What are non-fiction agents looking for? All agents are looking for the same thing: saleable manuscripts – of the kind that might actually make some money. So agents are looking for:
1) anything celebrity-led, and written by or endorsed by that celebrity
2) very strong personal memoir
3) funny & exotic travel
4) popular science
5) narrative-led history
6) biography, if the subject in question is genuinely famous
7) major new diet and motivational work
strong, quirky one-offs – eg: The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (Kate Summerscale) / Longitude (Dava Sobel)
What they’re not looking for is anything niche. (‘How to’ books in minor subject areas, books of local history, biographies of little-known subjects, etc). Although these books may well sell to the right publishers, they won’t sell for enough money to make it worth an agent’s while to get involved. For books like this, it’s fine to approach publishers direct. Use Writer’s Market (US/Can) or The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook (UK & ROW) for contacts.
Where to find non-fiction literary agents
Very few agents specialise in non-fiction. The vast majority of all literary agents will handle fiction and non-fiction, literary and commercial work. Although some specialist non-fiction agents do exist, you will generally be better off seeking a good all-purpose agent for your work. I’ve sold four non-fiction books myself, and all of those were via a good general purpose agent. It didn’t occur to me to switch to a ‘specialist’ agent, and I’m quite certain that I wouldn’t have achieved a better outcome if I had done. What matters is the quality of the agent, not whether they specialise in a certain area.
There are however exceptions to this general rule, namely:
a) If you are writing a health, diet or how to book, you may well want an agent who specialises in this niche.
b) Ditto, if you are writing a cookbook. (But if you are, you’d do well to have a TV deal sewn up first – this is not an easy area to crack.)
c) If you want a ghostwriter to tell your story for you, you probably want an agent who has worked in this way with previous clients. But be realistic. Very few personal stories are interesting and commercial enough to justify the cost of ghostwriting – in general, if you want a story written, you’ll need to write it yourself (or ask us to help.)
If you need more info, then do consult the listing directories already mentioned – use those in conjunction with agents’ websites to narrow down who’s interested in what.
How to give literary agents what they want
First, you need to decide what you are going to present to agents. With fiction, you always need to write the whole damn book. With non-fiction, you can often get away with offering agents a book proposal – that is, an outline version of the book you intend to write. If your book is strongly story-led (which will be true of most memoir, for example), you’d be well advised to write the whole darn thing before seeking agents. If your story is more subject-led, it’s usually fine to work off the back of a proposal.
Secondly, you need to deliver a wonderful, saleable manuscript. That means:
a) Strong, popular, entertaining writing. Even if your subject is an extremely interesting one, people won’t want to read what you have to say about it if you write badly or boringly. So don’t.
b) Write for the market! It’s so obvious, but most non-fiction manuscripts that come across our desks aren’t written for the market. Personal memoir that’s fifty percent ‘how to’. A footnote heavy biography of some obscure French civil servant. A ‘book’ on dieting that’s only 20,000 words long. If you’re not sure what the market is for your particular book, then go to a bookstore and don’t leave till you know the answer.
Thirdly, if you get knocked back by literary agents (non-fiction or generalist) – or if you want to give yourself the best possible chance before you approach them – then for pete’s sake go out and get some tough hard-hitting advice from professionals. You need to bring the ideas, the talent and the work ethic. Professional editors can bring their knowledge of the market, their contacts, and their expertise in writing. Put those two things together, and you can have a powerful combination – and eventual success. Best of luck.