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How to Get an Agent for My Memoir/Nonfiction Book?

People often email me asking, “How do I get an agent for my memoir?” Or, more broadly, they’re looking for representation for other narrative or prescriptive nonfiction (self-help, how to). Often, by the time they reach out to me, they’ve queried agents without success.

Lisa Tener book coach

Just yesterday, Bella reached out to me by email to say, “So, I wrote a book! By now, it’s actually pretty decent (I’m fussy about these things). It’s a memoir that describes an 18-month overseas adventure my family had… It tells a worthy story, it’s funny in places, and it’s going to be an important part of a conversation to a small group, and hopefully also one of interest to a much larger group…”

I was intrigued. But I also could envision some of the challenges her book would hit up against.

I needed to tell her the hard truth.

How Easy is it to Get an Agent?

She’d asked about her best next step, given that she’d heard crickets after querying four to five literary agents. “Should I blast more agents? Revise my query letter?”


Well, I didn’t say it that way. I began with encouragement but also shared, “It’s not easy to get a memoir traditionally published these days unless a) you have a huge following / are a celebrity or b) the writing is exquisite and the topic is extremely timely/trendy.”

It sounded to me from her email that the subject was not necessarily trendy and the author was not famous. This would make it hard to find an agent, even if it might be appealing to some smaller, independent publishing houses.

I told the author, “Agents are going to want books by authors with a huge platform.” Why? They have to put in a lot of energy and time to sell a book. If your book is likely to sell a few hundred, or even a few thousand, copies, the advance would likely be minimal, or even zilch. An agent can’t afford to sink time into a project like that, knowing that they might not make any money or if they did something very, very small.

Query Publishers Directly

book of independent publishers

However, difficulty finding an agent for your memoir or other nonfiction doesn’t mean you can’t find a publisher.

I suggested to this author, “You’re best off going to publishers directly and you need to find out which ones welcome queries from authors. This is a good book to help your search (though I wish it had an index): The Big Book of Small Presses and Independent Publishers.” I recommend it to you, dear reader, as well!

nautilus award winning book

Since Bella’s book involved travel and experiencing another culture, a client’s book came to mind, Karin Esterhammer’s So Happiness to Meet You: Foolishly, Blissfully Stranded in Vietnam. Karin did not have a huge platform when she worked with me on her book proposal, although she is a journalist by training and leveraged that background in her marketing plan for the book. Yet, we made it work and she got a book deal from an excellent publisher. The book even won a Nautilus Award!

Since it worked before, I googled to review the submission guidelines of Prospect Park Books and discovered that they were purchased by Turner Publishing, so I told Bella that and advised her to do a bit more digging for those guidelines.

Polish Your Author Website

As I told Bella, an author website is almost always a requirement for getting a book deal. The website should be professional and showcase that you have a significant platform. I could not locate Bella’s website, so I suggested she check out my popular blog post What to Put on an Author Website, a post that I wrote many years ago and continue to revise to keep it up to date. Even small and mid-size publishers will want to see that you are reaching enough people in your target market right now to project enough book sales to cover their investment and then some.

The website should, among other things, link to your social media platforms (preferably large) and help you grow your mailing list. It should also indicate other ways you reach people, like speaking or teaching, a podcast or blog, and services or products you sell. Read the post for everything you need to include on your website.

Should I Hire a Publicist?

Bella wanted to know whether she should hire a publicist before continuing to send out query letters. For a memoir by a little-known author and not a particularly newsworthy subject, hiring a publicist would likely be a waste of money. It’s expensive and best utilized when there’s a clear return on investment (ROI) because it brings in clients or customers to other streams of income, not just your book.

I told Bella, “Ideally, if you are going to work on your platform/reach, you would have a business plan so that the work to grow also brings in income. Otherwise, it’s not terribly sustainable.”

Benefits of Independent Publishing

Independent publishing is also an option. There are actually many advantages to self-publishing:

  • You have more control over the publishing timeline and can get the book to market quicker.
  • You have control over the contents—from cover to title to content. You can even include marketing content in your book—it’s your choice!
  • You can update the book regularly or easily make changes, something that is much less likely with a traditional publisher.
  • You make more money per book.
  • Amazon Ads become more feasible financially, with a much higher profit (easily eight to ten times what you’d earn from a traditional publisher), so you now have the money you can invest in Amazon ads. And one of the biggest ways new authors reach readers is through ads. In fact, when I was at the virtual awards ceremony for the Living Now Book Awards and the Independent Publisher Awards, in our smaller breakout groups authors kept mentioning Amazon ads. The traditionally published authors complained they couldn’t afford them due to their small royalties. Many of the independently published authors pointed to Amazon ads for the majority of their sales.

Write the Best Book You Can!

Joy of Writing Journal cover

Of course, even with advertising, you still need a high-quality book to succeed. Those who click on your ad are going to be drawn to a compelling title, an eye-catching cover and glowing book reviews!

One additional strategy to increase your book’s appeal is to apply for high-quality book awards. Some awards are not meaningful, but many are prestigious. Apply for those high-quality awards and add them to your cover. The cachet from these awards shows that your book has been vetted by a trusted resource.

“What are My Options?”

Bella had a well-known memoirist tell her the book has legs. She’d worked with a quality professional editor. I told her she could just run with the information I provided at this point.

However, if she wanted additional guidance or support to connect to her “inner guidance” in making publishing decisions, I would be happy to provide a consultation.

book coach Lisa Tener

Here are the options I offered Bella. If any sounds appropriate for you, feel free to email me and see if it’s a fit:

  • One option is a 1/2 hour “meet your muse” guided visualization where we ask your “inner muse”/ creative source for guidance about next steps—there’s a questionnaire to prepare and together we make a list of questions for your inner muse and then I guide you through the exercise, possibly asking additional questions. It’s quite powerful. (cost: $299)
  • Another option is a full hour to explore and discuss the pros and cons of each publishing path as they relate to your vision and goals for your book (and potentially your business/work). Once we explore and brainstorm, we can address any remaining questions we have for the “inner muse” and dive into the meet your muse exercise. (cost: $575).

Please share any questions in a comment below.

Lisa Tener

Lisa Tener is an award-winning book writing coach who assists writers in all aspects of the writing process—from writing a book proposal and getting published to finding one’s creative voice. Her clients have appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, CBS Early Show, The Montel Williams Show, CNN, Fox News, New Morning and much more. They blog on sites like The Huffington Post, Psychology Today and WebMD.

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