Although nonfiction is a growing field in both children’s and adult publishing, it is an expensive, highly competitive, and “disposable” market, for information must be continually updated. If you want to be a published nonfiction writer, there is no quick road to success. First, and foremost, in order to be competitive you must write very well. You must also be very curious and/or very passionate about the topic on which you write, for beyond the actual act of writing your book, you will have to commit a great deal of time to researching and checking information.

Take a look at any bestseller list, and you will find that nonfiction publishing covers a wide range of book genres including: history and biography, politics, psychology, health and science, gardening and cooking, travel, design and the arts, sports and hobbies, philosophy, and religion. This article offers general suggestions and guidelines for nonfiction publication, for no one article can possibly cover the specifics of publishing in any one nonfiction genre.

For information on developing your craft, submission guidelines, finding an agent, and writer’s organizations and resources refer to Advice on Getting Published: Fiction.

Assuming you write well and that you are deeply interested in your nonfiction topic, the following suggestions are offered:

  • Unless you already have a topical book in the works, avoid “hot” trendy topics. By the time your book proposal finds its way to an editor and is read, accepted, written, edited, rewritten, the book and cover designed, and ultimately published, the “hot” trend will be ice cold. If, coincidently, you are near completion, or have completed an unpublished manuscript whose topic is suddenly in the news, contact a reputable agent immediately.
  • Once you have decided on the subject you wish to write about, find out how many books have already been published on your topic. For example, hundreds of books have been published about Abraham Lincoln. Unless you have new information, an interesting angle, a unique perspective, or exceptional expertise to offer on the topic of Lincoln, your chances of publication are not good.
  • You will also need to know which publishing companies have published books on your topic and when those books were published. If a company has recently published a book on antique dolls, they will probably not be publishing another book on that topic for a couple of years, so you will want your book on antique dolls sent to a different publisher.
  • Thoroughly research your topic, using primary source materials whenever possible. When using secondary sources, make sure you do not plagiarize other people’s work. Keep thorough records and notes on all your sources and collect interesting visual materials that can help enlarge the readers’ understanding of your work. Keep in mind that if you use maps, photographs, drawings, etc. in your book, you, not your publishing company, will probably have to pay for the rights to use those materials.
  • To submit a work of nonfiction for publication, you need not write the entire book. Most agents and small publishers prefer you to send a book proposal. Your book proposal package should include the following items. First, write a great cover letter which states both your writing credentials and any particular knowledge or experience that gives you professional expertise on the topic of your proposed book. In your cover letter you will also want to cite your sources, as well as estimate the length of your work, and submit a timetable for its completion. You may also want to include information you have garnered on what is available, or not available, on your topic in the current market place. For example: if you are proposing a new book on Florence Nightingale, a publisher will be very interested that there has been no children’s middle-grade biography on Miss Nightingale published since 1972. You will also need to provide a compelling three to five paragraph summary of your book and a chapter by chapter outline. Last, you need to include three very polished chapters for your proposed book, chapters which showcase your writing quality and style. In those chapters, you also need to show that you have the ability to communicate with your target readership, especially if your readership is children. The entire package should convince an agent or editor of your enthusiasm for the subject. If you want your package returned, you must enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope for its return. And, make sure your contact information is on everything you send.
  • Today, most major publishing companies do not accept unsolicited materials, so you will have to submit your book proposal to an agent. A few small, independent publishers do accept proposals, but contact them first and find out their submission guidelines.
  • Don’t let a few rejections get you down. Keep submitting your materials. If, after a time, your book proposal is not accepted, and you still feel strongly about the topic of your book — rethink the problem. Play with your idea and see if the topic could be better approached from a different perspective. Or, instead of writing a book, write a few articles about your topic and submit them to appropriate periodicals. Article publication will strengthen your position when attempting book publication.

Many writing students want to know what happens when your book proposal is accepted by an agent or a publisher. Do the editors write to you? Do you get an email? The answer is they call you on the phone. One of the most exciting moments for any editor, and every writer, is that phone call. But that is only the beginning, for now you have to write the book!

© 2015 The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance