Nathan Bransford, Author

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Hello, My Name is Nathan, and I Am a Literary Agent (also a Q&A)

In the past twenty-four hours people have seperately accused me of being both "brave" and "lonely" for admitting in public that I am a literary agent, but like a crusty old cur ignoring the doctor's orders with a big ole bottle of whisky, I'm back today with a Q&A post that answers a few of the many good questions I've received in the past few days. Thanks so much to everyone who sent questions, and a very special thanks to everyone who sent queries in the past few days. I'm always amazed at how many talented writers there are out there and depressed at how few I can take on as clients.

On to the questions!

Q: Do you personally prefer an E-mailed query or a snail mailed query? Second, what do you think the industry feeling in general is toward E-mail vs. Snail mail? In the age of technology, is there a growing trend/feeling one way or the other?

A: Like any self-respecting former English majors, most literary agents are wary of newfangled technology like e-mail (I'm kidding... sort of), and prefer receiving their queries through the snail mail. This is mostly because when you ask to receive submissions via e-mail your inbox fills up faster than.... um.. uh... something that fills up fast (I am metaphorically challenged today).

I absolutely prefer e-mail because I like to respond to people as quickly as possible, so please continue to query me via the internets. However, for other agents, the best way to know for sure is to check out or to see if the agent specifically says they accept electronic submissions. Unless you see that they definitely do, always always take the safe bet and send it through the mail, and be sure also and include a self-addressed stamped envelope. The agents (and the postal service) will appreciate it.

Q: Some people say yes, some people say no, but do you think writers should mention similar author/books to theirs in query letters?

A: I understand that there are differences of opinion on this one, however, as I mentioned in the comment section of my Shadow Blog post on Blogger, I definitely think that a reference to comparison titles can be done well, as long as you aren't saying your book is like The Da Vinci Code or any other mega bestseller. In my opinion, a good comparison to another book shows that you know what's out there, it shows you're well-read, and it shows that you're aware of where your book fits into the marketplace.

Also, another way of slyly doing this is by researching an agent individually and doing the "Since you represent X I thought you might be interested in my work" trick, which both shows that you've researched the agent (flattery gets you, well, everywhere) and that you are aware that your book will hopefully match their interests.

Q: I, too, have a blog and I was wondering if you had any advice about getting a blog published. I am a 31 year old 2-time breast cancer survivor and I kept a diary while I was going through treatment. I'm now posting my story on the web and I get a lot of traffic to my site. I'd like to publish my story when I've finished the blog, but I don't know how I would go about contacting an agent. Any suggestions? (BTW: my website is

A: I've received several questions about electronic publishing lately, and whether it compromises a potential book sale, especially since authors like Cory Doctorow have plunged both feet into the brave new world of online publishing, while still hoping to sell hard copies as well. (Cory's book DOWN AND OUT IN THE MAGIC KINGDOM is awesome, by the way)

If you are hoping to get a compilation of your blogs published, I think you're going to have a very hard time attracting an agent or a publisher, no matter the merit of your project. A publisher has very small margins as it is, and you're basically asking them to invest in trying to sell something that is/was already available for free. With things in publishing so tight as it is, they'd be very reluctant to compete against themselves for sales.

This sounds like the perfect venue for self-publishing -- if you want your friends and readers to be able to purchase a compilations of your writing in book form (which I'm sure they'd love) then they can purchase them online, and you can market your work through your site. Be sure to do your homework on self-publishing though, because there are some serious scam artists out there.

And seriously, congratulations on beating cancer.... twice. That's incredible.

Q: An agent asked to see my complete manuscript for a historical novel. I sent it to her in late October, but haven't heard anything back. Have I given her enough time that an e-mail asking about the status would be kosher?

A: YES. You poor thing, you have the patience of a saint. I'm sure there are many opinions out there, but an exceedingly polite follow up after a month via e-mail is totally fine by my book. The most important thing with these follow ups is to conceal your incredible, undying rage that the ***** agent can't even write you back a ***** follow up letter and it's been three ****** months. Don't forget one of the cardinal rules of dealing with agents, which is that you have one project to worry over, agents are juggling dozens at once. Things take time in publishing, and it doesn't mean they hate you. So try to act polite even if you want to stab them with their own letter opener.

And on that note, this concludes the Q&A! Your brave and no-honestly-I'm-not-lonely-I-have-a-girlfriend-and-a-dog agent signing off.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Shadow Blog (plus some random query advice)

If you have found this blog, thanks for coming over! This blog is an offshoot of my Myspace blog, and while I will pretty much be posting the same things in both places they may be slightly different (sort of like those drawings where you have to spot the differences between the two pictures). If you have a Myspace page and prefer reading blogs there, please check out and the blog at

And now, just so that I didn't completely waste your time on some shameless self-promotion, I thought I'd give some random query letter advice that I have been thinking about but haven't figured out how to put in a proper blog.

- If you smoke, do not smoke around your query letters or prepare them at the library or something. There's nothing quite like opening up a query letter that reeks of stale smoke to make me want to send it right back without reading it.

- If you have that weird spam filtering thing where it automatically sends an email back saying "to control spam I am approving senders," etc. etc., turn it off when you are sending queries. My inbox is full enough as it is.

- I'm still getting tons of return-receipt e-mails. I know you want to know if the e-mail was spelled correctly and everything, but it's so intrusive.

- Someone had a great question today -- What should you put in the bio section of a query letter if you haven't graduated from college and don't have any writing accomplishments? Never fear. A lack of credentials is no impediment to finding an agent if you have written a good book. Credentials help, no doubt, but I really could care less about someone's background if they're written a great book. So in the bio section just say, "This is my first novel." Do not send an agent a lengthy apology about how this is a first book and how you're probably unqualified but you really like to write blah blah blah. Just act confident. "This is my first novel."

- Please send me your questions!! I would love to tailor the blog to address the questions people are having or the issues you'd like to discuss, but I can't do that if I don't receive questions. So just send me a message or leave a comment about a topic you're curious about and I'll try and address it in a future post. Don't be shy.

Monday, January 29, 2007

San Francisco Writer's Conference

For those of you who have tired of receiving advice via computer and would like to talk to a real live literary agent in person (an overrated experience, trust me), or if you want to mingle with some fellow writers, I would encourage you to attend the San Francisco Writer's Conference on February 16-18. I will be joining a few of the panel discussions, and on Sunday morning I will be "speed dating" prospective authors who want to try out their pitches on some tired, cynical ears (just kidding -- I'll be nice as long as I've had my coffee). Check out for more info.

SOUND OFF: Is self-publishing good or bad?

I'm introducing a new feature on the blog, and I'd like you to sound off and talk back regarding a publishing industry issue. I want to know what you think!

Today's topic? Self-publishing.

I know there are some self-published authors out there, and I'm sure there are people who are curious about it. So, I want to know: is self-publishing good or bad for the future of books? In order to kick off discussion, here's how I see it in terms of the good and the bad.

Publishing is a very difficult industry to break into, and self-publishing allows people without connections and who might have fallen through the cracks the opportunity to find an audience. It allows for off-beat topics that perhaps the publishing industry overlooked, and it allows a writer's friends and families the opportunity to read their books in book form. Ultimately, self-publishing is democratic, because it allows everyone the opportunity to publish a book (for a fee, of course).

Some might argue that the vast majority of self-published writers are not talented enough to have their books published by a regular publishing company, and since self-published books often appear indistinguishable from a book from a mainstream publishing company it dilutes the overall quality of books. Many people end up buying bad self-published books, taking away from the sales of more talented writers. The self-publishing industry is rife with scams and ripoffs, and unsuspecting authors are often taken advantage of, preyed upon because of their dream of writing.

So tell me:

What do you think?

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Are You the Right Person to Write That Book?

Happy New Year everyone!

I received a whole bunch of query letters over the holiday, somewhere between two and three hundred (thanks to everyone who sent one). It's actually very interesting to read a lot of query letters at once because I feel like I can get a sense of the pulse of readers out there by analyzing query letter trends.

For instance, a few years back I was receiving a ton of query letters about vampires. I couldn't figure out why I was getting all these vampire letters -- I don't represent any vampire literature, I am not personally a vampire (some might disagree), and at that time there was no movie or book out there that would really explain the sudden surge in vampire queries. And yet just a year later, Elizabeth Kostova's THE HISTORIAN, a book in part about, yes, vampires, went on to mega-bestsellerdom. So there was something in the air that people out there sensed, and my query-letter-based prediction that a vampire book would become a huge bestseller panned out (I did not, sadly, win any money or a cool prize for this prediction.)

Subsequent query-letter waves have been a bit more mundane. There was the wave of Da Vinci Code ripoffs... I mean imitators (which, uh, told me that people liked the Da Vinci Code), the wave of people who wanted to either explain or debunk religion (which predicted the marked success of books like Karen Armstrong's THE GREAT TRANSFORMATION and Richard Dawkins' THE GOD DELUSION), and, of course, the first person accounts of extra-terrestrial encounters (which tell me that there are a lot of crazy people out there).

So what's the current hot query theme? Terrorism, terrorism and more terrorism. I'm not sure why there's a sudden uptick in terrorism queries, but nonfiction proposals on terrorism are really common.

But here's the problem: no one who is writing me is an expert on terrorism.

Let's say you are thinking about writing a book of nonfiction. The first thing you need to do is assume that every single person in the entire world wants to write a book (which isn't really an assumption, it's basically true). The second thing you need to do is ask yourself if you are the most qualified person in the entire world to write that book.

This applies to virtually all nonfiction. If you want to write a cookbook, are you a nationally recognized chef or on the Food Network? If you want to write about terrorism, are you one of the world's foremost experts on terrorism? If you want to write about an actual event that happened, are you a decorated journalist? Heck, if you want to write a book about extraterrestrial encounters, are you an internationally recognized expert on extraterrestrial encounters?

If the answer to that question is no, then sorry, chances are you're not going to get your book published. If you can imagine someone out there who is more qualified than you to write a book, then that person probably already has their proposal in front of publishers as we speak.

In the publishing industry, this is called "platform" -- publishers want to know that you are the best person in the entire world to be writing that book. They want to know that you have the authority to speak on the topic, that you are the type of expert that people will want to interview on TV, that you are the most qualified person out there. Publishers are obsessed with platform almost to a fault -- people who have some platform and who are great writers are often passed over because they don't have enough platform to pass muster.

Publishers are even starting to look more and more at platform in fiction. A lot of debut novelists already have a web-based following or are fixtures in their local writing scenes. Or they are a celebrity or have a good backstory. You can see publishers' obsession with platform reflected in the JT Leroy scandal. Great writing is not always enough, and, recognizing this, a struggling writer created an entire fictional author with a tragic (completely made up) life history just to get ahead. It actually worked until, you know, the supoosedly HIV+ transgender former teenage prostitute author was discovered to be a 42 year old woman.

Now, I'm not saying you should invent a fictional persona, but it just goes to show how hungry publishers and the reading public are for a good platform to go along with a good novel.

So think hard about your platform when you're picking a book topic. Even if you saw an honest-to-god alien messing with your dog last night, remember that the world's foremost expert on alien/dog interactions just had drinks with his agent and polished off his book proposal.

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