INTERVIEW: Nathan Bransford – Part I

Many of you are familiar with my guest today. I’m willing to bet the majority of you have a link in your sidebar to his popular writing blog, begun in his days as a literary agent for Curtis Brown, Ltd. (When I say popular, I mean 150,000 plus hits per month.)

These days, Nathan Bransford works as the Social Media Manager for CNET. As of the time of this interview’s writing, within a four-month tenure, he used his expertise to double their Facebook popularity. He has a Twitter account with 95,000 followers, owns and moderates a popular writing forum, and a few weeks ago joined the ranks of the published with his middle-grade novel, JACOB WONDERBAR AND THE COSMIC SPACE KAPOW. In other words, if you’re looking for someone to provide insight on how to get from unpublished author to author-in-the-limelight, it doesn’t get much better than this.

After I plumb the depths of his multi-faceted mind about publishing issues, we’ll be discussing Nathan’s book. By the way, its sequel? Already scheduled by Dial/Penguin for publication next spring.

Welcome, Nathan, and congratulations on your debut!

Jan: Shall we get rid of the inevitable question first?

When you left agenting, the big question on everybody’s lips was “why?” – the perception being you were the canary in the coal mine; that you had sensed traditional publishing’s demise and were getting out before it took you down. You’ve since explained your career shift had different origins; that it was based on passion for social media and desire for a more balanced life. Yet when I asked people what they’d most like you to address, unease remains. People believe you know something you’re reluctant to articulate, presumably because it would cause panic. Is that the case?

Nathan: Well, let me first say again clearly that my shift was overwhelmingly driven by my passion for social media and technology, by my fondness for CNET, and trying to find a new balance in life. Those were by far the most important factors in my decision. I was just ready for something new, and the opportunity that came along was too good to pass up.

But I won’t try and say that the flux in the publishing business played no role either. In my Year in Books post at the end of 2010 I talked about the “Big Squeeze,” and how hard it is for a book to sell to a traditional publisher and how difficult it is for young agents to start their career. It’s a very difficult and time consuming job and there are many forces outside of your control.

Still, the change in the business is not the reason I left, and I really would hate my decision being reduced to publishing flux. My career was going fine. I’m not a canary in the coal mine with secret info that everything is going down in flames. It’s a very challenging time for the business, but I think agents and publishers will survive and I really am optimistic about the future of books.

With the rise of ebooks, it seems quite clear that self-publishing is here to stay, bringing with it a huge cottage industry of author-support services – from cover design to freelance editors, to those assisting with platform. With this “decentralization” of services, for want of a better word, I foresee potential problems for the unprepared or unagented – possibly more than sites like Preditors and Editors can handle. I’m thinking of subcontractors who don’t deliver what they’ve promised, individual authors fighting piracy on their own, legal issues that would otherwise be dealt with by agents…

If my concerns aren’t misplaced, can you suggest resources for both prevention and “cure”?

There definitely will be a need for a screening process for many of these services, but where there is a service on the Internet a review site shall soon follow. Already the Internet has had a huge effect on making it much much easier for authors to weed out the scam artists from the real professionals, and I don’t see this being a big issue in the future. As always people will need to take the time to do their research, but that goes with any endeavor in life.

Besides your own blog, who do you believe understands the paradigm shift in publishing and is also willing to explain it to others?

Eric from Pimp My Novel provides an essential publishing insider view. I always enjoy Mike Shatzkin’s perspective, and find myself nodding along. I also like reading Kassia Krozser’s Booksquare blog, and J.A. Konrath is always worth reading.

Is there anything you miss about being an agent?

I definitely miss working with my clients, who are and were wonderful to work with. I’m still a big fan of their work, and I try to keep in touch.

One of the things I’ve always admired about you is that you appear to possess the heart of an educator. As evidence, I’d point to your blog, your critiques, the forums – even the number of authors I know who you rejected, but who found agents after following your revision suggestions. Would you satisfy my curiosity? Do you have educator DNA on board?  And why did you take that extra care with rejection letters when you were already so busy as an agent?

Ha – thank you! Both of my parents were teachers at various points in their lives, though they are better at it than me.

But the main reason I took the extra time with rejection letters is that I could empathize with the writers. It’s tough sending your work out there into the ether only to receive no response. And I really tried to go the extra mile with revision suggestions because I just wanted to help and hoped that if that author then went on to success they would remember if/when the opportunity arose to work together.

More than the willingness to explain, you don’t seem to believe there’s a place for harshness within feedback or public discourse. In fact, if there were a title of Gentleman Agent within the writing world, I know of few more entitled to brandish it. Do you have an underlying belief in the need for civility? If so, why does it matter?

I believe very strongly in civility and virtue in general. I’m not a particularly religious person or anything and like all humans I don’t always succeed while trying to be virtuous, but I think the thing that people sometimes forget these days is that civility and virtue work.

When you break it down, virtue is almost always about putting others before yourself and about setting aside short term temptation in favor of long term rewards. Popular culture loves to celebrate short term vices (think: “Greed is good”), but those temptations come back to get you. There’s a reason we have been telling stories for thousands of years about bad people being punished and the good guys winning in the end: it’s because there’s a huge amount of truth to that. Bad things really do catch up with you, and doing good really does bring its own rewards. It’s not the way the world should be, it’s the way the world is.

I’m not naïve enough to think that only good people succeed and only bad people don’t or that bad things only happen to bad people, but, for instance, when you’re building a blog or community, civility is at the heart of a successful long term project. It might feel better in the moment to go on a rant or to fight fire with fire, but treat someone with civility and you will win in the end. In the era of the Internet where everything is transparent, we have all become part of a vast virtue police force — if people are doing ill, the Internet will expose them in a heartbeat.

People are also way more likely to hear and implement good criticism when it’s presented in a civil manner. Like I said, it works.

Who are your role models in this?

Absolutely my parents.

There are some who would say that a courtesy-imperative and commerce don’t make for good bedfellows. Has that been your experience?

Not at all, I think books like Jim Collins’ GOOD TO GREAT, for instance, celebrate selflessness in business leadership and show that you don’t have to be a jerk to be commercially successful. Quite to the contrary actually. J.K. Rowling has donated a huge amount of money to worthy charitable causes. It’s very possible to be both wildly successful and a good person, and I’d argue that it helps.

Every so often, the publishing world witnesses an Author Having a Bad Day. While I think we have to discuss it, if only to extract our own career lessons, there’s another part of me that cringes at the community’s response. (And mine. I am not entirely without blame here.) You addressed this in part in your blog post of April 5th, but I’d like to take it a step further. In your opinion, if we were at our best as a hopeful writing community, how might we learn without adding to the damage? Do we owe that to one another?

I think we can teach each other with patience and understanding, and yes, I do think we owe it to one another to take the time to do that. The writing community doesn’t have to be adversarial, with warring camps and witch hunts and vitriol and taking out our frustrations on easy targets. We’re all in this together, there’s room for us all, and there’s no reason we can’t all enjoy each other and help each other out in the process, even (or especially) when we make mistakes.

As an agent, you worked hard to demystify the publishing process for writers. You’ve been open that provided a competitive advantage in raising your profile, and providing access to a talented pool of writers. Now that you’re no longer of that world, is there anything you wish authors better understood about agents? Anything we could do better to preserve what I see as symbiotic roles?

Well, definitely I wish authors understood that agents are on their side. Yes, agents are the people who reject (or maybe don’t respond) to your query, they might sigh online at the volume of queries they receive and their workload and all the rest. But agents want to make writers’ dreams come true. That’s their job. They can’t make everyone’s dream come true, but they would if they could. It’s a tough and extremely time-consuming job, and they’re doing the best they can within a challenging business. And every day they go to work trying to get authors the best deal possible.

Conversely, now that you have the experience of being a published author, have you learned anything that would change your business practices if you were still an agent?

I thought about this one for a while, but I don’t know that I would have done anything differently.

Let’s talk about the syndrome of the shoemaker’s children. In the medical world, when a healthcare provider becomes a patient, both parties must navigate tricky interpersonal dynamics. The client generally has extra concerns about confidentiality, and about whether they’ll be humiliated if they become as vulnerable and emotional as they’d like. Their advisor must understand that intellectual knowledge can vanish within the pressure-cooker of illness, and pitch their comments accordingly.

I’m wondering how much parallel there would be in the literary world – when agent or editor seek an agent’s representation, and so on. Can you comment on that and perhaps share ways both parties can protect the business and relationship?

Ha- yeah, I was actually worried about that when I sent around queries for JACOB WONDERBAR. I wondered if an agent would find it a little nerve-wracking to represent a fellow agent. Luckily I found Catherine Drayton, who has been utterly fantastic and I don’t know what I would have done without her these past few years. She strikes the perfect balance of providing an independent and experienced perspective while recognizing that it’s somewhat of a unique situation as I had so much time in the business. It’s a true collaboration, and one I’m immensely thankful for.

Jan again: Readers, this concludes part I of our interview. I hope you’ll join us for Part II in which we’ll discuss Nathan’s tips on time management, what the industry knows for certain about self-promotion, and finally — finally! — chat about his book. Should you wish to contact Nathan in the interim, please find him on his blog, Twitter profile, and Facebook author page.

Lastly, if you are looking for an example of a fun trailer which reflects the voice of its fun book-predecessor, might I recommend the one below? Here is the short, the quirky, and the corndog-infused JACOB WONDERBAR AND THE COSMIC SPACE KAPOW:

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About Jan O'Hara

Jan O'Hara left her writing dreams behind for years to practice family medicine, but has found her way back to the world of fiction. Currently the voice of the Unpublished Writer here at Writer Unboxed, she hopes one day soon to become unqualified for the position.

Comments

  1. says

    So true:

    “I think we can teach each other with patience and understanding, and yes, I do think we owe it to one another to take the time to do that.”

    Thanks, Nathan and Jan. The writing community is filled with generous helpful people and it’s always good to be reminded of that — especially when it’s the bad stuff that gets so much of the press time, facebook space and tweets.
    Amy Sue Nathan´s last blog post ..Women’s Fiction Author Cathy Lamb Talks About Collecting Rejections- Writing Books and Eating Chocolate

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  2. says

    The coolest thing about Nathan (and there are many) is that even with the literally hundreds of thousands of people following him, he still finds time to help every single writer who takes the time to seek his advice.

    The forums at his blog are an excellent resource.
    Matthew MacNish´s last blog post ..Something Special

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  3. Vaughn Roycroft says

    Hurray for civility and work-ethic! I was pleasantly surprised by Nathan’s extensive and obviously heartfelt comments on good vs. bad behavior in the internet age. I appreciate his candor and agree with the sentiment.

    Jan, your interviews are always top-notch, and this one is no exception. Can’t wait for part two. Kudos to you both!

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  4. says

    As always, a thoughtful and thought-provoking interview, Jan. The time you put in researching your questions shows.

    Nathan’s blog has always struck me as an oasis of level-headedness and courtesy in a (sometimes) crazy virtual world. The way he comes across in this interview is no exception, and I’m looking forward to part 2.

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  5. says

    Nathan’s nature is what first attracted me to his blog. He is a real giver and a lot of people can learn from his example (myself counted in). Thank you for this interview. It is always a pleasure to read Nathan’s POV and insights.
    Tania Dakka´s last blog post ..Decisions- decisions- decisions

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  6. sue laybourn says

    What a great interview.

    If it wasn’t for Nathan’s blog I wouldn’t have found Absolute Write and without Absolute Write I wouldn’t be on my way to being published.

    I’d say more but it’s Friday and I’m knackered. :D

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  7. says

    As one of Nathan’s rejectees, his response to my query was swift, fair and, I’ll say it, kind. In a business where egos bruise quicker than an old banana, I appreciated the care he took in his email back. Incidentally, I signed with my fabulous agent soon after and have two books out next spring so a note to those out there querying, keep going!

    Best of luck, Nathan!

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  8. says

    Jan, you really brought your A game to this interview and as a result the questions are insightful and original. It was a fascinating interview. With all his media exposure you’d think Nathan would already be an open book, but I learned so much more about his journey, his philosophy and his approach to the business. Thanks to both of you for such a worthwhile read. I can’t wait for Part Two!

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  9. says

    Wonderful! Engaging – but I expected no less from the Tart and from Nathan

    I bought two of Nathan’s books – one for GMR’s granddaughter and one for my granddaughter (though my gd isn’t even 2 yet! laugh)…. the cover ar t is amazing.

    Looking forward to Part 2!

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  10. says

    I love that Nathan’s posts still continue to inspire aspiring writers and that he’s always been the epitome of respect and class on his blog, even when talking about space monkeys or corndogs or The Hills. I wondered how many people would jump ship once he announced he was leaving agenting, but the fact that his blog continues to be as popular as ever is a true testament to his personality and the knowledge he imparts.
    Kristin Laughtin´s last blog post ..How bad is too bad

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  11. says

    Thank you so much for the insightful questions, Jan. And Nathan, thank you for your honest, straightforward answers. I particularly wondered what it was like for an agent of your prominence to seek representation as a writer. I also appreciate the points made about treating each other with kindness and respect. The world can never be too full of that. And the point made about agents wanting to make writers’ dreams come true – wonderful. Thank you again, Jan and Nathan.
    Barbara Watson´s last blog post ..Settling Esther B Guest post by author Anne Ylvisaker

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  12. says

    Jan, as usual, I am amazed by how you manage to ask the questions that no one else would think to ask, and then after reading them, I wonder why, because they are so on-target.

    As a former client of Nathan’s, I’ll just say that everything he says here, he demonstrates in real life. We had a blast working together, and I’ll always remember that time as one of the real highlights of my working life, in any career (and I’ve had a few!).
    Lisa Brackmann´s last blog post ..Margarita noir…

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  13. M. K. Stelmack says

    Jans, thanks for drawing out Nathan’s insightful perspectives for us all to benefit from. When Nathan was an agent, I appreciated one of his posts on how the whole agent-writer-publisher relationship could be reinvented. Years later, it has stuck with me as an example of how things can twist and evolve, and not necessarily be wrong or damaged. Like all relationships, I guess.

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  14. says

    Lovely and insightful interview, Jan and Nathan. I really appreciate both your insightful and educational posts (and am definitely one of those who loves to check Nathan’s website for all the helpful “How To’s” and publishing industry news). Thanks for a great interview – looking forward to part 2!

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  15. says

    I really enjoyed this interview. It was interesting see why Nathan had left agenting, and what he’s learned about the publishing world of late.

    Re: the 04/05 post. That author didn’t learn from her mistakes. She stayed quiet for a while. Then she wrote an “apology” post that turned into another rant and justification for her behavior and writing. Want cheap books, this is what you’ll have to contend with. Makes me miss the power of the gatekeepers.
    Theresa Milstein´s last blog post ..Lenny-Lee Fest

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  16. says

    One of the best interviews I’ve ever read because the questions were insightfully unusual and really got to the heart of Nathan. And after reading it, I’m definitely reading his blog. He seems like such a sweet person and I never pictured agents being like him. Sorry, but that’s just my impression. He obviously takes the time and effort to “help” writers and that’s unbelievable in this age of everyone out there not having “time” to reach out.
    Patti
    Patricia Yager Delagrange´s last blog post ..DOG SNORFLES

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  17. says

    Great interview as usual, Jan. I loved the questions, and enjoyed getting to know Nathan. Big thanks to you both. Looking forward to part 2!

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  18. Natalie Aguirre says

    Great interview. I love learning more about Nathan’s philosophy on life. I am always amazed at how much time he spends reading the many comments on his blog and how he still tries to help other aspiring writers to understand the industry.

    I loved his book. And the trailer is perfect for his story. Can’t wait for the rest of the interview.

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  19. says

    Nathan is a man I admire. Civility and virtue: so needed in the world today. I’ve been fortunate in the 14 months I’ve been blogging. I haven’t met anyone who doesn’t possess these qualities.

    I believe that if we possess them, they will power our writing.

    And so, I hope to soon read Nathan’s first book, and share it with my grandchildren.
    Ann Best´s last blog post ..The Paperback Copies Arrived

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Trackbacks

  1. […] On a personal level, when people speak of Nathan Bransford, it isn’t unusual to hear words like “I just love the guy” or “someone with integrity.” To see why they might lavish that type of praise about a man they’ve never met, and to hear more about Nathan’s perspective on industry changes, please read Part I of this interview. […]

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