Serious Non-Fiction Development: Part 3 of a Semester’s Reflections

*Please read Serious Non-Fiction Development: Part 1 of a Semester’s Reflections for an explanation of this series. This week’s post is a response to a reading from an insightful book on successfully publishing serious non-fiction. Chapter 1 was the assigned reading for the week, and in it, Rabiner emphasized the importance of audience, audience, audience. Below is the question prompt followed by my response.

In your blog post for this week, use your thoughts about audience to further refine the scope and angle of your idea. To appeal more clearly to readers who are passionate about a particular interest (i.e., not just history or biography, but say military history or biographies of women), how might you alter the key questions and focal points driving your idea? In the early stages of brainstorming, we often deal with our topics in too general a fashion (probably to assure ourselves that we won’t run short on material). But clinging that such safety blankets runs the risk of being too generic. View this week’s blog post as an opportunity to make a big, perhaps daring decision about the scope of your book. We’ll start working on the proposal in the coming weeks. Sharpening this connection between your core audience and your book idea is an extremely important step to get your ideas into proposal-ready shape.

Cold feet. That was my first reaction to Rabiner’s dissection of the hypothetical book pitches discussed in chapter one. Out of the four proposed books, I was instinctively drawn to the Women Who Kill topic and shocked when it missed the bar. The other three topics seemed equally convincing to me, and I couldn’t fathom why anyone would toss the content aside. As the chapter went on, it became obvious why. The topics made great fiction, magazine, articles, journalism pieces, and TV specials, but none had a clearly defined and understood audience for the field of serious non-fiction. They all had, as Rabiner put it, an “audience identification problem.” (43). Other nuggets of wisdom included the need to make your book stand out from the others in its genre, the importance of idea books over practice books (for professions), and the fact that being an expert on a topic is not enough to guarantee successful sales.

I’m grudgingly revaluating my topic now, due to my enlightenment. I’m not arguing with Rabiner at all, hence the hesitation. I’m simply fearful of stepping outside of my interests and into the mindset of a sales-driven editor (rightly so, it’s their job, after all), or worse, into that of a partially interested modern-day reader who has little precious time to waste on the frivolities of reading. Netflix awaits, of course.

Here goes my dissection. May the odds be ever in my favor.

Last week I discovered that my content is best-suited for the Current Affairs & Politics section of any given bookstore—virtual or not. That’s still a big genre, however, filled with little niche groups. And people are generally more polarized than anything (except maybe religion) when it comes to Current Affairs & Politics. What one person loves might send another hissing into the corner, making my target audience selection and catering even more crucial. Jumping back to the fictional book concepts used for illustration in the chapter, one of them failed because the content was ill-suited for an entire book. It should have been a magazine article. I believe my strength lies here. I’m not writing a book about the history of wolves, their lifespan and attributes, or the fact that they are becoming extinct. Instead, I’m using bits of all of those topics to support a stronger claim: wolves are a crucial part of our ecosystem and if we do not do something to address the mistreatment that has been ongoing for hundreds of years, we will wipe out yet another species and add a notch of the belt of mankind’s destruction. It’s thesis in progress, but, hopefully, the idea is there.

Another reason a book failed was because it was catered to a professional or scholarly audience as opposed to a general interest audience. I also feel good about this because my content is not aimed at environmental scientists and wolf researchers (although I’d hope they’d enjoy it), but rather environmentally conscious adults and people with a love for wolves or animals in general. I’m a connoisseur of this genre, and so I’m hoping to bait that niche group of readers who are already concerned about our world and what we are doing to it. It’s broad enough to grab those who aren’t necessarily die-hard save-the-wolves-junkies, but specific enough to single those readers out.

The third reason for a failed book was the inability to correctly define the audience. Essentially the audience is not solely those who find the title compelling. I don’t have a title yet, but picking up on that last paragraph, I’d continue to say that the correct audience is those who are environmentally aware. Although my goal and dream would be to reach those who don’t care, realistically, readers that err towards that conservationist way of thinking are going to be most likely to pick up a book that recommends we respect non-human life. The purpose of my book, then, isn’t to prove the wrong that they are wrong and turn them. Instead, the goal should be to hook like-minded readers and empower them to make a difference. It makes more sense to strengthen an able and skilled fighter than to force a couch potato to turn off the TV.

Finally, the first book’s issue was that it was simply not compelling to the core audience of the genre. It was a book for non-fiction art that didn’t have a strong grounding in purpose or in a famous artist. This question is a bit scary to me because assessing the interest levels of hypothesized people is no easy feat. What makes my content stand out? What’s my angle? I think it’s to derive meaning from the madness. It’s easy to argue positions, to throw out numbers, to hypothesize about the future. But I believe people do have hearts, and drawing an underlying meaning or playing this out in light of the human condition con make it relevant or real. I want to take this from being just another issue or political debate and make it a matter of ethics on a deep and primal level.

I’ve got a long way to go, but this chapter has helped me realize that I’m strengthening allies instead of challenging enemies with this book and that I need to continue to set it apart from other books in this genre to make it stand out.

Rabiner, Susan, and Alfred Fortunato. Thinking like your editor: how to write great serious nonfiction—and get it published. New York: W.W. Norton, 2002. Print.



2 thoughts on “Serious Non-Fiction Development: Part 3 of a Semester’s Reflections

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  1. Excellent summary/analysis of Rabiner’s discussion of why some books fail to gain a broad audience. You’ve made good progress refining the scope and aim of your book idea by specifying the genre and core audience. In taking the current affairs and politics/ethics angle, I think you’re already taking a good step toward making your proposed inquiry on wolves and the ecosystem pretty unique. As you continue to develop your thesis and vision for the book, it might be helpful to come up with an over-arching idea about what wolves today symbolize or represent. Polar bears became a kind of tragic symbol of the consequences of climate change — the loss/instability of their habitat signifying an early case of what may eventually come to threaten every other species on the planet. In turn, if it seems helpful, ask yourself what the contemporary plight of wolves symbolizes or signifies — and that could become your thesis.

  2. Hi, Bethany!

    I think you are on the right track with your idea: “Instead, I’m using bits of all of those topics to support a stronger claim: wolves are a crucial part of our ecosystem and if we do not do something to address the mistreatment that has been ongoing for hundreds of years, we will wipe out yet another species and add a notch of the belt of mankind’s destruction.” That is a good, solid focus on what your purpose is in writing this book. Also, brilliant narrowing down of your audience: “strengthening allies instead of challenging enemies.”
    This perspective will affect how you write your book: the tone, the delivery, the message, the ask. It would sound very different if you were trying to convince someone to care, versus possibly providing a story on the beauty and necessity of wolves, along with suggestions on how to make a difference in their existence. It’s almost like you’d be providing a list of opportunities to make change, rather than trying to sell the belief to someone.

    You also might consider the person in the middle. I am sure there are plenty of people who care (like me!), but who are not environmentalists, per se. How can you write the book towards your absolute allies, while garnering interest from my group? I want to be responsible, and I certainly do not want to cause harm to another living creature, but how can you grab my attention to make me interested in sitting down to read this book?

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