What are literary agents looking for in a non-fiction submission?

As most of you know, I’m currently studying for an MA in Professional Writing at Falmouth University. I’m in my last year and am preparing for my final project. Our last module before we are set free for six months to write our final project has been a Research and Development module. The module is to prepare proposals for our books and to conduct an Industry Analysis in an area that is appropriate for us and our aspirations as writers.

Since my journey to publication with Bailey Boat Cat-Adventures of a Feline Afloat was unconventional, (you can read all about it in my Blog to Book series here) I don’t have an agent. I would, of course, love to be represented by an agent but I didn’t really have a clue before, if I’m honest, about how to go about getting one! Of course I’ve owned copies of the extremely useful Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook for several years and have scoured the pages with curiosity and hope. However, I didn’t really know what agents were looking for in terms of a non-fiction author.

I think it’s common knowledge that to get an agent as a novelist you need a polished, complete manuscript to be taken seriously, but for non-fiction there seems to be a grey area. The parameters are entirely different. When I saw that Writers and Artists were holding their first How to Hook an Agent Day solely for non-fiction writers, I jumped at the opportunity to attend.

There were four top literary agents present on the day and my first impression was that they were all just ‘normal’ people! I know that sounds funny, but I’ve always thought of them as mystical creatures that float above us mere mortals. This image wasn’t helped previously in March when I politely explained I was a student and tried to ask a single question to a few of the agents present at The London Book Fair, only to be treated like a mosquito as they rudely swatted me away. (Cue fighting back tears and remembering to pull up my big girl pants- I guess they really are human and some of them are mean!) However, the four agents that came to Bloomsbury’s gorgeous offices were friendly and very helpful. There was Sam Copeland from Rogers, Coleridge and White, Carrie Plitt from Felicity Bryan, Federica Leonardis from Martin Leonardis Literary Management and Juliet Pickering from Blake Friedman. They all gave a seminar packed with useful information about what they are looking for and what instantly turns them off. They were generous with their time, speaking to everyone and answering questions afterwards.

I quickly realised that they don’t look for a particular type of writer or person and that each agent looks for different things. They all agreed, however, that a polished cover letter (maximum length of one page), an excellent idea that is both well thought out and articulated, along with a unique selling point are the most important things that they look for. They all wanted to know, why are you the person to write the book?

Carrie Plitt asks for a breakdown of chapter summaries and a sample chapter. The chapter summaries should be around a page length each and in the style of your book. She’s looking for fantastic, literary writing. She said she wants a cover letter to include information about the author, highlighting that this is not the place to be modest, as well as an idea about your author platform and what you can do to add to the book. She wants to know if you’re willing to promote your book on twitter, magazine interviews, or even on the radio? She stressed that detailing why your idea is original is really important, as is showing why you’re the best person to write it. She suggested leaving your completed proposal for a while, before you submit it, so that you can look over it with fresh eyes and ensure that it is the best it can be. She also advises that you only send your submission to five or six of your chosen agents initially, so that if you get feedback you can tailor your submission before sending to other agents. (You can follow Carrie on Twitter: @PlittyC)

Juliet Pickering represents a broad spectrum of non-fiction writers and says she looks for an accessible voice in submissions. She joked that if she couldn’t let her family read it then it would be deleted without the attachment being opened. Juliette also agreed that she wants to know what the unique selling point of your book is and why you should write it. She wants to know if you’re an expert in the field or if you’ve experienced something first-hand. Juliet sends all of her books to London and New York and sometimes uses a sub-agent in the USA. (You can follow Juliet on Twitter: @julietpickering)

Frederica Leonardis stressed that the only job of the cover letter and pitch is to get her to open your attachment, therefore it must be well written, error free and enticing. She wants people to show their personality and prove that they have a platform as she searches for more commercial writers. She has a particular love for food writing and cookery as well as self-help and lifestyle. She states that proving you’ve done some market research is fundamental and that showing her you’ve thought of comparison titles and how your book is unique, shows her that you’re taking the pitch seriously. Unusually, Frederica said if you’re pitching a memoir she wants you to think of it like fiction in your head and have the whole manuscript ready and polished before submitting to her. (The other agents politely disagreed with this, which just goes to show, you need to really research what each agent is looking for before you contact them.) Frederica said to remember the three P’s for your submission. Pitch. Proposal. Platform. (You can follow Frederica on Twitter: @MissLeonardis)

Sam Copeland states that you must sell yourself as well as your book. He gave an insight into why your covering letter is really SO important. On average he said he will receive 3000 submissions a year, of which he might only take on 5 new authors. If your covering letter isn’t good, or ideally great, then he will not even look at your submission. The good news is that three quarters of the books that are offered representation will go on to sell, but as the statistics show there is a lot of competition to get to that stage. Sam also mentioned that you shouldn’t become too attached to your title as 50% of the time editors will change it. (Something I can attest to after Bailey’s title was changed from ‘Moggy’ to ‘Feline’ when we realised American readers were flummoxed by the term Moggy!)

Sam offered some tips to write the perfect cover letter:

• Show that you’re professional. It’s okay to be personable but maintain professionalism at all times- don’t be overly familiar.
• It’s fine to say ‘inspired by’ but don’t compare yourself to another author.
• Try to insert personality but don’t be wacky!
• Keep it relevant- no history lessons or random quotes are needed.
• It should be obvious but don’t be patronising or pretentious. (I was shocked at some of the bad examples where people had done just this!)
• Keep it clear, simple and succinct.
• No more than a page long.

(You can follow Sam on Twitter: @stubbleagent)

I hope my notes and experience are helpful to you and give you a better idea of what is required and expected for a non-fiction submission. I can’t recommend the Writers’ and Artists’ How to Hook an Agent days highly enough, it was an enjoyable and informative day with the opportunity for a one on one with an agent at the end to pitch your idea which was invaluable. Now that I have an idea of what I’m supposed to be doing, I’m off to go and polish my submission for my new book; HELP! MY CAT IS MORE SUCCESSFUL THAN ME! How to Survive a Quarter-Life Crisis.

Wishing you all Sandy Toes!

Lou x

4 thoughts on “What are literary agents looking for in a non-fiction submission?

  1. Sounds like you learned a lot of valuable information from the “How to Hook an Agent Day” gathering.
    We wish you well as you seek out an agent.
    Sending lots of positive vibes(and some purrs).
    Nancy and the kitties
    ( Georgia,Julie and JJ)

    Liked by 1 person

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