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Ask the Editor 5: Non-fiction submissions


Non-fiction submissions

Submitting a non-fiction book for publication is a broadly similar process to a fiction submission, but there are differences, and those differences are important to understand. In this article, I will look at non-fiction submissions and how they differ from their fictional counterparts.

One fundamental difference is that non-fiction books are quite often submitted to a publisher when they are still unfinished! Some non-fiction publishers, particularly those that cater to new or amateur writers, prefer a proposal to a finished book; this is because editorial involvement is seen as useful from this early stage. However, I'll largely assume for the purposes of this article that you have written your book and are now looking for a publisher; after all, that's how most writers work.

The basic elements of the submission package are the same for both classes of books. You will need to provide a query letter, a synopsis and sample chapters. Let's look at each of these elements in turn and consider how they specifically relate to non-fiction.

The letter is the most universal element of the package. This is because the overwhelming majority of publishers have the same expectations of the query letter whatever the genre. The letter should include the title and word count of the book; the genre (travel writing, history, biography) if it fits a genre; the target audience; a brief outline of the book; some biographical details, and details of any previous writing or publishing experience; and, optionally, a mention of competing or complementary titles in the genre.

A non-fiction synopsis, on the other hand, is a very different animal from its fictional cousins. Fiction, by definition, tells a story; a non-fiction book may do so too (think of a memoir or historical biography) but it's not generally the case. So the synopsis functions in a different way; instead of recounting a summarised version of the story, it offers a broad outline of the book and a more detailed breakdown of its contents, conventionally chapter by chapter.

So a non-fiction synopsis ought to look and sound different. It should first offer a broad outline of the book, and state if the author is writing from a particular standpoint (this is particularly important if the topic of the book is academic or contentious). Then, ideally, it should provide a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of the contents. Each chapter outline should be fairly brief; you are aiming to create a succinct document. Aim for one page or two pages in total (some publishers prefer one or the other of these options) and try not to land somewhere in between; for some reason, a one and a half-page synopsis is considered untidy in some quarters.
The sample chapters serve the same purpose as in fiction submissions; they show the publisher or agent that you can write well and have a good command of your material. They also give the publisher an idea of how marketable the book is likely to be.

However, it is also possible to submit sample chapters for a book that is not yet complete. If your submission is part proposal, your sample material allows the publisher to see that you are capable of writing and completing the book; that it will be a worthwhile exercise; and that there is some commercial or intellectual/academic potential in the book. In addition, it allows them to consider whether editorial input will be required from an early stage; this is more relevant in academic publishing, where editors - often subject specialists - regularly work with authors throughout the writing process.

So that's the conventional picture and, as you can see, it's fairly straightforward, though it requires a little thought on the part of the author. However, the advent of digital publishing and self-publishing has impacted the world of non-fiction just as much as fiction. Publishing websites are often portals now rather than interfaces; that is, they provide the gateway to the publishing process without having to resort to the traditional method of writing everything up and sending it in.
Some websites - usually those aimed at new writers - actually have a form where you can give the relevant information about your book. When I first saw one of these forms I felt slightly queasy, but on reflection it makes sense in two respects. First, it makes the process easier on the author; the form pretty much tells you what information is needed and in what order.

Secondly, it is a decent learning tool; whichever approach you adopt to publishing, you need to know what information to provide and how to set it out. The form shows you what information the publisher requires; thus you can use that framework as a template if you are creating a more conventional submission package.

This leads to a distinction worth considering; it may be that the online form is more useful if you are at the proposal stage of your writing project. The feedback you get from an online publisher, whether or not you opt to go with that publisher, is bound to be useful; so filling in a couple of online forms and looking at the responses may be a useful bellwether for your project's potential.If you have finished the book, the more conventional route may be better for you. You have all the material to hand, and the writing is complete; what you need now is constructive feedback and a chance to get the book to market. That is to say, you are in a similar position to a fiction author; you have a finished product and you want to place it.

The publishing world is still shuddering from the impact of digitisation; it may be some while before the dust settles and a new convention takes centre stage. Until then, you have plenty of choices in how you bring your book to market.

If you have any queries or suggestions for our new series, Ask the Editor, please email us.


When he isn't editing, Noel Rooney writes a regular column for Fortean Times magazine, and wilfully obscure poetry. He lives in South London with his family and rather too many animals.

Ask the Editor 1: What genre is my book?

Ask the Editor 2: the submission letter

Ask the Editor 3: Writing a synopsis

Ask the Editor 4: Why do I need you?

Ask the Editor 6: Writing non-fiction

Ask the Editor 7: Researching for a book

Ask the Editor 8: How I assess a manuscript

Ask the Editor 9: Why do I need a report?

Ask the Editor 10: Writing your blurb or cover copy

Ask the Editor 11: English language editing

Ask the Editor 12: The limitations of editing software

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