Viewing Your Nonfiction Writing as an Editor
To do anything well in life you must begin by knowing what the critics of your work will object to, what they will turn away from, and what they will buy. Nonfiction writing is no different. Before you begin writing and submitting your work to an editor, you must understand the viewpoint of most editors and what prompts them to take interest in your work. Young and inexperienced writers often fill their walls with rejection letters because they don't have an understanding of the editor's criteria. This article will help you to better understand what an editor looks for and why, if these things are missing, you will receive a standard rejection letter.
Your Subject and Your Treatment of Your Subject
The subject matter of your book or nonfiction article must be timely and relevant to its target market. In many ways, timing is everything. Timing matters in terms of the editor's view of your book's marketability and ultimate success. Are you on top of something that is a current concern or an upcoming trend? If you are covering a controversial subject, are you on the front end of a trend that will develop and blossom creating an ever increasing interest in your book?
If you are too early on a subject, then your book will sit for a while before producing results. If you wait too long to address the topic, then the bulk of potential sales may be lost due to market saturation or loss of interest. Before you write, you will want to consider the timeliness of your subject. Of course, the best subjects are those which are timeless and always in demand. For instance, love, relationships, and faith are always needed by the human race and material which helps people in these areas is always marketable.
The treatment of your subject must be realistic in order for the work to qualify as nonfiction. In other words, fantasy romance novels are not nonfiction, they are fiction. Keep your treatment of the subject real. Editors often reject material that fails to treat the subject in a fair, balanced, and real manner.
If you are writing about a group of people, are you writing about them in a fair minded way? Inhumane writing is not a form of nonfiction, it is hate. Few editors want to promote hatred among groups of people or hateful ideas that create violence or distrust among readers.
Sometimes writing nonfiction may include revealing or emphasizing hateful experiences of one group of people at the subjection of another group of people, American slavery comes to mind. It is not an unfair treatment of the subject to reveal such factual experiences as long as those experiences are not written in a manner or with intent to provoke the subjecting group by unfairly portraying them or exaggerating their behavior beyond belief. When writing on such topics it is best to keep it factual rather than embellishing so that your reader does not wind up with the opposite conclusion of what you intend to show; and so your editor does not patently reject the work.
The point here is to remember that nonfiction writing is characterized by reality, believability, and fair treatment of the subject matter. It can be opinionated and often is, even in the best of books. But having a perspective and viewpoint is not incongruent with nonfiction. After all, we have all seen or experienced a car accident in which ten bystanders each gave a different account. The difference in their stories does not, by definition, make nine of them fiction writers; it accounts for their different, and valid, points of view.
The Marketability of Your Subject
As briefly mentioned above, certain subjects are always marketable. If you venture into nonfiction writing for a living or as a side gig, you will inevitably write on subjects that are always marketable. If you become a refined or talented nonfiction writer, then you will develop the ability to write on less popular, but in demand subjects. This will make you a busier writer.
Subjects that are not well covered in the marketplace are always the best ones to write on. This is the main reason that nonfiction writers who know how to write well in the technology fields are always in demand. Technology changes constantly and if you can write well in a way to help average people understand the newest technology, then people will seek you out for their projects.
In terms of picking a subject to write your first nonfiction book on, you will want to look for subjects that are not well covered in proportion to the public's interest in them. Self-publishing is a great example. As a publisher and editor I encounter this daily. Our company's website has a good deal of information on it that helps to educate our potential clients before they call or email us. Why do we have to post lengthy segments in our pages when it flies in the face of Internet marketing sense? Because self-publishing is a popular subject that is not well covered in the marketplace where people are looking, the Internet. There are an abundance of books on it, but not so many articles.
Of course, the other reason we have to post so much material in our site is that self-publishing is and can be a very specialized subject. Rarely will you find any two publishing houses handling it in the same manner unless they are owned by the same company. What does this mean to you, the new nonfiction writer? It means that you may be able to directly market your nonfiction writing skills or articles on self-publishing to a publishing house that specializes in self-publishing.
Remember, the editor you submit your book or article to will look at the marketability of the subject. How broadly will the book hit public interest? How specialized and in demand is the subject? How specialized and small is the market? Does the writer bring a fresh and unique treatment to their subject? Do they touch on a concern that has been overlooked or ignored? Make your treatment of the subject one that increases your book's marketability.
Your editor will either need to be able to immediately discern who your core buyers are or she or he will need you to spell it out in an almost statistical manner in your submission letter. An editor wants to know, how large is this market? What is the target group? How well do they purchase books on this subject? Do they read books at all? What is the median income of the core buyers?
Remember, just because you think a target market or group is your core buyers, doesn't mean that group actually IS your core buying market. For example, if you write a nonfiction book on relationships that is targeted to young men and is based on your personal experience with young men, you may be rejected by your editor. Why? A relatively small proportion of your target market actually makes up your core buying group.
To successfully persuade an editor of such a book, you may need to rewrite it so that it speaks to women about relationships with young men. Women are the largest buyers of books on relationships and are of greater interest to an editor. Remember, your editor wants to handle your book because they know it will sell; not because they think you're a cool person (even though you may be).
How Broad is Your Market?
You must know before you begin to write exactly how broad your market is for the subject you are writing. The broader the market, the more specialized the subject must be in order to get an editor's attention. You must be able to catch the editor's attention with the uniqueness of your material.
For example, if you are writing a nonfiction article on art history, you may want to broaden your market by writing on a specific or obscure local artist that impacted the regional art sensibilities in a permanent or a trendy way. By choosing your subject with such concerns you accomplish some important marketing needs of your editor. You are selecting a broad market, art history, and you are specializing at the same time. This is a powerful combination that editors appreciate because it helps eliminate their concerns for a broad appeal. In taking this approach, your editor knows that they can market broadly to local, regional, and national niches of art lovers. You have your editor's attention and interest.
As a nonfiction writer, you must remember that the editor who buys your writing will want a very good return on his or her investment [ROI]. He or she will want to know that the audience to which she or he publishes and markets your work will walk away with a sense of gaining a good deal. The audience of your writing MUST feel they have spent both their time and their money well when reading your material.
One of your biggest jobs as a nonfiction writer is to convey things in a fresh and effective manner. Re-spinning someone else's work is not writing at all; it is lazy and it is plagiarism; and it is unappreciated by the reader and the original author alike. Editors have a nose for writing that smells of plagiarism; it will quickly land you on their "never talk to him again" list.
If you have not developed your own writing style, you will come across to the editor as either too stiff or too stuffy. You want to come across as fresh so spend time developing your own writing style. Style sells, stiff smells. Be a real person without being sloppy and you will eventually develop your own style.
When you tackle your subject with freshness and authority, then you are adding value to the buyer. You are giving the editor a good ROI for the money he pays you and the reader feels that he or she has spent their time (and possibly money) well. If the editor or reader does not have a sense of added value when they read your article, then you will likely not receive a contract.
There is no shortage of pet peeves among editors. It may be impossible for you to initially avoid them all (some are never spoken), but you can be aware of some that are most popular among editors. Some of these will land you in the rejection pile or the "Canceled Contract" basket. Here is a list of common irritants:
- The author shows potential, but also shows his laziness.
- The author has never heard of, much less purchased, The Elements of Style or The Chicago Manual of Style. [Hint: These are the bibles of the editing world]
- The author fails to perceive misspelling, grammatical faux pas, and the passive voice as sloppiness and thinks the editor will be his or her red-pencil person.
- The author has rock star thinking and believes he will wake up as a sudden Hemingway, with wealth, wine, and women.
- The author thinks she or he is in charge of the publishing process or becomes demanding with the editor.
- The author thinks that their work should fetch $4 USD per word and that the editor should prepay him. [Hint: Very little in the U.S. market fetches this much; don't think that you should in the beginning, or even after 20 years]
- The author submits the manuscript in a fashion that is 20 years out of time, with no standardized Word document or CD.
- The author thinks that the editor's "job" is that of a rewriter. [Hint: These are two separate jobs and you will do well to rewrite your own work before submitting it unless you want it to look like something you never intended]