Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Knowledge Geek Surival

Let's admit it--we nonfiction writers are all knowledge geeks. One of the main reasons we do what we do is because we love learning new 'stuff.' We can't write about it until we learn it, right? And we want to share the cool information that fills our heads with young readers to fuel their wonder at the real world.

I'm getting pretty worried about the future of our profession, however. A recent trip to New York resulted in an opportunity to get to know my editor much better because there really wasn't much to say about my professional work, like----what might I write next? Instead, her parting words were, "Get your contracted manuscript in on time, before we evaporate!" So, after that book and one more with a contract, what will follow?

I've been thinking about survival in the new publishing world, and I think there are a couple of hopeful paths we might take. One is to choose deep, rich topics that do more than just convey the basic information about subjects and events, that make our readers ponder the wider world and that synthesize information from various areas of knowledge so that there's no way a potential reader can log on, google, and learn what our books can teach them.

My 2006 book, "The Buffalo and the Indian: A Shared Destiny," describes the interwoven fate of these two American icons over thousands of years, from the days of buffalo drives by humans on foot through the glory days of horseback hunting, through slaughter and attempts to eradicate both during the nineteenth century, and into today's world, where the white buffalo provides symbolic hope and many tribes acquire their own buffalo herds to help cement their identity and their connection to the natural world. Googleing won't get them this information.

Another survival technique is to create books that appeal to a broader age range, thereby expanding the market potential. "When the Wolves Returned: Restoring Nature's Balance in Yellowstone", my 2008 book, uses a format successfully pioneered by writers like Sneed Collard, with two levels of text for two audiences. The book can also attract the strictly visually oriented book lover as each spread is covered with photos. As a writer, I bristle at the editorial admonishment, "Not too many words," but these days looking has become perhaps more important than reading.

One last possibility for us is to leap into the abyss and combine our love of information with our imaginations to create historical fiction. I've been telling myself this for about ten years, and I've decided it's time to take the leap, especially since I don't see any great nonfiction opportunities out there for me now, and I have several periods and places in history I want to explore. All I need now is stories to go with the facts! Wish me luck.


Gretchen Woelfle said...

Buena suerte, Dorothy, on your historical fiction adventure. As a passionate reader and writer of historical fiction, I find it a challenge and a joy for us research geeks.

Loreen Leedy said...

Hi Dorothy,
One of my editors recently said (paraphrasing now) “A book’s content has to be more than what kids can find on the Internet.” That’s why I shell out shekels for books... because the information is not easily googled and/or it’s presented in an excellent way.

I do think authors and publishers face similar competitive forces as the newspapers do, and can’t rely solely on the same old marketing methods.

And by all means write historical fiction... the more authentic details the more fun it is to read!

Dorothy Patent said...

Thanks for your encouragement, Gretchen and Loreen, and good luck on surviving in this challenging era!