This, to me, is a really interesting question. I had always thought the reverse to be true; in fact, I held back my non-fiction project until my first two mystery thrillers could be published. My reasoning? That the crime fiction will sell faster and maybe even help establish a platform for my non-fiction book. Hmmm.
I happened to discuss this with several authors recently, authors who have one thing in common: they have all found success with non-fiction books but aspire to write fiction. And they are now struggling to market it.
I see it this way. There is a ready-made platform for most non-fiction. Whatever the subject, from death to pottery, that niche group is easily identified, marketed, and harvested. There is a cadre of interested folks, and agents and publishers know this. If you have some credentials and are reasonably versed in the area and have a reasonable following (and you can write), you’ll likely get a chance.
But here’s the difference: the potential (with requisite exceptions, of course) for an explosive success in non-fiction is not as great as in fiction. While more identifiable, the non-fiction niche is necessarily limited. Not everybody cares about pottery, or pets, or lampshades.
But the potential for massive success in fiction always exists (think Dan Brown, James Patterson, Clive Cussler, etc.). Once the momentum has begun, once the successful fiction author has “gone viral” there is no stopping the phenomenon. It’s simple math: far more people can get excited about fiction than about lampshades.
But with fiction, the difficulty is in the launch. So maybe it all evens out in the long run?