10 Things Editors Look for in Nonfiction

Olympic gold medalGot a terrific nonfiction project you’re trying to sell? Wondering if you have what it takes? Here are some signs of potential future success as a nonfiction author:

1. You’ve previously written a book that was at least mildly successful… maybe something like The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

2. You have a recognizable name. For instance, Bradley Cooper. Or Oprah.

3. You are currently a top candidate for President of the United States.

4. You have recently won several gold medals in the Olympics. In a sport people care about.

5. You have come up with a life-changing, magical method of organizing people’s stuff. And it involves talking to your stuff.

6. You are the founder of Microsoft.

7. You are the…. what’s that? you don’t like this list?

(Hey, Bill Gates might be reading this blog, you never know.)

Okay fine, here’s a list that might help you a little more.

10 Things Editors Look For in Nonfiction

(The dead serious version.)

1. Established platform (built-in fans and potential bookbuyers).

2. Expertise and/or credentials in the subject area of your book.

3. A new and exciting idea, with a terrific title. (Yes, they do exist.)

4. A fresh take on a familiar idea. (How many parenting books do we need? Make yours uniquely compelling, and it’s possible we’ll need at least one more.)

5. A strong writing voice that compels readers. Yes, the craft of writing counts, even when your message is primary.

6. Felt-need takeaways that matter to the reader. Answer the question: What will I get out of this book? What’s in it for me?

7. A sellable concept – something people can’t already get for free elsewhere. This can be a tough one considering everything that’s on the Internet.

8. An author’s availability and commitment to playing a strong role in the marketing process.

9. A concept that could birth logical, sellable ancillary products, should the book take off. (Study guides, DVDs, specialized editions, etc.)

10. An author who is already famous (at least in his/her niche or subculture), or knows the right famous people who will offer endorsements or write the foreword.

How many can you check off your list?


Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. […] Rachelle Gardner has 10 things editors look for in non-fiction authors. She also tells us how to talk with agents and publishers. If you’re looking for an agent to talk […]

  2. Kirtida Gautam on January 20, 2016 at 2:25 AM

    Great points Rachelle.

    I loved the way you started the post 😀

  3. John Wells on January 19, 2016 at 1:53 PM

    Very interesting read. Thanks for your thoughtful list, Rachelle.

  4. Neurotic Workaholic on January 19, 2016 at 1:06 PM

    I don’t think my first comment went through, so just in case I’m posting it again.
    I especially agree with what you said about writing voice; that’s why I like writers like Dave Barry. He definitely has a unique and compelling writing voice, which is why I truly enjoy his nonfiction books (I haven’t read his fiction yet). He has a way of making even the most ordinary situations seem totally hilarious.

  5. Ernie Zelinski on January 19, 2016 at 3:39 AM

    You ask, “How many can you check off your list?”

    Likely only number 8 (marketing). I have come up with 75 to 100 of my own unique marketing techniques that 99 percent of authors, publishers, and book marketing experts are not creative enough to come up with. These techniques involve what my competitors are NOT doing — instead of what my competitors are doing.

    Recently book marketing guru John Kremer said he was looking for more ideas for the new edition of his book “1,001 Ways
    to Market Your Books.” So I sent him a few of my marketing techniques — which I didn’t think he would use. Surprisingly, he did a blog post about some of them.


    Of course, sending him some of my marketing techniques was another marketing technique to get me publicity in the new edition of his book. As it turns out, I get publicity on his blog post too.

    Ultimately, I am not all that concerned whether acquisition editors at major publishers are impressed with my credentials. Sure, I would like to get published by Workman Publishing or Simon & Schuster. But if my project is rejected, as it is over 97 percent of the time, I just self-publish and create it being a success with my creative marketing. I may not have much status doing it this way — but I end up making a lot more money.

    Ernie J. Zelinski
    International Best-Selling Author
    “Helping Adventurous Souls Live Prosperous and Free”
    Author of the Bestseller “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free”
    (Over 275,000 copies sold and published in 9 languages)
    and the International Bestseller “The Joy of Not Working”
    (Over 290,000 copies sold and published in 17 languages)

  6. Mark R Hunter on January 19, 2016 at 1:04 AM

    I’m afraid the first list is a little more likely to get someone noticed! Come to think of it, the second list isn’t all that easy either … but more doable for the average person.

  7. Julie Poplawski on February 10, 2009 at 10:19 AM

    >So, Rachelle, I have solid 3,6,7,8,9, and pretty good 2 yet after meetings with 4 agents at the writers conference, I was advised to write for magazines and maybe take on an MD as co-author to establish MORE PLATFORM for my lifestyle diet book. I have started that process already but it feels like maybe they just didn’t like my concept should I keep pitching or work entirely on platform and try it all again in a couple of months? I have website/blog/twitter all working well for me. Would love your thoughts. in blog or email jp@fill-my-up.com

  8. Cheri Hardaway on January 24, 2009 at 9:45 AM

    >Hi, I’m new to this blog, so please forgive my ignorance, but what is narrative non-fiction? Is that like Marley & Me, a memoir that is written to read like a novel? I ask because I am writing such a book… and wouldn’t it be nice if it ends up like Marley & Me? Still working on that niche!

    Rachelle, thanks for your posts. They are very helpful.

    God bless you,

  9. Julie Gillies on January 22, 2009 at 2:19 PM

    >I nearly fainted when I read the first list, although your point is well taken. I’ll take the second list any day, stringent though it may be.

    Thanks, Rachelle. Your blog is a tremendous blessing.

  10. Blayney-Paul Foster on January 22, 2009 at 12:33 PM

    That first list is terrifying! I am glad, also, to not be a non-fiction writer, at least not yet. That said, I’m glad to see you have a sense of humor about the state of publishing these days.

  11. Michelle LaRowe on January 22, 2009 at 10:44 AM

    >I do think having a niche is really huge. For me, I’ve worked to brand myself as America’s Nanny. I had the credentials, the platform (International Nanny Association Nanny of the Year award) and was fairly well known within the american nanny subculture. It didn’t hurt that I became friends with my british TV collegues either. Now I keep working to expand what I can write about by thinking what is special about my niche? I just wrote Working Mom’s 411- an old topic with a new and fresh persective- looking at the working moms world from the caregivers persepctive- How did I help moms and what can I teach moms. Now as a mom myself, there is another unique perseoctive..nanny turned mom- what really works..the niche is where it’s at!

  12. Lea Ann McCombs on January 22, 2009 at 9:56 AM

    >I lke the first list better. Almost as attainable as the second list. Makes me glad I’m not trying non-fiction!

  13. Janna Qualman on January 22, 2009 at 9:53 AM

    >Richard asks a very good question, and I’m curious to see the answer. If you don’t mind, Rachelle, could I take it a step further?

    If one writes fiction and narrative non-fiction, and would like to seek representation for both… is that feasable? It doesn’t work to query one agent with both projects, does it? And if that’s the case, how does one determine which project takes priority?

    Thank you!

  14. Rachelle on January 22, 2009 at 9:46 AM

    >Kelly, that’s a very good point!

    Don’t worry, I don’t represent Jessica Seinfeld. However,

    –Her book and the competing one by Missy Lapine have BOTH done very well and benefitted from the controversy.

    –I blogged about the whole thing last year:

    –and I own Jessica’s cookbook! Love it.

  15. Chatty Kelly on January 22, 2009 at 9:40 AM

    >#8 – Be married to someone famous, a la Jerry Seinfeld. His wife’s book took off over another very similar book on the same subject…by an “unknown.”

    (Kelly pauses, knowing her gift for inserting foot in mouth & sends up prayer that Rachelle doesn’t represent Seinfeld’s wife.)

    Now if only my husband would get discovered so I could ride his coat-tails.

  16. Marla Taviano on January 22, 2009 at 9:39 AM

    >This list is brilliant.

  17. Richard Mabry on January 22, 2009 at 8:13 AM

    Here’s a question for you (as though you don’t get enough of them). I note that several successful authors of fiction have written non-fiction books as well. If you had a client who writes in both genres, would you suggest they concentrate their efforts in one area or the other? And, if so, which?