Genre First, Target Market Second

My last post was about practical ways to create alluring titles for fiction.

What about nonfiction? How do you approach that?

You’re probably going to roll your eyes reading this, but I’ll write it again anyway. The best place to start when figuring out the appropriate title for your magnum opus is…GENRE.

Here are my four main big silos of nonfiction, which I’ve cribbed from a longer post over at, which you can read here.


These are essays/books that are written for and read by a very specific readership.

These groups of readers are clearly defined, but usually small in number. As Seth Godin would say, readers of academic works are Tribal readers dedicated to exacting passions/professions.

The narrative form of the writing is far more about “presenting the findings” than it is about entertaining the reader. The assumption of the writer of academic work is that her readership is absolutely engrossed by the subject matter itself and so really just wants to get the skinny on what it is the writer discovered or what the writer’s particular argument is. These readers don’t need to be spoon-fed the previous data or history of the art. They just want to know the innovative stuff.


These are generally prescriptive books “for the trade audience.”  What that means is that these books are written for the general Joe who wants to learn the best way to plant his garden, without having to enroll at Penn State’s Agricultural school. Or a general Jane who wants to learn how to change the oil in her old Volkswagen Beetle without going to a mechanic or trade school.

Narrative Non-Fiction:

These works are completely story based. That is, narrative nonfiction writers use the techniques and craft of fiction in order to contextualize their reportage so that it conveys a message (controlling idea/theme).

In other words, the writer/journalist collects the usual data involved in reporting a story. But instead of just presenting the traditional Who, What, Where, When and How? out of the old-school newspaper reporter’s toolbox, narrative nonfiction writers focus on the Why? something happened.

What Narrative Nonfiction allows is for the subjective point of view of the writer to argue his case. But the journalist can’t just make things up. He has to present the evidence, the factual details of the reporting that support his particular point of view.

But also he can’t just make declarative statements like an academic because they are not concrete findings.  They are subjective. So he has to embed those ideas inside of the story.

For example, in his seminal work What it Takes: The Way to the White House, journalist Richard Ben Cramer’s controlling idea/theme of the entire work is:

To win a Presidential election (or any public office or mass popular acclaim for that matter) requires pinpointed image manipulation, brazen fear mongering, and standing for absolutely nothing beyond embodying the amorphous unconscious public desire of the time. (Hope, Make America Great Again, Camelot, Morning in America, etc.) 

But Cramer never states that theme. He builds it upon the bedrock of his reporting and how he chooses to tell the story of that reporting. Like a novelist or short story writer would, he tells a story that embodies his theme.

He chose the title What it Takes: The Way to the White House (nice alliteration too with What, Way and White) in order to incite readers to go with him on his journey to find an answer (the theme inside his book). It was a perfect title for a book about how President George Bush (the first) was elected POTUS in 1988… As brilliant today as it was back in the 1990s.

The Big Idea Book:

The Big Idea Book draws from all three of the nonfiction categories above and when one succeeds, it’s capable of satisfying readers of the other three nonfiction Genre silos too.

Academics appreciate the research cited to support the Big Idea. How-To readers take away actionable steps that they believe can better their lives. And Narrative Nonfiction readers are captivated by the storytelling.

This is why Big Five publishers love the Big Idea Book…it can become a blockbuster bestseller.

Examples of Big Idea Books are Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Message, Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock, James Gleick’s Chaos, Thomas L. Friedman’s The World is Flat, and of course Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point.

So those, Academic, How-to, Narrative nonfiction and Big Idea are our four nonfiction silos.

Let’s say we’ve written and academic book about Deoxyribonucleic Acid Repair Mechanisms in Eukaryotic cells. We’ve plumbed the depths of research about DNA repair. We’ve conducted our own experiments to explore an uncharted protean repair mechanism. And now we’re ready to write a textbook for post graduate microbiology scholars interested in pursuing a career in DNA repair research.

What should we call our book?

Here are some thoughts using our four silos as inspiration:

  1. DNA for Dummies, How-to get a high paying job spending eighteen hours a day in a sterile laboratory
  2. Double Helical Dreams, Watson, Crick and the Desire to Fix the Unfixable
  3. The Micro Matrix: How Tiny Changes in the Software of Life Have Big Effects
  4. DNA Repair: A Comprehensive Survey with Practical Experimental Methodologies

I think you’d agree that Number Four is right on the money for a $250 textbook target marketed to science geeks deep inside the ivory tower.

Don’t get cute when you have a perfectly identified audience and the means to deliver to them exactly what they want.

Which brings me to the second consideration after you’ve pinpointed whether or not your book is Academic, How-To, Narrative Nonfiction, or Big Idea…


Who is your target audience? The first adopters, the people who will be excited that you’ve written the thing you’ve written?

Let me walk you through my thinking for deciding to call my book The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know and of how I decided to target a very limited, but dedicated readership.

Years ago, when I first started working with Steve Pressfield and we were beginning the editorial process on his novel Gates of Fire, I inadvertently told him that I’d throw my “grid” on his manuscript and get back to him with some suggestions.

Steve jumped all over that notion.

He wanted to know what my grid was. He wanted me to explain to him how I came up with it. He wanted to understand how I went about editing fiction. And as Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine said to Claude Raines’ Louis Renault in Casablanca…it was “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

So for over ten years, Steve and my shorthand for editing was “gridding it.”

The thing about grids though is that they connote science. They’re mathy. Scary for a lot of people.

When we think of a grid, we think of organizational boxes and very analytic systems. Simply calling my book THE GRID would turn off the very audience that I needed to attract. Storytellers or those wishing to become one some day are the kind of people who ran kicking and screaming from science and math when they were in school.

So just adding STORY in front of GRID made a lot of sense. It has that sort of “these two things don’t go together” quality that is intriguing. Like Jumbo Shrimp.

The thing all of us soon learn when we start to write a story is that it’s a very difficult thing to get a handle on. And after one futzes and fizzles for months getting nowhere, the writer will try anything, ANYTHING, to unblock their confusion. They’ll even turn to math and science if it will help.

Plus there was no trademark in use under STORY GRID, but many using just GRID.  So if I were to ever expand the Story Grid universe to include courses or software etc., I’d be able to protect the methodology from it being exploited by someone else. Nice.

So what about the subtitle?

This decision was tricky.  It would have to be directed at the early adopting target market.

I could have gone broad and commercial, blatantly How-To, with something like: A Simple, Practical and Step-by-Step Method to Becoming a Professional Writer.

There is no shortage of frustrated storytellers out there looking for a quick fix and I could have rejiggered the book to deliver that kind of content.

But I decided not to. I moved more toward the Academic.


As someone whose dedicated his entire professional life to book editing, I decided to focus on that craft.  To create a textbook for those without any resource available to learn how to make stories better.

I wanted to attract someone like myself when I was just starting out in book publishing, someone with the desire to dig deep into storytelling craft in order to help writers better their work.

I wanted to shine the light on what I think is the most underappreciated art in story creation…the art of story editing.

So while I could have laser focused on the much larger aspiring writer marketplace and published a book that didn’t get into all of the wonky stuff editors concern themselves with (you’ve seen those crazy graphs and spreadsheets), I would not reach that 25 year old guy like I was who wanted the goods on what it means to be an editor.

With the broad How-To approach, that guy/gal would think The Story Grid was another flim-flam method to separate desperate writers from whatever money was left in the checking accounts.  I didn’t want to convey that Story Grid is just another gimmick.  It’s grounded in deep thought and study.

So after I did an elevator pitch saying all of that for Seth Godin and he offered me What Good Editors Know to use as my subtitle. I jumped on it because it was just four words and it makes the promise to my target audience that I’ll tell them what I know.  No pulling back.

I figured then (and still do now) that I’m in this racket for the long haul. If my big mongo textbook only attracts the most nerdy of story nerds and the very limited market of people wishing to learn the editorial craft in order to pursue the editor life, I’m okay with that. [It turned out that there are far more of these nerds than I ever anticipated, so thank you!]

The thing is that I have more than one idea and I have more than one book in me.

And so do you.

That’s a very important thing to remember. You’re going to write more than one book in your career. So don’t overload your first book or second or tenth with such lofty expectations that you overshoot the core of people who would really benefit from it…just to pander to a larger marketplace.

Next up is how to take your perfect title and figure out how to think about it visually.

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  1. Melvin Hall on April 1, 2016 at 7:20 am

    Thanks Shawn. Love the insight.

  2. Mary Doyle on April 1, 2016 at 9:36 am

    Thanks for another great post Shawn!

  3. Paul C on April 1, 2016 at 10:00 am

    There might be a day in the near future with a computer named Story Grid that replaces authors and editors and writes at the highest level in any genre. Read the stories about how Google’s artificial general intelligence computer AlphaGo just beat a Go Grandmaster and you can easily imagine such a computer writing almost anything. The computer could have a database of every book in history, then trained to write on the books of the fifty best writers, then have it search every relevant source online for the new book material, while guided by the Story Grid.

    • Michael Beverly on April 1, 2016 at 11:56 am

      Edit “might,” replace with “will,” and your first sentence will be stronger and more accurate (imho).

      Anyone interested in that topic simply has to read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. All the way back in the 1960’s RAH was writing stories about computers learning things (becoming sentient).

      What is fun about a scene in that book, in comparison to this idea of computers learning to write is that Mike the computer wants to learn to tell jokes and understand humor.

      So he scoured the libraries available and then invented his own jokes, trying them on the two main characters to see which ones were funny. In other words: he learned as a child learns, albeit much faster.

      But, no worries for Shawn or any of us, it’ll be many years before such a computer is created. And by then, if Ray Kurzweil is correct, we’ll be computers too, so the difference will be negligible anyway.

  4. Michael Beverly on April 1, 2016 at 12:00 pm


    You wrote this at the end of 2014:

    Hi Michael,
    Yes. A pantheon of the top titles in each genre is definitely something I’m planning to create. Stay tuned.
    All the best,

    Any word on how this is coming?

    Have you seen this:

    Any chance we could help?

    Any chance you could work on this transparently as you’ve posted in the blog chapters leading up the actual book?

    For the record: I’ve read a few books over the last year due to your recommendations and it’s very helpful.

    • Shawn Coyne on April 6, 2016 at 11:56 am

      Hi Michael,
      Duly noted. Many thanks for the suggestions.

  5. Amanda Dennis on April 4, 2016 at 2:56 am

    Hi Shawn! thanks for sharing such an interesting information here! This is my first time i know about the four main big silos of nonfiction writing and I found this information really helpful and informative! It is great that you managed to combine your explanation with examples, it made reading of this article easier and more understandable!
    Best wishes for you!

  6. Ryan Nagy on April 10, 2016 at 10:22 am

    Thanks for writing this and explaining your constructs so clearly and cleanly. It not only helps me for writing books but for focusing blog posts. I think I lost momentum, self-interest and readers on one of my blogs when I began doing narrative/story, when my readers and myself were more interested in academic posts.

    This article is a big help. Most appreciated.


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