Writing Nonfiction 5- Selling your Nonfiction Book- Whatsitabout

If you’ve been following these posts about writing nonfiction, you should have gathered some pointers on why to do it, how to select a topic, how to research it, and how to organize it. You would think that the next step is to actually write the thing but this is about selling, because you should start to think about the selling before you write a word. If you keep selling and marketing in mind while you write, it will help shape the final product to appeal to readers.

There are all sorts of webpages that talk about marketing techniques, using social media, and various publicity schemes. This is all fine, but there are some more basic things that surprisingly few authors think of, things that can keep people from ignoring you.

Whether you know it or not, you are always selling your book, even before you are finished writing it. You should always be ready to make a mini pitch whenever the opportunity presents itself. I don’t mean you should become an obnoxious, self congratulatory windbag, like the guy who tries to sell you insurance at a party, but you have  to be prepared to sell the idea of your book and do it in a way that makes people interested. Every person you talk to is a potential reader.

First of all, you must prepare and have ready a Whatsitabout? response, a brief, concise, statement of what the book is about that will arouse their curiosity.

The next thing you need is a Tag line. Pretend it’s a movie and come up with a quick snappy slogan. The Tag line doesn’t really tell you what the book is about, it captures the tone,  the emotion of the book. It’s the sizzle that sells the steak. Everybody remembers the movie Alien. The Tag line was “In space, no one can hear you scream.” What a great line! How about Apollo 13- “Houston, we have a problem.”, or Poltergiest 2- “They’re baaaaak!” Or Jaws 2- “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water.”

Use the Tag line as a quick followup to the Whatsitabout line, sort of a one-two punch. Let’s use my book Master Detective as an example. Here is what you don’t want:

Innocent bystander: “So I hear you’re working/just wrote a book. What’s it about?”

Me: “Oh, it’s a sort of a study of…Well, it goes back to the Lindbergh kidnapping in 1932. And, there was this detective in New Jersey, Ellis Parker, who had this great record and he wanted to get in on the investigation, but then the police arrested Bruno Hauptmann…”

Innocent bystander: “Uh-huh…”

Me: “…so he does his own investigation and decides the police got it wrong, so he sets out to find the real kidnapper. Well, he zeroes in on this Trenton attorney, and, well by this time Hauptmann had been convicted, so…”

Innocent bystander (looking at his watch): “Gee, look at the time.”

You see the problem? Remember, if you can’t explain what the book is about, why should anyone else want to read it? So now let’s try it with a Whatsitabout line followed up by the Tag line:

Innocent bystander: “So I hear you’re working/just wrote a book. What’s it about?”

Me: “The true story of a detective who investigated the Lindbergh kidnapping and obtained a signed confession from his suspect…after someone else had been convicted.”

Innocent bystander: “Hmmm.”

Me: “It’s the other solution to the Lindbergh kidnapping.”

Innocent bystander:  “Wow.”

Better? Here are a few Whatsitabout lines and Tag lines for some of my books. These are examples.  I don’t claim they are perfect, but that’s the point; they don’t have to be.








In addition to whetting people’s interest, keeping the Whatsitabout line and the Tag line in mind while you are writing will help you stay focused on the heart of the book and the tone you want to set. Remember, it’s never too soon to start selling and promoting.

How Hermann Goering’s Swedish nephew became a humanitarian hero in Africa

One of the worst of the many atrocities of the Twentieth Century, not in terms of total body count, but in terms of concentrated horror and misery, was the Biafran War in 1967-1970.

The southwest portion of Nigeria on the west coast of Africa is the home of the Igbo people. Because the Igbos most eagerly embraced education and modernism, they have been extraordinarily successful in business, the professions, the military, and government, so it should be no surprise they are unpopular with the rest of Nigeria. In 1966, several Igbo army officers were involved in a coup and assassination of Nigerian government officials, and this made the Igbos even more unpopular. The result was a series of massacres of Igbos who had the misfortune to live in other areas of the country. Seeing no hope as part of Nigeria, the Igbos declared themselves the independent Republic of Biafra in 1967.  Fearing this was a really bad precedent in a country made up of scores of different ethnic groups, not to mention the fact that Igboland was where most of Nigeria’s oil was pumped, the Nigerian government sent its army to bring the new country back into the fold. The Biafrans fought bravely and well, and the Nigerians were having a rough time of things, so the next step was a blockade to cut off all aid and food supplies to Biafra.


If you think this is sounding like our own civil war, you are right.

Soon, the Biafrans were starving to death and world newspapers were full of pictures of starving children with spindly arms and legs and swollen bellies. The Nigerians helped things along by bombing hospitals and marketplaces, as well as interdicting international relief supplies


Which brings us to Hermann Goering’s nephew.

Goering was a WW1 German flying ace who became the head of the Nazi Luftwaffe, and  one of Hitler’s confidant’s. Gustav Von Rosen was a Swede whose mother’s sister had married Goering, a source of some friction in the family, as you can imagine.  Like his uncle, Gustav was a flier, but unlike his uncle, Gustav was always on the side of the underdog. During the invasion of Finland by Russia, Von Rosen had modified an old DC-3 and singlehandedly bombed the Russians. Later he flew medical relief for the Eithiopeans during the Italian invasion. During WW2, he volunteered for the RAF, but was turned down because of his relationship to Goering.


Von Rosen

When the Biafran War got going, Von Rosen just had to help out. Risking his own life, Von Rosen flew relief supplies into Biafra under the constant harassment of Nigerian planes. He got tired of being a target, and brimming with righteous indignation, decided to take matters into his own hands. Von Rosen gathered two more Swedish  and two Biafran pilots and modified several tiny single engine Swedish airplanes that resembled Piper Cubs. He was able to mount rudimentary rocket launchers from these unlikely airplanes and conducted a series of daring raids on Nigerian airfields. To approach undetected, his squadron would fly at treetop level and shut off their engines to glide to the attack. The results were devastating. The Biafra Babies, as they called themselves, after the starving children destroyed at least three modern MIG-17 fighters and four Ilyushin bombers on the ground and damaged even more.

Angriffsplanung im Sand

“Biafra Babies” Gunnar Haglund, Augustus Okpe, Carl Gustaf von Rosen, Willy Murray-Bruce, Martin Land.

The Nigerians were forced to scale back their operations and more relief supplies got through.  Von Rosen also helped modernize the whole relief effort based on his experiences in Eithiopia.

The Biafrans lost their bid for independence and anywhere from one to three million were killed. Von Rosen himself was killed while flying relief supplies to refugees in Somalia in 1977, but among the Igbo of Nigeria, fond memories of  Goering’s nephew remain even today.

The Drones Club

With so many people filling the sky with drones, the FAA is kindly reminding you that they must be registered.(The drones; not the people.) This actually makes sense since drones can, and no doubt will, be misused by idiots and criminals. Smaller drones that are glorified toys are not as much of a problem, so they don’t have to be registered. To encourage people to register without delay, the  $5 registration fee will not apply if you register by January 20. All of this seems reasonable, but how does it work in practice?


Well, I got a drone for Christmas, and, being a law abiding citizen, I rushed to comply by January 20. The first thing I noticed is that the feds don’t simply waive the fee as any normal sentient being would do; they require you to pay up front, then send you a refund. This no doubt allows them to hire scads of new people to process the refunds.

But wait; what about those smaller drones that do not need to be registered? Fortunately, they don’t follow the refund logic and require you to register so they can then cancel it; they simply say don’t bother. So far so good, but how small is small? If the drone weighs less than 250 grams or 0.55 pounds, no registration is required. So I checked the box the thing came in and the instructions. The weight was not listed anywhere. I checked two websites of places that sell my particular model. One said one pound and the other said 0.45 pounds. But the FAA website was there to help. They had a subpage that listed typical drones and their weights….in ounces! Not grams; not pounds; ounces.  Now I can convert ounces to pounds easily enough, but why make a standard, then show examples in different units of measurement?

Anyway, I’m less than 0.55 pounds, so I don’t have to register. It’s just as well.

I’m getting tired of crashing it into things and getting it down out of trees.

Writing Non Fiction 4- Telling the Story- How to frame the book

Now that you’re ready to go full speed ahead with your nonfiction book, you have to decide just how to organize it.  With fiction, you usually go according to the plot. You might have a flashback or two, but otherwise, it’s chronological.

Nonfiction organization-

First off, have a page for acknowledgements, to thank the people who contributed to your research. This is important for three reasons:

-It will make the people on the list more likely to help in the future;

-It will make each person on the list a missionary for your book to their friends and relatives, and;

-Most important of all, it’s the right thing to do.



Now for the organization;

The rules for nonfiction are a little different. Organization depends on just what sort of nonfiction you want to write. For instance, chronological doesn’t work for a self-help book, or for a technical book.

Here are a few ways to organize nonfiction based on the type of nonfiction you are writing….

Self-help, Management……Anecdotes

History. Biography………….Chronological

Instructional…………………. Categories

Travel, cities of the world… Geographical

Collective biography…………Personalities

Political books…………. …….Argument

As you can see, the organization and structure is very much a function of what you are trying to get across, which brings us to the second point of organization: starting with a bang.


If you’re book gets in a bookstore, or on a bookselling website, a possible buyer may stumble on it in a variety of ways, but they will probably read the summary or notes to see if it might interest them. (More on that in a future post.) Anyway, if the book seems like it has possibilities, the prospective buyer will probably read the beginning, the first few pages.

The first few pages are your one great chance to sell the book. If they are plodding and full of exposition, a prospective reader will stop right there. This is your chance to lasso your prey and drag it into the corral. You have to get the reader so enthralled with the beginning he will gladly fork over good money to see what comes next. Remember, the hardest part is getting a reader to read the first page and the next hardest part is getting him to read the next page….rinse and repeat.

If you are writing history or biography, that means starting with something interesting, even if you have to use a flashback. What is most interesting about the subject? That’s what should be right up front to grab the reader. Don’t bore us; get to the chorus!

If you are writing a biography, remember this simple rule; babies are boring! No one ever did anything interesting as a baby. I guarantee you that even that guy the beer ads claim is the most interesting man in the world was a yawn as a baby. And the corollary is that if a baby is dull, his grandparents are duller. If you’re writing about, say, George Washington, don’t start with when he was born and who his parents were; tell the dramatic story of Valley Forge, or maybe crossing the Delaware, then, with the reader thoroughly hooked, you can talk about where he was born. When I wrote Master Detective, the biography of detective Ellis Parker, I opened with a movie-like suspenseful description of the Lindbergh kidnapping, even though it didn’t happen until late in Parker’s career. But this was the hook, the most compelling part of the story, so I put it right up front and then went back to Parker’s early days afterwards. This will usually mean a sort of flashback to tell the rest of the story, but be careful. When you’re using flashbacks you are a trapeze artist working without a net. Flashbacks can be confusing to the reader, so use them sparingly. Only a truly phenomenal writer can use flashbacks and flashforwards without confusing and irritating the reader. For the rest of us, one is usually manageable, but no more.


I think I’m having a flashback from ten seconds ago.

Wherever possible, you should structure the book as a movie, complete with a story line and images created in the mind of the reader. Always remember that your objective is not only to get your ideas and information across, but to do it in a way that will interest and engage your readers.


So why bother using pictures? After all, lots of nonfiction books have no illustrations at all. Well, pictures do some good things for you. They help the reader visualize the text, they give another dimension to the narrative, and they give visual credibility to your writing. So where do you get these pictures? That’s a whole other topic, because it involves copyright and all that entails, but generally, you can freely use any picture you took yourself, any picture that is in the public domain (usually old historical pictures), any picture for which you have obtained permission, and most pictures from government sources such as the Library of Congress, National Archives, etc. A good source for pictures that are either free to use or use with proper acknowledgement is Wikimedia Commons. In all these cases, read the conditions carefully before using.

What is not all right to use is any old picture you grab from a website with no permission. These pictures are the property of the owners and are not free for commercial use without permission and often, royalties. This is especially true for photos found on the sites of private news services or professional photographers. Without getting into legal advice, be aware that using a someone else’s photo in a noncommercial place such as a school lesson, a personal  blog, or an educational presentation may be fine under Fair Use, but not for a (hopefully) profit-making publication.

The really boring part- footnotes and all that fine print stuff


What the…? There’s no index of footnotes!

So what’s the deal with all those footnotes, references, indexes, and bibliography? Do you need them in a nonfiction work or don’t you? And if you do, just how thick do you have to lay it on? The answer, as usual, is “it all depends”. The more academic your work is, the more footnotes, bibliographies, indexes and references you need. The purpose of the footnotes and references isn’t just to impress the reader, but to verify your accuracy and provide a means for others to check or expand on your topic. Here are some guidelines:

-Breezy, mass-market book about non-serious or entertainment-related topic (Celebrity bio, memoir, travel, self-help, etc.)- No footnotes necessary.

-Popular–aimed book about specialty topic, or current events (politics, true crime, WWII battle, etc.)- Footnotes or endnotes, bibliography, index, forward, conclusions.

-Academic/scholarly- University press, etc.- Shoot the works; footnotes and endnotes, bibliography, index, forward, list of people interviewed, author’s note, introduction by some authority on the subject, conclusions, etc.

These are not laws. If you want to write a travel memoir with notes, bibliography and a detailed index, have at it. Your readers will probably appreciate it.


That’s about it for organization. Next, I’ll have some thoughts on selling and promoting your masterpiece

Writing Non Fiction 3-Research and digging up gold

For some authors, research is a necessary chore; for others it is much of the fun. I happen to belong to the latter group. Research is like rummaging around in a well stuffed attic full of books, old steamer trunks, clothes, odds and ends, an amazing discoveries. You never know what you will find. It can even lead to another book!

Today, research is easier than ever thanks to the Internet. So how do you start?

Primary and secondary sources- A primary source is a straight from the horse’s mouth source and a secondary source is one step removed. For instance, if you are doing a story of, say, the letters of J.K. Rowling and you were able to examine the actual letters, that would be a primary source. If you were to interview J. K. Rowling, that would be a primary source as well. If you reviewed the letters from another book about the letters, or a synopsis, or if you used other papers written about the letters or interviewed someone who once knew someone J.K. Rowling corresponded with, they would all be secondary sources. Secondary sources are very useful, especially when dealing with events long past. Reviewing other books on the subject can give a fresh perspective. Reviewing several books can point up inconsistencies in how the topic is perceived by others and that can be valuable as well.

Wikipedia and specialized web sites- Although it is fast and often thorough, Wikipedia has a community editing feature that is both its strength and its weakness. Enabling lots of people to make additions or edits vastly increases the spread of knowledge available to any article, but it can open the door to ax-grinders as well. My own rule is to be very skeptical of Wikipedia when the topic is anything political or controversial, because such topics can attract people who want to insert their opinions and have them accepted as fact. For more mundane topics such as the history of garlic, how a jet engine works, or the Treaty of Ghent, however, Wikipedia is great. The articles are richly detailed, thorough, and annotated with lots of links to other sources. Wikipedia is also a place that cover more obscure topics that are hard to research elsewhere.

Specialized websites fall into the same category, especially sites run by enthusiasts. A J.K. Rowling site might be rich with resources, links and inside information, but don’t expect objectivity.

Libraries- Libraries have lots of resources you won’t find elsewhere and are adding more databases of materials all the time. One great one for historical research is ProQuest, a digitized archive of major newspapers, searchable by topic and date, all the way back to the 1850s! It beats scrolling through microfilm files by a mile! And there are specialized libraries for law, medicine, locations, famous people, etc. Not all libraries have ProQuest, but it is available by subscription.


Government sources- You pay your taxes (I assume.) so why not make use of government resources? The National Archives, Library of Congress, FBI, etc.  have tons of files, documents, photos, and historical documents both in D.C. and on line.

People: Relatives and descendants- If you are writing about someone who is deceased, you can still track down relatives and dependents who may know about the person. When I wrote about the long-gone Ellis Parker, I found grandchildren and cousins of both Parker and others involved in the events. (Including Hope Nelson, the daughter of New Jersey Governor Harold Hoffman.) They contributed inside info, clues, and a lot of family photos available no where else. One had a collection of his pipes and another had all of Parker’s old driver’s licenses and membership cards in the Elks!

Field trips- Going to the scene of whatever you write about is invaluable. You can get a feel for the time and place a lot better than at a library. When I went to the Lindbergh house, now a school for boys, and actually experienced the layout of the place, it became obvious that some of the theories of the case were wrong. One author thought the kidnapper did not come back down the cracked ladder, but crept down the stairs and out the front door. Since this would have taken him directly in front of the room where Lindbergh was sitting at the time, I could see this was pretty much impossible.

Museums- Some places have local museums about historic events and some places have specialty museums. There are museums of magic, plumbing, UFOs, trains, aviation, potatoes, and even cockroaches. In addition to the exhibits, specialty museums often have libraries dedicated to the subject and people who are enthusiasts and have been digging for info their entire adult lives.


Artifacts- In museums, antique shops, or even your attic might be objects relating to your topic and the objects can be used to inform both you and the reader. An old spinning wheel or old typewriter can show how mechanical creativity was used before electronics. Even that old souvenir Japanese rifle your great grandfather brought back from the Pacific after World War 2 has an informative tale to tell. On the receiver, the metal part just behind the rear sight and in front of where the bullets go in is the stamped image of a Chrysanthemum, the symbol of the Emperor. On almost every rifle, the symbol has been almost filed or ground off so that the Emperor wouldn’t lose face in defeat. (The picture on the left is the untouched stamp; on the right is one filed down.)


This was done at great effort at the end of the war, even though the country was in ruins, and speaks volumes for the way the Japanese regarded the Emperor.

Two more rules- There are two other rules for non fiction research; use multiple sources to assure completeness and verified accuracy, and know when to stop. You can get wrapped up in research so much you never finish, because there will always be another source to run down and another lead to investigate, and another tidbit to add. When I wrote Master Detective, someone else had been working on a similar book for 20 years, but died before it was ever finished. Don’t be a victim of analysis paralysis!

Next time we’ll cover various ways of organizing your non fiction masterpiece.

Reporters who don’t read the news

If you were a reporter, wouldn’t you feel it necessary to actually be somewhat familiar with current events? I don’t mean memorizing everything around the world, but maybe learn at  least the basics of the story you are supposedly investigating?

Recently, a video reporter for the TMZ website tried an ambush interview with Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio at an airport. Did he ask about politics, foreign policy, or economics? You know; the sort of things presidents actually are responsible for? No way. He asked about Cecil the Lion, no doubt hoping for a sensational or controversial response from the ambushed candidate. Now neither Rubio nor any other candidate has any special knowledge or insight into the event, and, as president, would almost certainly never deal with it, so there is no earthly reason their opinion should be sought. Of course, reporters can ask what they like, no matter how idiotic. But at least they should have a nodding acquaintance with the background.

The reporter asked Rubio about Cecil the Tiger. It would have been wonderful if Rubio had said “He’s grrrrrreat!”, but he went along, gently correcting the idea that Cecil the Lion was a tiger.

Well, just a slip of the tongue, right? Sorry, there is no excuse for so basic a mistake. None.

Thousands of articles have been written about this incident in the last week or so, and every one used the word lion to describe the animal in question. I am not aware of any that ever used the word tiger. And even if every article had mistakenly claimed Cecil was a tiger anyone with a basic education should have known this was impossible. The only way to kill a tiger in Africa would be to go hunting in a zoo, because tigers live in India and Southeast Asia, not Africa.

Yet the reporter asked about Cecil the Tiger.

Where do they find these guys? Are they capable of shame?

Writing Non Fiction 2- So how do you pick a topic?

All right, so you’ve decided to write non fiction. Congratulations. Now what do you write about? Of course, if you’re already an expert on something, give it a go, but what if you’re not? Well, here’s the dirty little secret of non fiction writing: You don’t write a book because you’re an expert; you’re an expert because you write a book! Writing a book gives you instant credibility. Even working on a book does the same. It shows you are serious, and not just some blowhard. My book on Ellis Parker and the Lindbergh kidnapping resulted in my appearance on TV’s Mysteries at the Museum, a place on an “expert” panel on the Lindbergh kidnapping the the New York Musical Theater Festival, and invitations to scads of lesser venues. My criminology background? Well, I once got a parking ticket.

So the sky’s the limit pretty much. So that brings us back to picking a topic. Your object should be to find something new and original to say about a compelling topic that will resonate with the public. Simple, huh? Of course, that could be a basic course taught at the Academy of the Blindingly Obvious. How do you actually do it?


For most people, finding a topic is a mixture of luck and determination. You have to be alert to hints you see or hear drifting around you all the time; a newspaper article; a book; a factoid you heard somewhere; a folk tale or rumor, or some crazy factoid or blog you stumble over on the Internet. Almost anything can set you off in the right direction, but you have to be scanning your environment constantly. The more you read the better, but your own experiences are a good source as well. Here are some of mine:

A paragraph about famous detectives in an anthology resulted in Master Detective

A History Channel special about the capture of a U-boat and its encoding machine became Evasive Action

Stumbling upon the ruins of an old hotel during a vacation in the Bahamas led to Nassau

An old book about the French invasion of Mexico led to Flanagan and the Crown of Mexico

A  footnote in a book about the conquest of Mexico led to The Confessions of Gonzalo Guerrero

An email from a retired heart surgeon who had personal knowledge of a mysterious double killing in New Jersey led to the entire Max Hurlock Roaring 20s Mystery series based on true cases.

Well, you get the idea. Subjects pop up all the time. The question is; how do you select one? Here are a few ideas:

First of all, it has to be something that will interest the public, that is, if you expect anyone to actually read the book. Just because you have had a lifelong fascination with Albanian cheese recipes doesn’t mean anyone else will.

Second, it has to be something that interests you. You are going to be spending a lot of time on the project, so you’d better like it a lot or you will be miserable and probably never finish.

Once your topic gets check marks in the first two requirements, there are some more considerations.

Is it researchable? Some topics, especially biographies simply do not have enough resources to research. Maybe the records were burned, lost, in private hands, or never existed in the first place. Remember, you can’t just make stuff up. If you can’t find the information you need, you will be shot down sitting in the hanger.

Will you be able to find some new angle? Most topics have been done in one way or another. You will probably not be the only one to write on the topic, so why should they select your book? Good luck if you plan to write a book about Lincoln, for instance. Whatever your topic, you will need an angle; a hook to grab readers. Maybe it’s new information from a new source (like undiscovered diaries). Maybe it’s a new theory on a famous event. Maybe it’s a more extensive treatment than has been done before and with new details. Maybe it’s a new interpretation or a combining of previous theories. (You see this a lot with books “identifying” Jack the Ripper). Or maybe you can take something familiar and turn it into a self help book. (Management Secrets of Mussolini, maybe) There is actually a self-help book out that claims to be able to teach you how to make money by writing self-help books!)

I know these guidelines are pretty non specific, but finding a topic is like finding a mate; you can apply rational standards all you want, but there will always be a huge amount of subjective consideration that goes with it. Some things feel right and some don’t. You have to figure it out for yourself.

So, assuming you find a compelling topic and think up a fascinating angle on it, how do you do the research?

We’ll talk about that in Part 3.