by Matt Sinclair
If any of you were wondering what Ms. Query Shark, Janet Reid, has been up to lately (she is closed to new queries until July), I met her recently. She was sitting on a panel of nonfiction agents for the New York Writers’ Workshop.
First, let me just say that I really love these NYWW panels. This is the second time I’ve attended one and there’s another coming up in April for fiction that I plan to attend, too. They get top-notch agents like Reid of FinePrint Literary Management, who was joined this day by Rita Rosenkranz of Rita Rosenkranz Literary Agency and Regina Brooks, president and lead agent of Serendipity Literary Agency.
NYWW is an interesting organization, and I learned that they don’t cater only to New York-area folks. The agent panels are part of their pitch conferences, where writers from all over come to hone their proposals and pitch to editors. (I was told that they’ve had people fly in from Australia to do these things!) The workshop is the teaching division of an organization called New York Writers’ Resources, and they also have a webzine called Ducts that publishes personal stories – both fiction and nonfiction – and a publishing arm called Greenpoint Press.
Back to the agent panel. I came looking for what’s going on in nonfiction, but a lot of what they talked about pertains to fiction writers, too. In particular, I wanted to hear their thoughts on the brave new world of independent publishing/electronic publishing and what effect it was having in nonfiction. The first question was about whether writers still need agents. Obviously, the panelists have a vested interest in saying yes, but their answers were to the point, and I’d argue that they could have emphasized their value even more than they did.
Rosenkranz said that while writers can be more entrepreneurial these days, there’s more for agents to do with writers. The rights areas alone are changing to say nothing of the markets themselves. You still need strong writing, a hook, and a platform to get anywhere in nonfiction, but if two of the three are strong, a good agent can help you work on the third. Agents also are crucial to helping steer your career in the right direction. Janet Reid said there are lots of tools out there (e.g., Absolute Write, Agent Query, Query Tracker) that can help you find agents who represent what you’re writing.
The trick is finding a good agent for you. Make sure they’ve sold something. Don’t be too concerned if they don’t have a Web site, she said, since there are many excellent agents who don’t. That said, each of these agents recommended writers consider the new, hungry agents who are starting to build their lists. In fact, Reid brought two FinePrint agents with her – and they’re very much open to queries, by the way.
So, how has electronic publishing changed nonfiction? Some of the categories have thinned out, they said. Books on parenting and cooking, for example, aren’t doing so well with agents. Reference books are almost exclusively on the Web these days. What’s still working? History, narrative nonfiction, politics, and science.
Brooks said that with regard to nonfiction e-publishing, they’re all still figuring the market out too. Things like Web-enhanced books and audio books are changing the rights areas – which is another reason why it’s important to have an agent.
How do you break through all the noise? “Never lose sight of your audience,” said Rosenkranz. Communicate with your readers happily and frequently through social media vehicles (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) But she added that you shouldn’t burn yourself out on this. You need to maintain a presence, not be a meteor and fizzle out.
One thing that surprised me was when Brooks said memoir is doing extremely well. “Even stories about overcoming adversity can do well in this market,” she said. “But it needs to be a very well told and interesting story.” There too, you need to be diligent about your promotion.
Reid did a quick overview of how to write a nonfiction book proposal. There were no surprises there. All the usual suspects (writer's platform, table of contents, overview of the marketplace and competing titles, etc.) were there and they are all still important. With the exception of memoir, agents of nonfiction are not looking for completed manuscripts. If they like your query, they would ask for your proposal, not your manuscript. In case you were wondering, they want the proposal ready before you query. For those of you who aren’t aware, proposals are major projects in themselves and often run longer than fifty pages.
One of the messages these agents kept emphasizing was know where to find your audience. Who is going to buy your book? Where are they? “It’s incredibly important to have the platform,” Brooks said, “but if you can’t prove that you know how to get to your audience, it will be very difficult to get a publisher to fund the project.”
Developing the platform, of course, is not a simple thing. I'll circle back on that topic again in the future.
Any questions? I have additional notes from the panel session. Perhaps I can share more of their wisdom.
Matt Sinclair, a New York City-based journalist and fiction writer, recently published a short story anthology called Spring Fevers, which is available through Smashwords and Amazon. It includes stories by fellow FTWA writers, including Cat Woods, J. Lea Lopez, Mindy McGinnis, and R.S. Mellette. He also blogs at the Elephant's Bookshelf and is on Twitter @elephantguy68.