Midlist Nonfiction Books: Too Much Effort for Too Little Return?

Pictured above: A slide from Margaret Atwood’s marvelous presentation at TOC on the future for authors

it comes to non-narrative nonfiction books, I don’t think of the
authors of these books as authors. I think of them as experts,
entrepreneurs or business professionals who are interested in authoring a
book because of the credibility it lends them. Maybe it makes it easier
for them to get other paying gigs, or speaking invites, or to gather
more audience for other products and services.

In other words,
the book is a critical aspect of their platform. Maybe for some authors
it’s a money-maker, but most mid-list authors cannot quit their day job
based on royalties.

I’m starting to wonder if a traditional print
book has become a glorified platform builder (and an ego booster) that
doesn’t deserve as much weight as we all still give it. It offers
precious little ROI given the time-sink of writing and promoting
something that’s 80,000 words or more.

I speak from the author’s
point of view here, but certainly publishers must be asking this
question too. (I’ve seen what a typical nonfiction book sells. It’s not

Here are 2 key reasons why I would rethink pursuing authorship of a nonfiction book (of the non-narrative kind).

1. For ideas/information, a book is becoming less and less of an ideal medium.

Consider all the ways one might convey the same ideas, with even more
power and impact, with either the same time commitment or less, and for
more money/value (plus it’s content that’s not tied up with a

E-mail newsletters
Blog series
Self-study curriculum
Digital downloads (packages of content)
Online/community forum
Live online seminars or calls
Multimedia presentation (video/audio)
Mobile apps

For anyone who has the requisite platform to interest a publisher,
there’s probably more money to be made in marketing and selling their
own content, in whatever form/medium they most enjoy (or their audience
As more and more readers transition to digital
reading devices, and physical bookstore distribution/visibility becomes
less relevant to success, a publisher will have to add value in some way
that the author cannot.

Will it be through editing? Probably
not. The author can get that himself if he has a good network. (And if
he has a good platform, he has a good network.)

Will it be
through direct-to-consumer relationships that the publisher has that the
author doesn’t? Maybe, but the Internet levels the playing field, and
most savvy authors I know are developing their direct-to-reader
reach—and would be more interested in partnering with an Amazon or a
Levenger type—or some entity that has the attention of an audience that the
author has yet to capture or be exposed to.

A further note on the future

The book format is still being used too often, and in sloppy ways, to fill holes in publishers’ schedules.

I love how Kevin Kelly defines books:

A book is a self-contained story, argument, or body of knowledge that takes more than an hour to read.

majority of nonfiction books published today don’t meet this criterion
honestly. Instead, they feel like a series of blog posts. The ideas are
padded to make a book. Often they they don’t teach me anything I
couldn’t have found or learned online; they regurgitate well-known
knowledge in a sexy package. Sometimes even the package isn’t that
great. For this reason alone, I think the book format loses credibility,
validity, and importance in our culture.

There is an alternative
for everyone (aside from what I’ve described in points 1 and 2). As
more reading and book buying moves into the digital realm, and
publishers (and authors) don’t have to meet a certain length requirement
or page count to be marketable in print or through bookstores, quality
ought to improve. Seth Godin’s Domino project is an example of how this is happening. Also take a look at Atavist.

these aren’t really books by Kelly’s definition—just an alternative and
better medium for delivering certain ideas. Perhaps this medium is one
of the new business cards or platform builders for tomorrow’s nonfiction
“authors.” Not unlike traditional publishing, you’re getting the rubber
stamp of a brand or an authority who believes your work or your ideas
merit their time and attention.

(Is it bad that I’m starting to
use author in quotation marks? It already feels like an anachronism in a
world of collaboration, sharing, and electronic media.)

In any
case: given that a formal book (whether print or digital) isn’t going to
be the best way to deliver most information/advice/teachings in the
future, I think Kevin Kelly’s definition will start to become the gold
standard by which anyone (either author or publisher) considers
investing in this legacy form. But there are few authors and few ideas
out there that really deserve it.

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23 thoughts on “Midlist Nonfiction Books: Too Much Effort for Too Little Return?

  1. adisonadolf

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  2. Andy

    The thing I like about point number one in the OP is that you are paving the way for changes to how we define success in writing. I think culturally we consider writers/authors successful when they’ve published a book, but with the "book" changing so much, the definition of success will have to change, too.

    Personally, I think that is a great thing, and opens up the art of writing to a much larger population of people!

  3. Jane Friedman

    @Kimberly – Here’s an example of what I mean … self-study curriculum at O’Reilly:

    This is in the tech field, but it can apply to just about any field.

    @Laura – The concerns you bring up are certainly valid (and many innovators/intellectuals are grappling with this — see links below), though I imagine we’ll be living in a world of far more information than we can possibly consume, with reams of metadata on the authorship/origin of that information.

    A few interesting posts on this topic:

  4. Laura

    As a historian (among other things) one of the things I value about the books of past years is that they still exist as self-contained artifacts. I can encounter a fifty year old book in a used bookstore or the library and then interrogate its larger context, where it came from and what it meant at the time. It’s hard to do that with some of the other formats you mention – not strictly for technical reasons, but also for cultural ones – because they aren’t generally thought of as self-contained things that deserve to be kept around for years and years. If you are a nonfiction writer wrestling seriously with the ideas you’re interested in, surely you’re also interested in keeping your thoughts and words around for future generations? I don’t think it’s hubris to think about not just how your book (or whatever medium) will be received now, but to think about how it will persist over time.

  5. Deborah "LeafRiverWriter" Lucas

    Semantics. I love it. At least it makes a great conversation. But for me, I just don’t care how someone describes themselves. Is a writer who worked on a book for ten years (fiction or non-fiction) not an author until it’s published? Maybe not, but if they do use the term, who does it hurt? I don’t think I will ever use the term for myself. I like "writer." It describes what I do.

    I’m also an artist. Before I received my MFA, I was afraid to call myself that for fear that it would be challenged. Now, I encourage anyone, whether they are trained or not, who makes art to call themselves an artist. If you want to know what level they are creating at, check out their CV’s or "about" on their web site. If they don’t have that, than let the work be the judge. Whether you create a book or a blog or a painting, isn’t it the creation itself that matters?

    To go one step further away from the business side, I feel strongly that it is the process of creating that should be the focus. After that, the community of fellow writers or artists that you become a part of. This whole thing about who sold how many and made what amount of money all seems to be about ego anyway. I don’t care what you call me, or what you call yourself. I just love the cathartic experience of writing.

  6. Jan Kozlowski

    Jane, you hit the nail on the head for me with this column. I’ve been working on a project on my website called Dark Bites Datebook (www.darkbitesdatebook.com) where I spotlight a person or event in the horror/dark fiction genre that has a connection with a certain day-Lance Henriksen’s or Richard Matheson’s birthday, the release date of Silence of the Lambs, Walpurgis Night etc. I love writing and researching the posts and people that read/subscribe seem to enjoy them, so naturally I started thinking that maybe it would make a cool book project. But the more I thought about the logistics of it, I realized that a lot of what makes the posts so much fun, the links to cool websites and videos and other odd stuff I dig up online, isn’t translatable or transferable to a bound, hard copy product.

    It’s startling (and a little disturbing) as a book lover and a writer to realize that, for me, for this particular project anyway, a book would simply not be, as you said, "the best way to deliver most information/advice/teachings in the future."

  7. Jane Friedman

    @Andy – Awesome comment. Totally agree with your last statements about the current mythology of authorship. Yes, yes, yes.

    Also agree there is a huge assumption going on that personal gain in writing/publishing is priority number one. It’s an assumption that holds true for much of the business. However, it’s not my No. 1 priority, and it’s why I eventually left corporate publishing. There are some people in the business who act for the greater good. Dave Eggers and Tim O’Reilly come to mind. But they’re the exception to the rule.

    I wrote a few weeks ago about how writers, whenever looking for assistance, should analyze the business model of the person/organization helping them. It’s important to follow the money, as you indicate.


  8. Matt

    Very interesting post. As a writer of both fiction and narrative and non-narrative nonfiction, I found myself torn whether to agree or not. Underlying your argument is a semantic difference between "author" and "expert." Isn’t "author" directly related to "authority," and wouldn’t that mean that an expert who has written a book is an "author"? I certainly agree that trade books and such are very much a part of the nonfiction writer’s platform, though they likely needed an established platform in order to get the ok to write a book by a non-fly-by-night publisher. I find it interesting that while nonfiction is a much larger field than fiction, it garners little of the respect — at least among writers — that fiction enjoys. If a writer completes a book and gets it published, I would consider that person an author. But your point about whether to write a nonfiction book is a very good one for all would-be authors to consider. Just crafting the proposal is a time-sucking endeavor with little to no guarantee of success. I’ve declined book projects that paid paltry sums given the time needed to complete them. Writers need to know and respect the value of their work and time.

  9. Andy

    Hi Jane. You have an interesting take on this niche of writers.

    One thing I think is missing from a lot of the commentary on writing and publishing is some discussion of how a business’s (author, publisher, website administrator, etc) cash position affects its decision making. As the commentary becomes more sophisticated business-wise, it seems like a natural step to start asking hard questions of the players about their financial situation in relation to their strategy, just like you would find in the Wall Street Journal, etc.

    On the other hand, I think there is also room to consider passion and altruism in this discussion. It is still sound business policy to consider how one’s products or services are contributing to the public good. More and more, it is becoming acceptable for businesses to exist solely for the sake of making money, and your argument reflects that mentality–you suggest, between the lines, that the author/business only works for some personal gain. In terms of framing the conversation, however, I think it’s a good idea for anybody to consider how the work they are doing is serving the public good. That would be one reason to still consider authorship of non-narrative nonfiction–the non-monetary, non-platform-building, possibly irrational factors.

    I do like your questioning of "authorship." There is some really great thinking going on in that field:

    Jack Stillinger: Multiple Authorship and the Myth of Solitary Genius
    Martha Woodmansee: The Construction of Authorship
    Marcus Boon: In Praise of Copying
    Rosemary Coombe: The Cultural Life of Intellectual Properties

    Personally, I think our current mythology of authorship is divisive and overly individualistic. Changing technology and the rise of remix culture are paving the way for exciting changes in human evolution. Compilatio is poised for a come-back:


  10. Kathryn Paterson

    Jane, I just love your perspective. I love how you’re really THINKING through the way social networks and globalization are going to impact the publishing industry and the people within. Your views are bracing and refreshing. I can think of so many nonfiction books (mostly on writing, actually) that are collections of essays or brief chapters that read like beads on a string. Sometimes I like having the whole necklace, but sometimes, I don’t mind searching around for the gems.

  11. Jane Friedman

    And in a P.S. to Jeff, when I think of what you do, I really don’t think of you as an author. Clearly you self-identify that way, but to me, it seems irrelevant to the value you provide. The book is a by-product of something else much bigger.

  12. Jane Friedman

    @Holli / @Jeff – I didn’t mean to say people such as yourselves are not "real authors," nor did I mean to place any special value on what "authors" do. Rather, what we think of as authors is really starting to be an outdated concept, just like the book itself, and doesn’t do justice (or sometimes does TOO MUCH justice) to what people are actually doing or using their books for.

  13. Jeff Yeager

    Wow. So anyone who writes a piece of fiction – no matter how poorly written – and self-publishes it on Kindle is an "author" (and don’t dare disagree with that statement — Lord knows I’ve caught plenty of hell for even questioning it). BUT now midlist nonfictiion authors, even those of us who make a pretty decent living at it, aren’t "authors?" Jane, Jane, Jane. Maybe it’s time more of us midlist nonfiction hacks start sharing out annual P&L’s with those interested in actually writing for a living 😉

  14. Holli B.

    I have to commend you for writing such a thought-provoking post. The following sentence drove me to respond right away:

    "When it comes to non-narrative nonfiction books, I don’t think of the authors of these books as authors."

    I was about to throw my hand in the air, protesting that DO consider myself to be an author – and then I focused on the word "non-narrative."

    Though I am a technical writer by nature, even my technical manuals had my own special flavor in them, and I do consider myself to be an author. I am currently writing non-fiction, but even my business writing is crafted in such a way that is readable for my audience. There is still work involved and it’s not a matter of just listing a set of instructions.

    Having said all of that, after having read through your entire post, I can say that I do agree with you. I have picked up a few books that resemble a compilation of blog posts rather than a book having a cohesive flow.


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