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How to write and publish a non-fiction book

Jim Heath
Perth, Australia
March 2014

I make some money writing non-fiction. This page answers questions I'm asked, starting with this one...

Why write NON-fiction?

1. Because the market is there

Rivers of non-fiction run into the book market, yet the market is not full. For example, how many books does the world need about Abraham Lincoln? Would you believe 10,000+ different books? Enough Lincoln authors to start their own civil war.

Give ten competent writers the same background material and you'll get ten different books -- each from a shifted or even radical angle, and in different styles. Readers will be there for these books, especially readers who already own or have absorbed Lincoln books. More, more!

This never-full market means you can sanely hope to receive some money for non-fiction writing. Royalties could come in like delayed but comfortable wages, maybe for years -- even your whole life. Now and then Fortuna smiles and a startled non-fiction author flies up to the best-seller list. Rare, but it happens.

2. You'll be heard

Your stuff will get out there, with the prestige that rides on a book. A book always carries some prestige, because a publisher had to detect merit in it, then risk money by printing and promoting the book.

It has to be admitted that book publishers vary. The scale runs from world champs down to seedy, near-bankrupt operations. But at least someone liked your book and backed it -- and readers aren't usually that discerning about who published it. Warning: finding a traditional publisher can take saintly patience. Most likely you'll wait for months to hear from any publisher you contact, and they'll say, "Thank you for your submission. Unfortunately it does not suit our current requirements." So you have to keep trying (and trying and trying).

If you don't like all that waiting, you can publish and market the book yourself. And prestige still shines on you. Because you wrote a book and there it is. Boldness has its own genius. For example, look at print-on-demand from Amazon, at modest cost. And their Kindle at no cost to you. Someone I know has made $160,000 so far from their Kindle book. It was the only way it was published. No print edition at all. So you may amass more than just prestige.  (And by the way, Kindle is easy to set up. I did one recently that took less than an hour.)

Finally, if you only want to be heard and don't care at all about possibly making money, then you can offer the book for free. Just put it on the web as a downloadable epub file or even as a long web-page. One of my own free books sometimes jumps to 3000 downloads a day when some discussion group picks it up.

And, hey, it doesn't even matter if a pack of citizens bark at your book and try to bite it-- that's publicity! You've spoken and been attacked! It's like the media running to you with microphones and cameras.

3. It can be therapy

Some people want to write a book to get something off their chest. They've suffered or transgressed, then overcome, and want to talk about it. They may feel that their true story could also help others.

4. It can be a frolic to write it

If you're in the grip of a passion -- family history, fish genetics, microwave cooking, Babylonian water channels, rose gardening, analysis of conspiracy theories, piano tuning, commodity trading, bird psychology, Abraham Lincoln, debt collection, bamboo furniture, criminal slang -- and you're happiest when you're learning more or telling people about it... sure, write a book! Why not? You'll have a fulfilling, rollicking time. (This happy work may also boost your immune system and make you healthier, according to medical happiness experts.)

Let's say the book is in your head, but you can't get it out

Here's one infallible way to get started: ask a friend (or ghostwriter) to show up with a digital voice recorder and prompt you with questions. Make sure it's someone you're at ease with, so they can keep you talking.

The digital files can be sent to audio typists for transcription, if you can't type (or don't want to). They'll transcribe your eloquent story (or patchy mess) into word-processing files.

Don't be disturbed if the typescript that comes back seems chaotic. "That can't be how I talk!" (Remember: our whole splendid universe descended from chaos.) So a typed mess can be re-arranged, made orderly, filled in, fixed up. Once you get something on paper (or a computer screen), you'll end up with a book -- if you stick with it and get help when you need it. But if you don't get anything written, nothing will happen. Nothing can be made out of nothing.

Almost anyone can at least talk about their passion. Some talk eloquently, almost writing the text in the air. Some advance jerkily, branching and lurching all over the territory, with the story coming out as a patchwork.

Lots of non-fiction books are written where the 'author' (the person whose name later stands on the cover) did nothing but talk to a writer (a ghostwriter), then review the ghostwriter's drafts. Celebrities often 'write' books this way. The ghostwriter also researches things for these busy people ("... what's the name of that Chinese restaurant across from the Langley building?")

The author and ghostwriter also agree on a writing style, the tone of the thing. The author may hand the ghostwriter some favourite book and say that's how it should read -- "like that".

For example, that's the process I used to ghostwrite Dead Fish and Fat Cats.

If you've written part of the book yourself, but got stuck...

By typing in raw material yourself, or an entire first draft, you save steps (maybe by talking to a voice recorder, then transcribing and organising it all). You also save money. Don't grow melancholy if your first text is tangled. Unconnected episodes, data, quotes, factoids, with writing as rough as a high-school essay -- doesn't matter! Something has been written, so you can begin to sort it. If you stare at a printout long enough, even 500 shambolic pages, certain parts will seem to belong together and certain parts demand to come before other parts. It will start to settle into order, like crystals forming out of a solution, or the birth of the universe.

Even if you can't organise the mess yourself, you can get someone to do that for you. An outsider may be better at it, in cases of grave chaos, because an outsider isn't so close to the topic.

Once the text is organised

Let's jump to the pleasant period when the text has been worked on until it's well-organised. It flows with natural and compelling force. But say the writing is still rough. It doesn't "read well." Someone can fix that too! It may need sentence-by-sentence revision, to lift it to publishable quality. Or your text may only need light editing -- a dab here, a dab there. Either way, you're almost there. Keep going!

This may help: How to write things people will read -- professional writing tricks. Ways to get people to read and remember your memo, manual, letter, resume, brochure, report, thesis, or anything else. A PDF, with a few cartoons.

To sum up...

You may need help from one or more of the following:

  1. Someone to talk to while you chat about your topic. Meanwhile the voice recorder runs.
  2. An audio typist to transcribe the audio files into word-processing files.
  3. A ghostwriter to organise rough material into a book outline, or write the text for you, or maybe both.
  4. A practical and thoughtful critic, in case you wrote the whole book yourself but need to know if anything is missing, how well it reads to an outsider.
  5. Advice on how to publish it. A traditional publisher, or give it away on the web, or as an ebook with a price.

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