Interview with the Nonfiction Authors Association
My recent interview with the Nonfiction Authors Association is now live, here, and pasted below. I hope my advice is helpful, and I'm looking forward to all the paleontology-themed proposals I'm about to receive!
Agent Name: Max Sinsheimer
Agency Name/Location: Sinsheimer Literary / Washington, DC
Agency Link: www.sinsheimerliterary.com
Social Media: @msin10 (Twitter and Instagram)
Nonfiction Genres Represented: Exclusively adult nonfiction, particularly biography, cookbooks, history, memoir, narrative, popular science, prescriptive, public/current affairs, sports, and travel. I especially love working with journalists!
What is your best tip for new writers looking for a book deal?
Step into an agent’s inbox with confidence. Even if your manuscript has been rejected by fifty agents, and your last book sold seventeen copies, and you are considering throwing in the towel on this whole writing thing—we don’t need to know any of that! Put your best foot forward. (On the flip side, don’t guarantee your book will be a bestseller. I always assume the opposite when I read that.)
What kinds of pitches catch your attention?
A good pitch tells me what the book is, who it’s for, and why you are the right person to write it in as few words as possible. Send me 3-4 well-crafted paragraphs and leave me wanting more. If you do that, I promise, I’ll read the more detailed description in your proposal.
In terms of specific pitches that catch my attention, I represent a wide range of adult nonfiction, but lately have gravitated toward journalistic nonfiction that weaves in a personal narrative. For instance, my author Mario Ariza’s just-published Disposable City: Miami’s Future on the Shores of Climate Catastrophe is a deeply reported look at how inadequately prepared Miami is for the inevitable sea level rise. But Mario’s pitch began with his decision to move back to Miami and buy a home in the city he grew up in, only to realize that many of the properties he viewed would literally be underwater within a 30-year mortgage term. Climate change can feel like a distant threat, but Mario managed to make it concrete and immediate. That approach of finding a personal hook into a larger societal issue will get me every time.
How important is platform in getting a deal?
Platform is very important in nonfiction. Platform, concept, and writing quality are everything!
What do you look for in a writer’s platform?
I should first feel absolutely certain that you are the right person to write this book. No matter how good the prose is, I’m probably going to pass on a book advancing a new theory about how the dinosaurs died if it is written by an accountant with a paleontology pastime. I’d want a professional paleontologist to write it. Of course, not all subjects require academic or professional credentials. If you have published widely and spoken often about your subject, in respected forums, I will want to know what you have to say.
But subject expertise does not guarantee reach. Publishers (and therefore agents) want to know that you have built up a following that can make it easier for them to promote and sell the book. Note that “reach” isn’t just a euphemism for “social media following”; that’s certainty part of it, but if your Twitter or Instagram count is your entire platform justification, it better be enormous, because the percentage of followers who will actually buy your book just because you promoted it will be low.
Do you have a newsletter, podcast, YouTube channel, newspaper beat, or blog? If so, try to quantify the number of readers or viewers and their engagement. Even if those numbers are low in an absolute sense, you can show that you have a growth plan in place prior to publication. Do you belong to professional, alumni, or social media groups that are likely to announce a book published by one of their own? Do you have friends in “high places,” influential folks, ideally with obvious ties to the book’s subject, who can provide a blurb for the book jacket and promote the book on their platform? Do you have industry connections, such as conferences you regularly speak at, that might help your book hit a professional market?
You can’t simply invent a convincing platform where one doesn’t exist. But I do often find myself pointing out elements of an author’s platform they overlooked. Step back and really think thoroughly and creatively about the network of people who are invested in your work.
How should writers promote themselves right now (before approaching an agent)?
I think at this point a modern-looking author website is a must. If you don’t feel comfortable creating one yourself, just peruse author websites you admire. Most people will be happy to put you in touch with their web designer, if they used one.
I also think that nonfiction authors should publish at least a few articles on topics related to their book before they reach out to an agent. This is both to establish expertise, and to gauge reader interest. Even if traditional media outlets don’t bite, blogging and social journalism platforms like Medium give authors access to potentially large audiences to “prove the market” for their book. And from a book development perspective, I think it is good for authors to test out ideas and get early feedback from readers.
Finally, I’ve found that editors are increasingly interested in seeing endorsements from influential readers at the proposal stage, so if an author has gathered those prior to querying me, all the better! I know it can seem ludicrous to ask people to endorse a book that might not even be fully written yet, but you can assure them that their endorsement will not be published—it is only intended to help you sell the book. (Early endorsers often end up writing the blurbs that appear on book jackets—but they are asked to do that separately.) What you are after is two or three sentences touching on some combination of why this book is necessary, why you are the perfect person to write it, and why the sample materials show you’ll pull it all off beautifully.
What should writers know about book proposals?
First – you need one! I often receive long queries with sample pages but no proposal. I reply that I’d be happy to take a look once they have a complete proposal, and quickly move on.
Next—and again, I’m speaking here about nonfiction proposals—always be thinking about your book in terms of what you want the reader to take away from it. I see a lot of proposals (particularly memoirs and true crime) where the author simply describes a series of “astonishing and entertaining” events without any other justification for why people should read their book. People generally don’t have a lot of leisure time; you should have a good reason why your book deserves a piece of it.
Finally, agents are trained to sniff out superficial arguments for a why a book will sell. Right now I’m getting a lot of pitches weakly positioned around the pandemic. It might be a memoir about the author’s unusual childhood spent on a farm commune, and the proposal assures me that it will sell because COVID-19 has increased interest in homesteading and alternative lifestyles. Which is true, but I doubt people are heading to the memoir shelf for that information. Be specific and realistic, if a little optimistic, when discussing the market opportunity, and don’t try to make your book seem more trend-driven than it is.
What other steps should writers take before approaching an agent?
Spend a few minutes researching an agent before emailing them your proposal. That might mean some light social media stalking, reading agent interviews (like this one!), reviewing agency websites, or tracking recent deals on Publishers Marketplace. A subscription to Publishers Marketplace costs $25 per month. That’s money well spent if you are compiling your pitch list, because you can see on it which agents are active in your genre, and whether any of their recent book deals have parallels to your own work. A query that mentions something about the agent’s track record will demonstrate that you did your homework (i.e., that you are a writing professional) and that you specifically intended to pitch them.
(By a similar token, always address agents by name. Whether it is “Dear Max,” “Dear Mr. Sinsheimer,” or, my favorite spy alter-ego, “Dear Agent Sinsheimer,” I appreciate knowing that an author intended for me to read their pitch, and not dozens of agents on a bcc’d email list!)
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