May 8

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How and Why Nonfiction Authors Write

By Boni Wagner-Stafford

May 8, 2021

authors, indie authors, nonfiction, publishing, self-publishing, traditional publishing, Writing

As a writer, you’ve probably had moments in the process of writing and publishing a book where you got stuck and asked yourself, “Do other authors every experience this problem? Is it just me? Is there something wrong with me?”

Well, you can take comfort in the fact that there most probably are more authors than you think out there who have been in the same boat. How do we know this? It’s because someone asked, “How and why do nonfiction authors write?” and then launched a survey to dig deeper.

Anne Janzer

That someone is Anne Janzer. Anne is an author coach and marketing practitioner. She is also a nonfiction author, so she knows first-hand how daunting but ultimately fulfilling the book-writing journey can be. In fact, four of the five books she’s written and published – including her latest, Get the Word Out: Write a Book That Makes a Difference – are about writing and the writing process.

As part of the research for Get the Word Out, Anne wanted to talk to other nonfiction authors about their experiences. However, she quickly realized that she needed a more scalable way of getting information than simply interviewing other authors. So, she created a survey, conducted it in the summer of 2020, and got 435 responses, giving her invaluable insight into how nonfiction authors write.  

Who Were the Respondents?

Those who responded to Anne’s survey varied from highly experienced authors who have several books with their name on to authors who are still in the process of creating their first book. In fact, non-published authors made up 38.6 percent of the respondents, while 24.4 percent had only published one book so far. Most of these authors wrote business, career advice, or self-help books and the vast majority listed their professional or personal experience as their main sources of expertise.

Why Do Nonfiction Authors Write?

When those surveyed had to list a single, primary reason for writing their book, 39.3 percent said that they write to serve others. When they could choose multiple reasons, nearly 80 percent included serving others as a reason. Personal fulfilment, business goals, and personal goals were other major motivators.

What About Unpublished Writers?

Anne had a few questions specifically for unpublished writers to find out how they were faring on their journey. Most – 28 percent each – were in either the idea stage or busy with their first drafts. In addition, the majority – 30.4 percent – didn’t know yet how they were going to publish their book and were still trying to work out their options in a publishing landscape that is changing fast. By far the most common obstacle to completing their book was finding the time to write, followed by getting motivated.

Answers from Published Authors

There were several survey questions for published authors too, and these produced fascinating results:

  • Most published authors – 34.1 percent of them – were self-published, while 32.6 percent published through a major publisher. However, the number of authors choosing hybrid publishers is growing.  
  • For the vast majority of published authors, the book took more time than they expected.
  • While writing an outline helps guide the writing, only 5.6 percent of authors said that the final book exactly matched their initial outline. More than half made minor changes while a little over a third made major changes.
  • The majority – 59.8 percent – of published authors started writing before they had completed their research. Only 16.5 percent first completed their research and then started writing. The rest thought that had completed their research, only to find during the writing process that there was more research to be done.
  • The experience of publishing a book is a fulfilling one: only about 11 percent of authors surveyed felt that it didn’t meet their personal goals and expectations.
  • Of the authors who wrote for professional reasons, 83 percent felt that publishing the book had met or exceeded their career or business goals.

What Surprised Nonfiction Authors About Publishing A Book?

Anne also included some open-ended questions in the survey. The first of these was what they found most surprising about publishing a book. About 14 percent of the replies were about the publishing process but varied from being disappointed with their publisher to being pleasantly surprised.   

Marketing – especially the amount of it involved – was another area that many authors found surprising. Here, Anne points out that if you go the indie or hybrid publishing route, you have more control than with a traditional publisher. You also have more things you can experiment with, so that you have more options to find a sustainable marketing groove that you also enjoy.   

What Would Nonfiction Authors Do Differently Next Time?

Anne asked the authors surveyed what they would do differently next time. Here three main themes emerged:

  • More than a quarter of the responses mentioned marketing and promotion. Authors said that they would allow more time for marketing and promotion, start with the process earlier and have a better marketing plan.
  • Around 15 percent of responses had to do with making a different publishing decision next time. As Anne says, “The saying ‘The grass is greener on the other side of the fence,’ there’s a little bit of that with publishing.” Many authors expressed that next time, they would choose a different way to publish.
  • Time was another common theme among the responses, with authors saying they would give themselves more times for different parts of the process. Many also said that they would start writing sooner.

Is It All Worth It?

As most of the authors surveyed found out, writing and publishing a book is hard work and a long, arduous process. Is it worth the trouble, then? Maybe this respondent sums it up best:

“There is still magic in being a ‘published author’. Now I realize that many of the rewards are internal.”

Listen to Anne Explore Why Nonfiction Authors Write

Anne was our guest on The Empowered Author podcast. You can listen to the episode here (and we encourage you to subscribe, give a rating, and leave a review — helpful to us, yes, but more importantly it’s helpful to other authors looking for resources.)

What do you think?

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