It’s November 1: Let the Business of Nonfiction Writing Begin!

Are your hands posed over the keyboard ready to begin? Are you waiting, as if for the gun to go off so you can start writing your book, e-book, article, essay, query letter, proposal, or whatever work of nonfiction you’ve chosen to create during the Write Nonfiction in November (WNFiN) 2009 challenge? No need to wait. There’s no starter’s gun or whistle for this challenge. It’s well past 12:00 a.m. on November 1 anyway, so go ahead…write!

That’s right. When the hands of the clock moved past midnight on Halloween, it became not just November 1 but the first day of the third annual WNFiN challenge. Maybe you sat down in your costume and began working on your nonfiction project right then and there, playing a little trick on your fellow nonfiction writers by getting a head start on the day. Remember, though…In this challenge you compete against no one but yourself. No one looks over your shoulder or counts your words. You are accountable to yourself, and only one rule exists in this challenge: You “win” by starting and finishing a work of nonfiction in 30 days. However, only you will know if you met the challenge successfully—unless you choose to share that information (or your progress along the way) with fellow writers in the WNFiN Writer’s forum or in blog post comments.

With that said, let’s get on to the business of nonfiction writing for today, by which I mean the topic of today’s blog post. Let me preface today’s topic by saying that I will grace you with my blog posts just two or three times all month, because this year I managed to line up 27 or 28 great expert guest bloggers. I will, however, be introducing each of them and making some comments on their topics each day. Today, I’m going to write a bit about the actual “business” of nonfiction writing.

Over the course of the next 30 days you may find that this blog seems overly focused on business-related topics. You’ll find numerous experts discussing how to promote yourself, how to sell you books and articles, how to land a literary agent, and how to create e-books or self-publish a book. You’ll find some articles on writing and editing, but these will be farther and fewer between. This may leave you wondering if this blog actually is about writing or about business. And therein lies the rub.

For the nonfiction writer, the art of writing is superseded by the business of writing. In fact, to become successful as a nonfiction writer, you must spend about 85 percent of your time (if not more) on business, by which I mean marketing and promotion. Yes…that means less time writing and more time promoting yourself and your writing. This is not to say that you don’t need to write well, which is why this blog will still offer plenty of tips on writing and editing. The need to write well is a given.

Most writers balk at this ratio. “I’m a writer,” they say. “Writers write.” That’s true, but if they don’t focus on the business of writing, they don’t get published.

If you are writing essays or memoirs, the writing to business of writing ratio might be a bit lower. You will have to spend a good bit of your time sending out query letters to publications or agents, working on and sending out book proposals, etc. If you write journalistic articles, you must query magazine and newspaper editors on a regular basis.  If you are a nonfiction writer who would like to publish a book, however, you can write until you are blue in the face, and if you haven’t developed a “platform,” by which I mean a built-in market to which to sell your books (a huge mailing list, large numbers of followers in social networks, expert status, or a reputation as a speaker, podcaster, blogger, television or radio guest), no publisher will ever purchase your book. In fact, no agent will represent you either. You may need to increase your ratio so that the time spent on business-related activities actually goes up to 90 or 95 percent—at least until you build your platform to a presentable size.

For this reason, the WNFiN blog this year will contain lots of tips and information on the business side of nonfiction writing. You may not want to read about it…but read these posts anyway, and resign yourself to taking these experts’ advice. Do so if for no other reason than this: You’re going to have to take on the business side of nonfiction writing at some point or another.

While any writer who wants to sell their writing has to become a business person to some degree, the nonfiction writer who wants to become the author of a book will have to do this to become published. Unless you enjoy status as a well-know author with a great sales track record, whether you choose to self-publish your book or become traditionally published, you will have to devote your time to the business end of writing. You will have to promote yourself and your book. Even the larger publishing houses will not do all the promotion for you. Even if you hire a publicist, you will still have to do some work yourself to help sell and promote your book. To create a successful book, which means one with steady sales over time, you must constantly promote yourself and the book itself. And no one can do that as well as the author–you. Nor will any publishing company put as much time and money into making that happen as the author–you.

So, resign yourself to the fact that as a non-fiction author you must devote much of your time to the business of writing. Set aside several hours a day for writing and double that number of hours (at least) for business-related writing activities. Don’t be surprised when a publisher or agent asks you, “What are you willing to do every day to promote your book?” (I’ve had a publisher ask me this exact question.) Instead, be prepared. Be able to say, “I’m already doing these things every day, and I will continue to do them…and more.”

And don’t feel like devoting yourself to the business of writing represents wasted time. In fact, you are developing a readership for your work. Isn’t that what all writers want anyway? Readers?

I was lamenting to a friend the fact that I have yet to land a traditional publishing contract. I had just finished telling him that I have over 10,000 visitors to the website related to my book topics each month ( and an average of 3,000 readers per month to the blog that covers topics also related to my books ( He found it interesting that I thought of myself as an unsuccessful “author,” despite my many published articles, essays and booklets. He pointed out that I have more readers—that I am reaching and helping more people—every day than I probably would with any traditionally published book. He was right. Why and how did I accomplish that? I knew I needed to develop a platform to secure a literary agent or a traditional publishing contract, and I devoted my time—almost eight years—to building that platform in any and every way I could. (By the way, I do have a literary agent, and she thinks my platform rocks…)

You can build a platform, too. It actually can be a lot of fun. It can feel spiritual and rewarding. Yes, it’s time consuming. I admit it, but it’s worth it—if you are serious about becoming a published nonfiction writer. The difference between serious nonfiction writers and those who just say they are serious lies in how much time and energy they spend on the business of nonfiction writing. How serious are you?

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