Here’s how to find non-fiction literary agents, what kinds of non-fiction they’re looking for, and how to give them what they want.
What are non-fiction agents looking for?
All agents are looking for the same thing: saleable manuscripts that might make money. Whilst specialist or academic non-fiction isn’t on the cards (you’ll need a book proposal to pitch to publishers, in this instance), non-fiction literary agents are looking for:
Anything celebrity-led, and written by or endorsed by that celebrity;
A strong and compelling personal memoir;
A funny, moving, exotic tale of travel;
A popular science tome;
A narrative-led history;
A biography, if the subject in question is genuinely famous;
A major new diet and motivational work;
A strong, quirky one-off.
What no one’s looking for is niche.
Guidebooks in minor subject areas, books of local history, biographies of little-known subjects, aren’t sought after. These books may well sell to the right publishers, though mightn’t sell for enough money to make it worth an agent’s while to get involved. In such cases, it’s fine to approach publishers direct.
Very few agents specialise in non-fiction. Most literary agents handle fiction and non-fiction, literary and commercial work.
Some specialist non-fiction agents do exist, but you’re better off seeking a good all-purpose agent for your work. I’ve sold four non-fiction books myself, it didn’t occur to me to switch to a ‘specialist’ agent, and I’m quite certain that I wouldn’t have achieved a better outcome if I had done. What matters is the quality of the agent, not whether they specialise in a certain area.
There are however exceptions to this general rule, namely:
If you are writing a cookbook, health, diet or how to book, you may well want an agent who specialises in this niche. You may need a prolific presence first. It’s not an easy area to crack.
If you want a ghost-writer to tell your story for you, you probably want an agent who has worked in this way with previous clients, but be realistic. Very few personal stories are interesting and commercial enough to justify the cost of ghost-writing so in general, if you want a story written, you’ll need to write it yourself (or ask us to help.)
If you need more details, use agents’ websites to narrow down who’s interested in what, and do look at this guide on how to find a literary agent.
How can you give literary agents what they want?
First, you need to decide what you are going to present to agents.
With fiction, you always need to write the whole book. With non-fiction, you can often get away with offering agents a book proposal – that is, an outline version of the book you intend to write.
If your book is strongly story-led (true of most memoir, for example), you’d be advised to write the whole thing before seeking agents.
If your story is more subject-led, it’s usually fine to work off the back of a proposal.
Second, you need to deliver a wonderful, saleable manuscript. That means:
Strong, popular, entertaining writing (even if your subject is an extremely interesting one, people won’t want to read what you have to say about it if you write badly, so don’t).
Write for the market. It’s obvious, but most non-fiction manuscripts aren’t written for the market. If you’re not sure what your market is, go to a bookstore and get the answer.
Third, if you get knocked back by literary agents (non-fiction or generalist) – or if you want to give yourself the best possible chance before you approach them – then go and get professional advice.
We’ve helped propel non-fiction books into print. Authors brought us ideas, talent, work ethic. We brought knowledge of the market, contacts, and expertise in writing.
Put those things together, and you can have a powerful combination with eventual success. That’s how to find a literary agent for non-fiction.