• Jack El-Hai, author 
  • Bryn Nelson, author 
  • Anna Sproul-Latimer, founding partner and president of Neon Literary
  • Randy Dotinga, AHCJ board member, independent journalist (moderator)

By Renata Hill

Randy Dotinga is developing a book about “the penile industrial complex.” Bryn Nelson is gaining increasing national visibility as the published author of a book about poo, “Flush: The Remarkable Science of an Unlikely Treasure.” Jack El-Hai, has written many books, some of which have been optioned for documentaries and movies, including “The Nazi and the Psychiatrist,” “The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and His Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness.”

Obviously, quirky isn’t just interesting, it’s internationally marketable to a broad audience. Anna Sproul-Latimer, co-founder and president of Neon Literary, a Washington, D.C. and New York agency, is “drawn to buzzing, bright, curious, slightly unhinged authors who are driven by enthusiasm so infectious that (inter)national audiences are already paying attention to their work.” 

These three authors and the agent participated in a session on transforming a book idea into a winning proposal. 

According to the panelists, a book proposal should be fewer than 100 pages total and is composed of five sections:

  1. Overview - the initial attention-getter explaining the topic’s importance and timeliness and its ability to transform reader attitudes 
  2. Author bio - in which the writer details background strengths and depth of topic knowledge, including access to industry or topic experts and data 
  3. Marketing - the section that qualifies the author’s appeal and saleability, such as through existing social proofs, industry knowledge and practice and/or published writings on the same or similar topics
  4. Outline - one to two pages for each chapter showing the narrative arc and the ways in which the chapters support the larger argument or theme of the work
  5. One to three sample chapters - to show writing ability, style and voice.

Writing a book proposal, let alone a book, can be daunting. Nelson said it’s important to remain focused during the process of creating the proposal and finding an agent. In fleshing out “Flush,” he worked with “an accountability buddy,” a writer friend also working on a book proposal, with whom he met periodically to discuss agent searches and the work. 

Nelson sent his proposal to 16 agents in waves, he said: “It’s not like article publishing where you have to wait on a response from one editor before you send it on to another.” Eventually, Sproul-Latimer spied the big ecological, health and commercial potential in Nelson’s book about “the world’s single most squandered natural resource.” After several discussions, the two agreed they were a publishing match.

Dotinga noted his frustration with creating the proposal for his book, currently titled, “Stiff Competition.” He said it’s hard to stay motivated when there’s no deadline and no money.

So, he developed a workaround. “My solution for inertia was to write articles about [my book] topic that made money.” By doing so he added content to the manuscript, augmented his profile and built his credibility, especially when The Washington Post used some of his writing. 

Dotinga also sent his proposal to 16 agents before devising a slyer method of connection. He organized discussion panels, like this one, which included agents with whom he wanted to talk. It worked. He and Sproul-Latimer linked up, and she is assisting him in expanding the manuscript and defining a throughline that will increase its marketability. 

Each author recounted anecdotes about their experiences with people who billed themselves as agents but turned out to be disreputable or just flaky. One point everyone made is that a legitimate agent will not charge money to review a book proposal nor to market it to publishers.

Agents only collect a commission – usually 15% – once a deal with a publisher is inked. Commissions on subsequent foreign language sales may go as high as 20% due to the extra logistics involved. If a book is optioned for a documentary, feature film or even a Broadway play, the commissions vary.

“I share the risks and the rewards with my clients,” said Sproul-Latimer, “and shaping a book into a sellable product takes as long as it takes.” 

Nelson added that he didn’t perform any due diligence the first time a so-called agent approached then ghosted him after he started asking questions. Thereafter, he learned to review agent websites, their current authors, their deals and the monetary amounts garnered for authors. This information is available in the living bible of literary deals and dealmakers, hot authors, book buzz and publishing industry headlines, the Publishers’ Marketplace.

El-Hai said he was fortunate to achieve more immediate success in finding an agent whom he met face-to-face initially. His agent is personable, responsive and had a record of marketing similar books successfully. They’ve worked together for more than two decades.

Sproul-Latimer said there are 50 to 100 “good agents” operating within their own specialty topic areas in the U.S. “Look for a person who keeps you calm, who doesn’t activate your nervous system,” she said. 

Dotinga agreed. “Anna has been so helpful in suggesting changes and improvements and in pushing me, especially when I think my book is done. She’ll say, ‘No, not yet,’ and I get back to work on it.”

Another important form of assistance agents offer is extending the “afterlife” of a book. They look for additional optioning rights, search for international publishers for foreign language editions and scope out new PR opportunities. El-Hai said Disney just optioned his work, which is exciting, but the majority of his income flows from his existing options on 15 of his articles and books — all secured by his agent.

One aspect to which all the panelists emphatically responded — their heads shaking in unison like bobbleheads after an audience member's question — no, a newbie author should not send a book proposal directly to an editor. The audience member looked deflated, but Sproul-Latimer drilled down. “No way will that work. Editors will not even look at you unless you go through an agent.”

Sproul-Latimer offers insights into her agency and the publishing industry in her Substack newsletter, Glow in the Dark, along with a discounted subscription rate. While she only follows up with a small percentage of the thousands of people who submit to her, the more insight prospective book authors can gain, the better their chances of creating a knockout book proposal that will lead to a fruitful agent relationship.

Renata Hill publishes Moodfuel News to increase mental health equity for under-resourced residents of Colorado.