Navigating the Non-fiction Gauntlet with Steven Statham

600_437982562Created by Steve Statham, with an accompanying talk given at the June 14th Indie Publishing Austin event.

The nonfiction world is huge:

  • Business copywriting
  • Newswriting
  • Feature writing
  • Magazine writing
  • etc.

The business of writing non-fiction requires you to put on your reporter’s hat, start thinking about journalism ethics and journalism law (which you can ignore in fiction).

You also need to structure your story well—non-fiction is a much more news oriented approach. Most non-fiction writing, you need to tell the reader right away what’s important, what the big value is (inverted pyramid approach)—that’s the hook for a non-fiction work.

The Art of the Interview

In non-fiction, quotes bring your story to life.

It’s better to record your interviews whenever you can during your research phase—you want to be able to prove something was said, and that you remember exactly how it was said.

Prepare as best you can for an interview, but try to be flexible. Have some prepared questions—but sometimes your subject will surprise you and say something you didn’t expect. This surprise has the potential to become the meat of the story, so pay attention and go with the flow.

Always be prepared to go off script—it happens more often than not.

Learn to draw out your subject if they give one word answers. If your subject rambles on, it’s your job is to help them drill down to what’s important. Becoming a good interviewer is a skill you have to develop.

Sometimes you’re going to have a difficult subject matter. You never want to leave with nothing… So you may want to start with some innocuous questions, so that you have some information if they decide to back out when you start asking the difficult questions.

The Importance of Photography and Visuals

Having some visual—a photo or illustration—helps 100% of the time when pitching non-fiction pieces to publications.

If you’re selling non-fiction, you’ll do a lot better if your pitch/story comes packaged with photography. It will make you an easier choice.

When you do your own photography, you’re going to need a photo release signed from your subjects. Be aware of the legalities of that sort of thing. Say you’re doing a story about a sporting event and you take a crowd shot—that’s in public, so that’s acceptable. But say you’re doing an article on the obesity epidemic or a particular actor or something else personal—you can’t just include any photos you want of people without the subject’s explicit approval.

You can create a photo release form that you have people sign who are giving you their face/their property for a photo.

Photo releases can also go a long way to reassuring people that you’re a legit business-person and not just a scammer.

Libraries and public domain collections can provide photography as well (with appropriate release credit, of course), that you can also include with your pitches.

Long Form Journalism for Indie Publishers

Long form journalism pieces are about 5k–10k words, though length may vary.

Kindle Singles is full of great long form journalism (you can submit your work). Here’s an article about long form journalism published around the time that Kindle Singles began.

Since there aren’t a lot of markets for long form, you might consider self-publishing a piece that would be considered “long form journalism”, but doesn’t seem to fit any existing paying market.

Copyright for Non-Fiction

If you’re self-publishing a non-fiction piece, don’t neglect your copyrights (example: Coyote Ugly was based off a GQ article).

To copyright your work, go to It costs $35 to copyright something. They request you send them the highest form of the publication, send them two copies of the work, and they will verify it and send you a receipt. It’s much more difficult for someone to violate a copyright of yours if you have already gone through the process of copyrighting it formally. If you already have it in hand, the issue will be resolved quicker.

Resell Rights

After your rights revert (if you only sold, for instance, First North American Serial Rights), you can resell your work. Typically, publishers will pay 1/3rd of the original price for a previously printed piece.

Photos you used for your articles can also resell, with the article or separately.

If you’re selling your work, make sure you find out what kind of rights you are selling. Many publishers now will ask for exclusive and permanent rights (“in perpetuity”), which means you as the author will never get the rights to that material back. If you decide to agree to that kind of contract, make sure you know why you are doing it and what you’re getting into.

Here is some more information on types of Copyright for authors.

Tips for Getting Non-Fiction Published in Magazines

  • Editors are busy, but they go through a lot of material.
  • A lot of publications have a skeleton staff and have to buy a lot from freelancers.
  • Submitting complete stories cold will rarely get published. Pitch the story first with a query letter.
  • Make it as easy on an editor as you can: don’t send an elaborate story proposal.
    • Keep it brief but well-rounded.
    • Don’t inundate them with a ton of material.
    • The main thing they want to know is that you’re capable of doing the work, on time.
    • Include where the photography is going to come from-you or someone else you know who can do it.
    • Provide a turn-key package as much as you can—this will get you more work. For instance, use the style-guide they use, provide photos, a concise pitch for the story, details about who you might interview, what your angle is, an approximate word-length, ask whether they want an invoice on submission (or, if not, when), ask them what format they want the final piece in (check submission guidelines online if you can).
    • When you turn in your stories, include your sources so the publication can fact-check them, and all contact info for anyone you interviewed or featured.
    • Make it as easy for the publication as you can! Follow ups are fine, but don’t pester editors with too many follow ups.
    • Make sure you’ve read the publication and understand it. You don’t want to pitch an inappropriate story.

About Steve Statham

Steve Statham was editor of a monthly automotive magazine for seven years, and was managing editor of another publication for four years. He has had 12 non-fiction books published by Motorbooks and Publications International, with combined sales of more than 130,000 paper copies. As a freelancer, he has had hundreds of feature, technical and travel articles published in dozens of consumer magazines and websites.

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