Fiction vs. Nonfiction: Which Is More Profitable?

If you’re like most writers, you have too many ideas and not enough time to devote to every project. You could have an idea for a nonfiction book and a novel, but you also need to pay the bills. So what’s going to make you more money—a fiction or nonfiction book?

Fiction and non-fiction can both be profitable, or they can be a bust financially. However, a book that can be leveraged into future income will provide a writer the opportunity to make more money. You can make money through book signings, lectures, or derivatives of your book.

Writers often focus on the creative aspect of writing and minimize the financial aspects of selling books. Perhaps that partially explains the difficulty of pinning specific numbers in the publishing world. This article will explore several reasons why.

Both Fiction and Nonfiction Writers Get Paid the Same Way

Writers get paid the same, whether they write fiction or nonfiction. In traditional publishing, the amount of the advance is based on anticipated sales. In nontraditional publishing, the writer’s income is based on sales and the percentage Amazon or other sellers take.

For a nonfiction book, you should anticipate an advance somewhere between $5,000 and $20,000. 

The amount is based on factors including your authority level, the potential audience, and the topic’s relevance. Advances are typically paid in three installments:

  • When you sign the contract.
  • When you deliver the manuscript.
  • When the book is published. 

Then, if the book sells enough copies to pay off your advance, you start receiving royalties.

A writer might use the first portion of the advance to get through the research and writing stage. A nonfiction book will usually require research and, depending on the type of book, interviewing others and even travel. And then, you must turn the notes into a manuscript. It could well take a writer six months to a year to complete the first draft of a nonfiction book.  

Fiction royalties are typically lower, but the fiction writer can come out ahead. 

Unless you’re writing historical fiction, comparatively little research may be needed. So instead of researching and then writing, a fiction writer skips the research. It is a cliché, but time is money.

Advances are not part of nontraditional publishing since the author pays the upfront costs and determines the price, but ebook publishers take the same percentage regardless of the book’s genre. 

Calculating True Sales of a Book Is Difficult

It isn’t easy to calculate how many books were sold unless you are the publisher. If you don’t know how many copies of a book are sold, then it’s difficult to determine whether the writer received additional royalties, assuming you can choose the advance.

And it’s hard to say with certainty whether fiction or nonfiction makes more money. For starters, book sales can be counted by: 

  • The number of copies printed.
  • How many books are shipped to stores and libraries.
  • How many books were bought?
  • The number sold according to Nielsen BookScan

Bookstores often return unsold copies of a book, but publishers don’t reveal how many books were returned. 

The media used BookScan figures when reporting on the number of books sold. But BookScan figures are inaccurate. For example, the sales from scanned books at large bookstores are recorded by Bookscan, but not sales to libraries, and it doesn’t track ebook sales. 

What this means is that it’s difficult to calculate how much money a writer makes from a book. 

For example, a nonfiction writer might get a $20,000 advance but not sell enough copies to earn additional royalties. In contrast, a fiction writer who didn’t receive an advance might sell enough books to earn more than $20,000 from royalties.

Nonfiction Can Have Additional Expenses

While a nonfiction book might sell more copies than a similarly priced fiction book, the nonfiction book can have more expenses. For example, the cover expenses might be similar, but a nonfiction book often needs pictures, charts, or tables.

A publisher will consider those costs, but if you’re going to self-publish, either in print or ebook format, you will need to do so.

You don’t want to be fooled into thinking that a nonfiction ebook will be the same price as a fiction book of similar size. Amazon, for example, charges a “delivery fee” per megabyte for authors who choose the 70% royalty fee structure. 

So if your book contains many images, you might want to consider the 35% royalty rate to offset the delivery charge.

Fiction and Nonfiction Readers Are Not the Same

Although you might read both fiction and nonfiction, when it comes to marketing books, you need to know the differences in the selection and purchasing process of these two kinds of readers. 

Fiction Readers Are Loyal To Genres and Authors

Fiction readers tend to browse bookstores by genres and authors. They also follow book bloggers and sites like GoodReads when selecting books. Writers should find bloggers who write about their niche and ask them to mention or review their books.

Nonfiction readers search for books by topics and choose books based on perceived usefulness and the writer’s authority. Writers should use keyword analysis for ebooks. If you are not a recognized expert, get quotes and reviews from people who are, or build an online platform of readers.

Nonfiction Readers Expect To Pay More For Books

You will be able to charge more for a nonfiction book because people expect nonfiction to be more expensive, and they also see a nonfiction book as having helpful information they can use.

However, pricing is more important to fiction readers, as many fiction readers will think nothing of reading a novel in one to two days. A reader like that will be more sensitive about the price of books. 

But you don’t want to assume this means a nonfiction book will make more money. Fiction sales have a higher volume, so a larger profit margin versus more sales makes it, once again, difficult to compare the two.

Bottom Line

The bottom line is that you need to think ahead. If you have the expertise to write more than one nonfiction book, then plan what else you can sell in the same niche. And a fiction writer should think ahead also. If your first book is part of a series, you are on your way to building an audience. Ultimately, don’t let money decide what you will write—let your passion guide you.