By Susan Harrow
Top literary agents get about 400–1,000 unsolicited queries every month from hopeful book authors. Publishing houses sometimes juggle 5,000. Most of my private clients and participants in my seminar “How to Get a Six-Figure Book Advance” ask me, “How is a non-fiction author supposed to get an agent’s attention when there is so much competition?”
First of all, don’t write a non-fiction book—write a non-fiction book proposal. To capture a reputable non-fiction literary agent’s attention, you’ll need to show that you’re a media star, or a star in the making. Good writing can be bought but star power can’t.
Five Tips for Landing a Top Literary Agent
- Do your research.Literary agents for non-fiction specialize in very specific interests. For example, my agent loves tearjerkers but won’t take on books that involve children in peril. You want an agent who has represented books similar to yours, who sells books on a regular basis, who is devoted to you, and has the time to give you a little guidance through the publishing labyrinth.
Sometimes a newer, less experienced literary agent who is hungry for business is more dedicated and has more time to spend with you than an established one with a reputable cadre of authors. I recommend two ways to find the literary agent right for you:
- Look in the acknowledgements of books similar to your topic. A happy author always thanks his literary agent. Once you’ve located your ideal agents, become familiar with their tastes, learn everything you can about their interests, pet peeves, and preferences, and review their websites for submission guidelines. Show that knowledge in your query letter or initial phone conversation.
- Read Publishers Weekly, Publisher’s Lunch, and Variety to see who sold what and for how much. You will get a sense of an agent’s sensibility and be able to speak knowledgeably about the types of books they prefer when you know what’s happening in the industry in general and in your area of expertise in particular. You’ll know more than most people who submit proposals as you’ll be apprised of books that aren’t even published yet and movie deals in the making. And you’ll get a sense of market trends.
- Write a book proposal that reads like a thriller.
After you’ve located the agents you want to approach, the next step is to complete your book proposal. Once interested by your call or query letter, many literary agents move at hyper-speed.
There is a real art to writing a best-selling book proposal that makes the literary agent you’ve chosen say, “I want this person as a client.” To make your book proposal read in one sitting, you’ll want to write in short paragraphs with strong headlines. Be sure to give the chosen agent an immediate impression of how your book will read by writing the proposal in the same style as your book.
Find unusual, quirky, provocative tidbits about your subject that will entice the literary agent to say, “Wow, I never knew this.” Imagine the kind of tips that a terrific magazine article would include. When an editor at a top New York publishing house is reading your book proposal she is thinking, what kind of media exposure will we be able to get for this book? Can we get magazine feature articles, newspaper pieces, radio shows? Will the subject matter and the author interest the producers of Good Morning America, The Today Show, CNN, or Oprah?
- Prove you have a platform.
The one thing that thrills a New York non-fiction publisher the most is your platform. Your platform is simply your reach. How many people are influenced by your ideas worldwide? To simplify this even further, a publisher wants to know one thing and one thing only (once they are interested in the subject matter of your book), and that is . . . how many books are you going to sell and to whom. You’ll need to demonstrate that you’re a great media guest, that you have an audience eager to snap up your books, and that you have a proven track record for selling your books or wares.
- Reveal how your past performance predicts future behavior.
Map out each venue and determine how many people are in attendance and how many of those people will buy your book. Include workshops, seminars, fairs, media appearances, book signings, keynotes, teleseminars, webinars, events, newsletter lists, blogs, partnerships, etc. Quantify everything in great detail. Estimate and base potential sales on past sales you’ve completed.
- Show you are the one.
Show that there is a clear need for your non-fiction book and that you are the only one who can write it. In other words, what problems are you solving and why are you the undisputed expert? What gap in the market are you filling? One of my clients whose topic was about how to be the very best at what you do and who you are, had a black belt, was a concert violinist, and had given seminars at The White House. She walked her talk, and lived her words. You need to have top-notch skills in order to gain the interest of a high caliber literary agent.
Follow these tips, and you can land a top literary agent and a six-figure deal. I hope to see your name on the New York Times best-seller list!
Media coach & marketing strategist, Susan Harrow has helped speakers, authors and entrepreneurs get 6-figure book advances. Susan Harrow has a Website.