’re investing in this effort.

What else have you heard regarding what publishers are interested in today?

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Marcia Layton Turner


  1. Blythe Campbell on May 26, 2017 at 4:19 pm

    Marcia – this is very timely information! I’m working on a book I plan to self-publish this fall, “Communication, for a Change” about communicating with employees when your organization is changing. The tips I particularly appreciate are – don’t aim solely at the C-suite and keep the book to 40,000 – 60,000 words.

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