Should You Go Digital (Ebooks) With Your Nonfiction Title?

A comprehensive Table of Contents linked to all entries.

A comprehensive Table of Contents linked to all entries.

Is there a big market for nonfiction ebooks? I truly do not know. As an observer (as opposed to actually publishing nonfiction), it appears to me that nonfiction readers have been slower to adopt and adapt to reading ebooks. I’ve read very few “success” stories from the publishers (trad or indie) about nonfiction titles. This might be partly due to the ereading devices themselves. Older (pre-Kindle) devices and eink readers are best suited for straight text, few bells and whistles–i.e. fiction. Or it might be due to the mindset of the readers themselves. Who knows? Even I, hardcore ebook reader that I am, tend to look to print when I’m in the market for nonfiction.

With the rising popularity of tablets and with so many readers using their smartphones as reading devices, I believe we’ll see a slow, but steady increase in the number of people who read certain types of nonfiction ebooks.

Using hanging indents for a Q&A section.

Using hanging indents for a Q&A section.

There is a real problem in regards to format. For narrative nonfiction–biography, memoir, inspiration, political books, essays–an ebook is a terrific medium. When you start getting into more complicated works–how-to books, art books, reference books, cookbooks, project books–any type of book that readers don’t necessarily read from cover to cover, but instead go to the sections they are interested in at any given moment–ebook limitations become abundantly clear. (I have been disappointed over and over by buying an ebook filled with how-to tips, illustrations, etc. only to find its PITA score is too high for my comfort–so then I have to run out and buy the print edition.) Those types of books might have to go in a completely different direction altogether in order to find a strong market. Apps, perhaps, geared specifically for tablets, online reading and smartphones, eschewing dedicated ereading devices altogether.


A simple table style that renders well across devices.

In my opinion, even though the market for nonfiction appears small right now, I believe that it is growing and that eventually it will be strong enough and steady enough to make nonfiction ebooks profitable for self-publishers. It seems only smart to me that writers with certain types of nonfiction books should go ahead and go digital. The more nonfiction there is on the open market, the more visible it is, the more readers will notice and start buying.

So what types of nonfiction are suitable for ebooks? Considering the limitations of the devices themselves–right now–narrative types with illustrations such as photographs, maps, and “fill the page” type graphics. For example:

  • Histories
  • Biographies
  • Memoirs
  • True Crime
  • Essays
  • Religion
  • Inspirational
  • Political

Books with a high PITA (pain in the ass) factor include:

  • How to
  • Reference
  • Workbooks
  • Cookbooks
  • Project books

When deciding whether or not your project is suitable for an ebook, check the following items:


  • Narrative text
  • Photographs (color and black/white)
  • Illustrations (color and black/white)
  • Simple maps
  • Lists (ordered and unordered, and nested, too)
  • Simple tables
  • Hyperlinks (internal and external)
  • Extensive tables of content
  • Indexes
  • Appendices
  • Endnotes


  • Text heavy graphics–including some maps and charts
  • Boxed tables
  • Faux-scalable images (have to use some formatting tricks, but with great care and understanding of the limitations)
  • Worksheets
  • Fixed format
  • Footnotes


  • Text wrapping around images
  • Truly scalable images such as vector graphics
  • Printable material (While capturing screenshots is possible, very few readers will have the knowledge to capture, rescale, sharpen and print material off their Kindles or Nooks or smartphones, so it’s reasonable to say that what they see on the device is what they get and will go no further. A more reasonable option for writers with worksheets, recipes or other material you WANT readers to print, is to include links to a printable pdf.)

Lists, ordered and unordered, and even nested, render well across devices.

Another thing nonfiction writers need to consider is file size. Most distributors have a limit as to the size of the file you can upload to their site. Amazon also charges a delivery fee of $.15 per MB against your cut. A 10MB ebook will cost you $1.50 per sale. A 50MB file will cost $7.50. You could end up owing them money for every ebook you sell. Images add considerably to file size. Extensive formatting adds to file size.

If you, as a self-publisher, are considering producing your nonfiction project as an ebook, here are some things to take into consideration:

  • Cost analysis. The more images you have, the more complicated the formatting, the bigger the file, the more you will have to charge. Consider, too, how much the book costs to write. Get an idea about how you will price the book and be reasonable. If you have to charge $30 for your ebook just to break even, you need to research the market and figure out if anyone is willing to pay $30 for your ebook.
  • Take the PITA factor into consideration. (For example, I laid out $15 for an ebook about InDesign. The information is worth every penny, but even on my Kindle Fire most of the illustrations are too small to read. So I had to buy the print version which does have illustrations I can actually use. What a pain in the ass–and the publisher is getting no more ebook sales from me.)
  • Forget about making it LOOK like print. Ebooks are not print, and trying to force your digital edition to look exactly like the print edition will probably result in a broken ebook.
  • Exploit the features that ebooks do well. Hyperlinks, internal and external, for instance, giving readers enhanced navigation.
  • Unless you’re an accomplished ebook formatter, add professional help to your cost analysis. Narrative nonfiction with few images can be a good DIY project. For anything more complicated, programs such as MS Word or Scrivener will work against you and produce a poor-quality ebook. You will need to format in html or use an EPUB editor such as Sigil or Vellum.

My conclusion is, if you have a nonfiction project suitable for ebook (in format and price), then don’t let the current market deter you. Get it produced and distributed and let the market catch up to you.




8 thoughts on “Should You Go Digital (Ebooks) With Your Nonfiction Title?

  1. My answer is yes, yes and yes. My one nonfic book, which you formatted, is my number one seller. Always in the top 2-4 in its category.
    I will, however, qualify this ‘yes’. I’m currently reading, rather just finished reading, a nonfiction book released by a mainstream publisher. The formatting is so awful… AWFUL!… I mean, we’re talking appalling here… I am tempted to tell the author, whom I have a relationship, that he should insist his big pub hire someone to reformat the book.
    I won’t tell him because he won’t do it. He’s off on a whirlwind release tour. He believes in the trad pub model. I’m sure the print book is fine. But many many readers will want to buy the ebook and gaaaaaaaa!

    • That’s a shame for the author. Double shame because even if he complains to the publisher, he’ll probably get blown off or told it’s impossible to produce a better ebook.

      The two biggest problems I see with nonfic ebooks are:

      One) the type of book is inappropriate for the format. Like the InDesign book–it was well done, overall, but because the images are not scalable, they ended up being unreadable;

      Two) the producer doesn’t know what they are doing. I’ve seen plenty of ebooks from the big pubs that I am 99% certain are converted pdf files. Now I convert pdf files all the time to load onto my Kindle when I want to read away from my desk and without a hot laptop on my thighs. They look like crap and the user controls never work, so they are NOT proper ebooks and should never be used for commercial purposes. I also see a lot of books that were probably created with InDesign or other publishing program that probably looks fabulous in print, but fails as an ebook because it’s set up like print and uses techniques that do not render well in devices.

      • I bet you’re right. Even the title page is off – they split up one of the words into two lines. Fli ght

  2. I’m working on a nonfiction book which will start out as an ebook and then, hopefully, go to print. I have to say that my research is incredibly easier with ebooks than with print. Finding my highlights and notes is a simple matter of scrolling down the bookmarks column.

    • I’m with you right there, Catana. Even though I do mark up and highlight my books, it always pains me to do so (too sentimental, I suppose, or retaining childhood fears of the librarian catching me doodling in the margins). No such problems with ebooks. Producers who’ve given real thought to organization, layout and a reader’s ability to navigate create ebooks that are a joy to read and use. I’d really, really like to see more development in reference books–even if it means going to apps–because quite frankly many of those are HUGE. I’d rather tote my collection in one neat little package that fits in my purse. 😀

  3. Non-fiction books are good content marketing material for small biz owners and folks looking to launch speaking careers. But Jaye’s right, they just haven’t caught on the same way genre fiction has. I think the formatting considerations would be better if the publishers thought about eBook first type workflow. If it wouldn’t look good on the web, it definitely won’t look good in an eBook. It’s important to keep in mind that the CSS constraints on eBooks, like an early Netscape browser, are horrible.

  4. Jaye – is there a way to add a caption to a graphic in .mobi files? I’ve managed to make it work for .epub, but the Kindle places the captions next to, rather than below, the graphics.

    • Hi Char, it’s a pain on Kindles. The caption coding doesn’t work on all devices and neither does the keep command. I’ve pretty much given up on trying to bully those into behaving. One thing that always works is to make the caption part of the graphic. Use a clear font and avoid italics and it should render fairly well. One problem to keep in mind is that iPhone users using the Kindle app might not be able to zoom the image in order to read the caption.

      If it’s not absolutely imperative to make sure the caption renders on the same “page” I will use a caption style in CSS. I’ll use a smaller font and narrow margins to make it approximate the width of the image. For larger images I might put the caption before the image with a page-break-before command and then size the image so it takes up only 75 or 85% of the screen.

      Email me and I’ll send you some css styles to try.

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