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We Need To Talk About Non-Fiction Submissions

Federica Leonardis

Literary agent Federica Leonardis offers essential guidance to authors working towards submitting a work of non-fiction.

What is non-fiction?

As a reader I read books to understand the world around me. That’s why I love non-fiction books. Readers read non-fiction to learn something, understand something better or improve their life. Reading non-fiction books is a huge act of optimism.

An editor I used to work with once explained to me the difference between fiction and non-fiction. She put it beautifully. The difference, she said, is that while fiction deals with the universal aspects of being human, non-fiction deals with the particular ones. A good novel will cross boundaries of culture, gender, age, religion and language; it can be enjoyed by a diverse readership because it tells us something universal about being human, about human emotions, passions and situations that are the same the world over.

Non-fiction books on the other hand, although they too tell us something about being human, do so by picking a specific subject and putting it under a microscope, by telling us everything there is to know about that subject, by going deeper, by delving into the minutiae. Which is why the process of considering, representing and publishing non-fiction books is subject to a much more rigorous scrutiny. I love that.

Submitting a work of non-fiction

Broadly speaking non-fiction books can be divided into narrative and factual. For submissions of narrative non-fiction, especially from debut authors, I like to consider the finished manuscript. Although it’s called “narrative non-fiction”, it is still not fiction i.e. it deals with true events or at least with the author’s interpretation of true events. I consider narrative non-fiction submissions based on four main criteria: How good is the writing? Can the author sustain the narrative? Is the story interesting and/or original enough to be compelling to readers? What’s the author’s platform?

For submissions of factual non-fiction, I don’t need to see the whole manuscript. A proposal is sufficient and this can be a blessing and a curse. A good proposal is worth its weight in gold; a bad proposal can ruin the author’s chances irrevocably. A proposal can vary in length from 10 to 70+ pages. Its purpose is to communicate and persuade: to communicate clearly the idea at the core of the book and the question asked in the premise of the book, and to persuade that the finished manuscript will answer that question in a satisfactory, interesting and original manner.

What follows is a list of the bare minimum I expect to see in a proposal for a non-fiction book: title and subtitle, target word-count, the introduction, the chapter outline, a summary of each chapter, the conclusions, the author’s cv or platform, the state of the market, competing titles and a run-down of possible author-led promotion opportunities if any.

As for the criteria I use to consider a non-fiction submission, here goes:

  1. Do I care about the subject matter? Do I think it’s important? Do I think readers will be interested? It could be an excellent and important book but if I’m not passionate about the subject I will have difficulties selling it to editors.
  2. Does the author have a platform? By author’s platform I mean the author’s standing in their field of expertise. What’s their reputation? Are they respected and well-known? Do they have experience and proven knowledge in their field? How good is their cv?
  3. How good is the writing? Can the author write in a compelling, clear and engaging way?
  4. What’s the structure of the book like? Is the book structured in a logical way? This is important for me because the way the book is structured tells me a lot about the author.
  5. What’s the hook? What’s the premise of the book? What theory is the author presenting? Is it immediately relatable? Is it interesting? Is it original?
  6. Is the idea well executed? Does the book offer original knowledge or existing knowledge in an original way?
  7. What’s the target readership? Who’s the author writing for? Does he/she write for the reader or for his/her own ego? The purpose of a non-fiction book is to communicate and in order to communicate the author needs to ensure that the message is understood by the intended recipient.
  8. How will the reader’s life be improved by reading the book? This sounds a bit cheesy but it’s key to get me interested. What positive contribution does the book make to the reader’s life either in a practical or in an intellectual way?
  9. What’s the market for the book? What other books have been published on the same subject it? How is this book different from other books on the subject?

At the end of the day three things really matter: how well you know your subject; how original your idea is; how well you communicate that idea. Or as someone once said: “Be so good they can’t ignore you”.

Federica Leonardis is the founder of the Martin Leonardis Literary Management. Her publishing career includes four years in Foreign Rights at Ed Victor Literary Agency, three years in the Contracts department at the Orion Publishing Group and over two years at Rogers, Coleridge & White Literary Agency where she worked alongside two senior agents while building her list until July 2016.

She’s looking for commercial, cross-over and reading group adult fiction with inspiring characters, universal dilemmas and compelling plots. She’s also interested in some non-fiction such as food writing and cookery, business, psychology, smart thinking and self-help.

Fully bilingual, she considers submissions in both English and Italian. Check out the website or follow her on Twitter