Pitching Your Non-Fiction Manuscript to a Literary Agent: A 3-Step Guide
Querying literary agents can look quite different for fiction and non-fiction books. True stories require more marketing research and a more complete query package, especially for emerging authors. Agents want to know that your non-fiction book will sell, and that can be a tougher pitch than fiction, which has more clearly defined markets in the publishing industry.
If you’re writing on a niche subject, marketing research is all the more crucial. If you’re a non-fiction author, don’t worry—we’re here to help! A lot of the advice you’ll find on query letters and publishing is geared toward fiction authors, so we’ll go over some tips on preparing a query package specifically for your non-fiction manuscript. If you would like some help with this, check out our query letter packages for authors.
1. Identify your target audience
Doing thorough market research is absolutely essential before pitching your non-fiction manuscript to a literary agent. You need to come to them with more than just a great story—you must show them that there’s an audience for that story and that your book will make them money. Let’s be honest: Publishers and agents don’t care about your book as much as they care about the profit it will generate for them, so they need to know there’s an audience ready to embrace your book. Knowing where your work fits in the market and who the target audience is will be a major selling point for any prospective agents considering representing you.
You should have a well-defined idea of your story’s broader cultural context as well as understand how it might be received and perceived, who your average reader might be, what themes are currently trending, and the space your story will fill in the market. If your sub-genre is already saturated, do you have an original concept? What are you saying that makes your book stand out? If there already are a lot of titles in your field, show the agent or publisher how yours is unique and why readers would be willing to buy it.
If your subject is more niche, you’ll need to prove that enough people would be interested in it. You’ll also want to paint a clear picture of your target audience—who are you marketing the book to? Include your target demographic’s age, gender, occupation, and any other information that may define it. Remember that the publishing industry is a big business, and as much as we’d like to think that the merit of the work is enough, the truth is that most decisions will be based on the almighty bottom line.
Hiring beta readers before you start querying agents is highly recommended as they can offer invaluable insight and feedback that can help you better understand your target audience and its expectations for a book like yours. You can then tweak your manuscript before submitting it to an agent, increasing the likelihood of it being accepted. Just make sure your beta readers truly represent your target demographic. If you already have a solid following or fanbase, this will help you refine the data on who represents your demographic. It will also score you points with any prospective agents as it shows you already have a platform to promote the book once it’s published.
2. Optimize your manuscript
This may seem obvious, but you should have an optimized copy of your manuscript ready to send out with your query package. Agents want to make money, so a sloppy manuscript from an author who has cut corners isn’t going to the top of their list.
Having a meticulously polished copy of your manuscript ready is key to being taken seriously as an author. Therefore, you should implement any pertinent notes and feedback from your beta readers and editors into your manuscript and have it proofread by a professional before you send out your query package. Granted, perfection is impossible, but your goal should be to get as close to it as possible. Learn more about our developmental editing services and our proofreading services for authors.
Many agents won’t accept a full manuscript with your initial application, but we recommend having it polished and ready to send out in case they request it (which is obviously the goal) because you definitely don’t want to be rejected over easy-to-fix issues like typos and punctuation. Manuscripts certainly get rejected over minor issues like that because these reflect poorly on the author, and agents want to work with someone who’s professional and reliable.
3. Put your query package together
A query package is what you ultimately send out to prospective literary agents. It’s important to check each agent’s specific requirements as they might ask for different things. The more prepared you are, the better, so it doesn’t hurt to put a few basics together even if you don’t end up including them all in your final package. Besides, you’ll almost certainly face a few rejections before you land a contract—even the biggest names in writing have amassed their fair share of rejection letters—so you’ll likely need all these basics at some point.
Besides your query letter, your package should include an overview of your story crafted in the tone of a sales pitch. Remember: You’re trying to sell your book by hooking prospective agents with the key points of your story and an introduction to your protagonists without giving everything away. Basically, you want to convince them that they want to read your manuscript. It’s like an expanded book blurb that spoils the ending.
We also recommend having a list of your book chapters and a couple of sample chapters ready to include in your package. It’s not something all literary agents will request, but again, preparation is key, and it’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it. A list of chapters will give the agent a sense of what the full book will look like, while a couple of sample chapters (think 25 to 50 pages) will demonstrate your style and writing skills. This gives the agent a valuable preview of your abilities and helps them decide whether to request the full manuscript.
The main objective of your pitch is to get a literary agent to represent you, and it’s your job to tell them why that’s a good idea. It’s all about showing that you’re prepared, well-informed, and ready for the traditional publishing industry. If it all feels too overwhelming, check out our query letter packages for authors and take the next step to having your book published.