Non Fiction: What pushes a proposal to the top?

Non fiction is a hard market to break into right now. It is heavily based on platform and figures from TV and radio. The reason publishers are investing in these projects is the large and defined market that the authors bring with them. So how can you use this to your advantage?

There are a number of problems with the non fiction queries and proposals that come in to us:

Lacking Numbers.

Publishers want to know how many people you reach with your existing platform: blog stats, Twitter followers, website hits, speaking engagements, networked connections, endorsements and more. If you fail to provide these numbers a) it won’t catch anyone’s attention b) we’ll assume the worst and c) we’ll think you haven’t given adequate attention and commitment to your project.

Vague, vague, vague.

Generalizations and vague statements are a major downfall of proposals. Non fiction proposals and content have to provide information in a relevant, controversial, or meaningful way. Edit yourself to find out what you are really trying to say. Find your hook. Give yourself the ammunition to be successful.

Dated content.

Publishing is a slow industry. Non fiction needs to think ahead. Timing with anniversaries (ie. Titantic anniversary books have been in the works for years) and up to the minute scientific or business information are crucial. Non fiction books are commissioned and acquired 18 to 24 months before publication. ‘Crashing’ non fiction still takes 12 months. If you have something to say that is time sensitive, why not publish a short article, start a blog or publish an ebook. Think about whether the timing of traditional publishing is right for you. 

Lack of understanding about your competition.

In non fiction you won’t be the first to write about a topic, but you need to be the first person to write about it in a new way. Know what’s out there already. Don’t be afraid of it. If you don’t look it doesn’t mean it’s not there. Agents and editors will know, so get out front with it.

Here are the tools for success:
  • Quantifiable information about your platform and reach that can translate into readership.
  • Meaningful, controversial or catchy hook that will grab people’s attention in a saturated market.
  • Content that is up to date, and will be relevant and hot in 2 years when it hits shelves.
  • Do your research about competitive titles. Read them. Know your market and what you are up against.

By overcoming these common pitfalls you can catch an agent’s attention. If you provide numbers and content in an effective way we will take a second look.

The truth is that if you want to publish a mainstream cookbook, you need a TV show or need to be a trained chef and teacher. If you want to publish a big business book you need to work for a consulting company, or teach at a major business school. There are many regional and smaller presses that do quirky non fiction, but to get published with the big six, you need a big platform and numbers to go with it. There is of course room for up-and-comers and debuts, but you need to be saying something new or controversial to make a statement in a saturated market. Before you get into the non fiction proposal writing stage you need to do tons of research.

Image via Priscilla Nielsen for NPR.

Published by Carly Watters

Carly Watters is a SVP, senior literary agent and director of literary branding with the P.S. Literary Agency. She is a hands-on agent that develops proposals and manuscripts with attention to detail and the relevant markets. PSLA’s mission is to manage authors’ literary brands for their entire career. Never without a book on hand she reads across categories which is reflected in the genres she represents and is actively seeking new authors in including women’s fiction, commercial and upmarket fiction, select literary fiction, platform-driven non fiction and select memoir. She occasionally represents children's book projects. Carly is drawn to emotional, well-paced narratives, with a great voice and characters that readers can get invested in.

4 thoughts on “Non Fiction: What pushes a proposal to the top?

  1. That was great advice for non fiction writers. Obviously, in the online community there is certain stature you want to be at before you get the book deal. It’s cool to hear literary agents be totally real, if you sugar coat it, writer’s won’t adapt and get freakin creative.


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