If you’ve skipped ahead or landed here randomly, the advice I have is generally for non-fiction. It’s a slightly different process for fiction, but the parts on this page about researching agents and query letters certainly works for both fiction and non-fiction, it just happens that my only experience is on the non-fiction side.
So you want to write a non-fiction book and you’ve read the previous posts about my book project and how to write a book proposal. If you haven’t, read: Nature’s Poisons, the Book! and So you want to Write a Book, Part I: The Proposal.
A question I’ve gotten and see online frequently is “do I need a literary agent?” If you want to traditionally publish a book, in most cases the answer is yes, you need an agent. Why? Well for one, they know the ins and outs of the publishing business. And believe me, it’s a business. Second, publishers receive lots of submissions and they only have so much time to go through them all. Ask yourself if you think they’d rather get a submission from an agent they know and trust or from some rando off the street. They’ll also probably get you more money, too. Yes, they’ll take their cut of 15% (about industry average), but they’ll get you more than that 15% if you go it alone. You also have someone working on your side if an issue comes up with the publisher. Having an agent is a win-win-win situation. Everyone, you, the agent, and the publisher wins.
So what’s the downside? None, really. You just have to get an agent. If you’ve Googled “how to get an agent” or perused message boards, there are some absolute horror stories out there. And my honest opinion is that it doesn’t have to be that bad. I think if you’ve thought about your book (see previous post) – it’s a good idea, it’s marketable, and you’re the right person to write it – and you have a great proposal and query letter, an agent will want to represent you. The other part of it, and I can’t stress this enough, is this is a business. Act professionally. If you get a nibble from an agent, talk to them like its a job interview. And it goes both ways, you’re interviewing them just as much as they’re interviewing you. If they get a bad vibe, they’ll walk. You should, too. If you get a bad vibe or they want you to give them money, thank them for their time and keep looking.
The process, in short, is:
- Select agents that you think would be a good fit for the book and you
- Write and send query letters to those agents
- Talk to the agent(s) when they contact you and don’t cry (too much) if they don’t
- Sign with the agent
- Select Agents: You need a list of agents, and since you don’t have time to send off query letters one at a time, you’ll send out a batch at a time. My initial list was 7 agents, found by looking at popular non-fiction science writers and finding out who their agents were. You know the authors similar to you, you’ve researched it for your book proposal. Most of the time you can Google “Who is XYZ’s literary agent” and figure it out or you can subscribe to a site like Publishers Marketplace. It’s $25 a month, but in one month you can research all the agents you’ll need. Also check literary agency websites and check their agent’s bio or “about” page. See what they represent and are looking for. You can also check Manuscript Wish List (MSWL). It’s a site where agents can say “I’m looking for a book about video game history.” If you’re writing that book about the secret history of Pac-Man, that’s a good start, and someone you may want to consider sending your query and proposal to.
Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, you want an agent that works in your genre. If you write romance, submitting to an agent that specializes in middle grade fiction may not be a good fit unless they specify they’re looking to expand into romance. I’m not saying don’t ever submit to them, but they shouldn’t be at the top or middle of your list. Same thing with nonfiction. If you have a book on the secret history of Pac-Man, then maybe someone that only works with cookbooks isn’t the right agent for you. So do your due diligence and pay attention to what they represent and what they say they are looking for.
I spent dozens and dozens of hours researching agents and finding ones that might be a good fit. I probably looked at the bio of every agent in North America. And I wasn’t just looking for a fit professionally, but personally, too. If an agent represented someone I find detestable, they were off the list. But that’s just me, your nausea threshold may be higher than mine. Remember, you’ll be entering into a long-term relationship with the agent, so it pays to do your research now.
2. Send off Query letters: Submission to agents requires a query letter – a letter introducing them to your project and yourself – and almost all of them are specific about how to go about doing so. Please, take the time to learn how they want submissions made. It’s on their website somewhere. Some agencies have a generic “query” email address to use, others ask you to query their agents directly, and some have online forms to fill out and copy/paste your letter into. I hate those things. Regardless, follow their rules. If you can’t follow a simple instruction, they may not even receive your submissions, and if they did, would they really want to work with you?
So about that query letter. A great resource I found was Eric Smith. He’s not only an agent but a young adult fiction writer as well. He graciously posts query letters he’s received and picks them apart, pointing out where and why it appealed to him. These are successful letters from people he now represents, so he’s showcasing the good letters, not the train wrecks. Take a look at his website and his awesome query tips.
What Eric suggests, and I followed, is a simple “the hook, book, cook” format and it’s applicable to fiction and non-fiction query letters. It’s one paragraph that hooks the agent in. One about the book in general. And one about you, the cook. All of this is one short page, about 500 words or less. Anything more than that and you’re going to lose their attention. Agents get so many query letters each day, they don’t have 20 minutes to read a letter. So remember: hook, book, cook. Let’s get started on the parts:
This is a formal letter, write it as such. And for the love of everything holy, don’t write anything along the lines of “I have a book that will make us both a lot of money” or “you’d be an idiot to pass this up.” I’ve seen those letters and I guarantee you they go straight to the electronic trash. (And obviously don’t include bold-lettered outlines like I show here.)
Salutation: Use their name, not Dear Agent or to whom it may concern. Use Mr. or Ms. “Last name”
Greeting: You selected them for a reason. Tell them why. “I am querying you because I have a proposal on the secret history of Pac-Man. I see that you represent Princess Peach and her book on Mario Kart and your agent bio suggests you’re looking for more titles on video games. I think you may be a great fit for this project.” If you were referred to them by someone they represent, mention that here as well. If you stood next to them in an elevator at a conference or book expo, DON’T mention that. That’s creepy.
Hook: A paragraph on something interesting from your book. Something that makes them think, “holy crap, I didn’t know that, I want to learn more.” For me, I mentioned three poisons: one with a pop culture reference to the Hitchcock classic The Birds that everyone loves the story of, one was a weird fish poison that’s befitting a mutant superhero, and one involved in the murder of a famous person and its 100-year cover up. Just enough to make the agent want to know more. This part was just 110 words.
Book: What is the book about? Who is it geared towards? How long is it? Mine was:
“Nature’s Poisons is an 80,000-90,000 word science title that brings a new perspective to the world of poisons. From plants to animals, from fungi to food, poisons surround us. For both general audiences and seasoned experts alike, it looks at poisons throughout the world that kill, maim, injure, and sicken. Interwoven with the science and history of these poisons are stories of true crime and real-life intoxications. It’s a compelling, and sometimes humorous, journey into nature’s most vicious creations.”
That’s it. Just 81 words, but it conveys what it’s about, who the market is, and some buzz words to intrigue.
Cook: This is about you and why you’re the person to write the book. What makes you an authority on the topic? If you’re writing about the secret history of Pac-Man, it helps if you were the Chief Historian of Bandai, It would make sense that you’d know about, and have access to, the secret history of Pac-man and its development. Or maybe you’re the world record holder for the Pac-Man high score. That’s a connection and you should mention it. You’re selling yourself with this letter just as much as the book.
I started this paragraph with “I deal with poisons and the dead.” It’s catchy. A little intriguing. Then I talk about myself, but just 73 words. I also mentioned that I love, and regularly give talks, about poisons and death investigations to foreshadow that I can market the book, too. I mentioned the blog, which you’re on right now, and just gave the stats like how many posts I have and how many views per month. Twitter followers. If you don’t have a “platform” just skip this part, but if you have one of any significance and you use it regularly, go ahead and mention it.
Conclusion: Touch back on the “hook” part about why this book is so intriguing or interesting. For me, I touched on the pop culture aspect of poisons, and how we see them on screen like in James Bond movies and the Game of Thrones series and read about them in Agatha Christie novels and Harry Potter books.
Valediction: “Thank you for your time and consideration. I’ve attached a proposal and sample chapter. Kind regards, “
Follow that with a list of your phone #, email, twitter handle, blog URL, etc. If they want to call you or check you out, make it easy for them.
That’s it. For each letter change the introduction and the Dear Mr, Ms. part, that’s the most important thing to remember. My emails were simply the query letter I described and I attached a copy of the query letter itself and the proposal. Attach your sample chapter here, too. Remember, I was lazy and didn’t include one, but don’t be like me. While simple, I still spent about 20 hours crafting the letter. This is your ONE chance to make an impression, don’t blow it here. It’s also not the time to get cute and try to make yourself stand out with somethin outlandish, like a fake New York Times bestseller list with your book on it or something equally silly. Let your hook, book, and cook do the talking for you.
For the 7 agents I queried, I heard back quickly from three of them, outright rejected by one, and never heard back from the remaining three. I talked to those 3 agents over the next 2 weeks and selected the agent I felt was the best fit for me. All three of them are great agents and any one of them would have done a tremendous job with Nature’s Poisons. In the end, I signed with the one that I had the best “gut feeling” about, and I couldn’t be happier. She sold the book quickly to my top choice of publishers and I’m working with a terrific editor.
When selecting the agent that was right for me, I asked a lot of questions, like what were their thoughts about the book, about the process, the resources they have at their agency, etc. I know forensics, toxicology, drugs, and poisons, but absolutely nothing about publishing, so I asked very basic questions and all were patient with me. I also talked to clients of theirs. Every agent has a client list, and if they’re good, they won’t mind putting you in contact with them. If they don’t want to share a client list or hesitate with you talking to one of them as a reference, that’s a red flag and you should be careful. And remember: no reputable agent will ask YOU for money. If they say “I’ll represent you for $1,000,” RUN. Run far, run fast. If you’re not a runner, a brisk walk will suffice.
Now for some realism. Rejection hurts, I get it, but it’s going to happen. It’s not personal, though, it’s business. Maybe you think you have the perfect book for an agent, and they represent something similar, and the fit would just be perfect. But they reject you, or you don’t hear back. There could be any number of reasons for this. Maybe they just don’t have the time to take on another project, or they want to focus on something different, or maybe the “vibe” wasn’t there. That’s OK. You want someone that is a good fit and has the time for you. You want them to be just as excited about your book as you are. You’re in a long-term relationship with the agent and it’s got to be right for the both of you. So no snarky emails to the agents that rejected you when you finally sell your book. Publishing is a small, small world.
So to recap: Be professional, be to the point, and use Eric’s “hook, book, cook” format. Your mileage may vary, but this is what worked for me. Good luck!
And be sure to read parts I and III.