Monday, July 9, 2007

Nathan Bransford, Literary Agent

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?

Definitely e-mail.

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.


Anonymous said...

The hard part is knowing when to stop marketing. My POD book was released three months ago, and I've been a marketing-aholic since then. The next book has been looming, hovering, nudging, and "psst!"-ing, but I feel like if I tear myself away from getting more reviews and finding new markets to start the new book, I'll be somehow shirking the work I should be doing with the other.

It's not just about writing the thing if you go POD - it's about selling it.

So, how to know when to stop and get on with the new one? Is it probably safe to say it's time when you're sick to death of seeing your own name and book title and could gag at the thought of introducing it to one more market?

Or is there, say, a good rule of thumb time limit?

N. Frank Daniels said...

From my encounter with Mr. Bransford, I came away with the sickening feeling that the publishing industry has its head up its own ass. Although futureproof was given an 'A' rating on this site and has gotten raves from over a thousand "typical, everyday" readers across the globe, Bransford had nothing better to say to me other than that I had a lot to learn about writing and there were people with much better "track records" getting published and/or overlooked by Big Publishing, and furthermore that I didn't know what people like to read. So I'll reiterate once again: fuck you Nathan. You know what they say don't you? All agents wish they were writers. I think something you people have forgotten is that it is the writer that butters YOUR bread, not the other way around.

Let me end here by saying that I know it's bad form to come right out in the open with this kind of vitriole, but in all my contact with agents and editors over the years, this guy has been the most arrogant, the most offensive. Maybe ENTREKIN will appeal more to his tastes. All I know is that Mr. Bransford doesn't have a single best-seller among his clients, so maybe it is he who needs a lesson in what does and doesn't sell.

Anonymous said...

The one thing that this interview doesn't quite capture is that Bransford is certainly one of the funniest bloggers around. Other than that, however, I think it pretty much shows he's a guy who knows what he's talking about and who's genuinely interested (as we all need to be) in the future of publishing.

As for the first anonymous comment, there was a post in John Scalzi's blog Whatever yesterday concerning the theory of the long tail. I bring it up because the statement that "It's not just about the writing if you go POD - it's about selling it" applies to all writing and all authors now. It's no longer enough just to write books anymore; we have to promote and market them, too, plus maintain a readership.

When I was talking to Will Shetterly before I published Entrekin, he just said to make sure I didn't get wrapped up promoting Entrekin when I should be working on my next project. Which is true, and I think there's an intuitive balance one needs to maintain.

As for Frank: I think we've all come to expect bad form from you.

-Will Entrekin

N. Frank Daniels said...

Fuck off Will. You named your book after yourself. If that isn't arrogant I don't know what is. You and Bransford are two peas in a pod.

Anonymous said...

That's really the best you've got, Frank? Weezer released two self-titled CDs; are they doubly arrogant?

Self-confidence is often mistaken for arrogance by those who don't have it.

I don't know about "two peas in a pod," but Nathan's a great guy you could learn a lot from.

-Will Entrekin

N. Frank Daniels said...

A band releasing an album is quite different from a writer releasing a book. Have you ever heard of an eponymous book? I haven't, and when you combine your eponomously titled book with the entire rest of your life outlook (55 posed myspace pictures, downright admittance to being "cocky"), you come across as a complete prick, and frankly not anyone I'd want to read. As far as learning something from ANYONE as arrogant as either of you, no thanks--I'll pass. If Bransford's such a great guy, why the hell isn't he representing you? Maybe YOU need to learn something from him. I'm sure he has a million reasons why his tastes are superior to yours. Though I wouldn't trust the advice from a guy who talks down to writers the way he thinks he has the right to do. I mean, ask any established writer in the industry: Agents are bottom-feeders, making a buck on the dreams of true artists. Maybe you should look into becoming one, Will. You've definitely got the nuts and the personality for it.

Anonymous said...

"A band releasing an album is quite different from a writer releasing a book."


"55 posed pictures"-- now you're just pulling numbers out of your arse.

I'm currently not seeking representation for my novel.

I've never heard Nathan come across as talking down to anyone, though I have heard you accuse several people who haven't deserved it of being condescending, which might say more about you than about them.

Regardless, writing to do. Once again, PODler, good interview. Thanks for continuing with the goodness.

-Will Entrekin

N. Frank Daniels said...

You know what Will, you can act as "above the fray" as you want with your snotty ass comments, but let me point out that it is you, sir, who started this little tiff, just as it was you who started our previous argument when you decided to come to Brad Listi's defense--and this when I hadn't even insulted him! Brad a good friend of mine. Now you're doing the same thing with this agent. Nobody asked your opinion about my opinion. Nobody needs you to come to the defense of some guy who acted like a dick to me. Of all the agents I've had contact with, Bransford was by far the most insulting--scratch that--the ONLY insulting agent I'd ever come across. Now here comes Will Entrekin bursting on the scene to defend fair Bransford's honor.

Get a fuckin life Will. Stop handing out advice when it isn't asked for, stop pretending to be the lit world's personal savior, stop acting like you are needed to defend the name of anyone. Start with yourself.

Anonymous said...

"It's not just about the writing if you go POD - it's about selling it" applies to all writing and all authors now. It's no longer enough just to write books anymore; we have to promote and market them, too, plus maintain a readership."

No problem.

I've read/seen/heard that, too. It's not the work that's the problem - it's trying to find the right time to stop and work on something else w/o getting that feeling you're stopping WEEKS or DAYS before you might have queried the right agency, or connected with the right consumer, or something.

Thx for responding.

Wardell Brown said...

Are there any agents reading this blog?

Henry Baum said...

I don’t want to get into this spat. This interview seems pretty measured overall. Good to see it here. But I don’t agree with the line, “voice alone won’t make a great book” and his emphasis on marketing. I agree that a book’s got to be marketable in this climate, especially for an agent who’s just starting out, but the climate is the problem. Used to be that writers were chosen for the potential of a career. The early novels of some very popular novelists aren’t nearly as good as later novels, but they were given the opportunity to write. Nathan Bransford wrote to me that I should keep selling my novel to establish a sales track record. The “track record” should be the strength of my writing, the potential for a career in the making, but that’s not how publishing works anymore. It’d be nice to see an agent or editor buck that trend. Publishing industry insiders implore writers to be original, but I see little evidence of that in the industry itself.

N. Frank Daniels said...

Thanks Henry, for the measured comment. I couldn't agree more heartily.

Enrique De la Torre said...

Agents can only do so much given the publishing climate and the editorial tastes at the publishing houses. Remember that agents don't make the rules--the publishers do.

Henry Baum said...

I’ve found agents just as culpable. My novel’s about Hollywood. A prospective agent told me (paraphrasing), “A novel just sold about the magazine industry. So that’s what editors are looking for.” This is crazy. Agents are the first line of defense and they don’t have to fall so closely in line with what editors dictate.

Take Nathan Bransford’s post today. I don’t want to bash him too much, just take on the state of the publishing industry. Simon and Schuster is looking for the “Holy Grail” to predict the next blockbuster. They should be looking to find the next Hemingway, and even that’s stupid because the next great writer is going to be nothing like what came before. Publishing has become no different than Hollywood. Looking for formulas, a book’s worth is only the amount of money it makes. Agents play a part in this.