The 4 Types of Non-Fiction Books and How to Write for Each | Len's Lightbulbs

by Len Wilson

One of the most helpful conversations I have with writers is the one where I describe industry categories. It’s vital to understand to whom you’re writing. Who is the ideal reader, and what do they already know about your topic?

At a high level, non-fiction books may be professional (leadership or training) or trade. Professional are geared to insider audiences, while trade is to the general reader—the uninformed layperson.

We will discuss professional books another day. For now, let us focus on trade. Trade is what gets you on Oprah or NYT. It is what every writer dreams of. There are four essential types of trade books, according to veteran industry editor Shawn Coyne:

  1. Academic
  2. Narrative nonfiction
  3. How to
  4. Big idea

Each one of them has its own set of conventions and expectations and promises. Each one can have rigor or it can be sloppy.

How-To Books

Most trade books are how-to. These are books written to solve a specific problem. They are obvious—they lay out a clear path from problem to solution in sequential order. The clearer the problem a How-To book names (from the perspective of an audience), the more successful it will be.

How-To books exist in every sector. The most successful ones avoid insider language and write in 9th grade language to those without experience or history. Think of the Dummies books, or from my seminary days, the perennial Layman’s Guide to Protestant Theology, which became an intro course text requirement. Write to your teenagers kids, or to the neighbor’s kid. Make it clear and obvious: what is their problem, and how are you gong to help them solve it?

Let’s walk through my own publishing history to give you a series of examples. For this genre consider my first book, The Wired Church (Abingdon, 1999), which was a clear How-To book with strong academic support.

  • It was targeted to a specific readership, pastors, to teach them how to use screens in a worship setting. 
  • It succeeded (20x times industry average) because it delivered on that promise well, plus added extra value. 
  • It was a How-To book that also offered some theology and philosophy about larger trends in church life.
  • But it didn’t lead with the theology or philosophy—it led with solving the problem, and added the big picture stuff in little snippets throughout.
  • At the time, I felt like the theology and philosophy wasn’t long enough or strong enough, but now I look back and it was just right.

How-to books can be very wide in their reach, if they solve a common problem, but they are rarely deep--they rarely last beyond the span of the problem they solve.

Academic Books

The primary differentiator between how-to books and academic books is definitions of terms. How-to books assume conventional wisdom on definitions and focus on tactics, while academic books see different meanings in words and make arguments for the reader to consider. They are less obvious.

Academic books are not obvious. In fact, they make the reader work for it. How-to books are bigger sellers, but academic books have potentially longer shelf lives. How-to books are done in a few years (who here has read The Wired Church, which came out in 1999?), but academic books can last for decades, if written well. They are deep but rarely wide.

My newest book, Telos: The Hope of Heaven Today (Invite Press, 2022), with Leonard Sweet, is academic. What makes it academic isn’t the college level vocabulary, though that offers appearances as such. What makes it academic is that we present a problem—current cultural chaos is rooted in poor understandings of the future—and propose a solution—a better definition of “the end.”

Now it should be noted that academic rigor and style are different things. The complaint by many professors that I heard in the publishing business was against what they called popularizers, which was a pejorative term that referred to people who were parasitically rephrasing academic work for a wider audience. My response to that was that the academic person who had done the original work should have done the popularizing themselves. 

Narrative Non-fiction Books

While the first two types have been around for centuries, narrative non-fiction is relatively new. Many people credit Truman Capote with inventing the genre in his true crime tale of murder in Kansas in the late 1950s, In Cold Blood. I love a good narrative non-fiction book. Check out Laura Hillenbrand (SeabiscuitUnbroken), or any of the Erik Larsen books.

I tried to capture elements of this style in Greater Things: The Work of the New Creation (Invite Press, 2021), my book on Christian innovation. The book introduces every chapter with a short narrative non-fiction story to set up the thesis. I tell stories about Galileo, Norman Borlaug, Florence Nightingale, and more.

The purpose of this style is to add drama to non-fiction work. 

Big Idea Books

The last style attempts to combine all three into a single book. Easy in theory, super hard in practice. Malcolm Gladwell did this in Tipping Point and Outsiders.

Though I lacked the typology for it at the time, my second book, Digital Storytellers (Abingdon, 2002), was an attempt at a big idea book (see below). It worked okay (12x industry average) but not as well as the first one. Here’s why, in retrospect:

  • It tried to be both a How-To book and an academic book.
  • It got picked up in twelve seminaries (that I knew of) but did not meet my expectations because it fell in between genres… it lacked some of the necessary components of an academic work, and it wasn’t as comprehensive as a good How-To book.
  • The shorthand version of that is that I made some leaps in logic and structure. I didn’t spell everything out, either for the How-To of it or the argument of the academic side. I made some intellectual assumptions that in retrospect I should not have expected the reader to make with me. 
  • The most helpful part of my doctoral program was the deeper understanding of how to vet out potential and probable objections to my claims, which is an academic exercise.

Digital Storytellers might have succeeded as a big idea work if I had done the extra preparation to vet out my claims against potential rebuttals. That is not to say it was a failure. It just did not achieve what I had hoped for it to achieve. After Digital Storytellers I retreated back to making more how to books and also curriculum books for the rest of the 2000s.

Another book I wrote, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon, 2015) on Christian creativity, was written intentionally to be a big idea book with a popular voice, a Christian life work. It only sold 2500 copies because it was halfway between an academic work and a how-to work. It did neither well enough. I was trying to hit the center of the Venn diagram, but it hit neither.

So what does this mean for you, the writer? You need to be very clear about the type of book you are writing, and what you hope to accomplish with the work you produce. Do you want to solve a problem? Redefine a poorly undertstood term? Make a new word? Are you seeking immediate relevance to a hot-button topic, or are you shooting for a longer-term, lasting work?

More on these questions with my next post, "Deep Versus Wide."