Literary agents for non-fiction

What non-fiction literary agents are looking for – where to find them – and how to give them what they want.

1. What are non-fiction agents looking for?
All agents are looking for the same thing: saleable manuscripts – of the kind that might actually make some money. So agents are looking for:

  • anything celebrity-led, and written by or endorsed by that celebrity
  • very strong personal memoir
  • funny & exotic travel
  • popular science
  • narrative-led history
  • biography, if the subject in question is genuinely famous
  • major new diet and motivational work
  • strong, quirky one-offs – eg: The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (Kate Summerscale) / Longitude (Dava Sobel)

What they’re not looking for is anything niche. (‘How to’ books in minor subject areas, books of local history, biographies of little-known subjects, etc). Although these books may well sell to the right publishers, they won’t sell for enough money to make it worth an agent’s while to get involved. For books like this, it’s fine to approach publishers direct. Use Agent Hunter for a place to start. (You can hunt publishers too, y’know.)

2. Where to find non-fiction literary agents
Very few agents specialise in non-fiction. The vast majority of all literary agents will handle fiction and non-fiction, literary and commercial work. Although some specialist non-fiction agents do exist, you will generally be better off seeking a good all-purpose agent for your work. I’ve sold four non-fiction books myself, and all of those were via a good general purpose agent. 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 health, diet or how to book, you may well want an agent who specialises in this niche. (We’d recommend Fox & Howard in this area.)
  • Ditto, if you are writing a cookbook. (But if you are, you’d do well to have a TV deal sewn up first – this is not an easy area to crack.)
  • If you want a ghostwriter to tell your story for you, you probably want an agent who has worked in this way with previous clients. (Try Euan Thorneycroft, Mark Lucas or Andrew Lownie.) But be realistic. Very few personal stories are interesting and commercial enough to justify the cost of ghostwriting – in general, if you want a story written, you’ll need to write it yourself (or ask us to help.)

If you need more info, then do consult the listing directories already mentioned – use those in conjunction with agents’ websites to narrow down who’s interested in what. Oh, and do look at this monster post on how to find a literary agent.

4. How to 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 damn 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 (which will be true of most memoir, for example), you’d be well advised to write the whole darn thing before seeking agents. If your story is more subject-led, it’s usually fine to work off the back of a proposal. You can get more info on what a book proposal should look like here. (Graham Maw Christie do good work in getting book proposals into shape – but you do need to approach them with a strong idea if you’re to get them interested in the first place.)

Secondly, 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 or boringly. So don’t.
  • Write for the market! It’s so obvious, but most non-fiction manuscripts that come across our desks aren’t written for the market. Personal memoir that’s fifty percent ‘how to’. A footnote heavy biography of some obscure French civil servant. A ‘book’ on dieting that’s only 20,000 words long.  If you’re not sure what the market is for your particular book, then go to a bookstore and don’t leave till you know the answer.

Thirdly, 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 for pete’s sake go out and get some tough hard-hitting advice from professionals. We’ve helped create two best-selling non-fiction books from manuscripts that have come our way, and helped countless others into print. The authors brought the ideas, the talent and the work ethic. We brought our knowledge of the market, our contacts, and our expertise in writing. Put those two things together, and you can have a powerful combination – and eventual success. Best of luck.

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17 Responses to Literary agents for non-fiction

  1. Pingback: How To Get Literary Agents For Non-fiction | Yearbook Ideas

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  4. Hello, I need to know (so that I do NOT waste anyone’s time !) wether or not my auto biography of my sea angling experiences over a 15 year period would be of any interest to anyone else. It is NOT a diary; it is not a DIY book; it tells of the things that have happened to me on this journey and , and this is what may make it different , is that I have included in the “book” all the sea fishing stories that I have had published over the period……..In Creel, Angling, Dalesman. Monster waves, strange events in thick fog, close encounters with Whales. And so on……..Can you help in any way ?

    • Harry says:

      It is possible, yes. We’ve helped books like this get into print before. The key is the quality and interest of your work. For us to judge that, we’d need to read the book. Check out our feedback services for more info.

  5. I have written my autobiography of my 67 years, 45 of them working with wildlife in Southern Africa, I have worked with almost every African animal you can think off and have become probably one of the top cheetah breeders in the world.
    I have used a lot of my humor throughout the book but on reading blogs such as yours it seems a daunting task to have an autobiography published.
    I am well know within the animal world but not much outside.
    I am originally from Scotland but have lived and worked in Africa for most of my life.
    Any help would be greatly appreciated.
    Best Regards
    Alan
    Alan Strachan

    • Harry says:

      Yours is the sort of story that could well sell – if properly executed. You have two options: (A) seek a literary agent directly. Your best bet is to search via AgentHunter – a sister site, but one that is by far the best way to find an agent in the UK. (B) come to us for editorial input first. You won’t get an agent unless your material is spot on, and getting a really experienced editor to look your stuff over first is the best way to ensure that it’s as good as it can be. You can of course try option A first, then use B as a fallback. Best of luck! As I say, the basic premise of the book sounds of real market appeal.

  6. jey van says:

    your to the point advice makes good sence. thanks for being so.
    looking for a non fiction e publ literary agent esp an agent specialising in pers finance and self help.
    may your week becomes brighter, with the request of each and every writer

  7. Janet McBride says:

    I have written a book about how I was healed of diabetes entitled “You Can Kill Diabetes With The Sword Of The Spirit The Word Of God, I Did” and am looking for an agent to help me get it published preferably Christian. Can you help me? Thank you. I look forward to hearing from you.

  8. David Foster says:

    ear Sir // Madam

    I really hope you may be able to help? or point me in the right direction. I have suffered from Severe Cerebral Palsy all my life which was due to negligence at my birth 41 years ago. Basically I’ve just completed writing my life story, which has taken me 3 years to complete because I can only type with 1 finger, but trust me this isn’t your normal run of the mill book, regarding someone who suffers from a Disability, has major speaking difficulties and is totally reliant on a Wheelchair to get about.

    My story is shocking! to say the least but it’s a story that has to be told! My book has everything and I mean everything. It’s starts obviously when I was born and the struggles my Parents had to cope with having a Severely Disabled child, but they and I were determined and never gave up, the word (“I Can’t” has never been in my parents vocabulary)
    I couldn’t speak, feed and dress myself until my parents decided to send me to boarding school when I was 10 years old.

    This was the turning point of my life but I hated this at the start, as I was made to do things I never knew I could, like dressing and feeding myself for the first time in my life. I left the school at 18 having done all the above mentioned and a lot more plus the school somehow helped me to learn and pass my driving test.

    After I left School I worked at West Berkshire Council for 1 weeks work experience. The Council then took me on a full time basis after this, I was there for a total of 22 years.

    This book also includes two suspicious death, two suicides, a mugging and surviving the Tsunami in Thailand in 2004 and that’s just touching the ice-berg.
    It feels like I’m hitting a brick wall at the moment, as I need advice on my next move, I just need a lucky break, would you have any contacts who would be willing to hear my story.

    Thanks for listening, hope to hear from you soon. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

    below is respose from a Literary Agent plus the contents of my book.
    Thank you again,
    Warm Regards

    David Foster

    Hi Dave,

    Thanks so much for sharing with me your story, ‘Not Just 4 Wheels’. I’ve finally got around to reading it – and I have to say I finished it in one sitting, it makes for compulsive reading. Your story is incredible, uplifting, sad and very funny, I really do think that it is something that should be published I would even say that it could be a movie! one day, you’ve had an incredible interesting life – definitely more exotic and exciting than mine!!

    Having said, very sadly that I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t think I would be the best agent to take this story forward. I’ve been focussing my attention on supporting authors who write for children and while I do take on a few non-fiction projects a year these are usually more self-help orientated.

    However, I would definitely recommend that you send this script out to other agents to get their opinion. Have you looked at the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook or the Writer’s Handbook? These books are available at the library or I’m sure on-line and they have listings of all the good agents.
    Anyway I would like to thank you for letting me read your story and to wish you all the best with it in the future. If you do need any further help or advise please do just let me know

    All best wishes

    Becky

    CONTENTS

    INTRODUCTION! NOT JUST FOUR WHEELS

    CONTENTS

    THE EARLY YEARS

    SPEENHAMLAND SCHOOL / KEEVIL UNIT

    LORD MAYOR TREALOAR COLLEGE

    NEWBURY DISTRICT COUNCIL / WEST BERKSHIRE COUNCIL

    LIVERPOOL FOOTBALL CLUB

    SWINDON TOWN FOOTBALL CLUB

    FLEX GYM

    NIGHTCLUBS, SEX, DRUGS, AND ALCOHOL

    HOLIDAYS ABROAD

    THAILAND & SURVIVING THE TSUNAMI

    TRAGEDIES / HEARTACHE

    FINDING MY ANGEL

    MOVING ON

    THE FUTURE

    • Harry says:

      Hi there. You can try AgentHunter for finding literary agents in the right kind of non-fiction field. Or, if you can afford it, get editorial advice from one of our editors. That advice will tell you if your MS is publishable; if so, what to do next; and if not, how to fix it. Info on the service available here.

  9. Ismael says:

    Hello, I am amazed and deeply impressed by your generosity of sharing and advice. It emboldens me to ask you this question. I have a non-fiction book of popular science, on the question of why, even when we have strong moral values or strongly believe in a way of acting, we still so often fall short in our behaviour.

    How this affects not only individuals but organisations, the difficulty of walking the talk. And how above all this has come to affect the whole planet, as more and more people agree that certain things are urgent, changing our habits to avoid environmental chaos, not wasting food (nearly 50% of all the food in all the world never reaches our stomachs – while 1 in 10 people in the planet are undernourished for lack of food!), doing exercise, etc. We really want this. We all depend on aligning our actions with such values and desires. But we don’t do it. My book is about the science behind this gap between our values and our actions; how to overcome it to “be the change you want to see”, and how to trigger that same change in others. It will be at once a big picture pop science book, and a personal development guide, and make use of stories to transmit the facts.

    I am debating whether to submit to a publisher my proposal and sample chapter, or to seek an agent, and if yes, how to go about finding the right one for this book. Any ideas? Thanks in advance!

    • Harry says:

      Yes, definitely you need an agent – all the plausible publishers would need you to have one. As for finding an agent, you need to tootle over here and use the awesome search tools we’ve created for your delight and delectation. The concept sounds very strong; your writing looks fine. You’d need to have a reasonable academic or comparable background, but if you do, there’s no reason why this proposal shouldn’t fly.

  10. Ismael says:

    That is both very helpful and very encouraging. Thank you so much. Yes I do have both an academic and a professional background, and the basis of a promotion platform so… fingers crossed. Once more thank you.

  11. Devorah says:

    Hello,

    I want to write an informative, approachable book on Dementia Care for individual and professional carers and health workers, or anyone simply curious on the subject! Any leads on the sort of UK publisher I should approach for this?

    Thanks,

    Devorah

  12. Lianne says:

    Hello,

    I am interested in publishing a poetry book – I have a number of poems written already. Would this be the type of thing that would be publishable and, of so, how would I go about doing so and how many poems would be suggested?

    Thank you in advance.

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