Nathan Bransford, Author

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Editors Becoming Agents

Wanna know one reason it's tricky being a young agent on the block?

Although I don't have precise statistics, the industry seems to be in contraction mode from an editorial standpoint as companies merge (i.e. Avalon into Perseus, Harcourt and Houghton), others downsize (i.e Thomas Nelson), and as editors are simply let go. This is all happening amid overall growth within the industry, which is just another sign that the industry is moving in the direction of a blockbuster model built around fewer, bigger books.

Meanwhile self-publishing is getting bigger and bigger and growing at a brisk pace as the mainstream publishing game is open to fewer authors, creating a long tail situation where a bazillion books are selling two copies. But hey, a bazillion times two equals two bazillion!

So what happens to those editors? Well, many of them are becoming agents. Whether a result of downsizing or simply because they feel it's more lucrative, there have been a number of very-experienced high profile editors who have left the editorial side recently to become agents. But meanwhile you almost never see any agents leave to become editors (I think it's because we have better coffee).

Now we have a situation in the industry where there are more and more agents competing for fewer and fewer big book projects. I feel very fortunate to be at Curtis Brown, where we have very experienced film and foreign rights departments that help me make the case that we can offer an author a high level of service and attention to subrights, and of course I'm trying to get the word out on the blog so that hopefully people will want to work with me. Query me, for the love of Tyra!

But it's an interesting time to be a young agent building a list. Think about how many of the blockbuster slots are filled by experienced authors who have been at it for years (and who had agents twenty years before I got to the business), and then think about how rare it is for a new author to rise up to become one of those names. Those new authors are the type of people a young agent needs to find first and help break out, but it's tricky when there's so much competition, including competition for those new projects from those agents (and former editors) who have been at this twenty-five years.

(subliminal message for those agents: retiiiiiiiiire..... retiiiiiiiirrree..... you knowwwww you want toooooo... play golfff.... take up knittinnggg... send your clients to meeeeeeeeee)

But hey, there's only one thing a young agent can do. Jay-Z (and Barack Obama) knows what that is:


Lane said...


That video alone makes this blog worth reading

Ello said...

Awesome video Nathan! Thanks for sharing. And I think you are doing a great job marketing yourself - in fact I think you should be a good role model for new agents trying to break in. As for the boomers who still have yet to retire, this is occuring all over in every industry and profession. It is just too expensive to retire these days. Times are tough all over but we shall all survive.

And your analogy to the agents who won't retire is probably how all of us waiting in the wings writers are thinking about the blockbuster writers. Retire already!

ORION said...

ha ha ha ha a 50+ year old I won't go there but...
It's tough on both sides -- as a writer trying to get published, a debut author establishing a readership and as an new agent building a list--
What's great about your post Nathan is that it allows your writing blog readers to get a bigger picture- to realize that rejection and looking for that BIG book is ubiquitous in publishing.
29 days and counting for LONDON...

Tanja said...

LOL! Yes for the love of Tyra I will query you today! BTW, still no response from my query sent 4-11For the love of Justin Bobby cut short my pain, reject me quickly if you must...

Anonymous said...

Here is a bright side to being an unpublished writer ... no one has yet decided that you're not The Next Big Thing. You only get one first book ...


Wendy Pinkston Cebula said...

If you are thinking of the same high profile ex-editors-now-agents that I am, they can't possibly have THAT many more years left in the business.

Hang in there. Youth is on your side.

Lisa Molson said...

Too funny. Sorry but I can't help but ask, how did you break into the agent business anyhow? Did you ever contemplate becoming an editor or a writer?

Any hey, you shouldn't be worried. You could be worse off:-) Like me old(er) and unpublished LOL.

Nathan Bransford said...


I started as an assistant at Curtis Brown and worked my way up. After a few years I started taking on a few clients, now I'm building my list in earnest. I definitely respect editors, but I much prefer to be on the side of the authors than the publishers.

Heather said...

As a young(-ish) author working on my first book, I can tell you for sure that when I'm ready to start querying agents, I'm definitely going to look for the ones who have as strong a web presence as you do. There was an older agent who's been in the business for decades who recently came to speak at my writers' group, and the guy didn't even have a website. Experience and connections are great, but frankly, that just doesn't bode well for his being able to work with whatever new book-related technologies might pop up in the future.

On top of that, younger, newer agents just seem more accessible. You're building your list, I'm trying to get on someone's list. Makes sense to me.

Other Lisa said...

I recently spent an entire Saturday watching an "America's Next Top Model" marathon. First time I'd seen it. Oddly compelling, I must say. Especially when Tyra had a meltdown.

I'm curious about the editors-to-agents phenomena from another angle. It seems to me that nowadays agents fulfill some of what an editor's role used to be, that is, working with writers to get the MS into shape. Are editors doing less of this kind of work these days, or does it just seem that way?

Nathan Bransford said...

other lisa-

Editors are still editing, but because there is so much competition and fewer places to land big projects agents are necessarily investing more time up front to provide editorial guidance before a project goes to editors. They have to be as good as possible.

Once a project is placed agents will typically take a back seat and only involve themselves if there is a strong difference of opinion between the author and the editor, but yes -- editorial guidance from agents definitely seems to be a trend, and one I embrace.

ChrisEldin said...

Great post! (that's for Josephine)

I wonder how the editors-turned-agents will fare? The network they have would of course be enticing, but I wonder if they know how to go outside of that network (comfort zone). Lots of interesting food for thought...

Taylor K. said...

While I am inexperienced at this, I'd also say that the larger role of the agent upfront is probably a good thing. Mainly because a writer is less likely to get angry with an agent then an editor about wanted changes. Writers don't generally think agents are "out to get them" unless that's followed by "money". A lot of writers (I'm not one of them) think, however, that the editor is.

Anonymous said...


The whole idea of publishing blockbusters only ignores the fact that most of today's blockbusters started out as cannon fodder getting tiny advances but writing a book every six months while they built up a readership. Eventually they got the breakout deal, after they had the genre readership.

Those kinds of writers have MUCH better sales records long term than the people who got the huge advance for the much hyped book.

Of the writers who used to post on GEnie's writers' boards in 1991 who were getting small advances when they started writing, several are now mega-sellers whose every book shows up in Wal-Mart.

Merline Lovelace, Jo Beverley, Mary Balogh and Jennifer Crusie leap to mind.

If you look at other author who got huge advances in 1991 for a first novel, very few are still writing or earning.

So by eliminating those books the publishers are effectively eliminating the blockbusters they might have had in 15 years.

And by ignoring those genre writers Agents are effectively cutting themselves off from the potential earnings from future blockbusters.

Dr. Dume said...

Does this mean there will be many more agents to choose from (yay! Might find one interested in my stuff!)

But then, there'll be fewer publishers for those agents to sell to (boo!).

So rather than having loads of authors chasing agents, there'll be loads of agents chasing publishers.

Sounds like it'll be the same as now, but with the problem just moved along a notch. Ah well.

Julia Weston said...

More competition, fewer projects. Not what an aspiring writer wants to hear. But, by Tyra, I'll query anyway!! Thanks for running such a forthright blog.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

More competition, fewer projects.

Not what a reader wants to hear! Sheesh, if publishing goes the way of Hollywood I might have to start...well, I don't know what I'll do without good books.

That's not to say that all big selling books are bad, but I often find my tastes running far afield from what "the masses" like.

JohnO said...

I tend to agree with what Anonymous at 11:41 AM said. The whole model of having the first novel be a blockbuster is pretty strange. In fact, isn't it contrary to what the thinking in the industry was even a few years ago, when the SECOND novel was carefully watched to see if a writer was developing?

The blockbuster model leaves no room for a writer to improve. It's not unlike expecting a rookie batter to hit nothing but home runs.

And if the fewer/bigger projects model takes hold, who's going to come up with the "indie" back channel for the good small books/films? (I just saw "Once," which is a perfect movie example.)

Elyssa Papa said...

Nathan, I really wish you represented romances. Sigh.

An agent who loves reality shows, books, and seems to be very supportive of his represented authors... Well, it's just anything an unagented author could hope for.

Great blog, and I'll be sending retiring vibes out for you. *g*

Kristin Laughtin said...

But just think, in twenty years, you'll be the guy that all the new kids want to retire!

OK, maybe not that comforting. In your shoes, I would want it all now, not twenty years from now. It's the same for writers, though. I'm resisting the urge to submit my MS as soon as it's finished, but you'll definitely be the first I query. I agree with Heather that having such a web presence is comforting to younger writers, since it shows you can keep up with the times.

Dennis Cass is . . . said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I know this is a sweeping generalization, but sometimes it seems like editors want to do anything BUT edit. Not only are they turning to agenting, but a number of them are also writing.

According to PublishersMarketplace, Harper editor Rakesh Satyal, former Random House exec editor Dan Menaker, Doubleday editor Sarah Rainone, former Random House publisher Harold Evans, and Farrar, Straus editor Paul Elie, Tarcher/Penguin Editor-in-Chief Mitch Horowitz, and others signed book deals in the last year to two years. And woe betide you if you try and sift through all the dozens and dozens of magazine, newspaper, and literary journal editors inking deals.

Granted, those lit journal eds need to do something to supplement their small (often non-existent) editing salaries so more power to them.

Nathan Bransford said...


Actually, some of those editors you mentioned are very good friends of mine, and not only are they great writers, they are seriously awesome editors. They really are able to juggle both editing and writing, and they do both extremely well. Heck, Jonathan Karp is one of the best editors in all of publishing and he wrote a musical!

That said, I do think there is more pressure on editors to do "more with less," as they kept saying in Season 5 of the Wire.

sl said...

And here all I'd like to do is get my foot in the door as an administrative assistant... neat to see that there really are opportunities in this business to move upward.

That video made me laugh so hard.

Josephine Damian said...

Nathan, when I consider querying one of those lions of agenting, I wonder: How hungry can they be?

How much much fire and passion can they work up (that sounds like a bad romance novel but you get what I mean) for a new author.

If they've made a ton of dough, if they've enjoyed the glory, if they spend more time dreaming about beaches and golf courses than fantasizing about finding the next big thing, then are they the type to fight tooth and nail to help make a career happen for a newbie?

Are they right for an unknown writer like me? I wonder.

Lane and Ello: I'll just have to settle for hearing about that YouTube video since I'm stuck here in dial-up hell and can't watch any of those things!

Adaora A. said...

Nathan who are you kidding? You know we all want to query you! I love Tyra so I'd have to query you anyways!

That Obama video is full of win. Gosh I adore him. He's so bright, intelligent, insightful and (contrary to some people's belief), experienced.

I have been seeing that on PW and through the blue boards (Verla Kay.)It's amazing how easily they can slip from one end of the spectrum to ther other.

Oh! Speaking of agents, I have to ask. Have you listened to the podcast on itunes called CONFESSIONS OF A FORMER LITERARY AGENT? Would love for you to listen to it and say your thoughts. My eyes bugged out of my head for some of what she was saying, and some bits I already knew (thanks to visiting here). Do you think this former lit agent (and now aspiring writer), has a leg in for being a former agent as well?

Josephine Damian said...

Adaora: Did you have to go on about that video?

Jeesh. lol

Nathan, what scares me is the failed writer turned agent. The one who wrote books similar to what they respresent, and who want to write vicariously through their clients, meaning have the client totally re-do the book the way they would have written it, which might not necessarily mean it's commercial or even readable.

Adaora A. said...

@jose- I had to. It was there and it begged for attention.

I bet the agents turned writers have a major advantage. Sitting in with editors, they know what makes a book sell, they probably know keenly what's what. Writers have their books and they want them published. This is why I want an agent. I was listening to this podcast of CONFESSIONS OF A LITERARY AGENT and all I could think was wow. I was torn between being excited to have this 33 minute blurb on my ipod, and thinking, holly hell, people with this kind of information about publishing are competing right alongside me. Have I got a chance? If I make sure my book is edited to the hilt, make sure my query is polished (free of rhetorical and excessive formalities), and I present myself well do I have chance against people like her? I can't help but give it a shot anyways. Because it's what I want.

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...

Adaora - "rhetorical and excessive formalities" - there's the title of a bestseller right there! I'm thinking a detective series, something with a dim view of humanity. Model the detective on Marianne Moore, that oh-so-difficult and ever-so-stylish "poetess" of a prior generation (still I love some of her poems). Have there been any poet-detective combos written? Not sure...

In a great mood today - just found out I won $100 in a poetry contest, judged by a poet who just got awarded $50,000 themselves! "Six degrees of separation," indeed!

**End of tangent**

Adaora A. said...


I give you the title with open arms. Just make sure you mention me in your acknowledgements!

Congrats hun, it must feel amazing! SDOS indeed!

Betty Atkins Dominguez said...

Oooh, I'd love to query you, Nathan, however, I just couldn't stand being rejected by you.

AstonWest said...

Now we have a situation in the industry where there are more and more agents competing for fewer and fewer big book projects.

Substitute "authors" for "agents" and "publishing contracts" for "big book projects", and it's everything writers experience on a regular basis...and have for some time.

I'd query, if I was finished with yet another rewrite.

Erin Richards said...

What a catch-22...a gazillion books, few blockbusters and a changing agent dynamics. It's a tough world in publishing all around. But I keep plugging away writing because it's my passion.

For the love of Tyra, you'll get my query! Thanks for the enlightening post and the great Blog, Nathan. I've definitely put you at the top of my query list when I start shopping my urban fantasy in a few weeks. And I wouldn't mind having an agent up the Peninsula from me!

mlh said...

And across the land, I hear a thousand needle points clicking together as editors try their hands at crochet. Knit one. Purl two.

I'm surprised you didn't try the subliminal message on us: Query meeee firsttt!!

Just_Me said...

Do not push the blockbuster books! Good grief! I can't think of anything more depressing than a string of agent blogs all ranting about the fact publishing houses only want to publish "blockbusters". Everyone's looking for the next book that will sell like Harry Potter.

I don't know if I'm angrier because I know I write niche books and not the mainstream epics that become blockbusters and movies or because I know I HATE reading those mainstream books and I'll be seriously PO'd if the publishing houses stop printing anything worth reading.

(breathes) I'm okay now.

Keep up the good work, Nathan. I'm depending on you to find good books for me to read. Something new and exciting. A book where I can't guess the ending by page 3. Is that really to much to ask?

Anonymous said...

Great discussion here...

This week I queried 3 agents for a nonfiction project. #1 was a sort of young, but well-established Big Shot NY agent (my long shot), #2 was a youngish agent with a great agency, and #3 was the agent of a writer friend of mine. So far the responses are -- #1 requested a proposal in 45 minutes; #2 gave me a polite rejection in a few hours; #3 hasn't responded (and #3 is the one I thought would respond first). Just goes to show us all that, as Nathan often says, "opinions vary greatly in this business."

Thanks for the great posts Nathan.


Monica said...

Hi Nathan! I'm an intern at a literary agency in Toronto and we're experiencing the same thing over here. Two of our agents used to be editors for major houses and let me tell you, they are AWESOME agents, the best we've got (and I should know since I'm the one stuck filing their royalty statements:( ).

It seems like nowadays young aspiring agents are being encouraged to work in editorial departments first, before even attempting to find work at an agency.

The competition is fierce... I curse you savvy editors!

Adaora A. said...

@just_me - I see where you're coming from hun, but I'm not entirely certain that I agree with you. It's as Nathan says on the blog; you never know what's going to 'break out' and become a phenomenon. I'm not sure if you're labelling her book 'mainstream' (perhaps you are or perhaps not), but that's like saying every book that comes out is mainstream. Before she signed with the Christopher Little Literary Agency in London she was rejected many times. No one believed a 'children's' book was going to selll with the way the market was going at the time. She was broke as a joke and she was getting rejected a lot. He took CLA accepted her and Bloomsbury gave her a $5,000 advance. All she did with the money was buy a place for her and her infant daughter. She couldn't have imagined her story to be what it is today. Massive HP fan as you can see. I couldn't help but want to get that out.

Adaora A. said...

To Add:

I really am torn with what to think about that.

1. How will the know? It's all entirely chance and a gut feeling

2. What if they are rejecting solids which could have been the 'next big thing,' whatever that is.

JES said...

Good morning Nathan, and thank you for continuing to post this thought-provoking stuff.

I've read references to "boutique" agencies, which I assume are one- and two-person shops with a handful of clients. It wouldn't surprise me if the same thing that happened to the Hollywood studio system in the 1940s, '50s, or so is about to happen with books, where the giants with a lock on the distribution channels (i.e., studios then, big publishers now) no longer have long-term control over the artists. Instead, the artists end up working with reps/agents until a project is fully funded by some "studio," at which point the contract wheels begin to turn -- for this project.

Just curious: assuming everything doesn't go completely upside-down in the meantime, how do you see your career in (say) 5 years?

Kathryn Harris said...

I think Heather hit the nail on the head. Experience and connections are great, but agents with the greatest presence on the Web are the ones that are going to be the most successful in the long run.
Technological advances and how society utilize those advances are changing the publishing industry. Writers want to hook up with an agent that won't be afraid of where those advances take us.

(Ello, I can't concentrate with your dancing pig staring at me. :-)

Lynne said...

Wow. Thanks for the video. Love the people at YouTube. So, I guess it's your turn to dance!

Jan said...

Loved the video Nathan!!

Maybe he should consider asking Ellen to be his running mate ... they looked so cute dancing together :)

You say "editorial guidance from agents definitely seems to be a trend, and one I embrace"

So do you have any editors to suggest that can help polish our books up so they are ready to be sent to you...?

Thanks for the great posts ... I can't wait to read them.

Julie Weathers said...

I've had two agents. Don't ask me how that happened because it still amazes me.

The agent for the children's book was older, experienced and very successful. I loved her dearly even though she couldn't sell my book. Very sweet, very hard working and very supportive. Dream agent.

The agents for the thriller were young and hungry. The story was solid, but the writing in that first version really did leave a lot to be desired. *gags slightly just thinking about it*

I really think the only reason they took it was because they really lusted after the historical I was researching.

So, I've been on both ends of the spectrum. Older and experienced or young and hungry?

I guess it's kind of like choosing a lover, the older ones know some interesting tricks, but the younger ones have a lot of energy.

When I get ready to query, I'll do it the same way I did last time. Research who is the absolute best fit for what I write and then research the personality.

I'll make a few changes this time. Nathan doesn't particularly adore my genre, but he has said so many times, "try me!" I will because I love that enthusiasm and I can't help but believe that shows when he is repping a book. I want someone who is excited about what I write.

Agent blogs do make a difference and I'm quite sure Nathan gets inundated with queries because of his. Frankly, I would have guessed he was so swamped because of the blog he would be yelling, "Enough, already."

As for the editors turned agents? Heck yes.

Kristan said...

Not gonna lie, I laughed out loud at your "subliminal message."

- A new reader who is enjoying playing catch-up

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