Agent Interview: Nathan Bransford of Curtis Brown

Nathan Bransford on Nathan Bransford: “I grew up the son of rice farmers in Colusa, California, where I strenuously avoided all forms of manual farm labor (somewhat unsuccessfully) and instead read as many books as possible. I graduated from Stanford University and headed straight to Curtis Brown Ltd., where I am now an agent handling adult and children’s books. I enjoy reading, playing the piano, and watching reality television shows of questionable quality.” See Nathan’s blog and MySpace.

What inspired you to become a literary agent?

I have always gravitated toward books, and although I love movies and television, nothing moves me like a great book. In college, when I received the “Dear Undeclared Junior” letter that said I needed to pick a major or face unspecified disciplinary measures, I looked at my transcript, saw that I had been mostly taking English classes, and went with it. And when I graduated from college, I was fortunate enough to see a job listing for a position in San Francisco for the assistant to the President of Curtis Brown–it looked like my dream job, and I’ve been with Curtis Brown ever since.

What led you to specialize in youth literature? Could you give us a snapshot of your career?

After a couple of years in the San Francisco office of Curtis Brown I moved over to the New York office, where I had the pleasure of working with Ginger Knowlton (agent interview) and Laura Blake Peterson, who both represent amazing children’s book authors. They’ve been incredible mentors for me. I’m now actively building my own client list, and have benefited immensely from working closely with Ginger and Laura and their wonderful clients (including you!)

How long have you been in the business? How has it changed?

I have been in the business five years, and thus things haven’t changed a tremendous amount, although I do think that more and more interactions, submissions and networking are done via the web and e-mail, which has sped up the client acquisition process to some degree.

I’ve been an early adopter of that whole technology thing, and I find it’s been very helpful to me as I build my list.

You’re one of the few blogging agents, and you’re very generous with information and encouragement. What inspired you to enter the blogosphere? What are your thoughts on it?

Thank you! I started blogging because I wanted to help out aspiring authors, and, well, because I was worried about the karmic ramification of passing on so many queries. The “rules” of the publishing industry are often opaque, and while it’s impossible for me to respond to every question I receive, I thought I might be able to help people out by provide some general advice. And then I found out it’s really fun! I think the book blogosphere is wonderful, and it gives aspiring authors such a huge leg up if they’re plugged in.

Would you describe yourself as an “editorial agent,” one who comments on manuscripts, or one who concentrates more exclusively on publishing issues? Why?

I would say I’m an editorial agent–I feel that it adds value to a submission to be in the absolute best form possible, and while I try never to impose my own vision on a project, I will definitely help the author hone their own vision for the project and make sure the manuscript or proposal is in the absolute best shape possible before it goes to editors.

Is your approach more manuscript by manuscript or do you see yourself as a career builder?

I’m definitely a career builder–I don’t tend to do one-off projects and am instead looking for authors for the long haul.

Why should unagented writers consider working with an agent?

An agent will give an author a huge boost with submissions, can provide expertise on every aspect of the publishing process, can provide editorial guidance, contract negotiations, therapy…just having an advocate who is always on your side is worth its weight in gold. It’s becoming rarer and rarer for an unagented author to make it through publishers’ slush piles, and an agent is all but essential.

What do you see as the ingredients for a “breakout” book in terms of commercial success, literary acclaim and/or both?

That’s literally the million dollar question. I wish I knew what the formula is–my job would be a great deal easier! But I will say that although a “breakout” book is nearly impossible to predict, it usually has an “it” factor about it. It’s the type of project that gets people excited and saying, “Have you seen,” and it hits the cultural zeitgeist. But the exactly formula between quality, genre, cover, title, marketing, etc. is impossible to pin down.

In terms of markets (children’s, YA, fiction, non-fiction, genres, chapter books, ER, picture books, etc.), what sorts of manuscripts appeal to you?

I handle older middle-grade and up, and especially YA. Within that general age range, I look for fresh and original voices in all genres, and books with a killer plot.

Do you work with author-illustrators and/or illustrators?

No, I’m afraid I don’t.

Are you accepting unsolicited submissions? What is the best way for a prospective client to get in touch with you?

Yes, please! I (usually) respond to all queries within 24 hours. Please e-mail me at

Do you have any particular submissions preferences or pet peeves?

I declared war on queries beginning with rhetorical questions in 2006, and it is a battle I have been fighting ever since.

How much contact do you have with your clients? Emails, phone calls, retreats, listservs? What kind of relationship are you looking to build and why?

I am very regularly in touch with my clients via phone and e-mail, and will provide as much feedback or updates as they would like. I try to respond to all questions in the same day and I read manuscripts as quickly as possible.

What are the greatest challenges of being an agent?

I think when I began taking on clients I had a vision of the floodgates opening and Nobel Prize winners and NY Times bestsellers flocking to my Inbox. Believe it or not, this was not the case!

It’s kind of a strange process, because you’re constantly besieged with queries (I think I receive somewhere around 7,000-10,000 a year) and yet it’s really difficult to find something that will break out in a big way.

And particularly when you are a young agent, you’re up against very experienced agents with deep contacts and a zillion sales to their credit. Building up a list is quite a challenge, but I shall not be deterred!

What do you love about it?

I really love working with my clients, and they make everything worth it. At the end of the day you’re helping make books happen, and that’s something that I will always be passionate about.

Would you like to highlight a few of your clients and/or their recent titles?

The most recent book of my client’s to come out was Kim Long‘s The Almanac of Political Corruption, Scandals & Dirty Politics (Delacorte, 2007) (author interview), a catalog of all the most significant (and somewhat hilarious) political scandals in the last 300 years. It’s an amazing book, and I recommend it to political junkies everywhere.

As a reader, which books have you enjoyed lately and why?

I tend to read a little bit of everything. The last three books I’ve read were Gossip Girl by Cecily Von Ziegesar, The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, and I re-read The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer, all of which are fabulous.

Cynsational Notes

Agent Interview with Nathan Bransford from author Alma Fullerton.

Agent Matchmaking with Nathan Bransford of Curtis Brown Limited from Authorness.

Agent Stories: Nathan Bransford from Lyons Literary LLC.

Nathan Bransford: Literary Agent from the PODler.

Interview with Literary Agent Nathan Bransford from Ronna AKA All Those Other People.

Ask Nathan Bransford from The Absolute Write Water Cooler.

What Do Agents Actually Do? by Nathan Bransford from Children Come First.