On December 31, 2012, I decided to look at the the top ten best selling books on Amazon. They included 1) Steve Jobs biography 2) Thinking Fast and Slow 3) Kindle Fire for Dummies. We can all understand why Steve Job's Biography made the list at number two: Biographies of recently deceased celebrities just sell. Jobs was the quintessential celebrity.
The popularity of Apple's products, Steve's introduction of the personal computer in the early 1980's, his personality, popularity and the intrigue around his personal life all added up. Apple's turn around from the brink of bankruptcy to the largest company in the US in terms of stock evaluation, focused even more media attention on him.
The publisher released the book, shortly after Steve's death, knowing that Steve Jobs was dying. Everything fell into place.
"Thinking Fast and Slow" is a pop psychology (self-help) book by a Nobel prize winner. It was number seven and had been in the top ten for 78 days. The book had two things going for it: pop-psychology and an author with credibility.
"Thinking Fast and Slow" became popular based on the laurels of critics and reviewers. Here's a quote from the New York Times: “Thinking, Fast and Slow” spans all three of these phases. It is an astonishingly rich book: lucid, profound, full of intellectual surprises and self-help value.
I question the validity of anyone's statement about a self-help book that suggests it could be astonishing. How many different ways can people say that you can help yourself? Evidently, one can say it an infinitely number of ways given the thousands of titles out there.
Self-help books embraced by critics will sell. You cannot get around that. Critics help the self-help market.
"Kindle Fire for Dummies" came in at number nine and was in the top ten for 8 days. It was heavily discounted. Amazon spent huge amounts of money promoting the Kindle Fire. Aside from the marketing effort, the popularity of tablet computers and the Kindle Fire's low cost drew people to one of its early "how-to" books. The price factors into it's popularity. The book only costs $10.19 and was published by the infamous John Wiley and Sons, Inc.
When you see a Non-Fiction book in the big bestsellers list, then extraordinary situations will surround it. It's competing with the massive fiction market where allegiances rule. In this case, Amazon created its own winner with its own device.
Back to the task at hand.
Several categories for bestsellers exist. Hardback books usually sell for more and they sell less copies. In this list, you'll find many diet and cookbooks and highly discounted popular hard cover novels by well-known authors. Seven of the top 10 hardcover books were indeed cookbooks and diet books on New Year's Eve.
How-to books proliferate the non-fiction technical best sellers list.
You probably guessed that a book about 'Programming Java Class APIs' isn't heading for the top ten. The book would probably allow a publisher to make a profit, however, they typically only print 5,000 copies of these books on the first run. That is probably the only printing it will ever have.
The publisher hopes a small run (5000 copies) doesn't turn into recycled pulp at some time in the near future. Once brick 'n mortar outlets sell their share, they can still order it. If demand increases beyond an initial printing, then a book's availibility can continue because of the digital market. Today, publishers have access to print-when-sold services like Amazon's.
Tangibles and intangibles go into play in non-fiction books regardless if they're released in hard or soft covers. Let's face it, the realities of a book you write in your field of expertise can give you bragging rights, help in your career and even help your business. Such books position you as an expert. I wouldn't count on them making a bestsellers list, but that's not essential for your purposes alone.
That said, if you have a ready audience and a global need, you could have a bestseller in a non-fiction book in a limited field of expertise. My last book, for example, was an immediate international bestseller because I had written over 100 articles about my subject for three years prior to its release. My activities as an adviser to governments helped built my audience before anyone new the word "blog". Also, the timing worked since the world of Internet infrastructure was moving to Linux from UNIX and from on-premises networks to the "Cloud". Rights to the book were sold in 14 languages.
That combination had a little more than luck going for it. My "lotto pick" of a book had all the right numbers and who would have known?
A lot of benefits exist in writing non-fiction. You may not make a bestseller, because your name isn't Betty White and your cookbook didn't come out in time for fixing Christmas dinner.
Don't let that stop you. Writing a non-fiction book published by a "legitimate" house like Macmillan will bring you some solid equity. You will reap rewards in many other areas, especially in consulting.