Nonfiction book categories – and a cheerier Anne

Hello, dear friends —


Well, I’m in a much better mood than I was last week: I realized over the weekend that since I don’t own much of anything, it matters less if I’m sued over my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY, than if I were well-to-do. If my publisher, which I believe IS well-to-do, isn’t taking the lawsuit threats particularly seriously, I suppose I should be even less concerned.


It did get me thinking, though, about the ironies of this business. When the marketing department came up with the title of my book, I was actually pretty annoyed: I had wanted to call it IS THAT YOU, PUMPKIN?. (Just so you know, first-time authors very seldom get to name their own books; I have it on reliable authority that there are publishing houses that automatically change EVERY title that they acquire, just to put their stamp upon the book.) “What does that title MEAN?” I asked, with some heat. “What precisely is dark about my family? And while we’re at it, can I at least beg for a comma, to create at least the illusion of its being grammatically correct?”


I never really got an answer, except to have it pointed out to me repeatedly that a movie based upon one of Philip’s books (A SCANNER DARKLY, which everyone should rush out and read immediately) is scheduled to come out approximately when my book does. The connection between my book and the movie, I gather, is to be almost subliminal.


In any case, I threw a fit over it at first. I told them that I could never bring myself to say it with a straight face. I argued; I complained; I believe I even whined, to no avail. A FAMILY DARKLY it was.


I’ve had the summer to get used to it, but to be absolutely frank, it didn’t really start to grow on me until I started receiving threats from the Dick estate. Actually, I had kind of liked Philip’s kids before that; I had thought we were getting along pretty well, until they decided that I was the Anti-Christ, for reasons I have yet to fathom. Many other writers have said far, far worse things about their father than I do, and yet I’m the only one that they’ve ever threatened to sue. Go figure.


They threatened first in early July, promising a bumper crop of demanded textual changes by the first week of August. The list of demands never came, however, so I thought, understandably, that they’d changed their minds. So the letter from their lawyer, delivered to my doorstep in early September, came as something of a surprise.


Turns out that one of their objections is that they believe that my book gives the false impression that they agree with my point of view. It doesn’t, but there’s no convincing angry people of anything that they don’t want to hear. In fact, the only thing in it that I can find in the book that might remotely be construed, if read backwards and upside-down, to indicate approval is a description of one lunch we had together, and one brunch at my house.


I don’t know about you, but I often eat meals with people who disagree with my opinions. I don’t feel it commits me to anything.


In any case, I’ve been revising like mad, to remove any vestige of an impression that these people and I ever agreed on so much as the time of day; unless I’m very much mistaken, the draft going to press will not even allow the reader to conclude that they were remotely civil to me. I hope they shall be pleased. (The funny thing is, it was not even hard to switch the tone: one of the complainants spent the first half-hour of her visit to my house rudely snooping around, staring at all of my possessions as if she were trying to value them for future sale. For all I know, she was: how am I to know if she was already contemplating a lawsuit, before she had even read the book?)


Now, I feel the title of the book is really, really appropriate: not to describe my family, but theirs. All’s well that ends well, right?


Okay, on to the promised topic du jour: the categories of nonfiction books. Again, the category belongs in the first paragraph of your query letter, as well as on the title page of your book and as part of your verbal pitch. Like genre, NF categories are the conceptual boxes that books come in, telling agents and editors roughly where it would sit in a bookstore. (The nonfiction categories are a much rougher indication of location than the fiction. Do be aware that the categories used in the publishing industry are not necessarily the same as those used by bookstores. In my own area, for instance, I have noticed that Barnes & Noble tends to shelve biography, autobiography, and memoir together; Amazon lumps memoir into the autobiography category.)


By telling an agent up front which category your book is, you make it easy for her to tell if it is the kind of book she can sell. Do bear in mind that the first things an agent or editor now tends to look for in a NF book query is not a great idea, but the platform of the writer. Your job in the query letter will be to sell yourself as the world’s best-qualified person to write this book.


Fortunately, most of the categories are pretty self-explanatory.


ENTERTAINING: no, not a book that IS entertaining; one ABOUT entertaining.


HOLIDAYS: about entertaining people at particular times of year.


PARENTING AND FAMILIES: this includes not only books about children, but books about eldercare, too.


HOUSE AND HOME: so you have a place to be PARENTING and ENTERTAINING your FAMILIES during the HOLIDAYS. This is for both house-beautiful books and how-to around the home. At some publishing houses, includes GARDENING.


HOW-TO: explains how to do things OTHER than house- and home-related tasks.


COOKBOOK: I suspect that you’ve seen one of these before, right?


FOOD AND WINE: where you write ABOUT the food and wine, not tell how to make it.


LIFESTYLE: Less broad than it sounds.


SELF-HELP: if you have ANY platform to write one of these, do so. These are the books that can land you on Oprah.


HEALTH: body issues for laypeople. If your book is for people in the medical professions, it should be classified under MEDICAL. Diet books are sometimes listed here (if there is a general philosophy of nutrition involved), sometimes under FOOD (if it is less philosophical), sometimes under COOKBOOK (if there are recipes), sometimes under FITNESS (if there is a substantial lifestyle/exercise component).


FITNESS: exercise for people who consider themselves to be out of shape.


EXERCISE: fitness for people who consider themselves to be in relatively good shape.


SPORTS: exercise for competitive people in all shapes.


HISTORICAL NONFICTION: Your basic history book, intended for a general audience. If it is too scholarly, it will be classified under ACADEMIC.


NARRATIVE NONFICTION: THE hot category from a few years ago. Basically, it means using fiction techniques to tell true stories.


TRUE CRIME: what it says on the box.


BIOGRAPHY: the life story of someone else.


MEMOIR: the life story of the author, dwelling on personal relationships.


AUTOBIOGRAPHY: the life story of the author, focusing on large, generally public achievements. The memoirs of famous people tend to be autobiographies.


ESSAYS are generally published in periodicals first, then collected.


WRITING: technically, these are HOW-TO books, but editors love writing so much that it gets its own category.


CURRENT EVENTS: explanations of what is going on in the world today, usually written by journalists. Do be aware that if you are not already a recognized expert in a current event field, your book probably will not be rushed to market, and thus perhaps will not be on the market while the event you have chosen is fresh in the public mind. Bear in mind that most books are not published until over a year after a publisher buys the book. This really limits just how current the events a first-time writer comments upon can be.


POLITICS: About partisan ideology.


GOVERNMENT: about the actual functions, history, and office holders of the political realm.


WOMEN’S STUDIES: a rather broad category, into which history, politics, government, and essays related to women tend to migrate. Logically, I think it’s a trifle questionable to call one book on labor conditions in a coal mine in 1880 HISTORY, and call a book on labor conditions in a predominantly female-staffed shoe factory in 1880 WOMEN’S STUDIES, but hey, I’m not the one who makes the rules.


GAY AND LESBIAN: Much like WOMEN’S STUDIES, this category includes works from a varied spectrum of categories, concentrating on gay and lesbian people.


LAW: This includes books for the layman, as well as more professionally-oriented books. Some publishers compress this category with books about dealing with governmental bureaucracies into a single category: LAW/GOVERNMENT.


ARTS: a rather broad category, no?


PHILOSOPHY: Thought that is neither overtly political nor demonstrably spiritual in motivation.


RELIGION: books about the beliefs of the major established religions.


SPIRITUALITY: books about beliefs that fall outside the major established religions. Often, the Asian religions are classified under SPIRITUALITY, however, rather than RELIGION. Go figure.


EDUCATION: Books about educational philosophy and practice. (Not to be confused with books on how to raise children, which are PARENTING AND FAMILIES.)


ACADEMIC: books written by professors for other professors. Tend not to sell too well.


TEXTBOOK: books written by professors for students.


REFERENCE: books intended not for reading cover-to-cover, but for looking up particular information.


PROFESSIONAL: Books for readers working in particular fields.


MEDICAL: Books for readers working in medical fields. (Not to be confused with HEALTH, which targets a lay readership.)


ENGINEERING: I’m going to take a wild guess here – books written by and for engineers?


TECHNICAL: Books intended for readers already familiar with a specific field of expertise, particularly mechanical or industrial. Unless the field is engineering, or computers, or cars, or medical…


COMPUTERS: fairly self-explanatory, no?


INTERNET: again – speaks for itself.


AUTOMOTIVE: I’m guessing these aren’t books for cars to read, but to read about cars. (Sorry, I couldn’t think of anything remotely funny to say about this. I’ve had a really long day.)
FINANCE: covers both personal finances and financial policy.


INVESTING: finance for those with more than enough money to pay the rent.


BUSINESS: this is another rather broad category, covering everything from tips for happy office interactions to books on executive manners.


CAREERS: books for people who are looking to break into a field. Includes books on how to find a job, how to interview, how to write a resume…


OUTDOORS AND NATURE: again, rather broad, as it encompasses everything outside a building that does not involve SPORTS, EXERCISE, FITNESS…


TRAVEL: Books on how to get there and what to do when you do get there.


TRAVEL MEMOIR: First-person stories about someone who went somewhere.


PHOTOGRAPHY: both books about and books of.


COFFEE TABLE BOOK: Books with big, gorgeous pictures and relatively little writing.


GIFT BOOK: Impulse buys.


Looking at this list, it strikes me as rather incomplete set of categories to explain all of reality. However, these are indeed the major categories – and as with fiction, you definitely need to specify up front which your book is.


Boy, am I glad to be finished with this set of information! I’m not a big fan of lists, as reading matter goes. Tomorrow, I shall show you how to format a standard title page, which will be much more fun.


In the meantime, keep up the good work!


— Anne Mini


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