A few months ago I received an email from a relative who wanted information about a non-fiction book she wanted to write. She was asking me for help, but as I quizzed her about what she was writing and why, I discovered she already had the basic idea of what she needed in order to contact an agent or editor. Mostly, I think, she needed encouragement.
Since I write fiction, I’m not as familiar with how to query for a non-fiction proposal. I do know they’re different from fiction proposals (at least most are) and generally include a lot more information. However, not all non-fiction books are the same, so there’s no “One set of instructions fits all.” Some non-fiction books are the How-to or Self-help type. Some are theory or scientific based. Others are memoirs or biographies. And so on.
What type of non-fiction book?
In my relative’s case, she wanted to write an easy-to-read, self-help sort of book in which the readers could choose to read only the parts that applied to them personally. She had examples of published books of that nature. This is exactly what she needs to include.
What is the competition?
If there are similar books on the shelves, don’t assume the agent knows each of those books. Help the agent by listing the title, author, publisher, and when published for each of the competing books. Also, include a short description of each competing book, indicating that book’s strength and weaknesses and how your book will be different (or, if not different, how your book will improve on that book.).
In my relative’s case, she said there was nothing like it. Although that sounds great, if there are no other books like it, the writer needs to show there’s a need for the book. But, even if dozens of books have been published on the subject, if the writer can show that his or her book presents new information the readers will want or need to learn, then it can be marketed as different.
What are your qualifications to write this book?
In the case of my relative, she’s neither a well-known personality nor an expert in the field she’s proposing to write about, BUT she has had personal experiences that she will include and she works with men and women who are experts. If a writer is an expert in a particular field, then being taken seriously by an agent or editor is less of a problem. However, a lack of expertise does not stop a writer from writing a non-fiction book if he or she can get quotes or data (with permission) from “experts.” Even better is if the writer can get a foreword written by one or more “expert.”
In my relative’s case, I think a lot of readers will be able to relate to her personal experience and it will make the book more interesting.
Who is the target audience?
This is what the publisher’s marketing department wants to know. Who will buy this book? How do they advertise it? No matter how great the book, if it only has a limited appeal (audience), agents and editors may turn it down and self-publishing might be the best way to go. But if the writer can show a larger audience (schools, industry, government, etc.) and a need, then publishers will be interested.
No matter what type of book a writer has written (or is proposing to write), it’s important to look at the websites of the agents and editors/publishers dealing with that type of book.
Step One: Go to the library and ask to see the most recent Writers’ Market. That book will have a listing of agents and publisher who are interested in non-fiction of this type.
Step Two: Go to the websites of those agents who sounded like ones you’d want to work with. (I suggest finding agents who belong to AAR (http://AARonline.org) or state they follow AAR’s code of conduct.) Make sure you read how they want submissions.
Follow those submission guidelines exactly. Don’t get cute or think you’ll stand out by doing something different. I’ve heard too many agents mention how unimpressed they are by this.
My suggestion to fiction and non-fiction writers is make a list of those agents that either you’ve heard are good or simply look good to you, putting the best at the top and working down. Then start with the top five and send whatever each has asked to see to those five. Figure how long you want to wait to hear from them. (Maybe a week or two.) If you haven’t had a positive response by the end of the second week, send to the next five on your list, and so on until you’ve exhausted that list. And if you haven’t had a bite by then, find some more agents to send to. Do not let rejections (or non-responses) get you down. It happens to most writers, even those who have gone on to become NYT best sellers.
However, if you do keep getting rejections or non-responses, it always helps to have other writers or free-lance editors look at your proposal and see if there might be a way of improving what you’re sending out.
For more information on how to write a non-fiction book proposal, I suggest: