Nonfiction, and the Past as ‘a Foreign Country’

From Publishing Perspectives:

Nonfiction publishing is often perceived by the outside world as somehow more predictable and less risky than fiction.

It’s certainly the case that betting on untried novelists is very high-risk. It’s even the case that lashing out large advances on established writers carries a degree of risk, should the writer have a declining fan base or say something to upset a special-interest group.

While some areas of nonfiction appear to be risk-free, it’s remarkable how often that’s only an appearance. The reality is that nonfiction is just as risky as fiction, just as hard to predict, and just as affected by vogue, trends, and demographics.

Per the opening line of LP Hartley’s 1953 The Go-Between, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” But perhaps we can learn something from the past while we look to the future and try to discern how the publishing landscape might be once the clouds of the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic have cleared.

. . . .

The first lesson comes from two of my ancestors.

Garment manufacturing in Clapham Square, London, 1910. Image by Toby Charkin, provided by Richard Charkin

One owned a wedding dress factory in Margaret Street, which was then the clothing district of London. The other oversaw the manufacture of underwear and dresses in Clapham Square for the city’s burgeoning middle class. The business principle that guided them both was, “The one who makes the most money is the one who is first out of a fashion craze—not the first in.”

The same might be true in nonfiction publishing.

. . . .

The first book craze I can remember was for illustrated nostalgia. Edith Holden’s The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady . . . was the front-runner, followed by Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise to Candleford.  They sold in their hundreds of thousands of units by satisfying a desire to enjoy what appeared to be a simpler and more perfect world.

Of course, publishers being the owners of excellent rear-view mirrors, they piled into the genre until the profit was eviscerated.

And there was the computer books boom of the 1980s: Fortran, Cobol, and all that.

. . . .

Right now, there seems to be an unquenchable thirst in the English-speaking world for books on politics, political scandal, and racial inequality.

. . . .

The overdue realization that health really matters will ensure that governments will prioritize the funding of primary and secondary health care, public health, and communication with the general public.

I suspect that there will be growing demand in digital and print for reliable and comprehensible information, formerly known as popular medicine.

In addition, we’ll see renewed research activity into all aspects of infectious disease and epidemiology with consequent growth in high-level open-access research and review publications. The distinction between general public, professional, and research information about health will narrow as more people want to know more about their own health—and as more professionals understand the need to communicate outside their own specialist communities.

. . . .

In this age of uncertainty, people will turn to books about happiness, de-stressing, self-awareness, empathy, and human interaction. “Mind, body, spirit” will emerge as a major genre, challenging even the dominance in British bookshops of celebrity-led cookery books.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

2 thoughts on “Nonfiction, and the Past as ‘a Foreign Country’”

  1. ——-
    “I suspect that there will be growing demand in digital and print for reliable and comprehensible information, formerly known as popular medicine.

    In addition, we’ll see renewed research activity into all aspects of infectious disease and epidemiology with consequent growth in high-level open-access research and review publications. The distinction between general public, professional, and research information about health will narrow as more people want to know more about their own health—and as more professionals understand the need to communicate outside their own specialist communities.

    . . . .

    In this age of uncertainty, people will turn to books about happiness, de-stressing, self-awareness, empathy, and human interaction. “Mind, body, spirit” will emerge as a major genre, challenging even the dominance in British bookshops of celebrity-led cookery books.”

    ————–

    Dunno.
    There’s this thing called the internet.
    Very useful to research medical questions at sites like the Mayo Clinic’s.
    Also useful for recipes and cooking videos.
    Free, too.

    I doubt things are too different on the other side of the pond.

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