How do I break into writing nonfiction books?
July 14, 2009 1:42 PM   Subscribe

My dream is to write nonfiction books, but I have more book ideas than I know what to do with. Does anybody have any advice on how to find an agent or even just somebody knowledgeable about the publishing business who could give some good advice about which book ideas would work and which ideas would fall flat? How does one get past the query letter stage, when you have multiple outlines and chapters and book ideas, but you don't have a finished book?
posted by jonp72 to Work & Money (13 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
What is your area of expertise? What are your credentials in that area? Finding an agent (and eventually a publisher) can be as much about your platform (what makes you an authoritative voice on a subject) as it is about your ability to write.

As for which ideas will work and which will fall flat, at this stage, that's what family, friends, and colleagues are for. Discuss your ideas with folks whose taste and interests you trust (don't worry about someone stealing your ideas; this virtually never happens, as there are almost no book ideas that are unique and therefore worth stealing. The success of a book is much more about execution—how well it is written, what new things it has to say about a subject—than it is about the idea you start with).

Do not choose your idea based upon how "marketable" you think it is. Choose your idea based upon what you are passionate about and interested in. Keep in mind that you'll be living with this subject for several years. Just as if you were choosing a thesis topic, choose something that you won't get sick of after three months.
posted by ocherdraco at 2:22 PM on July 14, 2009

As an amateur not-particularly-successful publisher, if you've never published a non-fiction book before or are not already a "famous" expert in the field you're writing about, you should write the book first, then shop it. Having an agent and an outline isn't enough to sell a book if your potential book-buying audience don't already know you as The Guy Who Knows Everything About That Subject. If you are an expert, but on a small scale, talk to your local university press (even small university's often have one) - they might publish you based on an outline or query letter, if you're that good, but they may be willing to work with you getting started, since they have the teaching resources somewhere on campus. Don't expect an advance (that's my assumption for why you haven't written a book yet) unless, again, you're already the expert that everybody's been waiting for a book from.

If you've never written a non-fiction book before, even if you are an expert, you probably don't have any way to prove you're up to the task - you don't hire an electrician who's never been an electrician, but is really, really interested in it. The amount of research involved is a lot of work - a publisher will be wary of signing you, paying an advance, possibly assigning their own fact-checkers and editors -- devoting a lot of their own resources -- if they have no proof that you can produce an accurate, readable, well-researched and logical book. Prove yourself as a writer first, take the simplest of your book ideas, research it and write it, get it edited, shop the finished book to publishers, or self-publish it if no publisher is willing to bite, and then you'll have the leverage to sell an unwritten book.
posted by AzraelBrown at 2:47 PM on July 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

Do not choose your idea based upon how "marketable" you think it is.

In one way I agree, but I also think it's important as a writer to be very clear about what's already in the market on their topic of interest, particularly right now when plenty of publishers are at the cliff's edge economically. I work at an art museum producing exhibition catalogues and related books -- admittedly a specialized market to begin with -- and when we shop around book projects to copublishers, marketability is actually the first question they need answered. Because if they're going to invest that kind of money into publishing a book, they want it to be a pretty good bet that they're going to get their money back.

That's certainly not to say that you should just look at the market and try to magically divine the next million-dollar idea. But when you identify ideas that you'd like to explore, I would suggest that you do your research to see what kind of presence these subjects already have. A topic that has a lot of books about it already will require you to have a fresh angle, new research, etc., whicle one doesn't have much market presence will require you to make sure you're working on something that genuinely has the potential to generate interest.

Demonstrating to an agent or publisher that you're aware of the market and how your book can fit into it -- and yes, given your status as an unknown, you should have a polished manuscript to present first -- will help show that you're serious.

Some other resources: have you checked out mediabistro? They have courses, seminars, etc. that cover the topics you're asking about in-depth. Also, what about checking out your local community college or continuing education programs at local universities? They often have classes that cover the business side of writing.
posted by scody at 2:58 PM on July 14, 2009

I work at a major US trade publisher. I work on both fiction and non-fiction titles. I don't work in acquisitions, so I cannot help you get your book published at my house, but here are general guidelines:

The problem with having so many ideas is that you're not an expert about any one of them (unless somehow your ideas are all inter-related; it doesn't really sound like that's the case).

Pick an idea that you can become an expert on. Develop a platform--a blog, a Twitter account, something where you reach out to an audience as that expert. Write a solid proposal and start shopping agents--but don't just send the proposal out all over the place. Do a lot of research on similar books and find out who the author's agent was. Only contact those people.

Do not write the whole book. Write a few chapters, write a good outline, write a lot of marketing plans, but don't write the whole book--non-fiction is sold by the proposal because the editor or publisher might want the book to have a certain hook or play out a certain way, and if you have the whole thing written, it's actually more work to go back and create what they want rather than crafting it as you go. (This is the opposite advice we give for novels, where we usually won't buy without seeing a full manuscript--lots of people can write a great beginning, but it's the ending that counts.)

Out of all of this advice, the single most important take-away is to get a platform. Create a website and develop an online following (email newsletters with quantifiable subscribers is the most preferred "proof"). Become a respected expert on the topic. Have a reason why people want this book written by YOU.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 3:02 PM on July 14, 2009 [11 favorites]

That's certainly not to say that you should just look at the market and try to magically divine the next million-dollar idea. (scody)

This is what I mean to warn against. It is never useful.

Peanut McGillicutty's advice is spot on.
posted by ocherdraco at 3:08 PM on July 14, 2009

It'd help to learn what you mean by 'nonfiction' books - are you talking about something like a dog memoir, David Sedaris-like essays, a history book, creative non-fiction, or something like '5 minute abs'?

In response to peanut_mcgillicuty's advice - this is definitely sound advice for a particular subset of nonfiction publishing (for example, you've got a great new way to garden in small spaces) but feels backwards to me - while having a platform will help you to publish a book in a subject area in which you're an expert, developing a platform with the express intent of writing a book down the road feels wrong to me unless you're already passionate and interested in the topic - meaning first you're interested in something and passionate about it, an expert, you blog about it, you go on talk shows, whatever - you develop a platform - then you decide, hey, this would make a great book, or somebody contacts you and says 'hey this would make a great book.' So yeah, the advice is spot on for a particular kind of non-fiction book, but feels like the wrong approach for somebody who is interested in being a writer first. Of course to write the books you're going to have to become an expert on whatever you're talking about along the way, so this is valid research, but I would also think about establishing some credentials as a writer, too - getting some articles or essays published, for example, will help you to start the necessary research and then something like a blog will feel more organic. But it really depends on what kinds of books you're talking about.
posted by drobot at 4:40 PM on July 14, 2009

Response by poster: Just some points of clarification...

drobot, if I had to describe the type of nonfiction I'm interested in, I would probably say "creative non-fiction" or some type of history book. I'm a Ph.D., but no longer in academia. However, I miss doing archival research a great deal.

AzraelBrown, I'm not expecting an advance. I just want to avoid spending years of my life self-deludedly writing a book that nobody will ever publish in a million years. I don't think any of my topics are that unmarketable, but how can I be confident of that? How do I avoid working for years with nothing to show for it?

Any ideas?
posted by jonp72 at 5:42 PM on July 14, 2009

If there's anything to know, it's that there's an audience for pretty much any book you can imagine: just look at this recent MeFi post. The audience might not be big, but if you're a good writer, someone will enjoy what you have to say on any topic. In today's market, if you can't find a publisher, self-publishing holds far less of a stigma than it did before, and nearly anyone can get their books into Amazon, B&N's online store, etc., without a huge investment. Of course, getting a publisher is ideal, because their marketing and clout are behind you, but the lack of a publisher is becoming less significant. If you're looking at writing as purely a, "I will only produce product if I'm fairly certain I can profit from it," you might be looking at it the wrong way. Writing is an art, and it takes practice. Someone above suggested establishing yourself via blog/email newsletter/message boards -- that's a good opportunity to start writing. Once you've figured out how your writing is received, you'll be more confident about the kind of audience you'll have. can I be confident of that? How do I avoid working for years with nothing to show for it?

You won't have nothing to show for it: you will have your book. You mentioned above having a lot of book ideas; you can assume, now, one or more of those books, done well and with skill, will be called crap by somebody. Never forget that most people never get more than a couple pages of that book in the back of their head committed to paper; writing a book is a self-rewarding accomplishment itself. Not as big an accomplishment as making a living as a writer, but it's not nothing.
posted by AzraelBrown at 7:28 PM on July 14, 2009

If what you're doing is creative nonfiction - that market is far more like fiction than other areas of nonfiction. Write some essays (think of them as self-contained book chapters) and send them out. If you look around, maybe starting with a site like, there are a ton of magazines that publish creative nonfiction - that's where I'd start.
posted by drobot at 8:42 PM on July 14, 2009

To clarify, is a useful site for identifying magazines to send your work.
posted by drobot at 8:42 PM on July 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

Ideas don't sell. Books sell. If the book is interesting and well-written, it could be about something completely and utterly boring (like salt) and sell a million copies. Just write a book, send it around to publishers, get knocked back and repeat like everybody else until you break through.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 12:38 AM on July 15, 2009

Instead of an outline or completed book, concentrate your efforts on writing a killer proposal. When Mr. Adams and I first decided to try our hand at non-fiction, we spent a good month writing, re-writing and honing our proposal. We then researched publishing houses on our own (foregoing an agent) and the types of books they specialized in and sent our proposal to six or eight of them that had other books in our genre. We didn't get a book deal, but one of the publishers passed our proposal on to a friend of his who worked for a magazine, and he contacted us to talk about writing a semi-regular column for his publication. (Our area of expertise was/is trivia, amazing little-known facts, Why Things Are, What's the Difference, stuff like that.) Some of our material was picked up by websites like and The Discovery Channel, which eventually got our names "out there" as the go-to folks when they needed, say, a quick sidebar to a breaking story about wild fires filled with facts about fire stations, Dalmatians, what the various colors of hyrdranst mean, etc. (The "platform" Peanut McG mentioned above.) About a year and a half after sending out that first proposal, we were approached by a larger publisher (one we hadn't queried) about writing a book. So we came full circle in reverse, sort of.
posted by Oriole Adams at 1:35 AM on July 15, 2009 [4 favorites]

This guy is a UK agent specialising in non-fiction. He's posted a number of articles - 'A Week in the Life of a Literary Agency' gives you some idea of the what proposals he sees and what actually works.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:56 AM on July 15, 2009

« Older Nah, that's just a watermelon under my dress   |   How long do you need to consider an employment... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.