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Saturday, February 17, 2018

Commercial Book Proposals & Agents

There are thousands of web pages and books out there about writing commercial book proposals. In my opinion, the best web source for writing commercial non-fiction like most law professors might is this one. And the best book I read on the subject was Publish Your Nonfiction Book by agent Sharlene Martin and Anthony Flacco. More importantly, you'll need to get your hands on a few excellent book proposals. 

I did not get to see a recent book proposal that successfully landed a top commercial publisher until I hired a publishing consultant. Jill Swenson came highly recommended by a number of authors who have published non-fiction that related to the Holocaust. Swenson has helped many authors write book proposals and find suitable agents. The authors who recommended her wound up represented by agent Sharlene Martin. I did not pitch Martin. I pitched only one agent, and it was by invitation. That was Robbie Hare with Goldfarb & Associates. She was nothing less than amazing. 

There are useful books out there on finding agents, which will lead you to websites and other sources. But, without a doubt the best way to find an agent to take you on as a client is to use and expand your network to find a personal connection. You'll need to draft a snappy query e-mail that gets their attention. I recommend the originally titled Guide to Query Letters and 2018 Guide to Literary Agents to help you with this. 

Although I got lucky on my first shot landing a dream agent, I first compiled a long list of agents to query. In addition to using the Guide to Literary Agents, I reviewed the acknowledgements of the authors who write books I thought my future readers also enjoy. Authors commonly thank their agents in books' acknowledgements.

To write a top level book proposal and land a heavy-hitting agent, you really need to know your competing titles and understand where you fit in the market. That's the most important aspect of the book proposal, and probably the one aspect academics are weakest at drafting. You need to think like a marketer. If your book were in Barnes & Noble, what would be on the shelf or display table next to it? What books would be listed below yours on Amazon under the line "Customers Who Bought This Item Also Commonly Bought:"? For me, my market angle is that I am among a wave of women writing non-fiction about different aspects of Holocaust history. Book clubs who enjoy their books will enjoy mine. Jewish Community Centers who host them might enjoy a presentation from me, as well.

In sum, you need to figure out your niche to draft the book proposal and figure out which agents to pitch and how. Then, you need to spend weeks writing an excellent book proposal. You will need input from people who have done it before. In my case, I decided it was worthwhile to get some professional input from Swenson, and I am glad I did. I do not believe my agent would have taken me on had I not taken that step to improve my book proposal. 

Finally, you'll want to query agents one at a time and be prepared for frustration. The typical result to a query is silence. But if you are lucky enough to get feedback, use it to improve your query and proposal and keep going until you find the one for you! 


And to preempt some awkward e-mails, I cannot share my book proposal for various reasons.

And, for the cynics: No, I am getting no benefit for plugging the excellent professionals, books and web pages mentioned in this post.

Posted by Jen Kreder on February 17, 2018 at 06:35 PM | Permalink


With all these efforts, university of kentucky press was the best placement?

Posted by: anon | Feb 21, 2018 2:03:22 AM

You have the same distribution potential with just the very top academic presses, but they will expect a traditional, heavily footnoted book. My comments after peer review at both OUP and Georgetown were that I needed far more footnotes. That just isn't the kind of book I want to write. I'm hoping to reach a broader audience than a typical academic book does for reasons that have nothing to do with royalties.

Posted by: Jen Kreder | Feb 20, 2018 7:23:58 PM

What is the advantage of publishing with a commercial press over one of the top 10 academic presses? I imagine that the royalties from both are pretty small unless you hit the jackpot. Don't academics (and promotion committees) value a top-tier academic press over a commercial press?

Posted by: anon | Feb 20, 2018 5:12:01 PM

Thanks for the shout-out Jen Kreder. I'm looking forward to reading your new book!

Posted by: Jill Swenson | Feb 18, 2018 10:09:55 AM

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