Is Your Non-Fiction Book About Your Story, Your Readers’ Problems or a Subject?

If your book shares your story in an autobiography or life lessons in a memoir, readers may appreciate getting to know you through your book so they can draw their own conclusions about how it applies to them or simply enjoy seeing the world through your eyes. If your book’s focuses on the reader as a self-help or how-to book that instructs readers on how to get a specific outcome, then readers appreciate your message as a solution to a problem in their life that they are already motivated to solve. If your book focuses on sharing information about something in the natural world or part of our social living experience or presenting your argument on a specific topic, then readers with a curiosity about your subject will appreciate the information.

Your challenge as an aspiring non-fiction author is to decide which approach is the best match for your book goals.

Memoirs and Autobiographies Focus on Your Story

Everyone has a book on the inside of them, and that book is usually a memoir or autobiography that shares their life story (autobiography) or life lessons (memoir). Although these books  are about you and your life, they invite readers to adopt your life lessons as their own.

During my undergraduate college years I had the opportunity to interview a woman local community leader who said something that still sticks with me to this day: people don’t know what they don’t know. I’ve learned that some of the things we don’t know that we don’t know include having problems that we haven’t recognized yet as a problem that needs to be solved.

The beauty of memoirs is that it allows readers to explore life situations through your eyes and borrow your perspective to look at their own life and see what new lessons they learn. Often readers may discover realities about their own lives that were hidden from them before by all the emotions and minor details. For this reason, memoirs are great indirect teaching tools that can be just as effective as parables, folklore and fables that teach by demonstrating situations and their consequences instead of teaching by telling. Memoirs rely on the power of storytelling to make it easy for readers to remember the lessons so they can apply the lessons when they need them without the pressure of someone directly telling them what they should or should not do about a situation that they may or may not recognize as a problem yet.

Autobiographies tend to list life events in chronological order. This can be an easier book to write than a memoir, but readers usually aren’t motivated to read chronological accounts of someone’s life unless it is about a celebrity or someone who has had an unimaginable and distinct life.

Self-Help and How-to Focus on Readers’ Problems

Books that are about the reader are usually self-help or how-to books that instruct readers on what to do to get a specific desired outcome. 

Self-help books often follow the problem/solution or problem/cause/solution pattern to help readers face, trace, erase and replace the problems in their life to help them reach a desired outcome. The problem/solution pattern self-help book opens by describing how the problem is probably affecting the life of readers and shares information that helps the reader understand why the author is a trustworthy source to help them solve the problem, then the book goes into details on how to solve the problem. The problem/cause/solution pattern does the same thing as the earlier pattern but adds a discussion on what causes the pattern before introducing the solutions. The solution may be presented as a series of steps, keys, habits or a specific number of tips for achieving a specific outcome. Self-help books often close with a section on how to avoid common mistakes and a description of the first-steps readers should take to get started.

How-to books focus on presenting a chronological sequence of actions readers can follow to get a specific outcome. Cookbooks, home buying, home repair, car buying, car repair, dating advice, business startup, green living, beauty tips, fitness, pregnancy and parenting books are among the long list of topics that tend to fall under how-to non-fiction books that present a prescriptive method for guiding readers to a desired end. Keep in mind that self-help books and how-to books can include personal stories as illustrations, but these books are driven more by the principles they share that will help readers solve their problems than they are by your personal story.

Informative/Explanatory and Persuasive Books Focus on A Subject

Subject-matter books define, describe, outline, summarize, explain, demonstrate or present an argument on a topic within a generalized subject.

Informative/Explanatory books are the kind that introduce readers to new trends like “Tiny Houses,” social media marketing or online dating. Other examples of books that fall into this category are books that present best practices, share a list of tips, present a list of great resources, describe how solar panels work, explain the difference between investing in real estate and speculating in real estate, summarize the major areas of thought related to having a healthy marriage so readers can choose the approach they like best, explain the difference between faith denominations, describe the steps new believers follow to mature in their faith, describe and demonstrate (through pictures) different activities people can do to minimize their back pain without medicine between massage appointments or even share recipes for making amazing 20 minute dinners. Any of the topics above can easily cross over into self-help or how-to, but if your book focuses primarily on presenting information for a variety of different scenarios so that readers can choose the information they want to use and apply it as they see fit without direction from you, then it is likely an informative/explanatory book. If your book focuses on a specific problem and you have a set sequence of steps you want to guide readers through from beginning to end so you can help them reach a desired outcome, then I recommend looking at the self-help how-to book recommendations above. All informative/explanatory books should be thoroughly researched.

A persuasive book goes beyond merely presenting information to persuading readers that the information supports your claim for how readers should think or act. For example, if you want to go beyond summarizing the major areas of thought on how to have a healthy marriage by arguing a claim on which area of thought is most effective, then you are stepping into a persuasive message. Persuasive books require just as much research, if not more, than their informative/explanatory counterpart.

Your book may fit under more than one subject heading, but you will want to clearly define your primary subject to make it easier for retailers to place your book in the category where your readers are most likely to discover it. Knowing your subject early in your writing process will help you find the best competitors for your book so you can learn more about what readers of your subject expect from their books. BISAC subject headings are the publishing industry standard for organizing books according to the subject of their content. The 2014 edition of BISAC featured the following 49 major non-fiction book subjects (Notice that the non-fiction book genres mentioned above are included as subjects.):

  • Antiques & Collectibles
  • Architecture
  • Art
  • Bibles
  • Biography & Autobiography
  • Body, Mind & Spirit
  • Business & Economics
  • Comics & Graphic Novels
  • Computers
  • Cooking
  • Crafts & Hobbies
  • Design
  • Drama
  • Education
  • Family & Relationships
  • Foreign Language Study
  • Games
  • Gardening
  • Health & Fitness
  • History
  • House & Home
  • Humor
  • Juvenile NonFiction
  • Language Arts & Disciplines
  • Law
  • Literary Collections
  • Literary Criticism
  • Mathematics
  • Medical
  • Music
  • Nature
  • Performing Arts
  • Pets
  • Philosophy
  • Photography
  • Poetry
  • Political Science
  • Psychology
  • Reference
  • Religion
  • Science
  • Self-Help
  • Social Science
  • Sports & Recreation
  • Study Aids
  • Technology & Engineering
  • Transportation
  • Travel
  • True Crime

Each subject heading holds several subheadings that represent specific topics within the subject. Books within each topic develop their own set of norms about how they structure their titles, their cover design, how the books are organized, the amount of research they usually include and more. Avid readers will know what others have written on your topic and will judge your book on its ability to meet or even exceed the standard set by these other books and they will expect your book to offer something unique and valuable, so you will want to become familiar with the other books on your topic and in your subject-or genre-as well.

Final Thoughts

All books should be written in a way that is interesting to the reader, but knowing whether your non-fiction book is more about your story or your readers’ problems will help you understand which writing tradition-or book genre-your book follows. Knowing which genre your book follows will make it easier to find books to read that are like the one you want to write. When you can find books that are like the one you want to write, you will see different organizational strategies and writing styles that you can adapt to fit your style and your goals for your book. Seeing different organizational strategies and writing styles may be just what you need to help you deal with writer’s block and to help inspire you to finish your book so you can fill the void left behind by the other published titles. Not only will knowing your book’s genre help you fill the void left behind by other published titles, but it will also make it easier to write and publish a book that matches or even exceeds the expectations of readers who often read your genre and promote your book in a way that will capture their attention.

If your book is really about sharing your amazing story or your life story to allow others to be inspired by and to benefit from your life lessons, then a memoir or autobiography is probably the best writing tradition to adopt for your book.

If you are an expert or an advocate who is presenting tried-and-proven information that will help readers solve a problem in their life they are already motivated to solve by helping them reach a specific outcome, then a self-help book or how-to book is the writing tradition to adopt for your book.

If your book presents information or an argument on a specific topic, then you will want to do as much research as possible on your book’s subject-matter to help you write a book that is easy to understand and adds value to your reader’s understanding of your subject.

Now that you know which genre your book falls into it’s time to get serious about writing your book. If you haven’t already, I recommend that your first step be to schedule at least three hours of “Book Appointments” into your weekly schedule so that you will have time set aside to focus on your book. If not having an overview of the entire process makes you anxious like me, then browse through the link included in one the last few paragraphs to see tips for writing those books and you can learn more about publishing through the e-guide that comes with your free Author Info Kit. After you feel comfortable about the entire process and you are ready to get started, I recommend reading books like the one you want to write. While you read, take notes on what you like and what you don’t like about those books so you can create an unfair advantage for your book and complete other planning activities for your book like the 15 min. Publishing Plan. Your Author Info Kit has all these resources conveniently located in one spot and features a downloadable checklist to help you make your way through the resources during your weekly scheduled Book Appointments.

If you’d feel more comfortable talking with me so I can help you decide which genre and writing tradition works best for your book, then book a free consultation with me.

Danielle Fetherson

Danielle helps aspiring authors become published authors. She believes that everyone has at least one book on the inside of them that can make a positive impact on someone else's life. If you have been thinking about writing a book, learn how to start your book today with the free resources at