Book Genres: An Overview of Non-Fiction Categories

Surely you know the plot, direction and content of your book, but do you know what genre it falls under? There are hundreds of categories and subcategories that books can be labeled as; just imagine yourself standing amongst the shelves of a library. To best determine what genres you want to read and write, it’s important to first know the difference between fiction and non-fiction.

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Fiction vs. Non-Fiction

Fiction is literature that is purely fantasy, created from the imagination of the writer. Although fiction books can be based on facts, they often embellish details and use creative license to change past events as the author sees fit. Non-fiction, however, must be factual and not based on fantasy. Non-fiction writing is very broad, with many subcategories; read on for a guide to the most popular non-fiction book genres.

Major Non-Fiction Book Genres

Biographies and Autobiographies

A biography is a detailed narrative of a person’s life, sometimes from birth to death, but usually provides an overview of a significant event. They outline major accomplishments, life struggles, family and relationships. It is written from the perspective of another person and many biographies are unauthorized; writers draw from public records and news stories to craft their story.

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Authorized biographies may have some degree of input from the subject or their family members.  There is some debate over whether all biographies are fiction in nature because the writer must embellish or assume some details since they weren’t present for the events, and all work is from a secondary rather than a primary source. However, biographies are based in fact, making them fall under the non-fiction book genre in most libraries.

An autobiography is a story that’s written by the subject themselves, but may also be written by a ghostwriter; the word ‘autobiography’ is derived from Greek and translates as an account of someone’s life as told by the person themselves. These tend to be regarded as truer non-fiction than biographies because the information is received from the primary source.

An autobiography is accepted as a true account of one’s life. Although closely related to memoirs, an autobiography can be written with the help of official documents, family trees, historical information and input from family members, while a memoir is written entirely from the writer’s memory.

Memoirs

The word ‘memoir’ is derived from the French word, ‘mémoire;” it means a memory or reminiscence. This is what you should keep in mind when penning your own. It’s a genre that serves as a small window into a person’s life and shares a snippet of their experiences, almost like a memory being recalled.

The events that a memoir depicts are generally expected to be factual and must have actually occurred in a person’s life. Fabricating life events for the sake of sensationalism in a memoir is not well accepted and notable authors such as James Frey have been publically shamed for inserting false stories into their memoirs for the purpose of selling more books.

You can create as many memoirs as you want in your lifetime. Specializing in a particular instance, time period in your life or series of events that happened to you, memoirs have a more narrow focus than a biography or autobiography.

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I recently wrote a memoir called Secrets of a Nun: My Own Story where I shared my experiences as a nun in the church after leaving my mother and twin sister at the age of 15. In it I detail my deepest thoughts and toughest choices as I navigated my young adult life under strict convent rule. I spent most of my tenure devoting time and love to the needy while risking danger in tough urban neighborhoods on the streets of Harlem. Check it out here to learn about my reasons for ultimately stepping out of the church and beginning my life anew, with a renewed sense of spirituality.

Travel Writing

Travel writing falls under the book genre Creative Non-Fiction and tells the journey of traveling to a particular destination or destinations around the world. They can tell stories of a country or region’s culture, food, art, music, landscape and more. While the writers use facts, history and information about different locations around the globe, they also intertwine personal stories and notes about the journey; all events that happen in a travel book must have also happened in real life.

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A travel book can be considered a “grab bag of sorts;” it incorporates the narrative of a fiction novel, the facts of history, the memoir-like events of the writer’s experience, the descriptive words of a poem and the characters of a short story.

Notable travel books include:

  • A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor, 1977: an account of Fermor’s journey on foot across Europe during 1933-1934
  • The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux, 1975: a four-month journey by train across Europe, the Middle East, India and Southeast Asia
  • Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck, 1980: a road trip through American states with Steinbeck and his poodle dog
  • In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson, 2000: a journey around the country of Australia

Self-Help

Self-help books are one of the world’s oldest and bestselling genres. They can include any self-guided title that aims to improve one’s state of being, determine their religious calling, help them with an emotional problem or through a life transition, offer tips for joining support groups, bettering one’s economic standing and assist with setting  personal goals.

Self-help books have been around for thousands of years; one of the earliest known titles is an Egyptian genre called “Sebayt.” Translated as teaching, the books provided instruction and insight on the stages of life. Self-help books are still very much around today and the industry is thriving; to the tune of more than $11 billion per year.

Any title that is written from the point of view of the author, with an aim to educate and inspire people to make a positive change in their lives can be considered a self-help book. While there is little research about the overall effectiveness of self-help books, they still remain one of the most widely purchased genres in the world.

I recently wrote a self-help book aimed at bettering your life, finding the hidden meaning around you and turning it into boundless happiness. While many self-development books have advice on personal development in an abstract sense, my new title uses dedicated exercises and affirmations to help you harness your intense inner power to bring about the change you seek. Read more about my new book, Exuberant Women Don’t Age – No Time To Waste here.

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3 Tips for Writing a Self-Help Book

To write the best self-help book on the market, follow these three tips.

  1. Keep Up on Your Competition

Unless you’re taking a very unique angle, it’s likely you aren’t the only one writing about a particular topic. Before you write your book, take a look at your competition’s work and see if you can take a new angle or approach. It’s important to keep up with other authors in order to provide your readers with the newest, most relevant content out there.

  1. Stay on Message

It may be tempting to draw too much from personal experience when writing a self-help book; after all, you are the expert on the topic and likely learned many of the lessons directly from your own life. You should, however, always stay on message for the duration of the book. Straying too far from your original point can cause you to lose your readers’ interest.  Like in fiction writing, it can be helpful to write a plot map or outline before you begin to write; this can help you stay on track.

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  1. Publicize Your Work

You can write the best book in the world, but it will never make it into the hands of your readers if you fail to publicize it correctly. Keep your name out there so others regularly see you are active in the industry and are a thought leader. Blogging, posting to social media and sending newsletters are all great ways to stay top of mind with your readers and drive your sales.

Educational

Educational how-to books, guides and manuals are another non-fiction genre that’s wildly popular. They can be informal or formal, like a textbook, and are written for the purpose of helping non-experts complete projects and learn without the aid of a professional.

Topics include, but certainly aren’t limited to:

  • Science
  • Religion
  • Philosophy
  • Finance
  • Mathematics
  • Art
  • Language Learning
  • Build, Fix and Do-It-Yourself

Now that you know the major overview of each non-fiction book genre, it’ll be easier to decide which category your novel falls under. Stay tuned for my thoughts on fiction book genres as well!

What’s your favorite non-fiction book genre to read, and which is your favorite to write?

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