by Chuck Sambuchino
Getting a nonfiction book published is a completely different beast than querying for a novel. It involves things like a marketing plan, comparative title analysis, book proposals, professional credentials, and more.
To help with this complicated submission process, I’ve compiled great advice for nonfiction writers from established literary agents who are on the front lines evaluating and selling these books every day.
Here is a roundup of what these smart agents had to say about nonfiction queries, book proposals, the importance of marketing & platform, trends, and much more.
“When I receive a nonfiction query, I’m hoping to discover that you: 1) have a deep mastery and understanding of your topic, 2) have a long-burning passion for what you are sharing, 3) have clearly and concisely expressed your book concept, and 4) have developed an authentic and original writing style. I also hope to see that, whatever you’re doing in your career—whether you’re a writer by profession, or you work in another profession, of which this book is an extension and an expression—you’re doing it out of a deep-rooted vision and inspiration. Practically speaking, I appreciate queries that are no longer than 3 to 4 paragraphs and highlight your professional training and platform.”
• from Kimberley Cameron of Kimberley Cameron & Associates:
“It’s more and more important for authors to have a public platform. All authors should seriously consider building a great website and inviting social media to know who they are through Twitter, Facebook, etc. The publishers are all looking for this.”
The three most common problems Laurie Abkemeier of DeFiore and Company sees in a nonfiction book proposal:
“First, not having a good grasp of the competition. An author needs to know the category inside and out and be able to explain how his book fits in. I always get a sinking feeling in my stomach when I find similar books that the author didn’t know about.
Second, dull chapter summaries. Often the sample material is great, but the summaries are boring or vague. It’s so important that chapter summaries be compelling and convey the energy and depth of unique information that will be in the book. They have to make an editor want to read more.
Third, a marketing section that simply says the book ‘will appeal to everyone!’ That’s never true, and it doesn’t help publishers figure out how to position and sell your book. An author needs to understand who her audience is and how to reach them.”
• Russell Galen of Scovil Galen Ghosh Literary Agency:
“Here are two turnoffs I encounter in book proposals:
1. Lack of a story arc. Many failed nonfiction proposals are mere surveys of a subject. The books that sell have strong characters who are engaged in some project that eventually is resolved. Don’t do a book about slime mold. Do a book about the Slime Mold Guy who solved the mystery of slime mold.
2. Extrapolation. Many proposals say, in effect, ‘I don’t know all that much about this subject but give me a six-figure contract and I will go and find out everything there is to know.’ I understand the problem writers face: How are they supposed to master a subject until after they’ve done the travels, interviews, and research? Nevertheless, unless you are already an established writer, you can’t simply promise to master your subject. Book contracts go to those who have already mastered a subject. If you haven’t mastered your subject but you really think you deserve a book contract, try to get a magazine assignment so that you can do at least some of the necessary research, funded by the magazine.”
• Michael Strong of Regal Literary:
"For non-fiction, here are the flaws that I see that can really kill a proposal:
1) the writer is not thinking about the audience. They have something they want to say—great! But a book is a product that needs to work with an audience; in many cases that audience is well defined, and in that case, if the writer has not defined their audience, they are really hobbling their chances.
2) The writer is not thinking about the competition. They may well have a great idea for a book … so great, in fact, that it has pretty much already been written, and in some cases folks are in denial about the fact that it makes it hard to sell their book product (because they’ve invested a lot already in this idea), because there is already a book product very much like it out there on shelves.
3) The writer is writing for the wrong reasons. Sometimes people have an axe to grind and they’ll have all kinds of energy for pursuing a topic—but that energy comes from a place of … well, it could be anger or disappointment or frustration … and they want to ventilate that emotion. That kind of work typically does not serve a commercial audience of readers; it serves to drain that emotion from the writer. Of course that is great for the writer’s emotional life, but it does not make for a commercially viable work.”
(Hi, everyone. Chuck here chiming in for a second. I wanted to say I am now taking on clients as a freelance editor. So if your query or manuscript needs some love, please check out my editing services. Thanks!)
• Andrea Somberg of Harvey Klinger Inc.:
“There are two things every nonfiction author needs to address: why there is a demand for their book, and why they are the best person to write it. These two questions should be answered very early on in the proposal, and stressed throughout.”
• Melissa Flashman of Trident Media Group, LLC:
“If you have a [great idea that would make a great book], your book proposal should not be the first time the world hears about it. You should already be recognized as an authority on the subject you wish to write about. To put it another way, no one wants to hear my manifesto on college athletics or the European debt crisis.”
• Bridget Smith of Dunham Literary, Inc.:
[In terms of what defines a person as capable of writing on a certain subject:] “I’m a bit of a snob here, thanks to a few years spent contemplating a career in academia. Advanced degrees or practical experience in the field are always a good sign, though not the only criterion I use. There are some brilliant, fascinating, funny academics who write terribly dry books. Skilled journalists with a background in research and writing can often start from a place of curiosity and emerge with an expert text. Mary Roach, for example, has no background in most of the subjects she writes about, but by talking extensively with people who do, she’s able to write accessibly, intelligently, and expertly.”
• Adam Schear of DeFiore & Company:
[On writing a book to capitalize on a “trending” or “hot” nonfiction topic:]
“When it comes to nonfiction, you always need to address this question: Why are you the perfect person to write a book about this topic? That makes it tough to write to the whims of the market.
If there’s a topic that everyone wants to read about, chances are strong that many writers are simultaneously jumping into it. The ones that have the best chance of succeeding are the ones that have already been immersed in the topic for some time before the craze began. They can demonstrate that they have a deeper understanding of the subject matter than the rest. My best advice is to follow your interests.”
• Elizabeth Evans of Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency:
“A common mistake I encounter when someone sends in a nonfiction book proposal is that they don’t spend enough time on the promotion section. This section is one of the most important in the proposal and should offer specific details about how an author will use his or her connections to help sell the book. In many of the proposals I see, authors are too vague. They need to have a detailed plan in place.”
• Lauren MacLeod of The Strothman Agency:
“For nonfiction, a writer’s platform is almost as important (and in some cases maybe more) than the topic. When we are evaluating platforms, we look for articles the author has written for academic or trade audiences; we also look at college courses he or she may have taught, or special connections to the material (like a relationship with the subject, or a discovery of new documents) that another writer might not have.
An impressive platform for a narrative book is very different from an impressive platform for a popular science book, but, in all cases, we are looking to make sure that this particular author is best suited for this particular book.”
• Melissa Sarver of Folio Literary:
“If we’re talking about nonfiction, it’s all about platform, platform, platform. There is no way around a writer’s platform; it’s a huge component for publishers. If you don’t have an established audience (a big one), they are not interested.
So if you are writing nonfiction, work very hard in building your platform: Twitter, blogging, Facebook, radio, TV, national magazines, and newspapers. If you’re a consultant or a speaker, be ready to prove some big numbers as to how many people you speak to each year.”
• Faye Bender of the Faye Bender Literary Agency:
“I think a pitfall that hopeful nonfiction writers can fall into all too easily is including in a query everything they hope might happen with their book. I see too many queries that claim that the book is ‘a perfect fit for publicity on Television Show X.’ What I want to see in a query for nonfiction is a clear and feasible plan for how the author can help utilize connections and an already established platform to aid the publisher’s efforts.”
• Eddie Schneider ofJABberwocky Literary Agency:
“The biggest thing for me with nonfiction authors is that the expert also be an engaging writer. With narrative nonfiction, humor, and web comics, the thing that matters to me is simple: voice.”
• Shira Hoffman of McIntosh & Otis, Inc.:
“When an agent is considering a narrative nonfiction project, it always helps to have an element of tension or suspense in the narrative to keep me turning pages. Basically, I look for many of the same elements I’m searching for in a fiction story: unforgettable characters, a story that pulls me in, and a commercial writing style that doesn’t get bogged down in minutia.”
Chuck Sambuchino of Writer's Digest Books edits the GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS and the CHILDREN'S WRITER'S & ILLUSTRATOR'S MARKET. His Guide to Literary Agents Blog is one of the largest blogs in publishing.
His 2010 humor book, HOW TO SURVIVE A GARDEN GNOME ATTACK, was optioned by Sony Pictures. Chuck has also written the writing guides FORMATTING & SUBMITTING YOUR MANUSCRIPT and CREATE YOUR WRITER PLATFORM.
Besides that, he is a freelance book & query editor, husband, sleep-deprived new father, and owner of a flabby-yet-lovable dog named Graham.