My wide-ranging list includes almost all the major nonfiction categories. When considering new projects, I take the point of view of what is salable but try to keep an open mind—leaving room for the author to persuade me that a project I thought would be iffy might just work. And it’s a special thrill to receive a pitch for something unexpected and interesting and that happens to have commercial appeal, too. My taste and long-term interests are at the intersection of “trend” (not “trendy”) and “timeless.” I don’t necessarily look for what’s “hot,” but instead for what I understand to be missing from the marketplace, what will have a good chance of rooting well upon publication, and what has the potential to survive for years to come based on the author’s relationship to the subject, an understanding of the audience, the competition and that obvious gap waiting to be filled.
A title on my list that captures that intersection of trend and timeless is Forbidden Fruit: Love Stories from the Underground Railroad by Pulitzer Prize finalist Betty DeRamus, which was published in 2005 by Atria Books and instantly captured my heart. I felt Betty’s book would attract publishers’ increasingly mainstream interest in African-American literature. And with its focus on love—a most seminal subject that hadn’t been explored this way before—the book had the potential to become a classic. It remains in print and has been optioned for the stage and screen.
I’m sometimes attracted to projects without an obvious precedent, which can make it harder to find a publisher yet especially rewarding when the project takes hold. I like to know that the author is closely aligned with the subject, either personally or professionally, where the marriage of author and subject makes sense and is supportable in the marketplace. Publishers expect authors in most nonfiction categories to have a built-in platform: an established audience thanks to prior publications, media connections, professional or university affiliations and lecture circuits, allowing for back-of-the-room sales—whatever helps achieve a competitive edge. Publishers big and small are influenced by this information.
The Whistleblower’s Handbook: A Step-by-Step Guide to Doing What’s Right and Protecting Yourself, by Stephen Martin Kohn, immediately sparked my interest. I had been reading more and more about whistle-blowing cases, some high profile, others less so. Kohn is the executive director of the National Whistleblower’s Center, whose website gets a million hits each year—a signal to me that the topic was not esoteric. Even so, there was no comparable book on the market, making the audience harder to prove and my job more difficult. But Lyons Press published this work in 2011, and the sales are steady.
How wonderful when author and agent work together to find a good home for a book that arguably is the first of its kind and creates its own category. It reinforces one’s instincts and judgment, offering fuel for other projects that also require a stubborn certainty about a book project’s worth.
A former editor with major New York houses, Rita Rosenkranz founded Rita Rosenkranz Literary Agency in 1990. Her wide-ranging adult nonfiction list includes health, history, parenting, music, how-to, popular science, business, biography, popular reference, cooking, spirituality, sports and general interest titles. Rosenkranz works with major publishing houses, as well as regional publishers that handle niche markets. She looks for projects that present familiar subjects freshly or lesser-known subjects commercially.