Writers can slave away at their books, sometimes over the course of many years, before emerging to find an agent and publisher. As an inherently isolated task, writers fall prey to an almost inevitable mistake: they lose touch with the current market for literature and contemporary authors, many of whose books achieve the same goal, or worse, tell the same story.
Stay in touch. Look at popular books to see what these authors are doing right. Agents will prioritize your query if you suggest your book is comparable to say, The Help or The Hunger Games.
Make sure yours doesn’t duplicate something that’s already out there!
Fiction writers have a harder task than nonfiction writers in selling their work. They need to present a complete and edited manuscript, and despite that effort, agents will only have the time to read a few pages before making a gut decision. Which is why your query letter should present:
1) The two line elevator pitch.
2) Comparable titles and influences.
3) Reasons for why the book will be commercially successful, often leaning on the success of those comp. titles above.
4) Any timely/newsworthy hook for your novel, or a real-life back story.
5) A brief byline, your website or links to writing clips, suggest any mentors or workshops that were instrumental in your book process.
To speak subjectively as to what I look for across all genres of fiction:
1) Concise and “suspenseful” writing, no matter the genre
2) A well-developed, sympathetic – either quirky/funny or very relateable – lead character.
3) A voice that suggests the author is well-read, but feels new and different (hard to qualify)
4) A plot that transports me to a “place” (can be figurative, i.e. an experience. I want to visit and a place I’ve been.)
For nonfiction, here’s a secret you may not know. You don’t need a full manuscript to sell nonfiction, and the advances can be far more advantageous than for new fiction. All you need is roughly 50 pages to be considered a complete proposal. But don’t underestimate the work involved. Creating a nonfiction proposal is creating a selling document primarily used to demonstrate your marketing engine and potential. For nonfiction, it’s as important to develop and articulate a brilliant and radical concept as it is to demonstrate writing ability. And though it’s always a plus to have writing ability, when you think about the majority of nonfiction authors, from celebrities to thought leaders, to business and self-help gurus, these authors are not classifiably writers. What they share in common is wide recognition around their creation of a unique concept and brand. On Twitter, I often post about blog-to-book deals, many of which were born simply from a blog title, concept, and traffic.
Before you set out to write a nonfiction proposal, and certainly before you share your work with agents or editors, answer the following not only with objectivity, but having done your research. Know what you’re up against, or in more positive language, why your book has never yet been done. (Hint: it’s not because your small business is successful, unless you’re a nationally recognized name, or have chosen a concept that aligns to a bestselling title. Read our post to see what some of those are.)
The kind of nonfiction that sells will do one of two things:tackle an old problem from a new perspective to form a surprising conclusion, or pose a new story or analysis altogether.
Can you answer these questions? They will need to be addressed in your proposal.
1) Is there an important question my book illuminates or responds to? (And by important, I’m not dramatizing in suggesting that important questions are linked to life-or-death equations, “survival,” whether in parenting, business, mental health, etc.) Or, if humor, memoir, nonfiction narrative: Am I doing something that hasn’t been done?
2) Has the question or experience been satisfactorily explored in contemporary literature?
3) If it hasn’t, do I have a different and radical perspective or revelation to provide?
4) Why should readers trust me to give the answer? Personal experience, professional credentials, journalistic research, number of daily eyeballs on my blog?
For a deeper look at how writers can attract agent attention, read our interview in Writing Raw.