Many of us think of writers as those who produce novels, but we also produce non-fiction, magazine articles, short stories, research, and even business reports. Likewise there are technical writers whose job it is to understand company methodologies and document them. In addition, journalists sometimes write thrillers and some scientific writers have been known to produce some pretty good science fiction. Crossover is quite common. Therefore choosing a particular form of writing is not limiting; however, it may put food on the table.
Works of non-fiction, particularly textbooks, can fetch astronomical prices but the demand is low. A best seller such as Obama’s ‘A Promised Land’ is priced at thirty dollars on Amazon. Likewise another best seller, ‘Humans’ by Brandon Stanton costs thirty-one dollars. Even in the self-help category, a high sales-volume category, prices vary widely but plenty of works are available under twenty dollars.
While there is plenty of inexpensive fiction, very popular authors can command a lot of money for their works. For example Jeff Lemire’s ‘Sentient’ costs thirty dollars for the paperback version and close to eighty dollars for hardcover. Generally, however, selection is higher and prices lower in the fiction category.
From the perspective of someone trying to decide between fiction and non-fiction, what are some considerations?
Frequently non-fiction authors are more highly regarded. Non-fiction is considered “serious.” It teaches something tangible and reading it is occasionally perceived as a more productive use of time. In a world where productivity is key and even leisure time needs to be taken seriously, non-fiction has a better reputation. Some people brag about only reading non-fiction and regard reading fiction as a frivolous waste of time. To a large extent, they’re wrong, but it’s impossible to convince them of that. Therefore setting aside top tier authors, non-fiction writers are more highly regarded than individuals who write fiction. If status is your objective, being able to point to a published work of non-fiction may be what you want.
On the other hand, fiction caters to a recreational reader. This is not to say it’s impossible to learn from works of fiction; however, what is imparted is generally intangible, perhaps insight into the human condition or a deeper understanding of the psyche. It may be argued the emerging importance of interpersonal skills in today’s business world might better be served through fiction since character and relationships are key to most novels. Nevertheless, works of fiction are seldom taken seriously in all circles. There are exceptions. Award-winning novels, particularly those winning the Giller or Booker prize, command a large readership of intellectuals. However such books are more the exception than the norm.
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Considerably more research is necessary for works of non-fiction than for fiction, and details need to be taken seriously. Small mistakes may prove costly and an author shamed for falling short of perfection. Less research is needed for novels but some is often still mandatory. No author wants to make a major gaff. For example in movies from the sixties and seventies, computers were almost always depicted as tape drives. People working in computer science winced whenever that happened. Avoiding that sort of thing requires some attention to detail but not as much as required should the subject be auto mechanics, for example.
Both fiction and non-fiction sales have grown over time but non-fiction seems to growing faster. Between 2014 and 2019, non-fiction revenue grew by 22.8%. I couldn’t find data on the growth of fiction over that time period; however, I did come across a comment suggesting that annual revenue by author had declined. It would seem if commercial success is important to you, writing non-fiction is a better choice.
Within the non-fiction category, memoirs and biographies top the list in terms of sales. Next come self-help books, religion and spirituality, health and fitness, dieting, and finally, politics.
For fiction, higher sales are found among eBooks, and this makes sense seeing as it’s easier to carry an eReader or phone around than a hard-cover book. Many readers like to read on busses, trains, or planes, so eBooks are quite convenient. Topping the list are romance, women’s fiction, and teen novels. They account for 25% of the fiction market. Having ripped, bare-chested, hunky men on the cover seems to appeal to a segment of the population prepared to purchase their reading material as opposed to getting it from public libraries.
Ultimately it depends on what you want to achieve. If you want money and status, non-fiction provides an easier path to them. On the other hand, if you are a story-teller at heart, fiction is a better medium. You may still acquire both fame and wealth, but the probability is lower. Whatever you choose, give it your best shot and there’s a good chance you’ll be satisfied with what you produce.
This guest post was contributed by Doug Lewars. Doug is not necessarily over the hill but he’s certainly approaching the summit. He enjoys writing, reading, fishing and sweets of all sorts. He has published thirteen books on Smashwords.com.
There are some excellent points here, but also a few points I’d like to quibble on: I’m a fiction writer, but my ‘day job’ is as a freelance writer for a ghostwriting agency (children’s stories), a content mill (where I’ve established myself with a few excellent customers, having done my time churning out the lower value work), and a couple of website owners who get me to update their pages from time to time. I didn’t make a deliberate choice between non-fiction and fiction: I took what was going and work equally hard at both types of writing.
Which leads me to continue: research must be painstaking in any kind of writing: the writer of this piece conflates movies with books: I would put money on it that the book mentioning any of those celluloid tape-driven computers would have described them more accurately on the page: tapes look good on film, that’s why they would have been used.
The fact that authors are earning less is not a sign that fiction reading has declined. In fact, more people are using open platforms to give away their books, and this has encouraged both buyers and platforms to pay less for texts. Which is a huge shame, and one reason I’m extremely wary of self-publishing platforms: I put a lot of effort into my fiction writing, doing hours of research, minutely detailed editing and proofing and no way am I giving that away – perhaps because I have been paid for my non-fiction work for over a decade?
Finally, a word about those high-priced textbooks (and the prices the author cites are quite low: there’s a flash fiction textbook – one of the very first – going for nearly $200 on Amazon! A ridiculous price!) – it’s often for meeting the criteria of an academic appointment: if you have tenure or a lecturing/ tutoring job, then you need to be published every so often. I’m not sure of the whole story there, being a baby academic myself, but those books can’t be sold too cheaply or they lose their academic heft. (Something like that anyway!)
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