Book Broker—an interview with Max Sinsheimer
Agent: Max Sinsheimer
Preferred genres: I represent a wide range of adult nonfiction, with a particular interest in food, travel/adventure, memoir, popular science, true crime, history, and social issues.
Bio: Max Sinsheimer is a literary agent based in Washington, DC who represents exclusively adult nonfiction across a range of genres. He founded his agency in 2016 after nearly seven years as an editor at Oxford University Press, where he mainly oversaw OUP's food and drink Companion series (The Oxford Companion to Beer, The Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails, The Oxford Companion to Cheese, and others; there were a lot of delicious perks along the way!). He still has a soft spot for academics who can write for general audiences. Max has a BA in English literature from Middlebury College and an MA in liberal studies from Duke University. He lives with his fiancé in Washington, D.C., and travels back and forth to NYC often to meet with editors and visit family. In his free time he plays an unhealthy amount of online chess.
1) What stands out in a good submission?
Professionalism. You don't need to be a professional writer to land an agent, but you do need to demonstrate that you have thoroughly researched what goes into each section of a book proposal and have revised them at least as often as you revised your manuscript or sample chapters. For example, I get a lot of proposals that, under "Promotion" or "Marketing," say something like "I am an eager collaborator and will do anything the publisher asks of me." That's not a marketing plan; it's an admission that you expect the publisher to drag you into promotional competency.
2) What red flags in a query letter are enough to cause you to pass on a project without looking at the writer's sample pages? What percentage of submissions would you say die with the query letter?
Other than the obvious things (poor writing quality, pitched me fiction when I only represent nonfiction, etc.), I often pass immediately if I can see that the concept is inherently flawed. For example, I often get biography submissions on very marginal and unknown historical figures. Convincing someone to plunk down $30 on a biography of an unknown figure is next to impossible, and if the author doesn't have a plan for how to position it for general readers, I know they are too deep into the research and would be better off self-publishing or publishing it for academic readers in their field. Or I'll get a generic guide to birding that doesn't seem aware that there are dozens (hundreds?) of similar guides on birding published already; if there isn't a unique selling proposition, the concept is flawed because the market is too saturated.
3) What's a typical warning sign that a manuscript isn't ready for representation?
The author hasn't tested the market. Say you have a podcast that overlaps thematically with your book, and your audience is growing: then your book makes sense to agents because it evolved from existing demand. Or say you've published part of your story in a mainstream media outlet and it got traction: there's your trial balloon for a book. But if you don't have a platform outside of your friends and family, and you haven't demonstrated any demand for your story, specifically, then your target readership is purely speculative, and all the demographic data and hopeful statistics in the world won't convince agents otherwise.
4) What's at the top of your manuscript wish list right now?
I'd really love more journalistic nonfiction that weaves in a personal narrative. A perfect example is Michael Pollan's How to Change Your Mind, where he both reports on the growing body of science concerning psychedelics and anchors each section to his trials of different substances—his "mental travelogue." Or on my list, Steve Hendricks did something similar with fasting in The Oldest Cure in the World, taking readers through not only the history and modern science of fasting, but also his experiences at different fasting clinics and his personal reasons for coming to fasting.
5) When you sign a new client, to what extent do you work through additional revisions together before their manuscript is ready for submission to publishers?
I work very closely with new clients to perfect their chapter structure and sample chapters before submitting the pitch packet to editors. I only represent nonfiction, where more often than not you sell projects based on one or two sample chapters rather than a complete manuscript. The exception is memoir, where editors often want to see the whole thing from the outset. That is why I'm selective about taking on memoirs; it is obviously a much larger time investment to revise and revise an 80,000-word manuscript, rather than, say, one or two 8,000-word chapters.
6) If you could change one thing about the publishing industry, what would it be and why?
I wish some publishers weren't so quick to label authors "difficult." There are many brilliant and empathetic editors out there who work collaboratively with authors and welcome thoughtful feedback and discussion. But there are definitely a few publishers that are institutionally allergic to engaging with authors unless it's to receive their manuscript or deliver their royalties statement. I think part of the problem has to do with editor burnout, just a limited patience for authors gumming up the book assembly line. But the end result is a paternalistic rudeness towards authors that wouldn't fly in most industries.
7) What's the best (non-client) book you've read recently, and how did it hook you?
I really enjoyed John Birdsall's The Man Who Ate Too Much, a biography of the great food personality James Beard. It actually illustrates my earlier point about the benefits of authors testing the market before querying agents; it began with an article Birdsall published in Lucky Peach called "America, Your Food is So Gay." Many readers were shocked to learn that the backyard grilling "dean of American cookery" was queer; shortly after it went viral, Birdsall had his book deal. In terms of what hooked me, I just love biographies about larger-than-life personalities, terrific food writing, and a personal narrative that intersects with a larger societal story, in this case, queer food history and the boundaries of the past.
8) Can you tell us about an exciting author you're working with at the moment?
Will Sofrin's All Hands on Deck is a really fun maritime adventure memoir that just came out from Abrams Press this April. It's about Will's time as a ship carpenter on the HMS Rose, a replica 18th-century warship that Hollywood crewed to sail 5,000 miles to film Master in Commander. The crew effectively went back in time and barely lived to tell the tale; in a case of life imitating art, a hurricane-strength storm nearly sank the Rose, and later, a rogue wave caused a nearly fatal dismasting. Will is a debut author, but he really put in the work and identified his readership early: tallship/sailing enthusiasts and Patrick O'Brian fans. Now he's touring seemingly every yacht club and maritime museum in the country!