Non-Fiction: Before You Write, You Must Read

You’ve got a great idea for a non-fiction book, and you’ve just learned you have to write a proposal in order to land an agent or a publisher. Ok, you think, I’ll get right on it. You’ll soon learn it’s not as easy as sitting down and writing the proposal in your spare time this evening.

The proposal is a lot of work in general (mine for my business of college football book being published by Wiley next year was 21 pages, for example), and it really requires you to have done a lot of research beforehand. Now maybe you’re so passionate about your topic you’ve already read every book on the market, but if you’re like me, you’ve read enough to be interested in the subject but still have a lot of ground to cover.

An important part of any non-fiction proposal is the Competing Works section where you detail other books on the market which cover the same or similar topics. You can’t simply say your book is the first of its kind. You have to acknowledge other works in the area and then explain why yours is different. To be able to do this, you need to have read the books. Ideally, you should read every major book written on your topic. Otherwise, how do you know your book adds something new to the discussion? Other books will also provide valuable background information and research for your own book.

For my upcoming book, Saturday Millionaires: Why College Athletes Will Never be Paid and Other Untold Truths About the Business of College Football, I read every major book I could find about college football or college athletics which contained any business perspective. Every time I thought I’d read them all, I’d come across a reference in one of the books or journal articles (better make sure you read those too for the latest research!) to another book or journal article I should read.

I just tallied up everything I read while researching and writing my book:

  • 10 books
  • 37 journal articles
  • 2 PhD theses
  • 200+ athletic department financial statements and budgets
  • More news and magazine articles and sports columns than I could possibly count!

I’m lucky because there haven’t actually been that many books written on the business side of college football or college athletics. I can imagine other topics where the number of books is far higher.

How do you find the books? I’d start with a place like Amazon. Simply search books for your topic, and keep the topic reasonably broad. One thing I like about Amazon (and I’m sure you find other places as well) is that when you’re viewing a book there’s a section that called “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought,” which will lead you to more books on the subject. Start ordering books that appear to be on topic. Once you begin reading them, they will likely reference other books you can go back and buy.

Next, search for journal articles on your topic. Google Scholar and JSTOR are good resources for journal articles. If you’re not a student with access to these articles for free, try emailing the author for a copy. I found if I explained I was using their article for research for my book they were more than willing to provide the article by email so I didn’t have to pay to purchase it. In addition, many of them were working on updates to their article or related articles and sent those as well. Several of them also became interview subjects for my book.

Another good resource I used was Google News. It has archived newspapers, which can be a great resource if you need background or want to cover the history of your subject.

Remember: writing a non-fiction book is a marathon, not a sprint. Think of the research as necessary training. It will pay off in the end!

Want more information on how to write your non-fiction proposal? You can find my other posts on writing non-fiction here.


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  • Al Figone
    October 9, 2013

    Hi Kristi:

    I’m looking forward to reading your book. Did you read mine: Cheating The Spread? What was your
    evaluation of the book?

    The current book I’m writing examines the relationship between non-gambling and gambling corruption in college football and basketball.

    I look forward to hearing from you.