A Literary Agent’s Comments on Nonfiction Opportunities

The guest speaker at the local California Writer’s Club’s June lunch meeting on Saturday was Matt Wagner, founder of Fresh Books, Inc. Literary Agency:  http://www.fresh-books.com/

Wagner specializes in nonfiction titles.  His clients include several “Dummies” book authors, Dave Crenshaw, who wrote The Myth of Multitasking, and Michelle Waitzman, whose Sex in a Tent:  A Wild Couple’s Guide to Getting Naughty in Nature evoked a lot of interest when he passed it around.

Here’s the bad news:  Wagner debunked any notion that nonfiction writers are thriving in our current “legacy publishing” environment.  With Borders in bankruptcy, a suitor seeking to buy Barnes&Noble just for the Nook, and the explosion of epublishing, confusion reigns in nonfiction as well as fiction.  If things are uncertain for publishers, they are worse for agents, some of whom are trying to reposition themselves as coaches to stay in business.  This leaves mid-list authors who are trying to break into print at the bottom of the food chain (Wagner defines mid-list as, “You are not Suzy Orman”).

Several categories of non-fiction are doing well.  One are the series books – the “Dummies” and the “Idiot’s Guide” titles.  Part of the secret is, of course, that these books are not for dummies.  I’ve read several that were excellent introductions to their topics.

Wagner also cited, “vertically integrated niche publishers” as prospering, and gave an example I recognized:  O’Rielly Publications, which specializes in books on open-source software.  For the quarter century I worked in electronic design automation, O’Rielly titles occupied at least a third of my bookshelf, and the same held true for my colleagues.  Need a reference on the Linux operating system, or the PERL or TCL programming languages?  O’Rielly has it, often written or co-authored by the developer of the language.  In addition, they have websites, blogs, and webinars.

This, according to Matt Wagner, is a route for nonfiction authors that is opening up in our internet world.  Do you have an area of expertise?  Is it something someone might subscribe to a newsletter to learn?  An example jumped right to mind:  Randy Ingermanson’s Advancedfictionwriting.com (there’s a link on my blogroll).

Ingermanson, author of the traditionally published, Fiction Writing for Dummies, offers several free articles on his website, including his “Snowflake Method” of plot design, which I have discussed here (it is very worthwhile).  He also gives you the option of purchasing software to guide you through the process.  There’s a free e-zine, and as well as other articles and lecture series’ available for nominal fees in several electronic formats.

Check this site out, both for its free content (solid suggestions on plotting and building scenes), but also because it’s a great example of the kind of “vertical integration” that agent, Matt Wagner believes is the emerging model for how nonfiction writers can survive and even thrive in our emerging new world of publishing.

1 thought on “A Literary Agent’s Comments on Nonfiction Opportunities

  1. Thanks for the notes on the meeting. I couldn’t make it since my grandson was in a baseball tournament. I’m glad to have the information. Very interesting.


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