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INTERVIEW: Nathan Bransford – Part I

[1]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 [2], 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 [3] with 95,000 followers, owns and moderates a popular writing forum [4], 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 In other words, if you’re looking for someone to provide insight on how to get from unpublished author to author-in-the-limelight, it doesn’t get much better than this.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 [5] provides an essential publishing insider view. I always enjoy Mike Shatzkin’s [6] perspective, and find myself nodding along. I also like reading Kassia Krozser’s Booksquare blog [7], and J.A. Konrath [8] 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 5 [9]th [9], 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.

[10]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 [11], 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 [2], Twitter [3] profile, and Facebook author page [12].

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 [13]:

About Jan O'Hara [14]

A former family physician and academic, Jan O'Hara [15] left the world of medicine behind to follow her dreams of becoming a writer. She writes love stories that zoom from wackadoodle to heartfelt in six seconds flat: (Opposite of Frozen [16]; Cold and Hottie [17]; Desperate Times, Desperate Pleasures [18]). She also contributed to Author in Progress, a Writer's Digest Book edited by Therese Walsh.