When Will the eBook Expressway Explode Sales for Nonfiction – as It Has for Fiction?

Guest Expert: Laurel Marshfield

eBook Writer
In the mid-1960s, the Beatles recorded “Paperback Writer,” a song that could be said to mirror the controlled frenzy currently surrounding eBooks. Why so?

With its good-natured satire, the song lends a soundtrack to the hopes that many authors have for this new publishing medium. And if the Beatles had written their hit tune today, surely they would have titled it “eBook Writer.”

While the Fab Four here underscore the uncertainty of a would-be paperback writer’s life, eBookville’s road to success is no sure thing, either (largely because few things in publishing ever are). And yet.

Beyond that inherent “iffiness” — the more-than-partial antidote for which is a good book and persistent, focused promotion — there is an important subtext to the eBook success stories we’ve seen so far.

eBooks, the Subtext

And that is: a striking disparity exists between the relatively tepid eBook sales that quite a few authors have encountered, and the absolutely sizzling eBook sales that a select few have enjoyed. I’m thinking, of course, of such giddy superstar success stories as Amanda Hocking, John Locke, Joe Konrath, and several others. Not coincidentally, all are authors of genre fiction. (For more, see: http://bit.ly/vAkOPU)

But there’s also a second subtext within the larger one. The astonishing, wealth-making sales figures that the above few authors have garnered are counterbalanced by something else — something difficult not to notice.

Exactly zero nonfiction authors have seen eBook sales that are comparable to the sales that these genre fiction authors have attracted.

What the Statistics Say

Looking at this phenomenon from a statistical perspective, a relatively recent Sourcebooks.com post (http://bit.ly/t6Nucm) cited some revealing figures.

In the first quarter of 2011, adult nonfiction print books represented 42.3% of total sales (by far the biggest slice of the sales pie). Adult print fiction, by contrast, accounted for a much smaller 25.2% in the same period — a percentage slightly smaller than even juvenile print sales at 25.5%.

But in eBook sales for the same period, those figures were turned inside out. Nearly three-quarters of the eBook sales pie goes to adult fiction, while adult nonfiction eBooks garner a bit less than the quarter-pie that is left. The remaining sliver, meanwhile, goes to juvenile eBook sales — fiction and nonfiction, both.

Nonfiction eBooks at a Disadvantage

The question that naturally arises is Why. Why are nonfiction digital sales so comparatively miniscule, when print sales in nonfiction are, and have been for years, the most lucrative slice of the overall book market pie?

The answer may be hidden in plain sight — in the reason why people use eReaders in the first place, and the current limitations of eBooks themselves.

As the above Sourcebooks post pointed out, readers using eReaders seem to prefer books that tell stories; i.e., fiction and narrative nonfiction (history, memoir, biography, and the like). That’s because this largely text-only medium is ideal for a “linear” — beginning-to-end — reading experience. But it’s not so ideal for reading that inspires a non-linear approach (comparing and contrasting parts, referring to previous bits, making notes in the margin for future reference).

In other words, readers turn to eBooks primarily for entertainment, and “revert” to print books for enlightenment – for information. They are not misguided.

Digital formatting hasn’t evolved enough to support the graphic features that most nonfiction books need in order to make their points (tables, graphs, pictures, and diagrams). That is, until very recently.

Will Kindle Format 8 Make a Difference?

In the fall of last year, Amazon released Kindle Format 8 at the same time that it launched its new eReader tablet, the Kindle Fire (conveniently, the Kindle Fire displays eBooks with KF8 features).

According to Amazon, this new formatting capability is their response to the fact that earlier generations of the Kindle could not handle graphically rich or complexly formatted books, and that barred some book categories from publishing eBooks (at least for the Kindle).

But now, “KF8 allows publishers to create great-looking books in all categories,” says the Kindle Direct Publishing page explaining the innovation, “particularly those that require rich formatting and design, such as technical & engineering books and cookbooks.” Additional features built into KF8 will produce “fixed layout books like graphic novels, comics, and kids’ books.” (For more, see: http://bit.ly/xz9e0y)

Will KF8 make a significant difference for non-narrative nonfiction authors?
It could. Though only the Kindle Fire supports KF8, at the moment, and it will take time for authors and publishers to start using this new tool. Especially as its complexities represent a far higher formatting barrier to entry than KDP (Kindle Digital Publishing) did, and that may discourage some self-publishing nonfiction authors from seeking an eReader audience. Especially as the print realm is where readers expect to find the nonfiction they’re looking for.

Meanwhile, some publishers of reference nonfiction have turned to websites (think Writers Market); they’ve also turned to apps in order capitalize on the ever-growing appetite for digital content. And children’s picture book publishers have used apps to create digital picture books, thus circumventing the limitations of (non-KF8) eBook formatting.

Time Will Tell

It’s impossible to know whether Amazon’s KF8 will turn things around for non-narrative nonfiction authors who want to enter the eBook marketplace.
But such authors will still suffer an intractable disadvantage vis á vis digital publishing — because, unlike genre fiction, they can’t capitalize on a lengthy series of books to create a cascading income stream.

Even if nonfiction authors write a long list of books, those titles will not be part of an evolving story, the way a mystery or thriller series is. And, unfortunately for them, that’s where the money is in eBook publishing – in the series.

So Why Not Innovate?

But maybe all is not lost. The current impasse in non-narrative nonfiction eBooks could simply mean that it’s time to innovate around it. What might nonfiction authors do to attract a digital audience?

One idea is to group-publish an anthology that explores ten or twenty authors’ methods of handling a single self-help problem (time management, say). A reader looking for time management solutions could buy their $0.99 text-only eBook anthology, scan the methods for one that appeals, and purchase that author’s print book at a discount (using a special code).

Publishing an eBook anthology would allow nonfiction authors to group-promote their offerings and attract readers they wouldn’t otherwise reach. Once attracted, those readers could be given an incentive to migrate over to the traditional book format that has long displayed nonfiction content best: ye olde print book.

Got Ideas?

Since authors are a fairly creative group, it’s probably only a matter of time before the nonfiction authors among them figure out new ways to market their titles to an eBook readership. Meanwhile, though, can you help out?

Can you think of alternative ways for nonfiction authors to get into the eBook marketplace? If you can, please post your ideas in the Comments section below. Nonfiction authors worldwide will be truly grateful.

Laurel Marshfield is a professional writer, developmental editor (aka “book doctor”), and ghostwriter who helps authors shape, develop, and refine their book manuscripts for publication. She offers manuscript evaluation, developmental editing, co-writing, collaboration, ghostwriting, book coaching, and consultation for authors.

Her blog publishes inspiration and advice for the author’s journey: Blue Horizon Communications Blog And her free eBook, available for newsletter signup (see the upper right-hand corner of her homepage) is titled: I Need to Be a Bestselling Author – Is That True?: The Five-Destination Roadmap to Authorship.
On Twitter, you can find her at: @BookEditorLM

Guest posting on BookBuzzr blogs will definitely boost your business and possibly earn you more clients. However, your writing must be unique and engaging to the audience. If you have an article or even just a topic in mind, relevant to writing, publishing, selling, or marketing books, we would love to see your proposed content! Feel free to submit Here!
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17 thoughts on “When Will the eBook Expressway Explode Sales for Nonfiction – as It Has for Fiction?

  1. Hi Laurel,

    Great article! I’ve been pondering the same thought, myself. How do non-fiction authors make the most of this ebook revolution?

    One aspect of epublishing that’s helpful for many non-fiction authors is that ebooks make great lead generators for higher priced programs, products, and services. For $0.99 someone can get to know you, and if they resonate with what they read they’ll be more likely to go check out your six week downloadable e-class to have some virtual hand-holding as they put what you’ve taught them into practice. Or better yet, they’ll hire you as a coach to do some real hand holding.

    And non-fiction ebooks are ripe for creating a series! If someone’s passionate about a particular topic and they like your take on it, then they’ll buy more ebooks on the same topic from you. Since ebooks can be any length, you could even take what normally would be one book divided into three main sections, and publish those sections as ebooks #1, #2 and #3. Or you could create a “Chicken Soup for the Soul” type series where you apply your main helpful or healing technique to different aspects of a person’s life, relationships or business.

    Ebooks are a boon to both fiction and non-fiction authors, but they have different challenges and gifts for each. This is such an EXCITING and AMAZING time to be an author, and it’s just getting better and better.

    Thanks for another great article!

    Julie Isaac

  2. Laurel, success in ebooks shouldn’t be measured by sales alone. This is perhaps more true of nonfiction, where the author might have different marketing goals and a different idea of what success is. I work with a lot of health professionals to create ebooks for consumers, but the authors don’t expect to make money. Instead, they want to get a message out quickly and inexpensively by having an ebook people can buy after hearing them give a talk or reading something on their website or blog. I’m working now with a hospice nurse whose goal is to provide practical advice from the bedside for family members caring for a dying loved one. It’s not the sort of book that could ever be a bestseller, but it’s a valuable book that should earn back its cost and maybe make some money that will be donated to charity.

  3. This is an awesome article.

    First, I occasionally teach and students have begun to note that 1) they buy the books on Kindle, and 2) they can’t read them properly, also on Kindle.

    Second, as a writer, my output so far is non-fiction, and will be largely so. But the attention is rightfully on story. But I write narratively, and … still no go. At least not yet.


  4. Hi, Julie — Thanks so much for your very useful perspective and suggestions for making eBook publishing work for nonfiction authors.

    Using eBooks as lead generators or creating a series of them by dividing a bigger book into shorter eBooks makes perfect sense — since most non-narrative nonfiction authors are selling their expertise, and have many more ways of offering their knowledge and experience, not simply via the written word.

    Just as an aside, since posting the above about nonfiction eBooks, I came across a post that compiles 2011 statistics for self-published eBook sales that you and the readers of this blog may find interesting. Here’s the link:


    Thanks so much for offering your wonderful insights!

    Laurel Marshfield

  5. Hi, Sheila — That’s a really good point: Books can succeed in their “mission” without necessarily being a huge commercial success.

    And perhaps non-narrative nonfiction could be seen as having a different purpose than genre fiction does — to inform primarily, rather than to entertain primarily — so nonfiction authors might then publish eBooks with other than purely commercial goals.

    Thanks so much for your thoughtful contribution.

    Laurel Marshfield

  6. Hi, Paul — Thanks so much for your kind words about the post.

    As for attracting eBook sales, it’s usually important to promote your book to groups of people who will be interested in your subject. If they don’t know it exists, they can’t purchase it.

    You might also try reducing your price point to $.099, at the same time that you promote it to football fans. Most people will take a chance for that price. Anything more, and seems like real money. Good luck with your book and future books.

    Laurel Marshfield

  7. As the person who came up with the ePub conversion process for our company, I can tell you part of the problem is technical.

    First, I know there is a lot of hoopla with color ebook readers like the iPad and the Kindle Fire, but most Kindle owners (and that will be your largest market by far) have the cheap, basic model. – capable of displaying only gray-scale images on an screen roughly 3.5″ x 5″. So any non-fiction book with color images – much less any kind of complexity to those images – is out.

    Second, the ePub standard – essentially the language you use to make these things – cannot accommodate complex formatting very easily. So things like tables, charts, and graphs are a nightmare to convert.

    Third, consider that the people buying a dedicated reading device are most likely buying it for entertainment. Hence fiction is the kind of books they are looking for.

    And finally, there is no way to sell two versions of a title to specific ebook device owners. For example, I could make a version of a book that took advantage of all the features of the new Kindle Fire, but I cannot currently sell it to ONLY Kindle Fire owners through Amazon’s system.

    The cheapest, easiest thing to convert right now are text-only books with straightforward, non-complex formatting. That is essentially novels.

    Co-owner, BookLocker.com
    Co-author, 90 DAYS OF PROMOTING YOUR BOOK ONLINE: Your Book’s Daily Marketing Plan
    Twitter: @90daysofpromo

  8. A thought-provoking article, and the comments are just as interesting. In fact I was speaking with a business colleague on Monday about the concept of converting a weighty non-fiction book into ebook format. We concluded that it will readily break down into a series of ebooks, just like Julie suggested. We also decided that if a reader is hooked by the introduction and overview, they would be likely to do one of two things. Either they will then download the rest of the books to their reader, or they will want the hardcopy version. Either way, my colleague will benefit.
    She has the additional benefit of having a ready audience for her books, as she teaches in the alternative health sector, which should boost her sales compared with those who have no ready market.

  9. Hi, Richard — Thanks so much for commenting.

    Essentially, it sounds as if you’re not holding out any hope for authors of non-narrative nonfiction to rise above the text-only barrier in order to reach an eBook readership, then?

    You see the eReader market as inevitably tied to entertainment, not information, and feel that more sophisticated eReaders capable of handling KF8, say, are only going to be bought up by the few, not the many — and are therefore not all that useful for authors trying to reach a bigger readership?

    You may be right. It certainly seems so.

    But, at the same time, as both Julie Isaac and Sheila Buff (above) pointed out, there are uses to which a nonfiction author can put his/her eBooks that make the whole enterprise worthwhile. And that may be the best boost nonfiction authors can expect to get from eBooks. After all, they DO sell better than fiction in print.

    Thanks again for commenting.

    Laurel Marshfield

  10. Hi, Ruth — That’s s wonderful story about the method your colleague used to get around the nonfiction eBook conundrum. Thanks so much for sharing it here.

    With nonfiction, it does seem to be especially important that authors have an existing audience for their eBooks, since they can’t take advantage of the thousands and thousands of people who regularly buy any new work of genre fiction that seems interesting (the graze ‘n gobble crowd).

    I appreciate your praise for the article and the comments that follow, too, and will accept it on behalf of all who have contributed so far. :O)

    Laurel Marshfield

  11. I’ve read both fiction and non-fiction eBooks and while the fiction experience worked well, non-fiction eBooks are very hard to read. A larger screen size and a higher resolution would solve part of the problem, but the big problem is the clumsiness in flipping through the book. I don’t think there is a way to solve that. One of the things we do with a non-fiction book is flip through the pages very quickly, looking for something that catches our eye. A search feature doesn’t help because that presupposes that we know what we’re looking for. Typically, it is something that we’ll know when we see it. I am so turned off by how non-fiction eBooks work that I have no desire for my non-fiction books to be available in that format.

  12. As a writer of a grief journey memoir, I am very interested in following this line of thought. Since I consider mine narrative non-fiction, I can see it fitting the format. However, I see my book as one to peruse and reread certain parts matching where the woman finds herself on any given day of the terrible journey. With that objective in mind, I don’t see my book as conducive to e book format.

  13. Hi,
    I believe that we may be underestimating the ebook readers, as in the people reading them. As far as I am aware, all the devices have the option to bookmark useful or pertinent points. If the person reading the ebook is a grazer, they are unlikely to use this facility. If, however, they are reading for purpose, for information, or to broaden their grasp of a subject, then they are likely to have familiarised themselves with the bookmark function.
    Therefore, if your book speaks to the reader, they may well bookmark the passage with particular meaning. We have to remember that we are all ahead of the game in writing ebooks, but that our readers may well be very skilled in using their device to read, mark and inwardly digest the contents of what we create.
    Sure, there will be some who will find the e-readers clumsy, but I know that for others these devices have come to be major tools in their lives. One thing is for sure, we will never be able to satisfy everyone with one single product.
    It would, I believe, be a crying shame not to put your book into ebook format if you are able to do so. You never know who might benefit from it. And no one will benefit from it as an ebook if it is never created as such.

  14. Hi, Timothy — That is definitely a big hurdle for nonfiction eBooks: the impossibility of doing a quick skim and scan, while looking for the information that may relate to your interests most –before settling in to read certain sections that pertain.

    For this usage, print books are definitely superior. And it does appear as if there’s nothing eBooks could do to rectify that, as they are inevitably limited to the screen and not the skimmable page.

    On the other hand, there may be something to be said for simply using eBooks to advertise the availability of your subject matter. If a reader is really interested, it may prompt some print sales. For this reason alone, you might find it worthwhile to convert a few titles to eBook formats as promotion vehicles for your larger body of work.

    Laurel Marshfield

  15. Hi, Reba — Thanks so much for sharing your reservation about using the eBook format for your memoir.

    What you describe is certainly a drawback, although it’s possible to yellow-highlight sections in eBooks, which makes it easy to re-read them by skimming through the pages.

    What would be even more useful is the ability to aggregate all the highlighted sections in an additional section at the end of the eBook, but the eReader folks haven’t thought of adding that feature yet.

    You can, however, copy and paste sections to a Word document if you use, say, the Kindle for PC software. When using an eReader, though, that’s not a possibility.

    Laurel Marshfield

  16. Hi, Ruth — Thanks so much for commenting again. I agree that authors may want to consider that readers will be benefit from their content and convert it to eBook formats simply as a kind of “public service.”

    I do also think that the more versions of your books you can offer the greater your chances of finding your most appropriate and enthusiastic audience of readers.

    Laurel Marshfield

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