Nathan Bransford is a former literary agent with Curtis Brown in the United States and now works in the tech industry in San Francisco. Born and raised in Colusa, California, he graduated from Stanford University with a degree in English. Nathan is also the author of middle-grade book ‘Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow’ which was recently published by Dial Books for Young Reader (a Penguin imprint). He is agented by Catherine Drayton of InkWell Management. Nathan’s experience, advice and sense of humour (not to mention competitions and sporting challenges and debates on the merits of e-readers and the future of publishing) are generously shared and enjoyed in equally copious amounts by his (5478) online followers as well as facebook fans at his blog http://blog.nathanbransford.com/ .
FIRST, as an agent:
When evaluating whether or not to take on an author, what did you look for beyond a high standard of writing?
What exactly is a hook, and what worked for you (or what didn’t)?
A hook is the quest and central conflict arc the story, described in very succinct fashion. By quest I don’t necessarily mean a literal, physical quest, but it’s the journey at the heart of the story and the big obstacle standing in the way. The ones that work best have a very compelling story that can be succinctly described. It’s not necessarily imperative to have a great hook in order to sell your novel, but it can definitely help.
What were (general or specific) examples of the best and worst of queries you received?
Well, the best queries have a great novel behind them, books so good the authors almost can’t help but write a good query. The queries themselves aren’t even necessarily flashy, they just describe the story and are compelling on their own.
The worst queries were ones where authors just dashed something sloppy off and sent it without taking the time to research how to write a good query.
Were there any instant ‘Reject!’ warning flags for you?
No, not really, I read them all carefully.
When reading a query with first chapter submission, what was the typical length you would read?
I always read as much as I needed to make a decision, so there wasn’t really a typical length. Sometimes that meant reading a paragraph, sometimes that meant reading an entire manuscript.
Moving on to requested partials, what would most commonly make you stop reading and reject, even after a promising query?
Most commonly because I just wasn’t connecting with the writing. That’s really just a gut feeling. In order to be the best advocate for the work I really need to feel very strongly about a book’s potential and not have any reservations about it.
What is your favourite example of an author ‘doing it right’ in today’s mix of e-reader and paper book market?
I think an author who is really showing what can be done with a social presence even before her book comes out is Tahereh Mafi. A lot of aspiring authors out there feel like no one is going to follow them unless they already have a book out, but Tahereh shows that with an innovative and engaging approach to blogging, Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr, you can build a social media following well before your book comes out. It just so happens that she has an amazing novel as well, and Harper will be publishing it in November. There's a lot of hype surrounding it, and Tahereh already has a built in audience ready to read it.
What do literary agencies do to help promote their author's books and what must authors do themselves?
Some agencies have in house publicists and some agents are able to promote their client’s books on their blogs if they have one, but for the most part it’s not an agent job to promote books. It’s really the publisher’s job. But as publishers’ budgets are stretched, increasingly that task is falling on the authors themselves, who have to do whatever they can to drum up interest in their work.
What are your favourite top 3 things you shouldn’t say to an agent during a face-to-face pitch? (or did you ever experience?)
1. Don’t oversell yourself or your work, just be honest and confident.
2. Don’t be combative if the agent has suggestions or constructive criticism.
3. Don’t pitch to an agent in an inappropriate time and place.
What are the three key things you think an author should ask a potential agent before making any commitment?
1. I would get a sense of the agent’s submission plan and how many publishers the agent is willing to submit to. Are they just going to submit to the major publishers? Are they willing to go to small presses? There’s no right or wrong way, just make sure you’re comfortable with their answer.
2. Definitely get a sense of whether the agent has any changes they’d like you to make to your manuscript.
3. Discuss what the agent has in mind for your career. Are they representing you just for that book or do they see it as a long term relationship?
Did you choose to leave agenting or actively seek to work in the new industry you are now in?
Yes, it was entirely my own choice. I was looking for a new challenge, and was very fortunate to land at CNET, a website I’ve been a fan of for a long time. I’m very passionate about social media and technology, and have really enjoyed my new work a great deal.
Would you consider becoming an independent agent in the future?
I guess one should never say never, but I don’t envision that in my future.
When and why did you begin your blog?
(One of my favourite posts from his blog, is on finding balance. The challenges between writing and life and how the two interact. They also give some insights into Nathan Bransford, the writer - http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2011/03/how-to-find-balance.html - Jen)
NATHAN, the Writer:
First, Congratulations on being published - it must feel great? What has worked well for you on the launch of your book that you would recommend to others?
Thank you! Honestly I think the most important thing about my book launch came in the years preceding my book launch, when I was building up the community around my blog and putting in that time. So I’d definitely recommend that aspiring authors get involved in social media sooner rather than later (assuming they enjoy social media – don’t do it just to do it).
Tell us about your approach to selling your own novel and search for an agent. Why did you not choose to represent yourself?
I definitely needed an agent, not just because it would have been unseemly for me to send around my own novel, but I also needed an agent’s perspective because it’s so hard to retain a clear head when it’s your own book.
I went about the process like any other author – I sent around queries, got some rejections as well as some manuscript requests, and then Catherine Drayton at InkWell offered to represent me.
What was your elevator pitch on Jacob Wonderbar and how critical is it to have one?
My one sentence pitch is: Three kids trade a corndog for a spaceship, blast off into space, accidentally break the universe, and have to find their way back home.
I definitely think it’s important to be able to describe your work succinctly, not least of which because everyone will ask you what your book is about. Here’s a post I wrote about the importance of having one sentence, one paragraph and two paragraph pitches: http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2010/05/one-sentence-one-paragraph-and-two.html
What do you do to follow the publishing market (still?) and keep up to date with news and trends as an author?
I mainly follow through industry blogs, by my own experiences as an author, and through conversations with people who are still in the business.
The Internet now offers a vast array of tools, blogs, information on publishing. How does a new writer know and trust where to go of true value to learn about all things writing whilst keeping the ‘learning process’ in perspective and keep on writing?
I think you just have to look at someone’s experience and background and see if they seem legitimate. You can also consult with an online writer’s community, such as the one on my site or on Absolute Write, and see what other experienced writers have to say.
What is your advice to keep unpublished (but working very-hard-to-become-so) writers stay motivated after rejection?
I would really encourage people to seek out friends and especially fellow writers for support. It is definitely difficult to have your work rejected and to go through the publication process, and the only people who really know what it’s like are other writers. Their support and encouragement can help keep you going.
TVFH Desert Island discs - what would be the one piece of music, the one book (excluding religious works) and the one luxury inanimate object you would take with you on a desert island?
I would take “I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One” by Yo La Tengo, “Moby-Dick” by Herman Melville, and my laptop for writing.
And FINALLY, here is the link to the first chapter of Nathan’s first book: http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2011/05/jacob-wonderbar-publication-day-and_12.html
Nathan on pitching: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4svWBIQMQ_g
Nathan’s Frequently Asked Questions http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2008/08/faqs.html
A conversation between author Nathan Bransford and the writers of the San Francisco Writers' Grotto, April 20, 2011 in three parts:
Jacob Wonderbar Book Trailer via youTube
Nathan Bransford is published by Penguin in a two book deal (JACOB WONDERBAR AND THE COSMIC SPACE KAPOW and JACOB WONDERBAR FOR PRESIDENT OF THE UNIVERSE), and recently finalized a third, tentatively titled JACOB WONDERBAR AND THE INTERSTELLAR TIME WARP.