Narrative Nonfiction Appeal Factors


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Narrative Nonfiction Appeal Factors

The following list of appeal factors for some of the various subgenres of narrative nonfiction was developed by members of the RUSA CODES Readers’ Advisory Committee and the PLA Readers’ Advisory Committee in conjunction with participants in the program Taking the Guess Work Out of Nonfiction Readers’ Advisory, held at ALA Annual Conference, June 26, 2005, Chicago IL. Participants in developing this resource were: RUSA CODES RA Committee -- Barry Trott (Chair), Martha Bayley, Shelley Ekeroth, Joanna Hazelden, Jon Kadus, Megan McArdle, Joyce Saricks, Jackie Sasaki, Andrew Smith, Sharron Smith, Patrick Wall; PLA RA Committee -- Rosalind Reisner, Kaite Mediatore Stover, Cathy Jo Yarmoski.

These appeal factors are intended to give librarians beginning to work with readers of narrative nonfiction some guidance in selecting titles and understanding reader interests. By understanding what draws readers to a particular book or genre – fiction or nonfiction – the readers’ advisor can make better suggestions about what other titles or authors that reader might enjoy. The same appeal elements that librarians use when working with fiction readers – frame, pacing, storyline, and character – can be applied to working with readers of narrative nonfiction. The goal of readers’ advisory for readers of nonfiction is the same as that for fiction readers, to match the reader with a narrative that affirms and validates their own story.
We hope that these initial attempts to define some of the appeal of narrative nonfiction writing will be useful to our readers’ advisory colleagues as they work with their reading community.

  • Characters: The primary appeal of biography comes from its real connection to the human experience. Readers want to know about the challenges and ethical dilemmas faced by the subject of the biography, and how that person grew and changed over time.

  • Pace: Biographies are often big, densely written works, filled with the details of a person’s life. Readers usually do not rush through these books, and expect to enjoy a biography at a more leisurely pace.

  • Frame (Setting): People who read biographies often enjoy learning as much about the times in which the subject lived, as about the details of their life. In this respect, biographies can also be viewed as historical nonfiction.


  • Presents unique and unusual recipes, offering the opportunity to learn a new skill

  • Captures the experience of a satisfying pastime – cooking

  • Well presented information can inspire confidence to experiment

  • Increases readers knowledge of the subject

Specific Appeal Factors of Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, Mark Kurlansky

  • Provides the opportunity to experience a “taste” of another place (or perhaps another time)

  • Provides insight into a specific food,

  • An entertaining way to look at 1,000 years of history

  • Connects a particular food to historical events, such as slavery

  • Author connects food to customs that initially had economic importance and relates them to religious practices

  • Offers the reader an opportunity to immerse themselves into an in-depth telling of an event, situation and condition, perhaps offering a sense of adventure.

  • A lexicon provides the reader with insight into the evolution of language.


  • They’re short. Readers can dip into them, reading an essay or two at bedtime or on a commuter train.

  • Like short stories they can be used as an introduction to an author’s style or to a topic. A reader can sample essays to discover topics or authors to pursue further. Teens might enjoy these more than books on a subject.

  • Collections of essays offer variety. They include a wide range of genres and subjects.

  • Collections of essays display a diversity of tone, topic, style, and mood. They might be personal or explore a subject. Some are thoughtful, others humorous, some nostalgic.
  • Collections might feature the work of one author on different topics; they might offer many authors’ views on a single topic; or they may feature many authors writing on a range of subjects.

  • Essay collections are the best place to start exploring nonfiction writers and topics. Reading or perusing essay collections increases our familiarity with the important nonfiction writers–all of whom have written essays at some point–and thus our comfort level.


  • PACING can make or break a humor title.

  • CHARACTERS can be a BIG draw (especially if they ARE Characters!)

  • BACKGROUND (can appeal to our sense of self - common background issues)

  • Sometimes a LOCAL APPEAL is a draw for a certain author.  

  • Also much humor seems centered on DYSFUNCTIONAL FAMILIES.  

  • The good Humorist takes you "where your mind SHOULD NOT go"!



  • loss of home (exile)

  • loss of language,

  • loss of culture

  • the difficult situation that led to leaving home (plot)

  • arrival in another country is disorienting, disheartening, frightening, and leaves the person feeling like an outsider

  • the importance of ambition, luck, hard work, help of relatives, education

  • encountering prejudice

  • generational conflict—the younger generation wants to assimilate; tension between keeping culture, values, mores, and assimilating

  • what it means to become an American

  • search for identity (often these are coming of age novels)

  • importance of storytelling in the immigrant community, providing a connection back to the culture of origin


  • Anyone with a story can write one, doesn’t have to be famous.
  • Unlike biography it can be a fragment of a life or experience;

  • Easier to absorb like sub-genre essays.

  • More about feelings than fact

  • Very “Character based”


  • Tone—Look for the type of tone the author is employing. Is it insightful or incendiary? Is it reasonable or incoherent?

  • Pacing—Examine the text of the book. Is it dense with drawn out explanations for arguments or analysis? Are there footnotes or endnotes? Are the supporting materials pages meant to be read in conjunction the text or is it just a list of foot/endnotes? Are the chapters short with bullet points? Is there much explanation or clarification of the author’s opinions/theories?

  • Plot/Story Line—Is the topic thought provoking, challenging, balanced? Is it one-sided or biased (this is not necessarily a poor quality; some readers may want their own beliefs explained and thus affirmed).

  • Characters—How are people treated in a political nonfiction book? Are they portrayed fairly, with examinations of flaws and virtues? Are they cast in a poor light or a saintly glow?

  • It may be challenging to determine what a reader’s preferences are in relation to political nonfiction. No one wants to get into a political debate at the Readers’ Advisor desk when both parties want the same thing—a good book to read.

  • Diplomacy is needed when querying the reader about preferences. Consider asking “Do you want to explore your current political opinions or explore opposing beliefs?” or “Do you want to explore a particular political issue? From which viewpoint would you like to explore it?”

  • Political nonfiction requests are a prime opportunity to give a reader more than one book and encouragement to form or reform opinions.

  • Political books seem to be cyclical with one point of view more prevalent than others at times.


  • Different from the theory writing done by people like Brian Greene – explain the concepts along with the formulation of the idea, its trials by various means, the personalities (and personality clashes) behind the concept, and how it has influenced science in the meantime. Theory writing can be good, but focusing too much on the theory can keep the focus of the book narrow.

  • Can help make the huge and hugely complex world of science more human, more in scale with readers’ daily lives.

  • Frame: the historical and scientific circumstances surrounding the concept, person, event; how was it influenced, what was it’s reception, how has it influenced subsequent science and policy.

  • Characterization: fully developed characters, usually from personal writings, official records, newspaper accounts. Views, perhaps, of domestic life, friendships, rivalries, teachers and students.

  • Story: relates the formulation and testing of the idea – often active, with periods that recount times of contemplation or setbacks.

  • Tone: can vary widely, from humorous to serious. Regardless, a sense of factuality, not opinion, is at its base.

  • Style/Language: most often going to be somewhat elevated, informative.

  • Pacing: again, varies with topic, but successful narrative nonfiction will always draw its readers back in.

  • Detailed examination of unusual subject that contributes to ‘mainstream’ discussion.

  • Conveys a sense of wonder.


  • Change or transformation – readers look for a story that reflects some enlightenment

  • The struggle to believe

  • Elements of memoir, especially in the transformative nature of the story

  • How-to manual for personal growth or personal enlightenment

  • Outsider versus insider appeal – does the reader want a book about Looking at or Looking from

  • Often poetic language is an appeal in spiritual writing


  • Nostalgia (such as readers can remember parents or grandparents taking them to a sports event or watching together on television)

  • Living vicariously through sports biographies (someone commented how you still see children and adults wearing Michael Jordan t-shirts and jerseys all over the world)

  • Sports biographies reflect the historical, social, and cultural record of the time period. Someone cited Joe Morgan’s biography (Joe Morgan: a Life in Baseball by Joe Morgan and David Falkner) as containing vivid pictures of racism and segregation in the 1960’s. Someone else noted that the many Pete Rose biographies would presumably cover both baseball and gambling and reflect changing trends in ethics or morality.

  • Readers like gaining insider knowledge of a world (professional or amateur sports) that many people know very little about.

  • Sports books contain characters that readers can both love and hate. They often feature characters with generally strong personalities – many are entertaining, engaging, and likeable, but the opposite can also be true, such as demanding or self-centered subjects.

  • There can be geographical appeal, as readers may be more interested in sports teams or individuals close to where they live.

  • Recognition of the concept of “sports as life” – that is, the books are often about more than just “sport” and can reflect life’s lessons
  • Are often written by prizewinning authors and/or sports journalists, therefore the quality of writing is equal to that of good fiction

  • Tie-ins to fiction and historical fiction, such as W. P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe or Troy Soos’s baseball mysteries like Murder at Ebbets Field, etc.

  • Can also include titles examining the economy or business aspect of sport (someone suggested Lords of the Realm: the Real History of Baseball by John Helyar) or even “how to” titles or something as specialized and beautifully illustrated as Glove Affairs: the Romance, History, and Tradition of the Baseball Glove by Noah Liberman


  • Many at the table thought that True Crime appeals to mystery readers, as
    often these books will follow a very similar pattern as a thriller or
    police procedural.

  • There is a crime, and the efforts to solve the crime
    and bring the perpetrator to justice, which offers readers a sense of
    closure.  This seemed important, especially as the crimes described are
    often disturbing.

  • Ending the True Crime book with a criminal being
    brought to justice seems to be a necessary reassurance to readers.  

  • We discussed that the wide variety of True Crime books can have different
    appeals.  Devil in the White City was our example book, and the
    historical detail could appeal to readers of history and historical

  • Many stated that one of the biggest appeals was the kind of
    vicarious thrill you get from reading something scary from the safety of
    your own world.  

  • Many people who read True Crime, especially of the Ann
    Rule serial killer variety, often like a similar scary edge to their
    fiction.  Serial killer fiction such as James Patterson or even horror

    seemed a likely appeal.  

  • Some True Crime books were described as fast-paced and quick reads (Ann Rule), but we also discussed more leisurely, atmospheric examples like Midnight in the Garden of Good and


  • Humor

  • Literary quality - language, writing style

  • Cultural study  - the insider's knowledge and details

  • Extreme adventure/quest - vicarious experiences for the armchair traveler

  • Character driver - internal meditation/journey that parallel the external one

  • Genre bending - easily combined with subjects such as farming, horticulture, adventure, cooking, memoirs/biography, history, geography, exploration, and sports

  • Unexpected discoveries  - new insights and information


  • Many of the stories address the theme of man battling against nature, and succeeding against all odds in surviving

  • Some involve a search for treasure, whether it’s actual treasure or not

  • They allow vicarious participation in adventures one could never undertake personally

  • The success of the protagonist in reaching his goals acts as an inspiration to readers to follow their own dreams – and validates one’s personal ambitions

  • Readers often get involved with the characters and come to care about what happens to them in the end

  • The working class experience is often addressed – another point of identification for readers

  • Learn about new topics – the background details of the story are very important, and can lead a reader to further pursuit of a new subject

  • There’s a lot of crossover into other genres, such as sports, disasters
  • These stories appeal to a reader looking for something that reads like a novel but is actually a true story


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