Trade Publishing 101: Why Start with Nonfiction Proposals?

Today inaugurates a feature I’ve been mulling over for forever: Trade Publishing 101.

I’ve been itching to put together a series of how-to posts to better equip authors to get their books published, and I just launched the series with the topic I feel is in the greatest need of a free online resource – namely, how to write a non-fiction proposal. There are guides out there, but most of them lack specificity. Some are too long, some are too short, and I have yet to see one that’s just right. I don’t think I’ve got it perfect, but I’ve sold every nonfiction project I’ve sent out on submission, and I cut my editorial teeth working with nonfiction proposals, so I have the platform.

But there’s also this gnawing absence. While my interest has always been clear on my agent bio, the nonfiction portion of my slush pile has been perennially dwarfed by the fiction portion. Sure, the agency is better known for fiction, and more specifically for sf/fantasy. But when I started, the agency had barely dipped its toes into YA, middle grade, literary fiction, and general fiction, and as soon as I said I wanted to see that, I started to get quite a lot. Why not nonfiction?

Granted, there’s a good reason for this. Finding authors of nonfiction works a little differently than finding authors of fiction. Oftentimes we agents find ourselves scouting. I might reach out to the author of that feature article that just blew my mind, or that webcomic where I had to go back and read all 487 posts after stumbling upon it. And I’ve done that. I’ll continue to do that.

But, I find scouting to be problematic for a couple reasons.

One is inherent bias. Agents can only look for what we know to look for, and too often that means authors who are writing from a place of privilege.

Some evidence: According to this study of literary prize demographics conducted by the University of North Texas, 95% of Pulitzer Prize winners are white, 75% are male, and 85% of them live on the East Coast. When it comes to the National Book Award for Nonfiction, it’s only slightly better; 90% of winners are white, 70% are male, and 80% live on the East Coast. The winners are being drawn from a pool where the numbers are stacked against women and minorities. Seventy percent of the submissions for these awards are for books authored by men.

Shifting our gaze starts at the literary agent level, but there’s also only so much time we can spend in free reading. Some agents have interns (hopefully paid) or assistants scouring the globe for them, putting together tidy reader reports, but that doesn’t necessarily hedge all that much against biases. And it’s really easy to get caught in that echo chamber that leads to dog book after dog book after dog book.*

We need more voices in nonfiction. The world at large needs to reach the world of the book buyer, and it isn’t going to until more diverse nonfiction wends its way from conception to acquisition to publication to award nomination.

Not everyone is as privileged or as fortunate as, say, a New Yorker feature writer or the host of a popular late-night TV show, each of whom can reasonably expect to be approached about a book. Trade nonfiction is missing voices, and knowing the rules of the game will enable more people to play.

* – I don’t hate dogs. Or books. Or even dog books. They’re frequently heartwarming. But they’re also voluminous. And who knows whose memoirs they’ve crowded out of a publishing schedule?


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