Friday, May 02, 2008

Interview with the Agent

Nathan Bransford is a genuine, legitimate agent employed by the San Francisco branch of Curtis Brown, Ltd., a New York literary agency. Twenty-seven-year-old Nathan has been an agent for five years. He received a BA in English at Stanford in 2002. His blog has been visited by countless authors aspiring to traditional publishing sales and success. He is here to give us the straight scoop, and we hope not poop, on how to best succeed at the game I know all of you are dying to play. I think you will find his replies to my questions articulate and directly to the point.

PODBRAM: Let’s just jump in and dispense with the monster waiting in the closet. Do you accept inquiries from iUniverse and other POD authors? What is the first thing you would like to tell those who are salivating with their monster-breath, just waiting for an opening in your gateway to success?

Nathan: Yes, I do. The main piece of advice I would give to self-published authors is to keep writing, and don’t be overly focused on trying to find an agent and publisher to pick up the book you self-published – it might be the next one that works. Although I wouldn’t advocate writing sequels – as difficult as it is to find an agent or publisher to pick up a self-published book it’s even harder to find someone to pick up the sequel to a self-published book. I’m sure there are exceptions, but it’s rare. I also have a blog post entitled Self-Publishing and Your Writing Career in which I talk about these matters more in depth.

PODBRAM: Tell us a little about an agent’s job. Do you do most of your work at home on the computer, or do you spend a lot of time traveling and attending conferences?

Nathan: We have offices in San Francisco, so I work there during the week, so typically I take care of the nuts and bolts aspects of my job during the day (submissions, answering e-mails and queries, negotiating contracts, etc.), and then I read from home at night. I haven’t attended too many conferences (I’ve been devoting more of my free time to my blog, which I think ends up reaching more people), but I have some lined up this year that I’m excited about.

PODBRAM: Approximately how many inquiries and requests for representation to you receive per day? If the math is easier, you can answer by the hour, if you wish.

Nathan: I don’t actually keep detailed stats, but based on this week I would estimate between 30-60 a day, sometimes more but rarely less than that. I’ve been receiving more queries than ever in 2008, and I’m easily on pace to receive 10,000+ for the year.

PODBRAM: What percentage of those are POD authors? How many would you say are specifically iUniverse authors?

Nathan: Tough to say, I don’t really keep track. It’s not an insignificant chunk, but I don’t think I could venture an accurate estimate.

PODBRAM: Give us a little history how you came to be an agent for authors. Did you plan to become an agent when you were working on your English degree?

Nathan: When I was in college I decided I wanted to go into publishing but I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do. Luckily after I graduated I was fortunate enough to find a position as the assistant to the President of Curtis Brown, who has been an incredible mentor for me. I’ve now been with Curtis Brown over five years.

PODBRAM: Have you found any specific advantages to having your business located in San Francisco? Is there any advantage to an author selecting an agent who lives nearby?

Nathan: I really enjoy living in San Francisco because I find it helpful to be swimming in non-New York cultural waters. The publishing industry is also becoming more and more dispersed, and because of e-mail and the internet, geographical location is less relevant than ever. And yes, while I have clients from around the world, some of whom I’ve never met personally, it’s also nice to be able to have face-to-face meetings with prospective clients and I also meet authors in social settings. Since there are fewer agents out here, that’s another nice advantage.

PODBRAM: How important should it be to an author that his agent work for a major firm? Should an author expect more personal attention from an agent with a small, independent firm?

Nathan: I’d say it’s more important to find an agent who is reputable, and there are many wonderful agents who either work on their own or for small agencies. I will say that there are some definite advantages at a major agency like Curtis Brown, which has stellar film and foreign rights departments. At smaller companies these rights are often handled by subagents, but there are some real advantages that come with being able to work closely with the agents in-house, to develop strategy and draw on their expertise.

PODBRAM: Do you work more with the major New York houses or small, independent publishers? Could you compare and contrast some of the similarities and differences between working with these two types?

Nathan: I work with all different kinds of publishers, big and small, and while there are customs within the industry, everyone is different.

PODBRAM: Have you found the fact that you are not an actual New Yawk Yankee to be a problem when you are working with the major you-know-where publishers?

Nathan: No, not at all.

PODBRAM: Some of us may have heard that agents or traditional publishers are not interested in a POD book that has already been successful because its sales have already been made. How true is this statement, and how do you feel about it, especially if the author does not already have a follow-up book in the pipeline?

Nathan: I’ve heard this sentiment expressed, that when a self-published book has reached a certain level success it’s already tapped into all of the sales it’s going to, but obviously success is better than no success. Whether a self-published project can translate to mainstream publishing depends entirely on the project itself, but definitely it helps for the author to have more books in the pipeline.

PODBRAM: How many authors are you currently representing? Is that an ordinary sort of number for you? How about for agents in general?

Nathan: I represent about fifteen active clients and literary estates, I have quite a few prospective clients I’m working with on potential projects, and I am actively building my list. The number of clients varies from agent to agent – some represent a small list, some represent fifty or more.

PODBRAM: Do you get involved in movie contracts or rights for books? How about audio books, e-books, or foreign contracts? Do most agents operate the same way in this regard?

Nathan: I’m very fortunate to have our film and foreign rights departments for movie and translation rights. I’m an audio specialist within Curtis Brown, so I definitely work hard to sell audio rights. E-books are typically handled within publishing contracts, but those situations vary. Some agents focus more on subsidiary rights than others – I’d say Curtis Brown is among the most aggressive at finding a place for these rights.

PODBRAM: Are you a fan of the show-don’t-tell concept in the composition of fiction? Do you look for basic concepts such as this one when you are reading the work of a prospective client?

Nathan: When it comes to writing, if it works it works.

PODBRAM: Are you interested mostly in fiction or nonfiction? How specifically by genre do most agents narrow their fields of expertise when choosing clients?

Nathan: I represent a little bit of everything. Most agents do narrow their fields of expertise, and I think almost everyone ends up gravitating toward the things they personally like reading, not just because it makes their job more enjoyable but also because I think you tend to be a better reader for the things you like – it’s easier to spot what’s good. I like reading just about anything, hence I’m a generalist.

PODBRAM: What is the most common mistake made by new and/or POD authors submitting inquiries for your consideration?

Nathan: Focusing too heavily on the one book they’ve self-published and not considering it as a steppingstone in a larger career. I call it self-publishus myopialoma.

PODBRAM: What is the most embarrassing thing you have seen an author do to obtain representation? Did it work?

Nathan: Oh, man. I would say I’ve seen it all, but just when I think I actually have seen it all someone comes along and does something even crazier. I don’t want to single anyone out, but let’s just say that if it’s embarrassing or crazy it didn’t work.

PODBRAM: We have all heard that a new author can forget entering the door of a major publishing house without an agent. How true is this statement? What are the chances of a new author stepping into a deal with a small, independent publisher without an agent?

Nathan: Almost completely true, and becoming truer by the day. But even if it’s rare, unagented works do sell, and there are some genres where there is more flexibility than others.

PODBRAM: How much influence do POD sales really have in securing an agent or traditional book deal for an otherwise unknown author?

Nathan: It can really help. If I’m going to take on a self-published author, I’m going to want to see that they have been able to attract some attention to their work, that they’ve generated interest and sales, and that they have sold a non-insignificant number of copies. It’s extremely hard to do all that on your own, and I understand that, but it’s what mainstream publishers will be looking for as well.

PODBRAM: Are you impressed at all by a nice cover design created by a POD author, or is this just a stupid question? Are you sometimes impressed by an author’s scrupulous attention to the details extraneous to the text?

Nathan: I’m more interested in what’s between the covers.

PODBRAM: How important to you is it that a POD book have truly first-rate editing and/or proofreading? Does this tell you anything you want to know about the dedication or professionalism of the author?

Nathan: Typos don’t particularly bother me, that happens, but if there are repeated grammar errors that suggest the author doesn’t know better I’m definitely going to be skeptical.

PODBRAM: What can a prospective client do that will annoy you the quickest? What advice can you give us in that regard?

Nathan: I’m not quick to annoy (except when it comes to queries beginning with rhetorical questions), but there is a wealth of information about publishing and the industry and agenting out there on the Internet now, and it’s important for any prospective author to familiarize himself with the information and do his research. I’m not just saying this as a blogging agent – the publishing industry itself increasingly expects that the author will publicize his own work and will build his own personal network. In order to do that, you have to know the business, so I would encourage anyone who wants to write a book to not just spend time crafting a great work, but also dedicate yourself to understanding the industry.

PODBRAM: Do you look for more of the same genre or subject or plotline that has been successful recently, or do you seek out whatever might be riskier, but could ultimately be the next big thing? How do you think most agents view this issue?

Nathan: That’s an interesting question. I really try not to follow trends very closely, but I do keep track of what is popular, because it can help put new projects in the right frame of reference. I try to read a lot of popular books because doing so helps me understand why something was popular and what nerve it struck, but I would never want a project that was too similar to a book that’s already been published.

PODBRAM: How often do you make your decisions based on the first line, first paragraph, first page, or first chapter of a book? Have you ever made a rash decision in this manner, only to see the error of your choice later?

Nathan: I read for as long as it takes me to make a decision. Sometimes that’s the first line, first chapter, page 50, or sometimes I’ll read the whole thing and decide it’s just not for me. And no, I don’t think there is a lot of error involved. If you have to talk yourself into something it means it should be a “no”. When you know you have a great project you just know. Even if a project I passed on went on to find success it might have just meant that I wasn’t the right agent for it and it took another agent’s vision to help make it a success.

PODBRAM: What genre, subject matter, or type of book does the market least need another of? What kind of book is just waiting for a knowledgeable, enterprising author to write and sell to an enterprising agent?

Nathan: I think I’m least interested in seeing projects that are unoriginal takes on well-known tropes. So, for instance, a boy who doesn’t know he’s actually a prince lives in a kingdom full of dark magic ruled by a powerful and dangerous person, and using a talisman he makes a great journey and ultimately fulfills his destiny. I get so many queries like this. But you know what? It’s one of the oldest story tropes in humankind. We’ve been telling this story over and over and over from the beginning of recorded history, from the Romans to Beowulf to modern day versions like Star Wars and ERAGON. But it has to be an original take on this trope, not the same old thing we’ve seen before.

PODBRAM: What should a new author look for in an agent, besides, of course, one that will read his book and sign a contract?

Nathan: Trust and communication are two of the most essential ingredients in any successful author/agent relationship, and the author should feel very comfortable with his prospective agent before they enter a working relationship.

PODBRAM: Are you ever impressed enough with an author’s website, blog, or other marketing tools or skills so much that you accept a book as an agent, even though you may not be that impressed with the text itself? Can you elaborate?

Nathan: A good website can definitely make a difference. It shows that an author is serious about building his presence and (eventually) marketing their book, but it’s never a substitute for a great book or book project – that comes first.

PODBRAM: Other than obviously high sales figures, what do you think is the single most important marketing effect displayed by a POD author that might encourage you to accept his book or future books?

Nathan: I think it speaks highly if he has been able to work with his local bookstores to familiarize himself with sales reps and get his work into bookstores, to get reviewed, and generate attention.

PODBRAM: What is the single most important piece of advice you have to offer POD authors wanting to break into traditional publishing?

Nathan: Keep writing.

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