If you’ve landed on this page, chances are you want to write a nonfiction book and you’re wondering how to pitch a book idea to a literary agent. While it’s possible your idea occurred to you overnight in a flash of inspiration, it’s more likely you’ve been nurturing your idea for months. Or even years. That’s okay. Quite frankly, that’s normal.
My purpose here is to help you prepare to pitch your book idea to a living, breathing literary agent over the phone, via Zoom, at a writers’ festival, at a bare-knuckle pitch event, or — ideally — during an in-person meeting in a plush office with a literary agent or editor at a book publishing company.
As a former literary agent, a manuscript developer/book coach and as the traditionally published author of two nonfiction books, I regularly help subject experts prepare successful pitches and book proposals, get literary agents and book deals. A few of the results of these efforts include The Dental Diet, The Talking Cure, and The Dogs That Made Australia — all of them published in several countries. You can see loads more examples from successful client pitches/proposals I’ve assisted here.
Wait: am I a subject expert?
The aspiring nonfiction authors most likely to reach their goal of getting a traditional book deal are those who are subject experts. By that I refer to established professionals who have a defined subject area of expertise built on some combination of special knowledge, relevant qualifications, work experience, and lived experience.
Expertise — which can relate to anything from cocktails and astrophysics to philosophy or wrangling toddlers — is in the eye of the beholder.
It’s critically important that the expert is known and respected by a relevant community of peers (which could be anything from a doctor or scientist to a racing car driver or circus performer) and fans.
If a literary agent or editor at a publishing house has reached out to you, then it means that he or she considers you a subject expert. That alone is valuable information.
Agents and publishers are book lovers!
The first thing you need to know is that literary agents and the rest of the people who work in book publishing are typically the adults who loved reading books so much as children that they found jobs that would allow them to continue doing so legitimately as grownups. That means they are all hungry for fresh stories, new twists on old truths, or wholescale up-endings of conventional wisdom.
And that’s where you come in.
If an agent or publisher has reached out to you, then that’s encouraging and downright thrilling. It means the decision-maker (often referred to as gatekeeper) has become aware of what you do, regards you as some kind of expert in your field, and wonders if there might be a book in your expertise that he or she could pitch to a range of appropriate publishers. It’s a very large if, but an if nonetheless.
Agents and editors earn their living and stay employed by finding fresh voices and new commercially viable material ahead of their peers.
Your meeting or chat with the agent or editor/publisher is not a job interview. It’s an opportunity for you to find out more about each other.
What to do before the meeting to pitch your book idea
In my experience, experts sometimes need a little bit of help to think about their book idea in the way the agent or publisher does, in order to have maximum impact during a pitch meeting. So here’s my checklist for preparing for a pitch event, a phone conversation or Zoom meeting with a publishing professional.
First, prepare to meet the person
No cyber-stalking necessary! You want to get a glimpse of the person behind the role, to better understand the sorts of books that interest him or her, and to be aware of recent news.
For example, your basic research could include the agent’s:
- Twitter feed
- podcast appearances or other interviews
- any first-person content on relevant websites (agent’s, agency, or databases like Publishers Marketplace)
- On a literary agency website, spend time familiarising yourself with the books and authors in areas of expertise related to your own that the agent has helped get a book deal
- If you’re meeting with an editor at a publishing house, then look for current titles in related areas, and if possible find a forward-looking catalogue (usually buried in the footer of websites) that reveals at least some of the titles in the schedule for the year ahead. Catalogues list available rights to publishers in “foreign” territories so they are reliable sources of information about what is already scheduled for publication.
Second, prepare some thoughts about your book idea
You should bring to the meeting your thoughts on the following basic questions:
What is the main idea of your book?
How could your book be summarized in one or two sentences?
Spend some time to describe your project in a compelling and condensed couple of sentences. The Publishers Marketplace industry database lists recent acquisitions in a condensed and formulaic fashion that nevertheless conveys the essence of a respective project. Here are some examples of nonfiction project descriptions:
“Australian natural history author Danielle Clode’s KOALA: A LIFE IN TREES, a narrative study of the beloved and climate change–endangered animal, shedding light on their current lives, their early ancestors, and their vulnerable future”
Children’s Young Adult nonfiction:
“Author ‘s YOUNG TROUBLEMAKER: A FEAR-FIGHTER MANUAL FOR TEENS, a young adult revised edition of PROFESSIONAL TROUBLEMAKER, with content to help plant the seeds of expression, self-worth, and justice in younger minds”
General / other:
“TWO TREES MAKE A FOREST Jessica Lee’s DISPERSALS: PLANTS OUT OF PLACE, centering the lives of plants and their entanglements with human worlds, from plants considered invasive, like giant hogweed, to those vilified but intimate to many, like soy, and those like kelp, on which our futures depend”
“Alex Cody Foster’s THE MAN WHO HACKED THE WORLD, chronicling the author’s time living with and working as the ghostwriter for the infamous programmer, presidential candidate, and fugitive John McAfee, who died this past summer in a Spanish prison, based on 25-hours of exclusive interviews, pitched in the vein of THE WOLF OF WALL STREET meets Roman Polanski’s THE GHOST WRITER”
Why do you want to write the book?
Writing a book is not for the faint-hearted, so getting clear on your motivation is critical.
- Do you want to share the knowledge you’ve learned over a lifetime?
- Capitalise on your influence among a particular audience by broadening your reach?
- Build your credibility for the next stage of your business?
- Raise awareness of a neglected but important social issue?
Bonus points if you can clearly demonstrate timeliness and urgency to your content.
What are the key elements you see in your book?
The idea of this question is to prompt you to write a rough outline of the different types of content you are thinking about for your hypothetical book, so that you’re prepared to discuss it specifically rather than vaguely. The eventual book might bear little resemblance to what your original outline suggests, but having some tangible concrete ideas to begin the discussion will show the agent or publisher that you’re a thoughtful and professional prospective author.
- It’s worth looking at other books already published that relate to your area of expertise. What do you like about them? In your view, what’s missing? It might be easier to start by thinking about your work in terms of how it would be different from what already exist.
- Do you have a personal history or origin story relating to your area of expertise? Have you thought about why you chose to pursue the professional life you lead? Readers love to better understand the person behind the expert. Are you willing to share that story with readers? Subject experts often fail to realise that publishers are curious about your personal story because that’s what interests readers too.
- Is there someone known to buyers in your subject area who might write a foreword or a back-cover blurb?
Who are your competitors?
Who do YOU think your competitors are, and what’s your point of difference?
It’s helpful to get clear on this before the meeting, because the agent or publisher might have a different view of the market.
What sort of marketing activities are you prepared to do yourself?
This is critical. How can you personally help the publisher spread the word about your book — well before it appears on the bookshelves.
This includes things like:
- existing social media platforms (have a sense of current levels of followers/engagement),
- a regular newsletter,
- your own website,
- Media contacts
- Relationships with bloggers in your area of expertise eg food, yoga, organic horticulture (in other words, niche-interest stakeholders)
You don’t need to bring a fully fledged marketing plan to your meeting, but again it will be valuable to have considered some of these questions prior to the meeting.
During the call or meeting
If you have a physical product range I’d recommend bringing something a small item to your expertise to the meeting if it’s in-person. But you want it considered a gesture rather than an inducement (!), so keep it modest.
Here are some questions I’d consider asking during your meeting:
- How did the person become aware of you? The answer will provide great marketing intelligence for you if nothing comes of this meeting. (If one agent or publisher is curious, that means others will be too.)
- What is the perceived gap in the market? Again, this will help you refine your project, or to more persuasively pitch it to another professional down the track if this goes nowhere
- To whom do they see you as comparable and why?
- What similar title/s did well for that agent, house, or the market generally?
- What they would need from you in order to assess a project’s suitability for their publishing list
- If the agent or publisher starts talking about next steps, feel free to ask a ton of logistical questions such as:
*how many pages / recipes / case studies / chapters do you see?
*illustrations or photography?
(Perhaps getting ahead of ourselves on this one; they might demur and if so, don’t push them. But it will convey your professionalism.)
- Ask what they would expect or hope for from a published author in terms of media profile and socials (and the degree to which it’s essential or just a nice to have) — again, gives you some numbers to work towards if you’re not there yet.
End of call/meeting and afterwards
Make sure you don’t stay too long.
End with a clear next step — and a deadline.
Send a thank-you email or snail-mail note. Ask if they’d like to join your list if they’re not already on it.
Meet the deadline for the agreed next step.
Is this helpful? What have I missed? What would you like to know more about?
I’d love to hear from you. I firmly believe there is no such thing as a silly question.