After more than a decade in academia, and then working as a freelance journalist, I recently published my first non-fiction book for a wider audience. This was unagented. But as I handed in the final manuscript last September to my editor at Bloomsbury, all my resolutions of ‘never again’ suddenly magically disappeared and I found myself thinking seriously about the next book. This made me realise how much I had loved researching and writing SWAY, and that it would be something I would love to do for a long time. And, so I decided to try and get an agent. Now, I had heard enough stories of how this could be one of the most stressful things an author could do, and that the chance of getting an agent could be one in a million. Several such myths abound, and it can be such a nerve-wracking process, so I hope that by sharing my own experience and journey, it could help someone else. My next (two) books are also non-fiction, so I will also share a few tips on how to write a non-fiction proposal here to make it compelling for an agent and thereafter a publisher.
In terms of structuring a non-fiction proposal, one good thing is that you don’t have to have a whole manuscript completed before submission unlike a fiction submission. But, you still need to have done your research and have a very clear idea of what the book will be about, why you are best person to write it, and why it should be written now. A brief summary should state this clearly at the very start. Most agents and publishers like to see a clear chapter summary. Most non-fiction books are around 80-90,000 words, although this is often negotiable with the publishers. My book, SWAY, for instance is around 120,000 words although this is highly unusual. The chapter outline is, of course, tentative at this stage and will most likely change as your book develops. But at this stage, a strong outline, with clear headings and short summaries will help agents and publishers feel confident in your proposal. It will also help you as you write your book and so it is worth investing time into researching it and developing this.
A section on your intended audience is very important. No book is ever written for everybody, nor should it be. So, it is important for you to acknowledge this, and think carefully about where your book might sit in a bookstore, and what the competing and parallel books are. In marketing speak, this is sometimes called a ‘persona’ so think about what kind of person your target reader would be, what other books might they be buying and reading, when they would be reading your book. Of course, we all hope that our books would be read by just about everybody, but that is never the case and it is a good start to think of a niche audience. This can also help not only in making your proposal stronger, but also developing your voice, and the marketing of the book for promotion.
With a non-fiction proposal, it is usual to send the first 8-10,000 words of the book, or a sample chapter. This doesn’t have to be necessarily at the start, but a part of the book that is representative of your writing, and one that makes the strongest impression. An agent will perhaps help you edit this further before submission, although some agents are very hands-on editorially while others not so much.
My process of looking for an agent started with researching online. I looked at authors I admire, I spoke to a few people whose writing I love, and I found out who their agents were. I would recommend looking at the agents’ profiles carefully on their agency websites, to try and understand the kind of books they are looking for, and the kind of authors they represent. Although an agent doesn’t always represent only one kind of author or books, often they explicitly state if they are looking for a particular genre, or if there is a genre that they do not represent. This can help you eliminate the ones that are not suited to you, save wasting your time and more importantly theirs!
I also recommend that you make a list of things you might be looking for in an agent. For me, personally, it was important that I work with an agent who is interested in broader issues of diversity and inclusivity and that their author list reflected this. I write about issues pertaining to gender bias and societal inequalities, so it was important to me that the agent would prioritise these too and would be able to champion them. You might want to work with someone who represents really big names, or one who is very hands-on and available. It completely comes down to your working style and your expectations too. Once I had a shortlist, I sent out emails to them with a brief overview of my proposal, and a brief paragraph about me and my experience. I feel that it is very important to make this email personalised in some way so as to not give the impression that it is a ‘copy and paste’ job across several agents. This is where knowing more about the agent, and following them on social media helps. The cover letter doesn’t have to be very long or formal. These days most submissions are via email, so include a brief summary of the book and a paragraph about yourself, giving a sense of yourself as a writer.
I staggered my emails, and sent out a couple at a time, not knowing, or believing, that someone would be interested in working with me. That age-old imposter syndrome kicked in. And, I was very fortunate to have five offers of representation. This was really one of the hardest things for me to have this choice. While I was filled with gratitude, and shocked, it also evoked so much anxiety. How does one choose from amongst some of the best agents in the country? In the end it does come down to your instinct. Take your time, speak to them on the phone, ask them questions, meet them face to face if you can. Even though I could have worked with any of the agents who offered me representation, because they are all some of the best people, with a wonderful list of authors, I know that when I spoke to Robert that he immediately had the same vision for my book, that he understood me as a writer, and I trusted him to be able to get me the best book deal possible.
So, trust yourself and your judgement. Remember, they are selling themselves as much as you are selling yourself to them. It must be a partnership, and so make sure that you take your time with this decision. And, finally be brave. Never take any rejections personally. Much like not every person can be our ideal reader, not every agent can be the right one for the book that you are writing!
Dr Pragya Agarwal is a behavioural scientist, with expertise in cognition, HCI and User-centred Design, focussed especially in diversity and inclusivity. She was a senior academic for over 12 years at US and UK Universities, and held the prestigious Leverhulme Fellowship, following a PhD from the University of Nottingham. Pragya has published numerous scientific articles and books, some of which are on the reading list for leading courses around the world. As a freelance writer, she regularly writes thought pieces on racial and gender bias for The Guardian, Times Higher Education, Forbes, Prospect, Independent, Metro, Huffington Post and various other publications.
Pragya is a two-time TEDx speaker, and was named as one of the 100 influential women in social enterprise in the UK, and one of 50 people creating change in the UK-India corridor on the High and Mighty list. She has been invited to give keynote talks and workshops around the world, and has appeared on several international podcasts, radio and television channels, such as BBC Woman's Hour, BBC Breakfast, Radio 5 Live, BBC Merseyside, Australian Broadcasting Service, and Canadian Radio. She organised the first ever TEDxWoman event in the north of the country, and has a podcast called 'Outside the Boxes'.
She can be found on twitter as @DrPragyaAgarwal