The competition is fierce for non-fiction writers in today’s publishing industry. Not only are they competing against non-fiction books that have gone through the traditional publishing process, but they also have self-published writers to worry about. Self-publishing and e-book technology has opened the floodgates of writers for both fiction and nonfiction books. To make sure you get a leg up on all that competition, it’s crucial that you put your best foot forward when shopping your book to non-fiction literary agents. That’s what we aim to help you with in this article.
Literary agents, including those representing non-fiction works, are very busy. Their slush pile is never ending. For them, finding the next bestselling book is like looking for a needle in a haystack. For writers, getting an agent can be like winning the lottery.
Still, this is a lottery you can prepare yourself for. And if you know what you’re doing, that winning ticket could be yours. So, with that in mind, let’s look at non-fiction literary agents in the US and how you can get them.
1. Be Authentic
If you can’t stick to the facts without using worn-out clichés in your query letter, agents won’t expect much originality in your writing. Be honest and sincere. Showcase your voice and your idea and talk about how it fits into the market (include facts you actually researched!). Focus on writing with clarity and don’t try to mimic the latest bestseller.
2. Fake It Till You Make It
Under no circumstances should you lie in your query letter. But do your homework so you can avoid making rookie mistakes. If this is the first novel you’ve written, you don’t need to broadcast it. If the query is good, the agent won’t be able to tell you’re a newbie!
3. Confidence Sells
Above all, your query letter and the way you speak about your project should project confidence. But without being arrogant. It’s a fine line, so tread carefully. First-time writers are often open about how little experience they have, as if that somehow excuses their mistakes. Non-fiction books from experts are an easier sell than those from writers with no experience. Pity parties aren’t attractive and won’t impress non-fiction literary agents or publishers, so emphasize what you can do or have done instead of what you lack.
4. Limit Personal Info
Giving too much information is a huge, but common mistake. Just like in your novel, “show don’t tell.” Let your personality shine through your writing. Don’t list your hobbies as reading and writing (thanks, Captain Obvious), or mention the fact that you just had a baby (unless babies are relevant to your topic). Be relevant, and go big.
5. Plot Over Theme
Your summary needs to focus on your main character and the overall conflict. It should have enough detail to intrigue, but without giving away the ending. Make sure your synopsis focuses on what transpires and resist the urge to reveal the meaning.
6. Avoid One Size Fits All
One size doesn’t truly fit all. Know your audience and your genre. Don’t try to convince the agent that everyone will love your book because it’s just that amazing—agents know better. Let them know exactly who you think will LOVE your book. Be specific, be honest.
7. Watch Your Tenses
Proof your query letter and your book proposal and focus on your use of tense. A query letter that uses multiple tenses throughout signals to an agent that your manuscript will also be error-strewn.
8. Flatter Specifically or Not at All
When it comes to wooing an agent, don’t insult them with non-specific or insincere flattery. Agents look at thousands of queries on a regular basis— they know when flattery is not authentic. If you are aware of something specific about an agent that you can comment sincerely about, then do it. Otherwise just stick to selling your book idea.
9. Leave the Cover to the Pros
Another mistake that exposes you as a rookie is sending a non-fiction agent a query or proposal along with a book cover. Publishers have their own illustrators and designers, and it’s not needed at this stage. Don’t waste time designing a book cover, leave that to the professionals and focus on giving them a great story.
If an agent or publisher refers to you as the next Steven Covey, that’s great and you can be proud. But please be careful about using your own comparisons in your query. A query letter that claims your manuscript is the next Deepak Chopra of nonfiction is likely a grand overestimation, and an agent may just write you off as unrealistic or egotistical.
Non-fiction Literary Agents in the US: How to Find Them
Check for New Agent Alerts from Writer’s Digest. Look for new agents who indicate they are interested in nonfiction. New agents are a goldmine for new writers because they are seeking to build their client lists. They are enthusiastic and eager to add a book sale to their portfolio.
Register with MS WishList and search tweets for the terms “non-fiction literary agents in the US”, “non-fiction literary agents in the UK”, or wherever you’re from. Filter agent profiles to get a feel for what kind of things they’re looking for, as well as which non-fiction literary agents in the US are looking to take on new projects.
Ask around at writing groups, forums and writing conferences to see if they know of any nonfiction literary agents who are open to working with new writers. You never know who you know that can personally recommend you to one of the top non-fiction literary agents.
Non-Fiction Literary Agents in the US
Below are several literary agents who indicated on MS WishList that they were seeking specific nonfiction projects:
Curtis Russell, President & Principal Agent with P.S. Literary Agency, put the word out in late November that he was seeking Health, Wellness, Sports, Humor, Pop Culture, Pop Psychology, and Pop Science. Follow him @CurtisPSLA or see submission guidelines on the agency website.
Stacey Graham, an Associate Agent with Red Sofa Literary, is a former archaeologist who is fascinated with “mudlarking.” Although their submission guidelines state they are closed to queries agency-wide until after the 1st of the New Year, she posted in late November that she’d love to see “NF book on the Thames (and other rivers!).
Annie Bomke of ABLiterary said back in mid-October that she’d “love a narrative nonfiction book about the internal world of animals or plants.” ABLiterary represents fiction and nonfiction in all genres except MG, picture books for children, romance, and screenplays.
Tweets and announcements can be a great way to find non-fiction literary agents in the U.S. Once you find several literary agents you feel are a great fit for your project, follow them on Twitter, LinkedIn, Reddit, and watch for them to indicate they are seeking a project like yours. Respond quickly with a polished query letter that follows their specific submission guidelines.