Nonfiction book categories (and no, I couldn’t think of a catchier title for it)

Hello, readers –

Here we are at our last installment of book category choices, the nonfiction array. Granted, most of the sections of the PNWA contest are devoted to various flavors of fiction, but as a memoirist myself, I would be the last to slight all of you brave and excellent writers of nonfiction.

Like genre, NF categories are the conceptual boxes that books come in, telling agents and editors roughly where it would sit in a bookstore. 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.

In a way, nonfiction writers have an easier time boxing their books, for the nonfiction categories give a much rougher indication of shelf location than the fiction. In fact, 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. Go figure.

As when you are querying fiction, the category designation 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.
As an aside, do bear in mind that the first things an agent or editor now tends to look for in a NF book query is not just a great idea, but the platform of the writer. Platform is the industry term for a writer’s credentials or background to write a particular book. Your job in the query letter will be to sell yourself as the world’s best-qualified person to write this book.

So if, hypothetically speaking, you were entering the nonfiction/memoir category of a major regional writers’ contest, do you think it would be to your advantage if your synopsis gave some indication of your platform?

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

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

HOLIDAYS: a book 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, it also includes GARDENING.

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

SELF-HELP: a how-to book for the psyche. If you have ANY platform to write one of these, do so. These are the books that can land you on Oprah if you’re NOT James Frey.

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

NARRATIVE COOKBOOK: where the recipes are presented as part of a story, most often a memoir. Ruth Reichl’s COMFORT ME WITH APPLES is the usual example given, but my favorite narrative cookbook is Sylvia Thompson’s FEASTS AND FRIENDS.

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

LIFESTYLE: Less broad than it sounds.

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. Usually includes diet tips, as well as exercise.

EXERCISE: fitness for people who consider themselves to be in relatively good shape, and thus do not need many diet tips.

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; while IN COLD BLOOD is the classic example simply everyone gives, it would today be classified as TRUE CRIME.

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. In this category, platform is especially important. Why? Well, 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. Again, were I making the rules…

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? Books on the history of painting or ballet go here.

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. Tend to sell quite well.

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

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?

PROFESSIONAL: books for readers working in white-collar fields that are not medical, legal, or engineering.

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’m pretty stressed today.)

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 logically 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. I used to write these, once upon a time, so if you want to know how to scrawl copy for a tight deadline while balancing a camp light on a rickety picnic table and simultaneously watching out for bears, I’m your gal.

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: small books, intended as 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.

One final word on the contest front: typically, nonfiction categories are underrepresented; most of the entries in your garden-variety NF contest will be either memoirs, history, or narrative nonfiction. Where are the cookbooks? the contest judges cry. Where is the really well-written how-to book?

I just mention. Don’t write off literary contests just because your work may not be, well, traditionally literary. A well-written book is a well-written book, and I, for one, would not be inclined to sneeze in its general direction.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini