non-fiction in the classroom

3. Letting the facts speak
by John Malam

Article on writing children's non-fiction, published in ‘The Writer's Handbook Guide to Children's Writing’, (Macmillan, 2004)

Children's non-fiction covers a host of virtues and as many, if not more, sins. It is a category defined by what it is not – it is not fiction – rather than by what it is. While some non-fiction books are solid information or fact books (ones that children are encouraged to use at school), others adopt a story-like style and become narrative non-fiction, replete with invented characters, dialogue and imaginary settings, through which runs a stream of truth. The same book may be shelved in the ‘information’ section of a library, yet a bookshop may categorise it as ‘reference’. So it is, that ‘non-fiction’ is an umbrella term for a wide range of books.

For writers who venture into the world of children's non-fiction, where the objective is to impart information in a clear and concise style, there can be a steady supply of work from a range of clients and, as finished books enter the UK public library system, there's the prospect of an annual payment from the Public Lending Right scheme – the nearest thing to a royalty many non-fiction authors will receive.

Bookshops, libraries and schools

Just as children's fiction can be sub-divided into categories (books for beginner readers, ones for confident readers, teen fiction, and so on), non-fiction is also targeted at specific markets. The major division is between books published for sale through high street retailers, and those that will spend their working lives as library books. While the former are titles with wide popular appeal – anything from a title about, say, text messaging, to a heavyweight encyclopaedia – the latter tend to be subject-specific tools: resources created in response to the needs of schools. Non-fiction books are invariably age-specific, frequently linked to the bands of the National Curriculum.

The ideas factory

A key difference between fiction and non-fiction is where the initial idea for a new book comes from. While fiction generally stems from an original idea plucked from who-knows-where by an author, non-fiction has a more methodical genesis. Typically, a publisher or packager (an independent product developer) conceives the title in-house. Rarely do freelance authors submit successful ideas of their own but, if they do, the odds are on finding that, by some strange coincidence, a publisher has already come up with an almost identical proposal. Should this ever happen to you, interpret it as a sign that there are very few completely original ideas when it comes to writing children's non-fiction – facts are facts: it's what you do with them that counts.

Bear in mind that publishers and packagers should know the market better than anyone. They know what to supply it with, they know what they can produce, they know what they can sell – not now, but at some point within the next twelve months or so, which is how far ahead they usually look. What they need are people to make their idea a reality – someone to write the words (author), someone to draw the pictures (illustrator), someone to locate the images (picture researcher), someone to join the pieces together (designer), someone to check the author's facts (expert consultant), and someone to co-ordinate this scattered group from start to finish, issue instructions, dot the i's and cross the t's, while all the time keeping an eye on the clock and the budget (editor). The author is part of this time-honoured team of freelance and in-house professionals, each with an essential contribution to make. There's no room for a prima donna or a jobsworth.

Writer for hire

Aspiring authors must make it their business to circulate their CVs to let editors know who they are, what they've written (or what they can write about), and what, if anything, they specialise in. If the writer's experience fits the editor's requirements, a match is made and a project gets started. While some projects might only require generalist writers, able to turn their skills to a range of topics, others may call for specialists with in-depth subject knowledge and authority. It's the editor's decision but, equally, an author should feel confident that they are the right person for the job. It's easier to turn down a project rather than start one, then withdraw from it at a late stage in its development.

Chances are, the publisher or packager will have already produced sample material to whet appetites for the book. This is usually the book cover and some pages from it, mocked-up with dummy text and pictures to look like the real thing. Its sole purpose is to be shown to potential customers (buyers in bookshop chains, schools and libraries, and overseas distributors). It's designed to gauge whether there's life in a project, or not. If the reaction is positive and orders are forthcoming, that's when the editor has real need of an author.

The editor briefs the author about the project, outlining details such as book title, number of pages, page size (width and height), intended age-range, estimated number of words per spread, whether there are to be side-bars and panels with text separate from the main material, what sort of images will be used (illustrations, photographs, or both), if there's to be a resource section (glossary, further information, index), and what the deadline and payment terms are. Importantly, the editor will outline the writing style the author should follow. This can be virtually anything, from the didactic to the humorous. If mock-up material has been produced, the editor sends copies to the author – it's a visual interpretation of the brief, showing exactly what the publisher or packager is setting out to create. Authors generally find mock-ups useful, as they can see exactly how the book is expected to shape up.

However, a brief can be a moveable feast, with changes sprung on the author who has little choice but to go along with them (the number of pages are reduced; the word count is increased). Remember, we're describing a commissioned book, where the author is under contract to work to a plan.

Research is the key skill

As US screenwriter Wilson Mizner (1876–1933) put it: ‘Copy from one, it's plagiarism; copy from two, it's research.’ This is good advice for any non-fiction author. Research is at the heart of all non-fiction writing. To do the job, and to do it well, an author has to be persistent in the search for information, consistent in the use of facts, and accurate in how knowledge is used and interpreted. Equally, a children's non-fiction author should be aware of what will excite and inform a young reader, and what will not. Knowing where to find information and, importantly, checking that it is reliable, are essential research skills that any self-respecting non-fiction author must have. A specialist author should be aware of the latest developments in the field, so current knowledge can be filtered and passed on to children, giving the book a competitive advantage over one written by a non-specialist.

While some books are relatively easy to research, using libraries, museums and reputable websites, others require a more journalistic approach, interviewing contacts and visiting relevant places. However the research is done, the underlying function is essentially the same – a quest for knowledge that an author can put into a learning context for children, enabling them to grasp a concept, follow a sequence, perform an instruction, and so on.

For most authors, the research phase is the hardest part of the job. It's when they invest the most time, gathering a mass of data from which they will select what will – and what will not – make it through to the final draft of the book.

The synopsis – a promise to make and keep

In common with fiction, non-fiction books start off with a synopsis. Briefed by the editor, the author knows the project parameters. If a book is conceived as a thirty-two page title, it's no good submitting a synopsis for one with forty-eight pages (books are typically planned with pages in multiples of 16 – 32, 48, 64, 80, 96, 112, 128, etc., with illustrated non-fiction information titles favouring the lower page extents).

The synopsis is the book structure in outline, designed to show both author and editor how the subject will be treated. It's when the author puts the research data into order, boiling it down to little more than a list of key points that will be covered on each double-page spread, or in each chapter. Think of it as the author's promise to the editor of things to come. But it's more than merely a bullet-point description of the narrative (where narrative includes main text, plus text that is to appear in side-bars and panels). A children's non-fiction author also has to think about the visual content of the book, and this is where the non-fiction synopsis is significantly different to that of a fiction book.

The author is responsible for giving guidance on what illustrations are to be drawn, and what photos will be needed. If the book is to have original illustrations, the synopsis should contain instructions for what is to be drawn. These can be written instructions ("‘on page eight we need to see a cross-section through a volcano for the main illustration, and also a series of smaller pictures showing the different types of volcano – cone, fissure, shield, composite’"), or photocopies of images taken from existing books. This is not to say the illustrator has to copy the author's instructions to the letter. Rather, it's a way of easing an illustrator into a project, suggesting what the author has in mind.

Sometimes, the quickest and clearest method of communicating visual ideas is for the author to sketch things out. No-one expects the author to be an artist, but anything is better than nothing at all. Another method is to take snapshots, particularly of details that are difficult to describe or unlikely for the illustrator to locate independently. For example, when I was commissioned to write a book on how a hospital works, the illustrator based his pictures on photos I took as I went behind the scenes in every department, seeing equipment and procedures the public are unaware of. Had I not done this, I would have been faced with countless requests for picture reference. Worse still, the illustrator might have misinterpreted written instructions and drawn the wrong piece of equipment, or put people in incorrect poses for the tasks I was writing about.

If a book is to have photos, then the author should itemise what's required (‘"page 20 – a close-up photo of a shark's jaw; page 44 – a photo of a surfboard bitten by a shark’"). This ‘wants’ list is used by a picture researcher, whose job is to obtain photos from commercial picture libraries, private collections, museums, and so on.

A non-fiction synopsis can end up as a lengthy document, and it's not uncommon for it to have as many (or more) words than the finished book. And when the synopsis is written, and the editor has approved it, only then is it time to start writing.

Two ways to write the book

A non-fiction book is either text-led or design-led. If it's text-led, the author will be required to submit the stated amount of words (or near enough), following the synopsis. The editor will then work closely with the designer, illustrator and picture researcher, bringing together the different elements (words, illustrations, photos) to produce page layouts. The author is sent a set of layouts to check and amend as necessary.

If the book is design-led, the text will be the last thing to slot into place. The other team members will do their bit, working closely to the author's synopsis. The end result will still be page layouts – but with gaps left for the text. Again, the layouts come to the author who ‘writes to fit’. This is both a pleasurable and an inconvenient way to write. On the one hand the author can see how much (or how little) text is needed. On the other, it can be nigh-on impossible to condense an idea so it fits the space allocated to it. All is not lost, since the layouts can usually be re-jigged to free-up space for the text.

Clarity of expression is essential. The maxim of ‘one thought in one sentence’ could have been devised for non-fiction writing. It's hard to put this into practice without a text degenerating into staccato prose, but for the very young, or for reluctant readers, this may be just what is required.

Whichever way the text is written, the author should ideally be involved in the layout process and be invited to comment on illustrations, photos, page design, and relationship of text to the other elements. Not every publisher or packager consults the author at this stage, but it's better for everyone if they do. As the layouts gradually evolve into the finished designs of the book, the author will be asked to write captions for illustrations and photos, compile a glossary based on the final, edited version of the text and, if an indexer is not to hand, produce an index, too. After this, the book is sent to the printer’s, which can be anywhere in the world. A colour proof of every page is produced, which the editor checks. Sometimes the author checks the colour proofs, too, but if not, then the next thing he sees are finished copies of the book.

Getting started in non-fiction

There is no special route that leads an aspiring author into writing children's non-fiction. Suffice to say that a liking for working with informational texts is a prerequisite to success, as is the skill to ferret out nuggets of knowledge from a plethora of sources.

Many children's non-fiction authors have worked in-house as editors, before swapping roles, as I did. As editors they will have commissioned texts for their employer's books, and will have guided them on their way to publication. They have a distinct advantage as they understand the creative process, knowing who does what, when, why and how. This is not to say there is no way in for those without editorial experience, but it would be misleading to suggest the doors are wide open. It's in editors' interests to find new talent, and if you have something to offer, it's up to you to do some basic market research. Familiarise yourself with who non-fiction publishers are, and what they are currently publishing – then contact individual editors and introduce yourself.

Those with specialist knowledge are in a strong position. A teacher with experience of special educational needs may be matched by an educational publisher to a project about dyslexia or attention deficit disorder. A biologist or geneticist writing about genes and DNA is preferred to someone who's not been near a microscope since schooldays. An historian will make a better job of a book about Mesopotamia than someone who's never heard of the place. Equally, experts may find themselves recruited as consultants or researchers, commissioned to work with an experienced author who translates their knowledge into child-friendly text.

Copyright, deadlines, agents and money

And finally, the bottom line. Children's non-fiction authors seldom retain copyright in their books. Deadlines for delivery of text can be frighteningly short. Agents don't want to represent children's non-fiction authors. Flat fees are the norm, and royalties are usually out of the question.

Why don't non-ficton authors retain copyright in their work? Let's put it like this: whose work is it? Sure, the author has written the text, but if it's a commissioned book, then the idea has probably come from a publisher or packager, so they regard ownership as theirs – lock, stock and full stop. Contracts spell this out in excruciating detail, demanding authors sign away a whole swathe of rights that would make a fiction author or agent reach for the red pen. You sign it to get paid, and in return you give up any continuing interest in the book. Thereafter, you really don't want to know if it goes on to sell a million copies, is translated into a dozen languages, or is reissued some years later with a changed title to make it seem ‘new’. No, you really don't want to know this.

Why are the deadlines tight? The usual reason is because a publisher or packager is already committed to publishing the book on a given date, and working back from that dictates how much time is available for writing, illustrating, designing, printing, shipping and distributing the book. I once accepted a commission for a TV tie-in book. The series was to be screened in January, and it went without saying that the book had to be in the shops at that time. I was contacted in October and given the brief for the book – forty-eight-pages of interviews, activities, things to make, and information about the historical period of the series. It was a tall order, made even more demanding by the fact that there was to be a press launch the second week in December for the series and the books (there was an adult book too, commissioned long before the children's book). Working back from this date gave me little more than three weeks to research it, write it and check layouts. On the very day of the launch, finished books arrived from the printer's in Belgium. I'm sure the ink was still tacky. Admittedly, this is an extreme example of a tight deadline, and corners were cut to meet it. A more realistic schedule is outlined in the panel on page below.

Why don't agents represent children's non-fiction authors? Two reasons: money and insider knowledge. An agent will usually take a 10–15 per cent slice of an author's income from a book. Given that non-fiction books pay flat fees, not royalties, and the financial offer can be, and often is, modest, there's not enough in it to make it worthwhile for an agent. Another reason is that non-fiction authors know as well as anyone in the business who publishes what, and which editor works where. There's no need for a go-between to drum up work for an author who's perfectly capable of finding their own. And if you think an agent might be able to improve a fee, think again. The editor is looking to hire a writer, and if Person A is too expensive, then Person B's phone will ring. This is not to say fees are non-negotiable, and an author (whether a new one or an old hand) should not be averse to asking for more, for whatever reason. Politely informing a stingy publisher or packager of the better rates offered by others will not only educate them but, hopefully, gain a better offer.

So, what are the fees? Rates vary between firms, and according to the nature of the project. While one firm may offer £1,500 for a thirty-two-page book (this is pretty much the going-rate), another will offer £1,000 or less, justifying it on the grounds that little text is needed, yet just as much effort may be needed by the author from start to finish. Payment is usually made in three stages (signature of contract, delivery of text, and checking of layouts or proofs). Yes, these are low fees, but libraries are buying fewer books and bookshops stock only a limited range of children's non-fiction titles. The knock-on is smaller print-runs that generate lower incomes – hence there is less in the budget for authors, illustrators, and so on.

Other commissions a writer can seek out include writing for magazines and partworks, or contributing to multi-author volumes, such as encyclopaedias. In these cases, authors are usually paid rates of between £100 and £200 per thousand words.

Established children's non-fiction authors who write for fees do so knowing that to make a living they have to be adept at keeping several projects running simultaneously. Incomes can be supplemented by making school visits, which pay well and on time, and there's always the PLR payment to look forward to each February, plus payments made by the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) for works which are photocopied by schools.

Despite the obvious drawbacks of writing children's non-fiction, there's nothing more satisfying than spending a day in a school, talking to children, their parents and teachers, and seeing how a class uses non-fiction books which, to their writer, feel like ‘children’. All thoughts of being on a ‘writing treadmill’ evaporate, until emails, answerphone messages and letters are picked up that night, bringing with them the usual range of editorial queries and, hopefully, offers of new work.

Sample schedule for a children's non-fiction book

September – publisher/packager has idea for new book
October – publisher/packager takes mocked-up sample material to the Frankfurt International Book Fair;
    starts selling the idea to build up a viable print-run
November – editor contacts author with briefs about the project
February – deadline for delivery of text
March/April – publisher/packager takes text and artwork to the London International Book Fair and the Bologna     Children's Book Fair (the big one in children's publishing); continues to build up a viable print-run
May/June – final development of page layouts; colour proofs produced
July/August – book is printed; bulk stock shipped to warehouse; copies distributed to bookshops, schools
    and libraries
September – publication, at the start of a new school year

Text © John Malam 2004.