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If you’re a non-fiction author who wants to take the commercial publishing route, at some point you’ll wonder how to find a literary agent for your book. I asked Cynthia Zigmund, founder of Chicago-based Second City Publishing, an agency that represents and supports non-fiction and mystery fiction authors and provides editorial services to independent writers.

As a non-fiction writer, you need to believe in your idea for the book. But your idea alone won’t be enough to find a literary agent. Like everyone else, agents are busy people. When they receive a query from a writer, there are certain things they will want to find.

Before you even start, you need to have a viable commercial idea. Do your research and make sure there aren’t fifty other books out there on the same topic. And if there are, how is yours going to be different?

Also, make sure the agent specializes in what you’re writing about and that they don’t represent someone who would be a direct competitor to what you’re doing. Or, if they do, be prepared to explain how your book is going to be different. You’d be surprised of how many authors don’t do that.

The next step is to have one or two sample chapters and a proposal. That shows that you’re serious about the project. Without that, an agent won’t spend much time on your idea.

When you reach out to an agent, find out what their requirements are, for example, whether they want to receive only a query with the proposal or just the query first, or whether they accept attachments in the email.

 

To sum up, you need three things to get a book agent for your non-fiction project: a unique idea, a couple of chapters and a proposal. If you’ve started looking for an agent, you probably have the first two already. The proposal, however, requires much (much) more work.

It’s really important to do a really thorough job with the proposal. When I’m working with an author, it’s not unusual for them to revise it several times before we even get it in front of an editor.

The first thing I’m going to look at when I read it, is the author’s marketing plan and platform that a publisher can tap into to launch your book.

Having a platform means you are a go-to person in whatever you’re writing about, you have a strong online presence, you speak regularly in front of groups that are a target audience for your book, you’ve written a lot of articles and maybe other books. In your marketing plan you should describe that with numbers and statistics.

The marketing plan is what makes or breaks a deal with a publisher, particularly for nonfiction books. It should talk about what you have going on now. It’s not about intentions, like “I will increase speaking engagements once the book is available,” or “I plan to have a more robust website.” Publishers hear that all the time, and authors are always sincere about it, but at least half of the times it’s wishful thinking that never translates into anything.

If you plan, for example, on hiring a publicist or someone to do marketing for you, it’s fine to include that. But the real deal maker for a publisher is knowing that you write regularly for relevant publications and you have 100,000 regular followers on Instagram, or Facebook or Twitter.

You can have great credentials, the right level of expertise, and be a great writer, but you may not have a platform or one that’s going to work for a publisher. In that case, not approaching publishers for a year or two while you work on your platform may be your best approach.

 

The platform is so important that, as Cynthia says, if you don’t have one, you’d better wait a year or two and build one, before you approach a publisher. That may be a tough piece of advice to follow, especially if you are – and rightfully so – excited about your book and eager to have it out there. It all makes sense though, once you know what to really expect from a publisher.

Whether you are a fiction or nonfiction author, you have to keep in mind that your publisher is in business to make money. One of the ways they can do that is to have a launching point, particularly if you’re a first-time author. That launching point is your platform.

A lot of authors feel that all they need to do is write the book and that the publisher is going to do the heavy lifting. That’s not true. You still need to do marketing. A commercial publisher will help you put together a strong package, and will provide you with editing, design, coordination with rights, and a strong distribution that you probably couldn’t get on your own. But don’t expect them to turn you into a star. That’s something that you need to work with them on.

I’m not saying that authors with weaker platforms don’t achieve success, they certainly do, but with the millions of books that are published every year between commercial and self-publishing, there’s a lot out there to choose from. If your readers don’t know who you are, they’re going to have a hard time finding you.

 

Talking about expectations, here’s what to expect and what not to expect from an agent once you start working with them.

There needs to be chemistry between you and your agent. If you feel that you’re not comfortable with that person, then they’re not a good fit for you. Vice versa, if I feel like an author is always second guessing me, or that there’s some lack of trust, I won’t work with them.

An agent should be communicative, share information with you and respond within a timely manner. When I work with an author, I’ll send them a list of the publishers that their project is being presented to. And when I get feedback, I’ll pass it to them verbatim, unless the editor just declined the project without a specific reason.

In general authors should expect their agent to be a business partner who looks out for their interest, not their best friend. Agents won’t write their proposals for them or do developmental edit of the manuscript. Authors should expect feedback, but it’s general feedback, like – if it’s fiction – advice on characters that need more development. They shouldn’t expect their agent to always agree with them. But they should expect to give them good solid advice.

 

Finally, a few words about self-publishing

Publishing independently, doesn’t have quite the same stigma it did even ten or even five years ago. Back then, that generally meant you weren’t able to find a publisher. Now for some authors it’s a deliberate choice.

Publishing independently is a fine choice as long as authors do it the right way, by hiring a professional designer and a professional editor, and committing pretty much full time to marketing.

If you’re considering whether you want to publish independently, or commercially, you should always try the commercial route first, because you can always go independent after. By contrast, once you publish independently, it’s very hard to find a commercial publisher to work with you, unless your book is extremely successful.