Sunday, February 8, 2009

How to Publish Commercial Nonfiction...

Dr. Donovan’s advice: Take a lot of drugs first. Hard drugs. Cocaine, heroine, crystal meth. You have to go hard because if you’re lucky, they might give you brain damage and your IQ could drop about a good 10 to 15 points. This way you’ll be in the correct state of mind to write something the book business will deem of interest to the general reading masses.

I’m writing this because one of my former students asked me this same question. Since she’s a pretty bright kid, the drugs are in order. My answer’s prompted not so much by my usual aimless wanderings through the local Borders, but the latest romantic comedy that opened this weekend: He’s Just Not that Into You.
There’s just something about the existence of that movie that annoyed me and got me thinking. I realized I wasn’t so much annoyed by the fact that someone would make a film based on a relationship advice book, but by the fact that the book is so emblematic of the trivial, pointless, redundant pabulum you have to wade through in a big bookstore to find some really worthwhile nonfiction that might educate you, give you a new perspective to think about, or just open your eyes to some interesting and cool new facts.

For example, just wander through your bookstore in the near future and see what you find. Here’s some of the stuff I found, and stuff that left me feeling like an angrier and more unsatisfied reader as I left the store:

Books called “sensitive” and “life-changing.” I hate today’s books that are called sensitive or life-changing. They are most often about people dealing with the same things we all must handle every day. The problem is that these books make the random frustrations of every day life sound like epic obstacles you deserve a medal for dealing with. A few words to the authors of these things: you have to struggle to deal with a breakup, a divorce, your kid going to college, your kid moving home after college because he can’t get a job, your husband cheating, your wife cheating, or you gained ten pounds and can’t lose it? Welcome to the club!

If you’re dealing with any of the problems described above, I am really not interested in reading about it. If publishers pay a great deal of money to get books like that produced and marketed, they will not recoup their losses from me.

I am incapable of giving a damn about how a woman ate her way through Italy and Indonesia following a divorce.

I won’t read books about people and their animals. You get a lot of these in the wake of “Marley and Me.” After the success of the film, you will get a lot more. I saw books about people and their dogs, their cats, and even a “sensitive” and “life changing” book about a researcher and her relationship with a parrot. I had a dog once too. Just like millions of people. I really loved him. He was a big black lab named Einstein. Then, just like all dog-owners, I had to see Einstein grow old, sick and die. I was really depressed afterward. I’m not writing a book about it and I really don’t care to read about anyone else’s dog experience either.

Now let me qualify this by saying that I will read all of Dean Koontz’s fiction about dogs. Koontz, you see, is God and he is the greatest living novelist in America. I would pay to read Dean Koontz’s grocery list.

I also suggest you look at – but don’t buy – books with pastel-colored covers. The copy on these covers will usually look like a high school girl’s wavy cursive. These things are usually either “sensitive” or “quirky.” Most often they are about eating or buying shoes. Pastel covers are also usually found on “chick lit” fiction. Chick lit is invariably about women buying shoes in New York. Chick Lit is usually described as being “light,” "fluffy," or “frothy.” I want my yogurt light and fluffy, not my literature.

Today I saw a pastel-colored book about the importance of having conversations with people. I’m not making this up.

Another author – pastel cover on her book – tells me the importance of writing in good cursive. Thanks for the tip.

Books like these are the literary equivalent of elevator music. Unfortunately, publishers and agents think this is what the average American wants to read. This is the sort of trivial, inconsequential crap that will get multimillion dollar marketing and advertising budgets. And huge advances for their writers.

Seeing all this taking up space in a bookstore is almost as annoying as seeing so much self-help non-fiction and completely worthless memoirs of people of absolutely no distinction.

Most self-help advice I hate because it comes in either of two varieties:

One explains how to deal with the unfairness of a world where every single person you meet does not automatically love you and want to have sex with you.

The other category makes up the massive glut of weight loss advice. Why are these things being published? Or, more importantly, why do people buy them? It’s obvious most of the readers of these things don’t follow the advice between the covers. My free weight loss advice: Stop binging on junk food and get some exercise.

As for the memoirs/biographies: Similar to the points above about people dealing with breakups, divorces, dead pets, and weight gain.

Oh, and then we have the biographies of every flash in the pan, flavor of the month celebrity. I generally have no problems with people writing biographies of accomplished performers, directors and authors whose work stood the test of time or had a major impact on the culture. I own biographies of Marlon Brando, Clint Eastwood, Ian Fleming, James Dean and, naturally, Dean Koontz. When I was writing my book on Hollywood and Asian action films, I bought biographies of Jackie Chan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jet Li, John Woo, Bruce Lee, and Sylvester Stallone. Chan, Lee, Stallone and Eastwood are people who made a long-lasting impact. Unfortunately, if you go to the bookstore today, you’ll also find biographies of Tila Tequila and Sanjaya Malakar!!! (hardcover prices of $26 and $20, respectively) I doubt that when the list of the important early 21st century performers will be written, the names Tila Tequila or Sanjaya Malakar will be on it.

Since it’s a fact that most books barely break even, I write this as an open challenge to the acquisitions people and literary agents who decided to buy/represent manuscripts about Tila Tequila and Sanjaya. Show me an earnings report that proves these books actually turned a profit.

But, of course, if your IQ is somewhere around your belt size, keep writing! You might have a future in nonfiction publishing.


  1. haha classic... this is a good read... im currently writing a book and im trying to break from what the people see as a hard hit. True words Dr. Donovan.

  2. Check out my website for a different nonfiction book. It gets released on 02/10/2010.