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Author Interview: Nathan Bransford Part II

As you know if you read/watched Part I of our interview, author Nathan Bransford came to the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto for lunch last week, and I videotaped our interview. This half is really more of a conversation between Nathan and some of the writers at the Grotto, including Po Bronson, Constance Hale, and Caroline Paul. It’s broken up into two short videos, so scroll down to see both.

Nathan Bransford is the author of Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow, a middle grade novel about three kids who blast off into space, break the universe, and have to find their way back home, which will be published by Dial Books for Young Readers in May 2011. He was formerly a literary agent with Curtis Brown Ltd. from 2002 to 2010, but is now a publishing civilian working in the tech industry. He lives in San Francisco.

Laura Goode: I also think, Caroline, that there’s a middle grade that your question left unaddressed, between the traditional publishing model and self-publishing, and that’s small publishers. I’m writing a YA novel that’s coming out in July, and I’m publishing with Candlewick Press, which is a tiny tiny boutique literary press in Boston that does children’s YA stuff, so they’re not in New York. They gave me a really small advance–I don’t think they even give big advances, but my editor is a dear dear friend, and I’ve never at any point in the editorial process felt that she was pushing me in a direction I didn’t want to go. They altered the cover to please me. I think that too often the game becomes about the advance when in fact the advance is only the beginning point in the long game in writing and making money on books. So I think if you are willing to accept a small advance and eat shit for a while, you can follow the traditional publishing model and retain some control.

NB: I think that’s a great point. One of my former clients, Lisa Brockman, who wrote Rock, Paper, Tiger published by Soho, they sent her on tour, they did so much for her book, much more than what some of the major publishers are doing. It’s the personalized attention. When you go into a bookstore, they know Soho, they know the brand, they know what Soho means. So there’s definitely a place for small publishers who know what they are, who know their niche, and who do it really well. I think that publishers like that are definitely going to still be around because they can really offer an author something. They offer a brand, they offer individualized attention, and they offer things that you can’t do on your own. Major publishers, when they’re really working, do that, but too often things fall through the cracks, and you’re just getting funneled through the system without any individualized attention. So yes, that’s definitely worth remembering.

Constance Hale: Say you didn’t have your job at CNET, say you were just writing your books. How much time would you spend a day on social media?

Meghan Ward: We want to know how much time you do spend, too.

NB: I spend about half an hour to an hour per post, and I write five a week. And then it takes half an hour to an hour to read and respond to comments and forum posts. I don’t spend that much time on Twitter and Facebook.

Constance Hale: Okay, 85,000 followers, but you don’t spend very much time on Twitter.

Meghan Ward: But I think he got them from his blog—because his blog was so popular by the time …

Constance Hale: But you do post on Twitter. You have to feed something …

NB: But social media is about having a base somewhere. You use one thing as your base. My blog is my base. That’s where I devote the majority of my energy, and it’s where the majority of people are following me. On Twitter, I just do a couple of tweets a day, but that doesn’t take very long, it takes ten minutes. … I spend a lot of time reading blogs. … I probably spend a half hour to an hour reading blogs, so that’s up to an hour and a half to two hours (per day). … It doesn’t take that much time.

Constance Hale: That’s a lot of time.

NB: It is a lot of time, but it’s not something that’s going to get in the way of a day job plus writing. I don’t ever feel completely overwhelmed in a day.

Caroline Paul: Plus … even as an agent having a blog brought you more clients.

NB: Yes … a lot of my clients came through my blog. It was how I differentiated myself as an agent.

Meghan Ward: Do you plan to quit your day job some day?

NB: No, no, no. I can’t imagine doing that. I mean, if this blew up to something I couldn’t manage with a day job, but what are the odds? So no, I have no plans to quit my job.

What do you think of the future of blogs?

Rachel Levin: What do you think about the future of blogs in general?

NB: I don’t know. I asked that question on my blog a couple of months ago—have blogs peaked? I don’t think they have, but I think that they are going to continue to evolve. I don’t think that there’s going to be a situation where you can’t start a blog and have it become popular because all the popular blogs area already out there. If anything, if you start a new blogt hat is really really good and really taps into something that doesn’t already exist, it can become so big so quickly. But I think the bar is higher now because there are so many established blog. People already have a roster is they are into it. To crack someone’s attention is hard, but it can still really be done. I think they’ll continue to exist because it’s a format that can provide so much information, so much entertainment, and that can’t be easily reproduced in another form. I don’t know if they’ll get vastly more popular right now, but I can’t imagine them going away either.

Meghan Ward: Every writer is encouraged to start a blog. How is it possible for every single writer to gain an audience and for everyone to read all those blogs? It’s just not possible.

NB: I don’t agree that everyone should. I know that’s what authors are told, but authors are often encouraged to do everything. You have to blog, you have to tweet, you have to post to Facebook, you have to do Tumblr, you have to do this and that. But I don’t believe that. I think everyone is better off doing what they’re good at. If that’s blogging, awesome, do blogging. If it’s Twitter, do Twitter. If you don’t like social media, if you don’t like blogs and Facebook and Twitter then don’t do it. Do what you do like to do. If you’re a good speaker, go speak. If you’re very well connected, go socialize with those people. I think what’s unfortunate about it is that publishers don’t necessarily have the ability to impact a book’s chances in the way that they used to as shelf space disappears and as fewer bookstores. It’s become harder for publishers to really move the needle, so they’re really depending upon authors to do it themselves. So they’re just saying, “Go do it. Go do all of it and then come back and talk to us. But if you’re not enjoying it, it’s not going to work.

Caroline Paul: Do you have predictions about the publishing industry and where it’s going to be in five years?

NB: I don’t have any drastic predictions. I think that publishers are going to stick around. I don’t think that publishers going to disappear off the face of the earth. But I do think that more and more authors, as we move into the e-book era, are going to ask themselves, “Do I really need a publisher?” The reason that everyone has really needed a publisher up to this point is print distribution. If you wanted to reach readers, you absolutely had to have a publisher. But as that goes away, and as we get to 50 percent e-books, 75 percent e-books, close to 100 percent e-books five to ten years from now, you’re not going to need a publisher to reach an audience.

Constance Hale: So then who does the filtering?

NB: The readers do. I compare it to … there are a lot of restaurants out there. There are a lot of movies, there’s a lot of stuff out there, but we find ways of rating and filtering, and word of mouth and all the rest, and it will happen with books as well. I think it’s going to be a combination of critics and crowd sourcing. There will be gatekeepers. There will be people who influence a book’s success, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be publisher.

Constance Hale: Do you think it’s analogous? Restaurants? So who’s going to be the Yelps and the Zagats? Have those come up yet? Do we have those yet?

Po Bronson: Yeah, tons of those. But you can also just look at the way the publishing industry has worked. They buy a book, then you would always hear this story, “Around the house, everyone here is reading this and really liking it.” And you could say that is the publisher being a tastemaker, but actually that is just the publisher being a preliminary market, a pilot market. You could see the Amazon Vines program as another pilot market. You pay money to get your galleys in the system. They can’t force anybody to review it. People who are trusted reviewers in the system get your galleys and review it. And they’re a preliminary market. Some books go into that system and come out with three reviews. Some books go into that system and come out with hundreds and hundreds of reviews. And that’s a market telling you, giving you these signs. And the more publishers see what they do as, in my mind, as pilot markets to see what rises to the top, and not “We know best. We are the kingmakers,” and that they’re not and that they’re really just a pilot market, they would understand what they’re doing and find other ways to correctly do that.

Rachel Levin: So you think that publishing houses will be just free-floating editors … or no editors?

NB: Well, I think publishers will continue to serve the biggest books and the biggest authors because they provide a package of services that is really difficult for an author to do on their own. Distribution, production, editing, marketing, publicity, when they’re really on and when all of the pieces are working together, publishers can’t be beat when it comes to that collection of services, when it comes to making and producing and marketing a book. So I think the biggest bestsellers will still be with publishers. But for everyone else, I think it’s going to be interesting to see. Maybe it’s going to be a mixture of self-publishing and small presses. I don’t know.

Caroline Paul: I recently met an agent who decided that being an agent was a job that had an end date pretty soon, so she’s refashioned herself as an agent still, but for the new writer, which is, “I’m going to help you package your book. I’m going to guide you through this whole process, through the whole thing”—like a midwife of sorts. But then you can raise the baby.

Gerard Jones: For an upfront fee?

Caroline Paul: I think it’s an upfront fee. It might be a cut. There might be many models. But I thought that was very foresightful of her.

NB: So she’s more of a consultant than someone who is placing it with a publisher. I think we’ll see more and more of that.

Po Bronson: Regarding small publishers … the ones who had an identity and a brand in the marketplace, who basically specialized to some extent, did so much better than the ones who were just little big publishers, little Knopfs. … It’s interesting that we had Ethan Nosowsky in here from Graywolf [Press]. Back since the 80s, I was one of the people distributing their books and they were a baby Knopf or a baby Norton, and they do need to raise money. They’ve always needed to raise money to make it work, and they do a good job. They’re doing great with Geoff Dyer right now, but those kinds of small publishers have a really hard time in the marketplace. It’s when they really know a market and they can get you into some specialty areas and they have a track record with book sellers … You have to be careful when you’re talking about small publishers whether you’re talking about someone who has a name and a market of a certain type versus ones who are just generalists. I think the smaller publishers who are generalists are going to have the hardest time of all because they don’t have the big books to sustain them and yet they don’t have the capability to get into those little niche markets.

Rob Baedeker: When the barriers to publishing are so low because anybody can format their book for Kindle or get it out there in some electronic format, how do you rise above the noise level because it seems that that could be deafening?

NB: You need a first boost, and that’s where social media can play a big role in giving you that initial base of readers, whether that’s ten readers, a hundred, or a thousand. From there, if people like it, they will talk about it and it will go viral. I think everyone needs that boost, and the bigger the boost, the better the chance of it catching on. I think the idea of being just an author and just writing a book and putting it out there, if that ever existed, it definitely doesn’t exist now. It’s important to get that boost somehow. It doesn’t have to be social media; it doesn’t have to be online, but somehow giving that book a boost to give it a chance. But it is really hard to rise above the noise because there is a lot of noise out there. There are so many books coming out all the time and so many other distractions beyond books that it’s hard.

Sabrina Crawford: There are also so many blogs. I mean … if everybody’s keeping a blog, you can’t be reading every blog.

Po Bronson: Right, you make your film and no one will watch it, so you may write your book about your film, but then nobody’s paying attention to your books, so you blog, but no one reads your blog, so you tweet, but everybody’s tweeting, so how do you get above of all the other tweeters? … There’s something to be said for just being in the New York Times I suppose … not that I have an outlet there. I don’t.

Laura Goode: Are you having events in a couple of weeks?

NB: May 13 at Books Inc, Opera Plaza, I’m going to have a reading/launch party. Everyone asks how much is social media going to help, and I say, “I don’t know. I’ll tell you in a couple of weeks.”

18 comments to Author Interview: Nathan Bransford Part II

  • Kristan

    Loved what Po Bronson had to say about pilot markets, and how those were going to move around but still exist. NB had some nice points on that too.

    Thanks for sharing this with us, Meghan! Such a treat.

    • meghancward

      Kristan – with regards to test markets, I left this out, but Nathan mentioned Good Reads, LibraryThing, Shelfari, and Amazon Reviews (in addition to Amazon Vines) as the "Yelps and Zagats" of book publishing. I think as more and more people self-publish, we'll be hearing more about all of these companies/programs.

      Also, what Caroline said about the agent she talked to – I told Caroline a year ago that I thought that was going to be a huge market – people who sell the package – the editing, the cover design, the formatting, the marketing – to people who self-publish. There's no reason why someone like that agent can't hire the same illustrator that designed Jacob Wonderbar and put out a product just as high quality. I think that day is coming soon – but for a price. Those services won't be cheap, so then authors will have to really think about whether they're willing to invest that money (ie do they think they'll make a return on their investment?) Sadly, that could be the beginning of an era during which rich people get published, and poor people (who can't afford all the services that traditional publishers used to provide) don't. Maybe that's where small publishers will play an important role.

      • Kristan

        Yep, I always check GoodReads and Amazon before I buy a book online. (In stores, I just go on back cover copy.) BUT that doesn't mean a bad rating is automatically a non-sale. I skim reviews (esp. bad ones) b/c what some people like or don't like might not be the same for me. In fact, if a book only has glowing reviews, I get pretty suspicious.

        I don't think we'll ever have only rich people being published. They may have better tools to self-publish well, but (maybe this is naive/hopeful) I think there will always be a way for good writing to rise to the top.

        • meghancward

          I hope you're right about the good writing rising to the top. I'm on GoodReads but never use it. I guess I just go by book reviews and recommendations from other people.

    • One thing I’m couirus about is the amount of market research that goes into the opinions of publishers and agents. Are they harassing people who walk out of bookshops with questionnaires, asking what they would like to read, and whether they actually found a promising item inside the shop? Or are they simply looking at sales figures? Because while the first method is a decently good way to pick up emerging trends, the second has a nasty tendency to lead to stagnation, no matter what business you’re in: you will start to look to your customers to do your innovation for you. I think that’s what many writers fear. (I also think they’re at least partly right in this, but that’s simply because I’ve never been harassed by publishers with questionnaires outside the bookshop.) Of course, most aspiring writers also have a very inflated view of 1) their own originality, and 2) how marketable the truly original is.

  • This is such a great interview. I've RT'd both parts. He has so much to say that provides a balance. I especially like what he has to say about small publishers and how social media isn't for everybody. Small publishers may actually be doing more for most of their authors than the big 6 does these days.

    • meghancward

      I'm fascinated by small publishers, too, Anne, although who doesn't want a big advance? Po mentioned that Ethan Nosowsky from Graywolf came to lunch one day. Ethan is the editor of Stephen Elliott, whose book The Adderall Diaries did very well with a small publisher. I think a conversation between Ethan and Stephen about what worked to make that book a success would be really interesting.

  • Great interview, Meghan. Thanks for featuring Nathan Bransford. He makes a lot of the confusion about publishing understandable.

    I came over to check out the interviews since Nathan highlighted it in his This Week in Books. Glad I did. Live is always better – I like seeing the facial expressions. Well done.

  • Loved the interview with Nathan Bransford, Meghan. Thanks for featuring him. I like seeing the interview live, much better than reading the transcript. Nathan consistently shares his knowledge and treats his followers with respect.

    Referred here by Nathan in his Friday post today. Glad I visited your site..

    • meghancward

      Thanks for stopping by, DG! It's fun to see someone on camera (or in person) that you've been following on a blog. Nathan looked different than I had imagined him from his photos and the one short video he posted of himself on his blog.

  • […] and former agent Nathan Bransford talks about social media: “…social media is about having a base somewhere. You use one […]

  • Rebecca Kiel

    Thanks for posting this interview. I follow Nathan’s blog and have enjoyed reading his participation in this discussion. These are questions we all ponder, but to hear them discussed by people who know the industry well is helpful. Thanks!

    • Rebecca,

      Your comment is showing up on my dashboard but not on my blog, so I can’t even read it in entirety. I’m replying to see if the reply shows up on my blog!

  • Really great interview. Nathan knows this business probably better than anyone, so it's interesting to see his POV on things. I'm really intrigued by his thoughts on the future of publishing.

    • meghancward

      Thanks for stopping by, Carolina! I agree that Nathan is one of the best-informed publishing bloggers out there.