Hired, Fired, Fled

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Opinion: Why It’s Even Harder to Find an Agent for A Non-Fiction Book – and Why I’m Glad I Tried

(FIRST PUBLISHED ON THE ALLIANCE OF INDEPENDENT AUTHORS WEBSITE - http://selfpublishingadvice.org/self-publishing-non-fiction/#comment-620009)

By Charlie Raymond

“If you’re going to do something, do it properly.”

It’s a motto that’s guided my foray into publishing, leading me to contact every single literary agent in London representing non-fiction, applying to around 90 agents, all of whom rejected me, 40 or so directly, with the others not replying to emails.

Now, here’s where it gets interesting. Of the 40 who actually got back to me:

  • 20 of those emails were generic rejections, without any reference to the book
  • 10 were semi-generic rejections, as in they named the book and gave a generic reason as to why they couldn’t take it on, such as “I’m slammed with books”;
  • 5 were semi-semi-generic, giving slightly more clarity as to the reason for their rejection, e.g. “if it were 10 years ago, maybe, but the market’s too tough now”
  • 5 were semi-specific, mentioning the book, saying they’d read a few pages, saying whether they liked it, and telling me why it wouldn’t be possible to sell it into publishing firms

That’s a lot of rejection.


It’s also not a big surprise, and that’s because my book is a non-fiction career meltdown meets travel adventure about finding your path in life. It focuses on an unknown author undertaking 14 jobs in 15 years across 4 continents.

It’s an unusual story, but that’s not enough for agents. What they want to see for non-fiction writing is a platform.

Of those semi-specific replies:

  • one agent told me that if I had just 5,000 Twitter followers I’d have a platform
  • another said that if I had a blog followed by hundreds I’d have a platform
  • another said that, fairly obviously, if I were a Downton Abbey actor, I’d have a great platform: i.e. they need to be able to take your name to a publisher and tell them that the book won’t be a problem to sell

None of this rejection made me bat an eyelid.

I knew the self-pub route was for me, as I’d already researched enough to know that top-selling non-fiction books are mostly made up of autobiographies ghost-written for actors and politicians.

It’s rare for a book like Eat, Pray, Love – about a relatively unknown author’s journey across the globe – to sell over 10 million copies. That’s partly because Elizabeth Gilbert’s story connected with the demographic that buys the most books: women over the age of 40.

And that brings me to my next point: I already knew this. I knew that my book about career misadventure, with stories such as being falsely accused of sleeping with the boss’s wife whilst working on a safari park at the age of 19, likely wouldn’t connect with that key demographic, but I wanted to write it anyway.

And so, without a platform, or a story that would immediately connect with the biggest book-buying demographic, finding a publisher was as likely as snow in the Sahara. But, even so, I wanted to try. “If you’re going to something, do it properly.”

So I wrote personal emails to those 90-odd agents, taking several days to ping them out, already in the knowledge it was probably a fool’s errand, but willing to do it anyway, because imagine – just imagine – if one of them had come back and shown interest…

That said, even if they had shown interest, I’d probably have still ended up self-publishing, as I’d also read tales of people getting publishing deals, then being left with pennies after the agent and publisher took the lion’s share of any profits. On that note, I had one agent tell me that if I did get anywhere with self-publishing, as in over 10,000 sales, I should call him, as he’d then be able to show something to publishers.

I politely thanked him… and deleted his email.