The 5-Question [Literary] Agent Interview: Nathan Bransford

by Meredith Resnick

November 7, 2010 update: One minor (major) detail: Nathan Bransford transitions out of agenting.
Read his announcement by clicking here.
[That said, his words on the agent’s POV continue to ring true.]

The literary agent speaks openly about authenticity in platform building, when and why he takes on a client and what’s at stake from his side of the desk.

NATHAN BRANSFORD is a literary agent with Curtis Brown Ltd., an agency that has been representing authors since 1914. Born and raised in Colusa, California, he graduated from Stanford University with a degree in English. Nathan is also the author of JACOB WONDERBAR AND THE COSMIC SPACE KAPOW, which will be published by Dial Books for Young Readers in 2011.

Meredith: Translate your gut feeling about a “perfect” client into simple, ordinary language. How do you know when a creative partnership is going to fly?

NATHAN: I usually know when I’m going to take on a project Nathan_Bransford_photo2when I have absolutely no doubt or questions in my mind about a book’s potential. A lot of times I think agents and editors try to talk themselves into a project – we think, “Oh, well, this book isn’t perfect, but it has a lot going for it… maybe someone else will see what’s great about it….” But if you have to talk yourself into a project it’s probably not going to work. When a project comes along that you can sell (or at least come very close to selling – this is a tough market even for the best projects) you just know.

Meredith: Platform used to really confuse (and intimidate) me. I’ve begun to view platform as a series of interconnected relationships that mutually serve the parties involved—so as a writer (me) it’s about building relationships I care about. Tell us about an agent’s view of platform—more specifically, your view.

NATHAN: My view is your view. I think that’s a great definition, and I think it gets at the extent to which platform isn’t about superficial relationships or basic name recognition but rather a real connection built between an author and their audience. Basically platform is the number of eyeballs you can summon at any given time, and with so many distractions competing for our attention, only a strong connection/affinity will motivate someone to go out of their way to buy a book.

Meredith: It seems appropriate to ask: has platform become an overused/abused term? What’s your take? Can you reframe it?

NATHAN: Sadly no, particularly when the traditional selling tools at publishers’ disposal (such as front bookstore placement, reviews, marketing, etc.) are waning in effectiveness, there’s even more of a premium for the authors who are able to deliver an audience. We’re in an era where platform is hugely important. This used to be mainly something that people looked for in nonfiction, but you’re seeing editors want this from novelists more and more as well.

Meredith: Is rejection an issue for agents—personally? How do you view rejection from publishers? What greater purpose does it serve in the creative process—for the writer and for the agent?

NATHAN: Definitely – I’ve gone through the submission process as both an agent and an author, and quite honestly I find it equally difficult in both cases. As an author, the work being rejected is your work and that’s obviously hard for any writer. But as an agent, there’s a huge amount at stake as well – the author is depending on you (by far the most important element), agents really need to keep selling even in a tough market, and it takes an incredible amount of time to ready a project for submission (and agents don’t earn commission if the book doesn’t sell), so there’s a lot riding on it.

At the same time, I definitely think rejection can serve the creative process and I believe rejection can often be for the best. JACOB WONDERBAR was not the first novel I wrote, but I’m now thankful my first novel didn’t work out. It wasn’t good enough, and in retrospect I now see that I needed to have that experience and learned a great deal from it. And frankly, I’m glad it didn’t ultimately see publication, though of course at the time it was difficult to put it in the drawer.

Meredith: When you take on a client, does your mind wonder first what you would like, or what editors would? Do you think about pleasing the editorial crowd, the marketing crew, the author—or yourself? Along those lines, what’s more crucial, the right author or the right manuscript?

NATHAN: By the time I’ve finished reading a project I’m going to take on I know I love it and already have a mental list of all the editors who I think would like it as well. Ultimately I think it’s all about the right manuscript. An author with a great platform is gravy and increasingly important to publishers and I want to know that everyone I’m working with is professional and will do what they can for the book, but at the end of the day, it’s still the book that counts.

Nathan Bransford is fond of cities, travel, television, books, wine, and corn dogs. He blogs here and can also be found at Twitter by clicking right here.

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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Alexandra

Wow! What a great interview! Thank you, Meredith. Thank you, Nathan. Your explanation of how you know when you want someone on was very useful. I also retained what you said about your first novel “not being good enough.” That in itself gives food for thought for the rest of the afternoon!

What I would like to challenge is the importance of platform. I think that’s part of what’s wrong with the publishing industry, its willingness to publish people who are not writers but have eye-catching platform. They are lowering the bar for quality writing. Now a novelist needs platform, too? It’s absurd to require a creative, thoughtful, often shy, writing type to be able to transform him or herself into the outgoing, go-go person for whom platform is a cinch. We are talking two different types of individual. I was floored when agents wrote they loved my query (narrative non-fiction) but, since I had not published a book before, without platform, they would not take me on. I used to have platform, earlier in my life, when I was a talk show host in France, and was glad to lose the celebrity when I moved back home. Now I have to start from scratch and build a platform prior to publishing a book? I think this new requirement excludes a lot of talented writers whose work merits publication and should be resisted by literary agents.

Alexandra

Sorry! That should read “to take someone on” above.

Jennifer Margulis

I really agree that rejection can be a good thing — either because something that isn’t ready does not get published when it shouldn’t or because it can spur you to try harder, improve, and re-submit. That said, I think rejection is also one of the hardest things in the business of being a writer. Thanks to Nathan for talking so candidly about the ins and outs of literary agenting!

Amy Wallen

The Q&A on platform opened my eyes to the heart of the matter. It’s always seemed to me that it was sort the catch 22 of–you got have experience to get a job and you have to have a job to get experience. “…[W]hat will motivate someone to go out of their way to buy a book” is a scary statement though. It does feel like that’s where we’ve gone–it’s not a world where we buy books so readily. Readers have such a large selection now, and that’s both good and bad–good for the reader that they have such great access to everything, and bad for the author in that our niche market isn’t so niche any more. But everything evolves, and it’s great fun watching and wondering where we’ll be next in the publishing world.

ruth pennebaker

I’d already heard great praise for Nathan from YA author Cynthia Leitich-Smith. He comes across as thoughtful and insightful in this interview — everything you could want in an agent. Meredith, this series of interviews you do is just excellent.

Susan Cameron

Thanks, Nathan and Meredith, for this informative interview. I’d also like to thank Nathan for the link on his blog to this site:
http://www.straightgoods.ca/2009/ViewBrief.cfm?Ref=187&Cookies=yes
What an eye-opener!

Kim Hooper

It’s always good to hear an agent’s perspective, as agenting still has some mysterious qualities for me. Thanks for the interview!

Alisa Bowman

A great interview, as always. I’ve always wanted to know a bit more about Nathan. Now I do. It was nice getting the perspective about what he looks for in a proposal and why.

Gutsy Writer

Meredith, you had some outstanding questions for Nathan. My interest lies in “platform” and as a writer who loves marketing and networking, I am still confused about the difference between “platform” and “target audience.” After attending La Jolla Writers Conference and listening to publicists talk at different events, I hear over and over, “Who is your target audience?” and “Why would anyone want to buy your book?” Well I love to blog, and have done so for about 18 months. I like to think that I’m developing a worldwide “audience,” mainly due to my memoir topic and my own European background, but I thought “platform” had to do with for example: If you’re a teacher, your platform consists of other teachers, school districts, national teachers organizations, etc. What if your book is Sci-fi? How would you market that to teachers, just because you’re a teacher, doesn’t mean other teachers are interested in Sci-fi and belong to your target audience. Do you see what I’m getting at? If someone could clarify “platform” versus “target audience” I’d love to hear. Thanks.

Meredith

It seems to me that platform and target audience might be, in some ways, different sides of the same coin.

Katherine

Very interesting interview! It’s fascinating to hear the other side of the fence. Also, I totally understand that dilemna of having to talk yourself into a project — that usually is something you should turn down!

Kris Bordessa

So interesting to read about the process and Nathan’s take on it. Love the description of platform being the number of eyeballs a person can attract. That’s really what it amounts to, isn’t it?

I think as authors, it’s nice to have the chance – via internet – to see that agents are just as human as the rest of us, corn dogs and all.

Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell

As always, an excellent interview. Thank you both.

Tom McCranie

Meredith, Thank you and Nathan Bransford for an informative interview. To hear the other side from someone who has been on both sides stirred a feeling of empathy in me often missing from reading and listening to those who have only seen one side. Nathan indicated to me that he used power of the emotions arising from rejection to write better. The two of you explained the difference between the casual relations we have and a true platform, as well as the importance a platform. Nathan provided insights rather than opinions.

Jen Singer

“At the end of the day, it’s still the book that counts.”

I’d like to think that most agents and editors feel this way, but when the Balloon Boy parents end up with a book deal, I might wonder. For now, though, this interview gave me hope that good writing still matters. Thanks to Nathan for his candor and, as always, thanks, Meredith.

Lori Erickson

This was one of the clearest explanations of the value of a platform that I’ve read. I’m finally starting to make sense of what it means–thank you!

Sheryl

This gave me a whole lot of insight into an agent’s mind. Thanks for some great info!

Nancy Monson

Good interview, Meredith. I’m always interested in talk about platforms and the value of rejection (since we’ve all experienced it).

Jennifer Haupt

Thanks for another very insightful interview, Meredith. Always nice to hear what agents have to say.

Stephanie - Wasabimon

Great interview. I’m always wondering what goes on in the mind of agents, editors and publishers. Interesting thoughts on platform, especially in a time when the concept is so DIY. First you had to get on Oprah, then you had to get online, now you have to be “viral” (yes, I realize this is overly simplistic). I’d love to hear both of your thoughts on the concept of Internet platform as a whole.

Meredith

It was incredibly encouraging to learn that Nathan viewed platform in much the same way I’d shaped it in my head–a series of interconnected relationships that mutually serve the parties involved. Relating this way is the most natural for me. That it’s all about relationships, relating, connecting.

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