Attended the Pitching to an Agent event at Ilkley Literature Festival on Sunday with highly regarded London literary agent Andrew Lownie of the Andrew Lownie Literary Agency, who offered tips and advice on how to pitch your nonfiction (and fiction) work to a literary agent.
Andrew started the event by giving the audience his background, he became an agent 30 years ago (he was a bookseller, then graduate trainee, after being a journalist, at Curtis Brown in 1985 and then set up on his own in 1988). At his agency Andrew deals with the nonfiction submissions and David Haviland with the fiction. They sell a book a week (UK and USA) and receive 20k submissions a year (they take on 12 authors a year).
He feels it is now the end of the midlist (e.g. library market) and they have to sell 3/4k copies and have a brand author and a series. Of the 50 books they sell, a third will be to the States. His website http://www.andrewlownie.co.uk/ is full of advice/tips on what they want and how to submit (e.g. steps to take to submit) and they prefer email submissions. They receive 100 a day and 80/90 they can dismiss quickly and the rest they carry on reading (they have 1 or 2 other readers look at them too and are given a report on each manuscript). It takes about a month for a positive response as the Rights people, Publicity Department, Production (to cost it - a book cannot be over 120k words for non-fiction and 100k words for fiction) and Sales Department (estimate sales - social media profile is an extra factor) have to look and approve it.
The pitch is the first page, be precise (for example 'in the tradition of WHOEVER - author - YOU CAN COMPARE IT TO) in order to give it a category and mention the hook. Second page is your credentials (e.g. published before, competitions won etc.). Third page comparable books (5 titles with author, publisher and date of publication) - comparable themes etc. for association, for example there is a huge interest in domestic psychological thrillers at the moment - titles are quite important (girl is riding high at the moment) and a high concept idea. Fourth page sources for non-fiction. Fifth page Marketing, e.g. organisations that might promote the book (magazines, museums etc.), websites, societies (talk about the social media profile here).
Then comes the chapter breakdowns for the structure of the book (half page per chapter then a sample chapter - the first chapter). He suggests approaching a manuscript advisal company first so that you don't have to pitch again because new writers pitch too early.
His submission tips are: Address agents correctly and personalise it (so that you have researched and chosen the right agent for your book) for example Andrew does a lot of spy books, so check the websites and acknowledgement pages of the books, say you enjoyed the book (on their list) that was similar; Email your submission as that is how they will sell your book; Follow the instructions agents websites give because there is a reason they ask for it.
He believes multiple submissions are a good thing (3/4 at a time, just don't tell us) as it takes 2/3 weeks for a response, but personalise each one. Be patient, but an answer within a month is usual so move on if you don't get one. Start with 5 you really want and then move down the list. He recommends trying to get an agent a similar age to yourself. They are a business and do not give feedback, so a literary consultancy appraisal is good for constructive criticism, for example a Kate Moore report will be £60/70. Presentation is everything and although Indie Publishing has come of age now, this still applies. EBook rates are 75% self-published on Amazon but only 25% on published.
Andrew recommends Book Brunch, Book to Book, Publishers Marketplace sites and checking Amazon lists to see what people are doing right and try to copy them. For example Thistle is in the Amazon top 20 with She's A Boy. Encourage Amazon reviews, they promote you and that encourages Amazon to send more. Join Good Reads, Netgalley etc.
The floor was then opened up to questions which garnered the following advice/responses:
Creative non-fiction (e.g. vet in Somerset) is a big prospect at the moment as they can option it for a TV series; Pitch letter should be 1/2 paragraphs only, any longer and they will get bored and move on; Any given year there are 70/80 inspirational memoirs; There is no market for poetry or short story collections.
And finally, treat it like a job where you can pick up skills (workshops, talks and courses are valuable) and check TV, because if it is working for TV it is a good indication for a novel.