“…remember that the only way to write a novel is to sit down and write it and keep going even when you would rather be doing anything other than writing.”
Straight From an Agent
Nathan Bransford, Literary Agent, Curtis Brown Ltd.
as interviewed by Bobby D. Lux
Of all the tremendous resources available to writers on the Internet these days, for my money (of which I have very little, for the record), the most invaluable is the access to daily interactions with literary agents. Nathan Bransford, an agent based out of the San Francisco offices of Curtis Brown Ltd., is perhaps the most accessible of all the literary agents who have embraced an online presence. During any given week, the thousands of visitors to his daily blog, www.nathanbransford.com, are provided with a front row seat to the ins and outs of the publishing world from a perspective and insight that has rarely been available to them before. And if they’re lucky, Bransford, an author himself, will gladly critique their work for them [HINT: Get there early on Mondays]. If that’s not enough, he’ll answer specific questions directly on his forum about all things publishing, querying, and even LOST (Requiescant in pace).
Can you discuss your evolution in becoming a writer/agent/blogger?
When I graduated from college I knew I wanted to work in publishing, and my first job was assistant to the president of Curtis Brown, an incredible agent and mentor. That set me on the long apprenticeship to becoming an agent. When I was beginning to take on clients and starting to build my list at the end of 2006, because it’s so difficult to get established I wanted to set myself apart from other agents out there by building a web presence and try and help out people who were seeking publication. At that time there were a few blogging agents, but for the most part the industry hadn’t yet really embraced the Internet and especially social networking. So I started blogging, at first on MySpace (how 2006 was that?) and then over at Blogger. It’s been immensely rewarding, and I couldn’t have imagined at the time the extent to which it would be integral to building my client list.
When I set out to be an agent I honestly never really thought I’d end up writing – I thought maybe I’d write a screenplay one day, but eventually I decided to try writing a novel. My first attempt crashed and burned, but I ended up having a new idea that I was excited about and I wrote another novel around the end of 2008 and beginning of 2009. That became JACOB WONDERBAR AND THE COSMIC SPACE KAPOW, and I was fortunate enough to find an agent and publisher. It will come out next year.
As an agent, what do you for look for in a writer? Is this different from what you look for as a reader?
I’m a generalist both as a reader and an agent, and read just about anything. I’m drawn to compelling plots, unique voices, and I’m not a trend follower at all. I’m always looking for stories that are just brilliantly told regardless of what the market is doing. My essential feeling is that you can’t start a new trend if you’re always chasing the ones that are already “hot.”
The one main difference is that as an agent I’m looking for writers who think of themselves as more than just a writer and are willing to go the extra mile with publicity, building an online presence, and doing everything they can to help themselves stand out. As I’m sure you’ve heard the publishing industry is going through a period of transition and turmoil, and authors who are willing to embrace the business and publicity end of writing have a better shot at making their work stand out in this competitive landscape than those who think of themselves as just a writer.
What is your favorite part of being a writer? An agent? A blogger?
As a writer, it’s just so fun to create worlds and put your characters in tricky situations, and when you’re finished with a novel, no matter what happens with it it’s something you can look back on and be proud of. It’s hard work and I’m not one of those people who always finds writing fun (and I’ll admit that I’m a little suspicious of those who do), but there’s really nothing else like it.
The best part of being an agent is helping make writers’ dreams come true and seeing a project go from a brief description in a query to something that is sitting on shelves and out there for readers to love. It’s often a frustrating (and very long) process, but when everything comes together it’s immensely rewarding.
And my favorite part of blogging is the instant feedback and the dialogue with readers. I’ve learned an incredible amount from my readers, and I’m eternally grateful to the people who participate and leave comments and participate in the blogging community.
How does being an agent inform you as a writer? How does being a writer inform you as an agent?
In the course of my job I’m reading all the time, and since I’m a hands-on agent I have to think very critically about what is and isn’t working in a manuscript and be able to articulate that to an author. While it’s much harder to be self-critical of your own work, it’s been very helpful to think about structure and why certain elements work and others don’t and forgetting what I learned in college about approaching books in terms of what they mean and instead every day asking the question, “Is this good? Will this appeal to readers?”
And as an agent, being a writer has made me much more sympathetic to just how difficult the process is, how it feels to be an author waiting for news for a really long time and how it can render you temporarily insane. I think it’s cemented my respect for always trying to help an author achieve their vision.
What's the worst part of being an agent? What's the best?
The worst part is the waiting. The best part is when the wait is over.
Play Nostradamus if you will... Where do you see the publishing industry heading in the next several years?
The publishing industry is currently undergoing a huge amount of turmoil as it moves from a business that depended on its unparalleled ability to get paper books from authors into bookstores to one that is in the content delivery business and where it doesn’t enjoy any particular distribution advantage. The major publishers historically were able to choose the books that they placed in front of readers, and were really the only game in town if an author wanted to have their work read in large quantities. With the rise of e-books that advantage is going to erode, and there is enormous competition not just from books that are coming on the market outside of regular channels but from other media as well, much of it available for free.
There’s still no real replacement for the package of services that publishers are able to bring to bear (authors of the future will still need editing, copyediting, design, etc.), but in the challenging short term landscape publishers are probably going to continue to focus on the blockbuster titles and books they think they can break out in a major way. The challenge is that they have to pay top dollar for the hottest commodities, meaning it’s tough to make money even when something does catch fire.
But e-books are here to stay, and the next five, ten, twenty years are going to be a wild ride for everyone in the content delivery business.
Could you spare some free advice for aspiring novelists? What to do... and what not to do?
I think the most important thing is to study the craft and business of writing. Writing a novel isn’t just a matter of sitting down and letting the genius flow, it’s important to have a sense of how to craft the ups and downs of plot, avoid rookie errors, and think of character arcs and all the rest. Even if you’re writing literary fiction: it still needs to have a plot. And when you are finished it’s not just a matter of sending it out and sitting back as other people take care of the rest – it’s important to really know the business and to use that information to your advantage.
The other main advice is to remember that the only way to write a novel is to sit down and write it and keep going even when you would rather be doing anything other than writing. Lots of people write when it’s fun and stop when it’s not, and that’s no way to finish a novel.
Your debut novel, "Jacob Wonderbear and The Cosmic Space Kapow" is set to come out in 2011. Can you give us a preview?
JACOB WONDERBAR is a middle grade novel about three kids who trade a corndog for a spaceship, blast off into space, accidentally break the universe, and have to find their way back home. They visit crazy planets, become frenemies with a space pirate, have wild adventures, and meet the king of the universe.
Do you see yourself continuing to write in the YA genre?
I’m not sure what the future brings, but I’m currently writing a sequel to JACOB WONDERBAR, so that’s my world (or I guess universe) for the near future.
How do you manage to find the time to write, blog, and be an agent?
My hobbies have gradually fallen by the wayside and the Wii is like a Siren I have been successfully resisting for the last several years, but I love agenting, blogging, and writing more than my hobbies, so I’m happy with the tradeoff.
Finally, why do you hate the Lakers?
Well, my family have been die-hard Sacramento Kings fans from the beginning, and the vile Lakers have always the Kings’ arch-rivals, especially during the 2002 Western Conference Finals when the referees stole Game 6 from the Kings in utterly blatant fashion AND NO I AM NOT OVER IT A;LSDKJF. Nothing personal though.
For more information on all things Nathan Bransford, look no further than www.nathanbransford.com. You can also find him at www.curtisbrown.com.
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Bobby D. Lux is the editor-in-chief of Onomatopoeia Magazine. His fiction and non-fiction has been published here and there, including several stories in FLYMF’s Greatest Hits. A sometimes actor and murder mystery dinner theater host, he’s currently hard at work on that damn novel of his.
© 2010 Bobby D. Lux, All Rights Reserved