What Makes a Good Nonfiction Query?

Michelle Ule

Blogger: Michelle Ule

Part 3 of 3

Today I’m going to talk about what we like to see in a nonfiction query and what causes us to ask for a full proposal. I’ll start with statistics so you can see what you’re up against if you’re submitting to us.


25% of the queries we received one month in 2011 were for nonfiction projects.

Of those queries, 25% dealt with biblical themes or some sort of apologetic.

Memoirs or other sorts of personal stories made up 25% of the queries.

The rest were divided between self-help, medical advice (including pregnancy) and relationship issues.

We usually receive at least one breast cancer story a week and even more personal tales of abuse. We receive numerous parenting queries, devotionals and projects about general biblical application.

Query Basics

As I described in yesterday’s post about fiction, a query is a short sales pitch designed to capture our interest and make us ask for more. It starts with a compelling subject line. We appreciate basic information right up front: That this is a nonfiction query and the actual subject of your project.

You need a good hook, a succinct project description, a short bio and an explanation about why you’re the best person to write this book.

In addition, you need to present a case as to why this book needs to be published. Nonfiction is a harder sell these days than in the past because so much information is available for free on the Internet. We need to know why someone would buy your book rather than google your subject matter.

(This is one of the reasons the parenting market has gone flat. If it’s two o’clock in the morning and your infant is ill, you’re probably more likely to hunt for an answer on the Internet than look for a book, much less buy one.)

Statistics help, but do your homework. If you’re writing about a compelling subject on which no new book has been published in more than three years, that’s important information.

Tell us about your platform and ability to help sell your books. If you have a significant platform, a famous co-writer or someone well-known in the field who has offered to write a foreword, tell us. In addition, let us know how you heard of us and why you chose to send your query to Books & Such.

We occasionally get queries from writers whose ministry will buy copies. If it’s a substantial number, tell us. Some projects are linked with an upcoming event–but, again, it takes 12- 18 months from contract to publication. If your project is connected to the 2012 London Olympics, you’re too late. If it’s something to do with the 2014 Winter Olympics, that’s a possibility.

Examine the list of publishers with which agencies do business to determine if your project is a good match. Our list can be found here.

If you’re writing a scholarly work, especially on a biblical subject, you need to have credentials. Especially if you’re a lay Bible study teacher, you need to provide information that gives you authority–how many people do you teach each week and how big is your church?

Finally, ask yourself and tell us, what’s the reader take-away from my project?

I happen to like nonfiction, and memoir is my favorite genre. I’m looking for a compelling story, told with factual accuracy that will give me a different perspective on life, or at least entertain me. I’m always asking a question as I read a nonfiction project. If you can awaken a question in my heart for something I’ve never thought about before, you just may hook me.

Remember, we’ve read a lot of queries at Books & Such, probably in the neighborhood of 35,000 in the last nine years. King Solomon may be right, there is nothing new under the sun, but there are still a lot of different ways to write about it.

What type of nonfiction book appeals to you? Do you care about the author’s credentials? Do you see a compelling need for a book on a nonfiction subject in the market today?

What have you learned over the last three days that has surprised you about queries? Did I miss anything?

11 Responses

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  1. Nichole Osborn says:

    Thank you…I’ve learned a lot about the process and Books and Such. I have one more question. If I have two projects ( 1 fict 1 non), should I query both or work on 1 at a time?

    • Michelle Ule says:

      I would send two different e-mail queries, but I would clearly differentiate in the subject headings: QUERY Non-fiction: The Spiritual Life of Emperor Constantine.

      QUERY Southern YA Fiction: Chasing Rainbows on a Summer’s Night.

      Note–our agents prefer different types of materials but only one agent would represent all your projects. We would see in our inbox you wrote two different queries, but the same agent would look at both of them.

  2. Another fine post, Michelle. I read nonfiction exclusively for years. I still read a fair amount of it. I like politics, the occasional self-help book, and anything to do with the American Revolution or Civil War. So much has been written about the last two, however, that I need a unique angle to make me plunk down money. One of those books was Madison and Jefferson by Burnstein and Isenberg. The reason it was appealing is because it sought to highlight Madison’s contributions more than Jefferson’s. Madison is often overlooked.

    The only thing that truly surprises me about queries is the sheer number of submissions that come in for genres you don’t represent. It seems a waste of everyone’s time.

    Thanks for providing such valuable information.

  3. Amariah says:

    Thanks again for the much needed information.

  4. Megan Sayer says:

    Michelle this is great, thank you. I was wondering, do you have any links to great examples of memoir queries? Fiction and non-fiction information is really easy to find, but there isn’t a lot regarding memoir, which stylistically kind of slots in between the two.

    • Michelle Ule says:

      I’ve written an unpublished memoir myself, and appreciate your question. Write it beautifully and provide us with information that intrigues. You could start it with the opening paragraph if it is a gripping one that makes us want to read more. You may need to add an additional paragraph that explains what the reader take-away is with your memoir. Show us you’re thinking of the reader, tell us why you wrote the memoir, and make us like you–because then we’ll want to read more.

      Memoirs are interesting, but we like to say there are a lot of books that need to be written that do not need to be published. Take a close look at your motivation for writing and be very clear as to what you are trying to convey.

      Best wishes.

  5. Thanks for these posts. Helpful stuff. I’d love to do a nonfiction book, but I have no credentials and no platform. I have a story and a passion, but every one of the other 28 bajillion bloggers and tweeters in the world have those, too.

  6. Peter DeHaan says:

    This is very helpful. Thank you for the information — and have a great weekend!

  7. Ann Bracken says:

    Because I write historical fiction my non-fiction reading tends to deal with history. Currently beside my bed are two books on the British occupation of Charleston from 1780-1782. Can you guess the setting for my next book?

    In my day job I’m a chemist, so I also read books on chromatography, the history of scientific discoveries, and, believe it or not, textbooks.

  8. Michelle,

    I’m a traditionally published author (four books) with a platform, however I’m in a quandry. When looking for interested agents or publishers, I find that most are not taking looks at devotionals. I know nearly every author thinks their work is unique, but what if it is?

    I’m not only asking for myself but for others who might be wondering how to gain attention for their devotional projects. What if the devotional were written for a large niche audience (all have a specific illness), and the ill express they have a need for daily encouragement. I’m aware that doesn’t necessarily translate into a contract and good sale statistics.

    Thank you for the post. Like you, I do love to read memoirs. The most reacent was about a man who had cerebral palsy and went to Portugal as a missionary. When his help came back to the states, he had to ask the waiters at restaurants to feed him–they did and their investment of time and compassion stirred something deep within me. That kind of stuff is found in memoirs. I suppose it’s true, everyone does have a story to tell.

    • Michelle Ule says:

      Sounds like a fascinating memoir, Cathy.

      Devotionals are a perennial market and we represent writers who write them. Most of our writers, however, also write other things in both the fiction and non-fiction world. I am not an agent, nor a publisher, but I suspect if you put together a strong proposal showing how and why a publisher could make money, they might be willing to take a look. Perhaps talking with an editor at a writer’s conference?

      I agree, people need encouragement when facing challenging physical illness.

      A close look at the competition would be in order. We’re often queried about breast cancer books, for example. Many women, of course, have breast cancer but unless you can partner with Koman or some other well-known entity that would volunteer to buy over 10,000 copies of your devotional, I’m not sure how much of a market there would be.

      Hope this helps.