Inkpop Blog

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How to get a nonfiction book agent

Posted by inkpop on February 24, 2010

inktip #17: Girl Power author Marisa Meltzer and “super agent” Kate McKean share tips about how to find (and what to expect from) publishers’ go-to sources  

In 2003, when Marisa Meltzer took a career leap as a full-time magazine staffer to a self-employed freelance journalist and book author, she focused on making contacts, pitching timely ideas, and finding a reputable agent. 

Meltzer’s job leap has definitely paid off. The New Yorker’s writing credits include Teen Vogue, Elle, and Slate, and she’s published two books: How Sassy Changed My Life (Faber, 2007, coauthored with Kara Jesella) and, her latest, Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution in Music.

Book agents are often the best connections to publishing houses, and stay in close contact with editors to find out what they’re looking for (and not!). Keep in mind, though, that a book agent isn’t the only way to get your work published—there are, for instance, loads of success stories of authors getting scouted as a result of their blogs, Twitter feeds, and works posted on literary sites like inkpop.com.

Here, Meltzer and Kate McKean (the agent behind the New York Times best-selling I Can Has Cheezburger?) share tips for getting and working with a book agent.

KNOW WHAT AGENTS DO

First things first, understand agents’ job duties—they do much more than take editors out to lunch and read the fine print in contracts. Agents help edit book proposals, negotiate on the author’s behalf, and often shape marketing plans, Meltzer says. 

SNOOP AROUND FOR AN AGENT 

Not sure where to find an agent? It may not be as difficult as you think. 

Meltzer recommends hitting up libraries and bookstores to seek out books that are similar in genre or topic to your own work. “In the acknowledgements, writers thank their agents—or at least they should!” Meltzer says.

You may also get lucky by performing good keyword searches on the Internet and perusing professional networking sites such as LinkedIn. For instance, if you’re writing a book about teen dating tips, search for “teen romance and book agents” to find agents who specialize in young-adult and romance titles.

GET YOUR HOOK DOWN COLD

The first thing McKean wants to know is where a prospective book will be shelved—as in, what’s the book about in a nutshell and how will it attract readers’ attention? “Writers can do this by saying something like “My book is He’s Just Not That Into You meets Eat, Pray, Love,” she says. “But it must be accurate, not just a mash-up of popular stuff.”

Agent Kate McKean

Secondly, a successful nonfiction book must have a hook. Think about this as an example: There are tons of cookbooks out there, so what will make your cookbook stand out from the pack?

“And lastly, the book has to have a solid home on one shelf in the bookstore,” McKean says. “If you’re writing a memoir that’s 50% recipes, it can’t go on the cookbook shelf and the memoir shelf in Borders. Those are just the rules.”

Moral of the story? Don’t try to do too much at one time, thinking you’re increasing your market potential. Often, you’ll just dilute the pitch. Pick one, and run with it. “Your agent will tell you if that’s not the right category,” McKean says.

MAKE SURE YOUR IDEA IS READY FOR “THE BIG TIME”

As you might have guessed, agents are overloaded with emails and query letters, so do all that you can to pack a punch with your pitch. Before sending a query letter to an agent, make sure your book idea hasn’t already been published. Use your Internet search skills to look for keywords about your topic and also visit book retailers such as amazon.com to make sure you’re idea hasn’t already been covered.

But! If your book idea is a been-there-done-that topic but still revolves around something popular and timely, be creative and put an innovative twist on it.

In addition, before pitching an agent, make your nonfiction book idea is robust enough for it to warrant an entire book. McKean says she sometimes gets pitches with great hooks from established writers, but as potential books, they aren’t detailed enough to fill 50,000 words of text; instead, the concepts are likely better off as magazine articles. “When you’re planning your book, make sure you have enough to say about your topic,” McKean says. “Short books at low prices are not cost effective for publishers to produce.”

Also, patience is key when querying agents, Meltzer says. “They’re working on a ton of projects, so it can take time to read your query letter and get back to you,” she adds.

ESTABLISH A PLATFORM AND GET YOUR WORK “OUT THERE”

“In nonfiction, platform is key,” McKean says. “Your platform is how people know your name.”

When McKean meets (or even before meeting) with prospective clients, some of the first questions she asks include: Do you have a Website? How many eyeballs does it draw? Do you Tweet, blog, vlog, or post to a forum frequently? Have you been published in a magazine, or anywhere else? “The answers should all be relevant to the topic of your book, or it’s not going to help your platform very much,” she adds.

Just getting started with your self-promotion campaign? No worries. “Agents take on new writers all the time,” McKean says. “Start building your platform now. The best way to start is by engaging with the community of writers involved in your topic however you can: post on those blogs, tweet with those people, read those books and talk about them.”

And even if you don’t end up with a nonfiction book deal, you never know what could happen. For instance, Chicago writer Carly Fisher wrote so prolifically about her favorite topic—brunch—on her foodie site chicagobrunchblog.com that it wasn’t long before leading TV networks and Web sites started knocking on her door.

MAINTAIN A GOOD RELATIONSHIP

Once you get a book agent, keep communication open about your goals and also ask your agent to keep you in mind for other projects.

It’s a give-and-take relationship for Meltzer and her agent. “My current agent and I really click. We’re close in age and she understands all my pop culture and literary obsessions,” Meltzer says. “If I have ideas for projects, I run them by her, or if she has ideas for projects, she’ll run them by me.”

— 

Got more questions about publishing a nonfiction book and how to get an agent? Click here to chat with I CAN HAS CHEEZBURGER? agent Kate McKean and Marisa Meltzer on inkpop Forums on February 24, 2010, at 5 p.m. EST. 

The inkpop blog is written by inkpopAmy 

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2 Responses to “How to get a nonfiction book agent”

  1. […] columns, we usually hit up published authors and editors for professoinal advice. From “How to get a nonfiction book agent” with Kate McKean to “How to write a book series” with Sara Shepard, these experts have been […]

  2. More often than not I do not post comments on web sites, but I’d just like to say that this article really compelled me to do so! Thank you for your perceptive post.

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