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Author Interview: Nathan Bransford Part I

I had the pleasure of meeting Nathan Bransford in person last week and interviewing him on video when he came to lunch at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, where I write. Here is the first part of the interview with the (edited) transcription below, so you can follow along to see who is asking the questions. I broke the interview up into parts so it wouldn’t be too long. Second part coming tomorrow!

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. 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.

Meghan Ward: Can you tell us about your book?

NB: Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow is about three kids who blast off into space, break the universe, and have to find their way back home. It’s coming out in [two] weeks with Dial at Penguin. I never really thought of myself as a writer, but for a long time when I was working in publishing—I’m not one of those people who was working in publishing because I secretly wanted to be a writer—I actually wanted to be in publishing. And then I wrote one novel in my mid-20s that didn’t work out, and then I had the idea for this one, and I wrote it in about six months. There are going to be three so far and hopefully more, we’ll see. They’re going to come out about nine months apart. The first one is Jacob Wonderbar for President of the Universe and the third one is tentatively titled Jacob Wonderbar and the Interstellar Time Warp.

Laura Goode: Did you sell them as a package?

NB: It was a two-book deal, and then I just got a third.

Meghan Ward: How did you get interested in writing middle-grade novels?

NB: It was more driven by the idea that I had. I had an idea for a kid who was trapped on a planet of substitute teachers. It was sort of a middle grade idea, so I went with that.

Meghan Ward: Who are your literary inspirations?

NB: Roald Dahl, of course Douglas Adams. A lot of people describe [Jacob Wonderbar] as the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for kids, which I’m flattered by. And the Calvin & Hobbes comics.

Caroline Paul: So your book is coming out in the normal publishing venues. But are you an advocate of looking into the new ways that things are going?

NB: I am. I think that the great thing about the new era is that people have choice. I wouldn’t consider myself an advocate for traditional publishing or an advocate for self-publishing except inasmuch as that it’s great that each individual author now has a choice about which route they want to pursue. I think it’s great that Barry Eisler is going to self-publishing and Amanda Hocking is going from self-publishing to traditional publishing. It’s because Barry is excited about this new era and thinks he can make more money by doing it that way, and Amanda Hocking wants to focus on her writing and wants to have a lot of the tasks she has been handling as a self-published author handled by a traditional publisher. So I think that the future is really bright for authors. I think it’s a very challenging time for agents and publishers and everyone who is dependent upon the traditional publishing industry, but I think everyone will be fine and everyone is going to survive, and it’ll just shake out with a spectrum of choice.

Po Bronson: Did someone already ask you, Nathan, who is your agent and did you want to go with the agency you worked with for ten years? (Over baby blowing raspberries) Or you felt you really couldn’t go with the agency you’d been at for so long?

NB: I did send out queries. I wanted to keep things separate, which I think a lot of people do when they work in the publishing industry. There are a lot of really great agents at Curtis Brown, and I would have loved to have had them as my agent, but I just thought that it could get messy if things were mixed with personal and business. So my agency is Catherine Drayton at Inkwell, and I’ve been thrilled working with her. It’s been great.

Constance Hale: I want to take you back to e-books for a second. For those of us who are under contract and working on a book—mine is a nonfiction book about language; it’s not narrative—I just wonder what you think we should be thinking about. As we’re working on a book, how should we be thinking about an enhanced book?

NB: I think it really depends. Right now the market for an enhanced e-book is growing, and there are new ventures that are looking into that, but right I think publishers—as far as I know, as of a few months ago—are primarily thinking of e-books as e-books in a text form. Now there’s talk of multimedia editions and books and all the rest and how they can either add to the value of the e-book or be a separate product. Whether they are considered a separate product and how much of the text they involve, these are all rights discussions to have with your agent to figure out who owns what and what permission for what. It’s all new and complicated. It’s something I was working a lot on in the last months when I was an agent.

But in terms of things to think about, I would think it’s exciting to think about how you can add value to the book by utilizing whatever media is available in the electronic form, so if there were videos you wanted to add to it or hyperlinks or things like that, you could envision an enhanced multimedia edition and from there it’s a matter of figuring out who would be the best person to produce that with—the publisher or a third party—and how to work out the rights depending on your agreement.

Gerard Jones: How are you planning to use social media to promote yourself as a writer? What is your next step?

NB: I am going to be doing some campaigns around the time the book comes out, but my goal is not to overdo it. Social media I really think of as building a connection between yourself and your readers and your followers. I think they’re not going to buy it just because I’m doing a blog giveaway that day. They’re going to buy it because they’ve been reading my blog they know what it’s about, they’ve heard about it. I’ll try to get the word out to reach people who haven’t heard about my blog or the book before, but at the end of the day, it’s about giving it that boost and from there it’s going to do what it does. People are either going to recommend it to more people or they’re not. At a certain point, it becomes out of your hands.

Meghan Ward: Your readership is mostly writers. Have you thought about expanding your blog to include more than just writers? To reach parents?

NB: I think for blogs it’s really important to have a focus and a core audience rather than trying to get too broad. That was always my built-in audience. I’ll occasionally expand out, but that’s what people expect when they come to my blog. And writers are readers, so I’m not too worried. And a lot of them are parents.

Helena Echlin: When you say you’re going to do campaigns on Twitter and Facebook, what does that mean exactly?

NB: I’m going to do a giveaway. I think I’m going to do a Kindle giveaway and create the contest in such a way that it will hopefully have a certain amount of virality, so give people an opportunity to get creative with it and also share the blog in their post in order to enter the contest and giveaway. I’m still working it out with Penguin to figure out exactly what it’s going to be.

Meghan Ward: Why did you leave Curtis Brown?

NB: I left because I’m really excited about social media. I started my blog as an extension of being an agent. It was something I did in my spare time in order to help build my career and differentiate myself. It’s something I really really enjoy a lot. I think it’s a really exciting, new world. This job that I have right now didn’t exist two years ago. Now I’m working for a company that I really like, trying to build my own presence to bring cohesiveness to the social media presence for a large company. I was really excited about it, and I was ready for a new opportunity.

Constance Hale: So you really love social media. I want to know what you really love about it. There is this weird phenomenon where a lot of social media is going from being amateur to being professionalized. … Is there a bifurcation going on in social media where there are people who are doing it professionally and getting paid by big companies to run the social media, and then there are those of us who are writers who are trying to keep up a social media presence to support and complement our …

NB: I think the space is maturing. You picture it as planets forming and acquiring gravity and mass. The blogs that are popular get more popular, and the ones that aren’t popular die off. I think it’s the next stage in the evolution. What I really like about it is building connections with people. What I always tell people is that social media is social. It’s about building a connection with people. It is becoming more professional. I’m a professional working at CNET. But my job is to make people feel a more personal connection with CNET. I’m appearing in people’s news feeds every day and bring a voice and a personality to a company to make it feel less like a company and more like someone you’re friends with.

Caroline Paul: If two different writers came up to you at the same time and one had never published a book before and one had one or two behind them, would you give the same advice? That’s actually happened to me … they ask me what should I do? And I’ve been telling people to go self-publish these days. I don’t see any financial benefit—unless it’s nonfiction—but fiction, there’s no financial benefit that I can see from the publishing industry. They don’t market your book, and you lose a lot of control. So I usually tell both of those people to start looking into self-publishing. Is that right or wrong?

NB: I think it really is up to each individual author, and I don’t know that I’d necessarily tie it to how many books they have written. First, is it a book that the publishers are going to want? If it is, then consider it; if it’s not, then don’t spend your time trying to query. But there are still a lot of advantages to publishers. They handle a lot of stuff that’s very very time-consuming to handle on your own. I couldn’t have done this (holds up book cover) on my own. They did a tremendous job finding the illustrator, putting the package together, the editing, and it’s going to be in bookstores. Right now, print is still 60-80% of the market. So if you’re hoping to maximize your readership, print is where it’s at—especially for children’s books, which have been a bit slower than other genres for e-books. However, if someone is very entrepreneurial minded, if control is really important to them—because I didn’t really have a say over the illustrator, and we argued over the title for months—if being able to experiment with pricing is important, then definitely self-publish. But either way it’s up to the author. Who am I? What do I want out of the publishing process, and what makes sense for my individual book?

Gerard Jones: Self-publishing does seem to have opened up the possibility of getting oddball stuff out there, but when I look at what actually seems to sell through online self-publishing, it seems very much dominated by just a few genres that have these pre-established online communities—fantasy, paranormal romance, romance, thriller, and then self-help and business books. Do you see much potential for the strange thing, the unusual thing, to find it’s way and try to get noticed?

NB: It’s an interesting question. I think you’re right that right now what does dominate are the genre books with built-in communities, but what I think those built-in communities are facilitating is word of mouth. It’s not necessarily that the genre people are reading more than people who are literary minded or who are looking for something different, it’s more that those communities are established and those people are talking to one other and recommending what they feel are the best ones. It’s probably going to take some more time for an oddball book or a book without that built-in base to trickle through that process. I don’t know whether that’s going to develop over time, or whether certain books are going to be more likely to go viral.

*To be continued tomorrow! Thank you, Nathan, for the opportunity to interview you!

5 comments to Author Interview: Nathan Bransford Part I

  • Fantastic interview! I'm so glad to hear from Nathan the author, as well as Nathan the publishing guru.

    The video doesn't play. It just says "this video is private." I don't know if you meant that to happen.

    • meghancward

      Anne, so sorry about the video! I fixed the privacy settings. It played on my browser, so I assumed it worked for everyone, but somehow it defaulted to private. It should work now! And part II is coming tomorrow.

  • Kristan

    Great interview, and Nathan's answers are so thoughtful!

    "I’ll occasionally expand out, but that’s what people expect when they come to my blog. And writers are readers, so I’m not too worried. And a lot of them are parents."

    I love how confident he is about this, how he's not trying to pander to people to buy his book. (Nothing worse than a greasy salesman, right?)

    Also love his answer about directing people to self-publish or not. It depends on too many factors to say this is right or that is right; it's, What is right for YOU and your book?

    • meghancward

      I agree, Kristan. I've long wondered how Nathan planned to sell a middle-grade book with a publishing blog. Now I know! Parts II and III are coming in an hour!

  • […] Remember ex-literary agent and published author Nathan Bransford said he wrote a book in his 20s ” that didn’t work out.” I can promise you he’s not the only […]