I recently had the chance to ask Nathan Bransford of Curtis Brown Ltd. literary agency some questions about agenting, publishing, and pod. Here is the interview.
What attracted you to being a literary agent?
I’ve always been an avid reader, and when I graduated from college I wanted to be involved in the publishing industry…. and yet I also wanted to live in San Francisco. Somehow I managed to combine both, and I found my first job out of college at a literary agency. I was immediately hooked. I think the thing I love most about being a literary agent is really trying to help an author achieve his/her vision and success, and to see people reading these books on the subway. It’s an incredibly rewarding experience to know that you’re contributing to the future of books and literature.
What are some of the challenges that you have not anticipated?
When I first started out I envisioned bestselling authors falling into my lap and I thought the experience of finding new clients would be very easy. How hard could it be?? Well, very hard, as it turns out. There are so many talented writers out there, but finding the right projects can be very difficult. As a young agent, you sort of have to claw your way up and into the publishing world because there are plenty of established agents out there and they don’t tend to let their bestselling authors go. Luckily I’ve found some amazing clients so far and am always on the lookout for new voices.
Is being on the West Coast, as opposed to being in NYC, challenging?
I spent two years living in New York, so I definitely got my up close look at the publishing industry and did quite a bit of networking while I was there. I don’t find it to be too much of a challenge to be in San Francisco – I’m living in a great city with an incredibly vibrant literary life, and particularly since so much of the day to day publishing business is handled over the phone and via e-mail, I have no problem conducting business in San Francisco. There’s a thriving and growing publishing industry out here as well, with HarperOne, MacAdam/Cage, McSweeney’s, Chronicle and many other publishers and agents.
How small or how large is the publishing world?
It’s really both large and small at the same time, in a weird way. I think I most feel both sides when I go to BEA. You look out at the convention floor and there are literally thousands and thousands of people out there, and you think, “Wow, all of these people work in publishing. This is astounding.” And yet when you walk around, everywhere you look you see someone you know. So it’s kind of both.
What is your typical day like?
I get to the office around 8:00 and typically start by responding to queries and e-mails from clients and editors. Dealing with e-mails usually takes most of the day – I’ll also follow up on submissions, contracts, payments, and all of those other little things that an agent has to keep track of. I’ll draft submission letters, go over contracts, research projects, check on licenses…. There are a thousand little things to be done. I usually post a blog while I’m eating lunch, and then it’s back to the phones and e-mails. I don’t usually have time to read while I’m at work, so when I get home I’ll read for at least a few hours, and then watch a TV show and go to bed. Lather, rinse, repeat.
How many query emails do you get a day?
On my blog I posted the statistics of all of the queries I received in one week, which was actually a light week because blog readers knew I was on vacation. I received 121 queries that week, so about 17 per day. I’d say a more typical day would be 25.
How many written queries do you get a day?
Usually around 5.
How many books are you currently reading?
I just went through a week where I read probably 25 partials and a couple fulls, so right now I’m down to one full manuscript and one self-published book yet to read.
Do you keep thinking about work once you get home?
Oh yes, definitely. Most days I’m working when I get home.
How many hours do you usually devote to reading manuscripts?
On average I’d say anywhere from 3-4 hours.
Do you ever get tired of all that reading?
Yeah, there are times when I get a bit burned out, but that feeling passes quickly. It’s a bit mentally exhausting to read so much, particularly since I’m not exactly reading for pleasure, I’m concentrating very hard on whether I like something, whether it’s good, whether it’s marketable, and how it could possibly be improved. It’s an intense reading experience.
Do you prefer email queries or traditional letters?
What is the biggest problem that you see in books or partials that writers submit?
It would be tough to generalize across the board because every single one is different, but I’d say the biggest problem I see is that queries and partials often lack a really original idea. It’s not enough to simply be a talented writer, a writer also has to have a brilliant idea.
What is most important in a book manuscript, all things being equal: an awesome plot, great characters, or voice?
I feel that plot is most important, because without a plot a great character wouldn’t really be doing anything very interesting, and voice alone won’t make a great book.
Are some genres hotter than others? If so, which is possibly the hottest one now?
There always seems to be a genre-of-the-moment (right now I’d say historical fiction), but I really try and avoid trend-spotting. These things come and go, and if you’re solely focused on what trends are hot now you’re going to miss out on the next big thing.
What kind of book do you fantasize about finding in a slush pile?
An original idea executed extremely well by a very cool and professional author.
Which are some of your favorite recent titles and why?
I really loved Ian McEwan’s ON CHESIL BEACH, and I’m still raving to everyone I meet about THE LOOMING TOWER.
What do you think about POD, its present and future?
I think the POD trend is interesting, and it’s a new opportunity for people to make a name for themselves. At the same time, the POD world is extremely crowded with works that are of inferior quality, and it’s difficult to sort out the good from the bad. That’s why I think websites like this one are so important. I’m not quite sure which way the future is going to go. On the one hand POD could represent a democratizing force and consumers could find voices that mainstream publishing might have overlooked, but at the same time, I think readers are overwhelmed by the number of books to choose from and may turn to mainstream publishers and existing bestsellers because they are (usually) assured a certain level of quality.
Can POD become a heaven for niche titles and midlist authors?
Niche titles, definitely. Midlist? I’m not so sure. POD just doesn’t offer the same distribution that a mainstream publisher can, and I would think it would be prohibitively difficult and expensive for a midlist author to reach the more readers through self-publishing than they can through a mainstream publisher.
Can pod priors actually be a liability to a writer trying to enter mainstream publishing?
As long as the POD author can demonstrate a very successful track record with their self-published work and that they are very talented and committed to writing I don’t see why it would be a liability. One thing I’ve noticed is that POD authors tend to be a little overly focused on the one book they self-published. That isn’t necessarily going to be the one that is going to attract a publisher (although obviously that happens), the best shot a POD author may have is by demonstrating a solid track record and also having a new unpublished work ready to go. So I would encourage POD writers to keep writing and don’t become solely focused on your POD book.
Should a writer use his real name on a POD book?
Sure, if they want to.
Would you represent a former pod author?
Nathan Bransford has his own blog filled with valuable information about publishing and writing, covering such topics as query letters, proper formatting, and proposal writing.