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Academic Coaching & Writing

VIII. Do You Need a Literary Agent: Several Ways to Tell

Nov 08, 2013 by Amy Benson Brown

Though most books published by university presses address specific, small audiences of specialists, some academic books have the potential to “cross over” and attract readers far beyond the limits of research disciplines. Consider, for example, Andrew Delbanco’s recent hit with his analysis of controversial changes in higher education in College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be (Princeton University Press: 2014).

In the jargon of publishing, such projects are called “trade” or “true trade” books, signifying their potential for sales to broader audiences. As Delbanco’s book demonstrates, some university presses take pride in bringing out significant trade books, as well as strictly academic titles. The good news for scholars is that they are usually welcome to work with and negotiate directly with university press editors on cross-over books as well as on more scholarly ones.

If you’re working on a book that you sense could attract a large audience, you may also want to bring it to the attention of well-respected commercial publishers that make up the for-profit side of the industry—Farrar, Straus & Giroux; Penguin Press; Basic Books; or Bloomsbury Press to name just a few. In order to have your work considered by a commercial publishing house, however, you must be represented by a professional literary agent.

Though most literary agents negotiate contracts with commercial publishing houses, some specialize in representing public intellectuals and negotiate with editors at university presses in addition to their counterparts in commercial presses. Ultimately, the agent’s job is to find the best fit and best deal for the author.

The website agentquery.com is a good place for you to learn more about how literary agents work and to find sound advice about how and when to contact agents. (Hint: most books written by researchers would fall into the category on this site of “serious non-fiction.”) But, before you invest too much time in learning about the world of commercial publishing, consider two key questions:

  • Does publishing a trade book fit well with the current stage of your career and long-term goals? Many universities, for instance, do not necessarily count trade books, especially for junior faculty, in the same way they count traditional scholarship in promotion and tenure decisions.
  • Are you working on a “big book”?

“Big” here does not refer to number of pages or amount of data, but rather to the size and significance of the ideas driving the argument. For example, think of the recent buzz generated by Susan Cain’s best-selling book Quiet, which argues our culture is systematically biased against introverted personalities (Crown Publishers: 2012). This book tackles a large and complex topic and has ready-made appeal for a large portion of Americans, since roughly one third of adults identify themselves as introverts.

Figuring out whether your project really has the potential to pull in a broad audience can by tricky. Consider seeking out someone within your circle of colleagues who has a reputation for public scholarship and may be willing to share what he or she has learned. If your university claims to promote public scholarship, ask your dean if the administration may be willing to invite a literary agent who works with academic authors to campus to give a talk to faculty.

Finally, for further reading on developing your cross-over book proposal, check out these books by veteran literary agents:

Betsy Lerner’s The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers;

Susan Rabiner’s Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great, Serious Nonfiction and Get it Published; and

Jeff Herman’s Write the Perfect Book Proposal: Ten That Sold and Why.

This completes the blog series on Secrets of Successful Academic Book Proposals. If you would like to work with a coach on crafting your book proposal, I specialize in helping authors articulate the rationale and significance of their book, find the best structure to convey their argument, select appropriate presses to contact, and build relationships with acquisition editors. And, if your book has cross-over potential, I can help you discern if it is likely to be well published and marketed by a university press. If a commercial press is a better outlet for your book, I can help you identify literary agents experienced in representing academic authors and likely to be interested in your topic.

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