Historista’s Guide to the Writing Life, Part I: Why and How to Find an Agent

This is the first in a series of posts about how to go about pitching and placing a non-fiction trade book, if you have written one (or want to write one).

There are three reasons to get an agent, rather than sending out your materials directly to editors:

  1. You don’t have access to trade press editors, and you fear that an email out of the blue will go unread.
  2. You have many skills, but negotiating is not one of them.
  3. You want to know if your book is actually a trade book or not. Most agents are straightforward; if they don’t think they can sell your book to trade presses, they will tell you.

Some scholars are lucky; agents find them. But for most of us, this isn’t the case – we have to go out and find the agent. So how do you do this?

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  • Read the acknowledgments of trade books that are similar in approach or subject area to yours. If the author mentions an agent, note the name.
  • Even better: talk to other scholars who have agents. Ask if they would recommend their agents, and if you can mention the scholars’ names in your emails (as in: “so-and-so suggested I contact you about my book project …”). This shows that you know a bit about the agent’s authors, and that you have connections within the field.
  • Do your research. Most agents have websites, with detailed descriptions of the kinds of book proposals they are interested in reading – and those they will not read. They also usually lay out their submission requirements, which include
    • The email address to use
    • Guidelines regarding materials (query letter only; proposal only; full manuscripts welcome)
    • Guidelines regarding process, which can include a policy regarding multiple submissions (sending work to multiple agents at the same time)
    • The timetable for getting back to you
  • Prepare a list of agents, their email addresses, and their guidelines. Decide if you will write to them simultaneously (see note about multiple submissions, above) or one at a time, in ranked order of preference.
  • Write a query letter.

What is a query letter, you ask? This will be the subject of Historista’s Guide to the Writing Life, Part II.

3 thoughts on “Historista’s Guide to the Writing Life, Part I: Why and How to Find an Agent”

  1. Hello from 2022 (I followed the link from Twitter).

    This is an excellent overview of the hows and whys. When I started querying agents (for fiction, which has its own peculiarities) I found the articles at AgentQuery.com to be enormously helpful for navigating a process that can be opaque and maddening.

    Funny thing is, I’ve had two agents, neither of which I’ve landed via querying. Not that I didn’t try!

    1. Thanks for reading, Craig! I can’t imagine what it must be like querying for fiction. And now I’m curious: how did you land your agents?

      1. The first one was someone who almost said yes to my first novel, then took me on for No. 3 when one of her better-known clients suggested me. That was a happy reunion. We did three books together, then she changed agencies and I didn’t make the trip with her. (This happens a lot, I’ve discovered. Tough business.)

        My current agent, whom I love, was my wife’s agent first. She brought me aboard when we were pitching a cowritten romcom, and she’s been with me for three subsequent books (one published, one written and pending 2023 publication, the other I have to finish sometime this fall/winter—eek!)

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