Limitations Inherent to Non-Fiction Publishing

Some categories of books in the Christian market have very limited potential for publication. A publisher may do just one every year or every ten years on a particular topic or category.

When you send your proposal to an agent or ask your agent to pitch a title in one of these categories, our first reaction would be how limited the potential is to sell.

I am not writing about the potential for sales of a particular book to a reader. As an agent, I define a “limited market” for a book as one very few publishers desire to publish or a category published so infrequently it is probably not worth trying.

At least enter into it with eyes wide open and know the limits.

Sticking to non-fiction categories today, here are the categories of product that have very limited potential: (Again, I define limited potential in this case as the opportunity to be published, not potential sales to consumers)

Devotionals – Whether they are 30, 40, 60, 90, 180 or 365-day devotionals, the market is limited. Some publishers don’t do them at all, some do one per year and a couple publishers do a number of them each year. For the most part I recommend authors of devotionals use the material for daily social media posts or a free subscription to a daily devotional delivered via email.

Bible Studies – Seems like it shouldn’t be this way in the Christian market, but an average publisher will focus on one Bible study line over a ten-year span. They also want to eventually create studies for the entire Bible. How are you with the minor prophets? Only exception is if you have a unique approach not done by the typical writer of Bible studies, who is generally a respected Bible scholar.

Memoirs – Some publishers have a strict “no memoir” policy. Others will look at memoirs with a strong message and borderline miraculous themes. Most memoirs are done by celebrities or people already with a measure of fame. Memoirs are viewed as short-term publishing (here today, gone tomorrow), which is not attractive to most publishers trying to build their company.

Personal Evangelism – Just about every publisher considers the “how to share your faith” book as something they do once in the history of their company. Maybe twice.

Topical – Defined as something very specific, like parenting children with special needs or dealing with infidelity with your spouse. Publishers generally view very specific topics as a once-per-decade kind of book.

Men – Covered last week in my post “Writing to Men.” Funny when a hundred million persons in the US are considered a niche.

Teens – Probably because publishing is relatively slow and kids grow up fast, books for teens are short-term prospects for publishers, which is not good when you have a company wanting to publish books for the long-haul. Non-fiction books for teens seem to have built-in obsolescence (often due to cultural references that change rapidly). Not a good thing. Publishers who do it well know how to do it, but most publishers avoid them.

Pastoral resources – These are a good market for the right author, but since they are a long-term market (opposite of teens) the books tend to be relevant for a very long time, limiting the potential for new entries.

Denominational – If your work takes on a distinct theological perspective (most do in the Christian market) not all publishers will be interested. Publishers have theological perspectives as well. Calvin, Luther, and Wesley were different dudes.

Maybe there are more, but these are the ones coming to mind. I am not insinuating that authors should not write in these categories, but do so with eyes wide open. If you write a certain type of book listed above, make great effort to show how you are the exception to the “limited” rule.

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