Friday, June 9, 2017

Selling Your Nonfiction Book on a Proposal Alone: An Interview with Katherine Ozment

It used to be common to sell nonfiction books via a book proposal--an expanded outline, a synopsis, marketing research for the topic, and sample chapters.  I sold five books this way, back in the nineties, got good advances, and published happily.  Many agents I speak with today are less keen on selling via proposal, unless the writer has an excellent track record and a market niche (audience) already established.  Occasionally, I do hear of a great success story from one of my former students.  This week, I wanted to share Katherine Ozment's story.  Hopefully, it'll inspire other nonfiction writers who are putting together their book proposals.

I first met Katherine at one of my storyboarding workshops at Grub Street in Boston.  I was immediately taken with her book idea--how to find grace outside of traditional religions--and her experience as a journalist.  She signed up for my online storyboarding class after the workshop, and I got to watch her book structure evolve through the twelve weeks.  By the end, she had an excellent outline and synopsis, ready to present to an agent.  
Katherine has a wealth of writing experience as a journalist for Boston Magazine and National Geographic, among others.  So I wasn't surprised to hear, not long after the class, that she'd signed with an agent.  Her book, Grace without God:  The Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging in a Secular Age, was published last year to stellar reviews.  It was named a Best Book of the Year by
Publishers Weekly and Spirituality & Health and recently received the Gold Nautilus Award in the category of Religion/Spirituality of Other Traditions.
Her search for an agent was short and sweet, but inspiring because she had a great proposal that took into account book structure, she knew her audience, and she knew what she wanted. 
I interviewed Katherine this week to discuss the agent search and what she learned. 
Tell us how you found your agent.
I had been writing a series of reported essays on parenting, but I felt that my 4000-word articles weren't doing justice to the topics I was writing about, topics such as my generation's inclination toward overparenting, raising kids in a digital age, and why so many people are leaving religion. I wanted to turn one of these rich topics into a book. My friend, a published author who was finishing a new parenting book herself, suggested that I get in touch with her agent. Once that personal connection was made, the rest came quickly. I emailed the agent some writing samples, along with a description of my book idea, and we set up time for a long phone call to discuss the possibility of working together.
Did you attend pitch conferences?  If you did, did it prove useful?
Years ago I attended the Muse and Marketplace, held each year by Grub Street Writers, and I submitted a sample of another book I've been working on for years, a memoir about my brother's suicide. In that case, I was pitching editors, not agents, because I was (and still am!) more interested in how to make that book work structurally. I came home with a clear and honest assessment of the chapter samples, including a suggestion about structure that was very helpful. It was well worth the extra money.
What caused the "click" with this agent?

Because my agent came through the personal referral of an author I trust and admire, I felt a certain level of comfort from the start. From there, I was mostly curious about other books the agent represented and if we would be a good match. So I studied her website to see who her other authors were and the kinds of publishers they'd ended up with.

The "click" for me was really the immediate comfort level I felt when we talked over the phone. I appreciated her calm, thoughtful demeanor and just knew I would enjoy working with her. For me, that is perhaps the one most important component of an agent-author relationship: You have to like your agent as a person because you will spend a lot of time with him or her and not always the happiest of times, but also frustrating, deflating, and stressful times. Be sure you trust the person completely. If an agent gets on your nerves, talks over you, or just doesn't grab you for whatever reason, find someone who's a better fit in terms of personality. It's a lot like dating; make sure you notice if any alarm bells go off during the courtship phase. For me, I had none of those, and the relationship continues to be a strong one.
The agent read through my material, we signed a contract, and then we went through some rounds of editing on the proposal before sending it out. Different agents work to different degrees on the proposal writing itself, and I was happy that mine liked to get in and offer editorial comments and advice. People seeking an agent should be sure to discuss this aspect of the publishing process upfront and figure out if editorial feedback on the proposal is something you need a lot or a little of.
What would you recommend to new writers looking for their first agent? 
If you have the time and money, meeting agents face-to-face at a conference during a short pitch session is a great way to go. It's like jumping into the deep end of the pool but with a little inner tube around you. You get to meet with an industry professional while also honing your sample material and practicing your pitch. So, even if you don't end up signing on with the agent you meet, you'll learn so much about the process, not to mention about your own work. Another good way to find an agent is to see which agents are mentioned in the books that you love. A word of warning though: If the book is big, the agent will likely be big as well, and as a first-time author you may not be able to land a giant fish. So read industry magazines with an eye for new, up-and-coming agents, the smaller fish trying to become the big ones. Last but not least, if you're struggling to land an agent, keep returning to the work. I wrote articles and essays for nearly fifteen years before I found my book and landed an agent. So don't give up hope. Just keep writing until you have something they can't resist.
If you'd like to check out Katherine's book, here's a link.  You can also visit her website at