Planning and pitching non-fiction: 10 tips for beginners

Our host for the day in London

Our host for the day in London

I had the idea, I had the material, but I couldn’t see the shape … and I didn’t have a clue about what to do next with my fragile bubble of a plan. That was until last Saturday when my confusion switched suddenly to focus.

The ‘I-think-I-get-it’ moment was thanks to a Guardian masterclass programme on planning and pitching non-fiction.  There were 14 of us in the class, all adrift with various book ideas.  Our trainer was Jenny Rogers who has published seventy non-fiction books – here’s some of the advice she passed on.

The London venue for our Guardian Masterclass workshop

The London venue for our Guardian Masterclass workshop

  • Authors should approach a publisher, via the commissioning editor, before they write their books.
  • Non-fiction authors do not need to find agents as publishers are happy to be approached directly provided the author has done the relevant research in advance and is clear on two points: why their book is a good idea, and who it’s aimed at.
  • They should also know who the competition is.
  • Authors should have a clear vision of their finished books, of the physical details: trade press or non-trade press; the length – the average is about 85,000 words; and whether their books need illustrations or photographs … or possibly both.
  • The best way to contact a commissioning editor is with an email addressed to the editor by name.  The email should include a paragraph of not more than a hundred words that sums up the book.  Ideally this summary should: support the book’s title; be easy to understand; be written in the same way that the book will be written; and have some human interest.  It should be a book-boost paragraph – the sort of paragraph an author would like their readers to find on the back of the book once it’s been published.
  • The first approach to a commissioning editor should be followed up with a telephone call, usually a few days after the email has been sent.  If the editor is interested a more formal proposal will usually be requested.
  • The title of the proposed book should be short and irresistible, ideally seven words or less, and then followed by chapter headings that won’t let the reader go.
  • It can be helpful if a book is unique in some way but we were reminded that if something is too new, or has never been done before, publishers may wonder whether they really want to be the first to put the untested into print.
  • The most successful non-fiction books over the past few years have had a strong personal element.  Jenny Rogers encouraged us to develop this in our books but warned that there is the potential danger that too much of ‘me’ might come across as self-indulgent and annoy the reader.
  • A positive for all books is good story-telling.
  • Good endorsements are a great help to publisher and book, so the author, often the best placed to provide the relevant contacts, should be prepared.
  • Finally, and perhaps most important of all, we were urged to write from passion … or we’d never finish our books.

The course flew past, full of advice and brave discussion, and I left London with my idea bubble inflated to the size of a happy balloon but with a realistic piece of string attached.

In the words of Jenny Rogers: “writing is a poorly-rewarded occupation for all but a small minority of authors …”  After seventy books she should know.

Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2018


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