Why are Non-Fiction Books so Boring?

I read a lot of non-fiction. But I seldom finish the book. I find that as the book goes along, the incremental insight gained per chapter keeps reducing, till it is no longer worth my time to keep reading.

For a while I thought that this was my problem. I do know that my reading speed is generally less than my friends. My wife reads at twice the speed that I read, for example.

But that is not the reason. I have compared notes with others who read non-fiction. And most people don’t finish their non-fiction books, especially if they read a lot of non-fiction and there’s another book waiting for them. The problem is widespread, if not universal.

I have a hypothesis for why this is so. Non-fiction books are typically written around a set of concepts, notions, historical perspectives etc. Often these concepts, while original, can be concisely written in the form of an article in a journal or a magazine. Or just a blog post. However, there is no model to monetize that other than the ridiculously low fee the print media industry, itself under threat, might pay you.

If you think that your ideas have power, the only way to monetize it in any substantial way writing about them, is to write a book. A book has certain definitional boundaries. It has to be say a hundred pages or more. The fatter it is, the more justifiable is the price of $20 or $30 or whatever. So you end up writing page after page, chapter after chapter on ideas that don’t really have the legs to go that far. In the process you make a book that can’t hold the reader’s interest till the end.

I am being a little foolhardy in bringing this up right now, when I am writing my maiden book myself. It’ll be a business book, and I can just hear you say, “Well let’s see what your book turns out to be, Basab.” Well, Gaurav and I are hoping it will be packed with insightful goodness and will hold your attention till the end. And now that I’ve put this post out there, it gives us a goal – get the reader to finish the book.

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11 Responses to Why are Non-Fiction Books so Boring?

  1. Sachin says:

    "ha ha..I thought I was the only one 🙂 Worse is, because of this habit of dumping a book half way through, my mind prods me not to buy a new book until I complete the ones I've bought…dying to read Gurucharan Das' book "The difficulty of being good" but couple of Taleb's books , Argumentative Indian give me a desolate when-u'll-pick-me-up look 😦

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  2. Satya says:

    Basab,

    Eagerly looking forward to it. Btw, I do complete any non-fiction book 😉

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  3. Krishna says:

    One simple test is to start a theme blog and see if you can keep at it for over 15-20 months and make 100 unplagiarized posts with 800 words per post on an average. That's the first filter that tells you having stuff enough to write a book on.

    Writing a good book, compared to a bad one, involves one thing. Work. No one wants to hear this, but if you take two books off any shelf, I’ll bet the author of the better book worked harder than the other. Call it effort, study, practice, whatever. Sure there are tricks here and there, but really writing is work. I think the one best way to write an unputdownable book is to start a blog over a theme and see whether you can tirelessly make 100 posts with 800 words per post on average, written over a period of say 15 -20 months. That should yield readable stuff, spanning a reasonable period of time over which the theme underwent change and evolved. That legacy plus the insight gained should yield the author with a fair degree of forecasting base upon which he can base his judgments that sound appealing to a vast reader base, inspiring them to stick with the book till the end.

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    • Krishna – that is a very valid argument, and in fact this is becoming very common where top bloggers end up writing books. And even the other way around where business book writers will start a theme blog along with the book. However, the content of a book and a blog differs. The way they are written and read, differ considerably. Which is why serializing them is not be necessary. In fact doing them in parallel helps both the readers and the author.

      And yes, writing is hard work. No question.

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      • Krishna says:

        Content of a book and a blog certainly differs. In a blog, you lay stress on objectivity and wind up as you finish making your point. In a book, you drag on and on uncaring about the readers' travails. That's why I would say first blog, then book. Blog readers, barring a few die hard fans, may not read each post. So if the worry is whether the book would sell after making content available for free online consumption, the answer is certainly yes because if the reader is impressed by a few posts and gets the drift, he would any day gladly trade the pain of CRT radiation for a few dollars worth of physical possession of the tome that he can carry even to the rest room.

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  4. Krishna says:

    It's also likely that the exact point where a reader puts down a book could even be where the writer ran out of steam but just ranted on because of a compulsive deadline either set by himself, his agent or the publisher. So its important to retain the luxurious objectivity available to only the writer of the first book. When you write your second book, you have two kinds of trouble (a) there is a publisher advance you had pocketed and so the need to honor a deadline (b) you've to excel yourself – that's the hardest.

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  5. Nikhil says:

    Maybe the trick is to write non-fiction also like a story. Too often I think the writer has to prove his superior intellect to his audience and that manifests (!) itself in big words and straigt-jacketed prose. Appropriately used humor and anecdotes might be the way to get the message across a la Freakanomics!

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  6. rustey says:

    Agree with @Nikhil…non-fiction doesn't need to be boring. Stories, anecdotes, and mystery can all be weaved into the content. Depends on the author's style.

    I'd say most business books are exXxpanded versions of shorter articles. In most cases, the shorter article would be worth reading! The book is only meant to give the reader that they are getting their money's worth in pages.

    In many ways, it's not too different from the audio CD. Most albums have only one or two songs worth listening, but buyers had to buy the whole album. After iTunes, that changed (except, maybe, for Pink Floyd albums http://bit.ly/9bjCaI ). I suspect the same has to happen for business books. Sell the book by the chapter!!!

    Maybe that's the killer app for the iPad. Books-by-the-chapter!

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  7. Anuradha says:

    I have this bad habit of reading books back to back, including the non-fiction ones and I could not have agreed more with you. I also agree that most authors have content worth an article or a few blog posts, but they keep beating around the bush to fit the content in 200-300 pages. They use large fonts, big illustrations etc etc, but yes, it gets boring beyond a point.

    I think what non-fiction books lack is 'Rasa' as in 9 rasas of Navarasas. If the author can put the Rasa, it is difficult for the book to be boring.

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  8. Roopesh says:

    Basab, if you are concerned about writing a book which people will read, I would recommend following the rules in "Strunk & White: The Elements of Style". Especially if you are planning something which will be read by people looking to learn and implement your ideas. Keep it concise, make it personal and break it up with pictures and stories. Keep your target audience in mind and don't try to impress the intellectual literati and business school professors. If a simple word will do, don't try to use something more complicated. Also get as many people whose judgement you can trust to read it for you and give you comments.

    Please don't follow Nandan Nilenkani's example by writing a door-stopper which most readers cannot finish. I got to chapter 12 and gave it up, though I can see that there are plenty of fantastic ideas and experiences. Same for the Jinnah book by Jaswant Singh. God, they made it a chore to trudge to the end. In contrast, books by Jim Collins, Jared Diamond and Gurcharan Das were a real pleasure to read.

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  9. ciara says:

    You are so right, I find it more difficult to continue reading a nonfiction books compare to fictitious stories. I always find my way to the fiction section rather than the nonfiction area, the reason…I read for entertainment..so I don't want to bore myself to death by getting a nonfiction book.

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