SCBWI Bologna 2010 Agent Interview: Kristin Nelson of Nelson Literary Agency

Interview by Jenny Desmond Walters for SCBWI Bologna 2010

Kristin, thank you for taking the time to share some of your knowledge with us in preparation for the upcoming SCBWI Bologna 2010 conference.

I’d like to first mention what fun it was reading the many interviews with you posted around the web. I easily found six amazing interviews, and I feel like I already know so much about you. I think anyone interested in knowing more about you and the Nelson Literary Agency would be well served by doing a quick Google search. Isn’t the Internet wonderful?

Let me jump right in by asking about the kinds of submissions your agency accepts. Your agency website says that you accept young adult and middle grade fiction in addition to adult fiction. Are there any differences in the way you must represent clients in these two genres or in the way that you approach children’s publishers vs. publishers of adult fiction?

If the manuscript is well-written with an original concept, we are interested in all submissions for young adult and middle grade. Don’t look at our current list and make assumptions that we wouldn’t like dark or wouldn’t like a male protagonist or anything like that. We love everything in the YA and MG field.

We actually don’t have a whole lot of clients in the field and so are looking to grow.

As for our approach, that in and of itself isn’t necessarily any different from when we handle an adult submission. Editors in the children’s world are a heck of a lot more fun though.

After all, how seriously can you take yourself if you have a huge life-size cut-out of Glinda the Good Witch in your office? There is a sense that we are all doing children’s publishing because we are passionate about it! Sometimes that is missing on the adult side.

I’ve heard it said, of late, that in many ways book genres are merging and the line between young adult and adult fiction is becoming more obscure. Do you find this true in the case of your clients as well? Do you ever get a manuscript written for one genre and suggest the author send it our under another label?

Now this an interesting question! On one hand, I totally agree that a lot of adults are finding out that there is a lot of cool stuff being done in YA and so are picking up YA novels as part of their reading list. I’m not sure I would say the line is becoming obscure though.

The biggest difficulty agents and authors face is the limited amount of shelf space given to young adult in any major bookstore (outside the indies that is!). It’s a finite amount. Borders recently expanded their section, but Barnes & Noble has not (and has no plans to). If the line was becoming more obscure, than shelving wouldn’t be an issue. It still is.

However, I think you mean along the lines of whether a novel could be shopped as adult rather than YA or vice versa. Yes, that is certainly happening. There are many titles that can crossover easily. I think of Prep [by Curtis Sittenfeld (Random House, 2005)] as something that could have been done either way. Nick Hornby‘s Slam (Putnam, 2007) as well.

Some books are being branded in both markets (Life of Pi by Yann Martel (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002) as an example).

The Book Thief [by Markus Zusak (Knopf, 2007)(was an adult book in the author’s home turf of Australia, but here in the U.S., it was sold as young adult. So those lines are blurring a bit. In fact, St. Martin’s Press just opened a new imprint to capture titles that do just that!

In a recent interview with Kerri Flannigan posted at the Guide to Literary Agents, you mention that currently you would “love to see more literary fiction with a strong commercial bent.” For those not familiar with this term, can you tell us some of the characteristics that give a novel a commercial flair?

For me, the “commercial bent” is in the plotting. I love a good literary novel with a great plot that drives the story. A great example is Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto (Harper, 2005). Wonderful book. Literary but also commercial.

Just recently my book club read The Help by Kathryn Stockett (Putnam, 2009). Loved it. Literary writing coupled with a terrific plot. I couldn’t stop reading. That’s what I’m looking for.

In that same interview, you mention a book by your client and bestselling author Jamie Ford, Hotel On The Corner Of Bitter And Sweet (Ballantine, 2009), as an example of the type of story you would like to see come across your computer screen. What were some of the first qualities you discovered in reading this submission that made you feel that it was something you wanted to represent?

When I started hyperventilating after the first chapter, I knew it was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime type of book. I started reading around 8 p.m. and read until I finished around 1 a.m. That’s when you know.

I called the author the earliest possible minute that would be considered decent—like 7 a.m. I figured calling any earlier his time would be rude.

Your amazing blog, Pub Rants, has some of the most insightful information around for those interested in the publishing industry. Your honesty and openness via this forum is delightful and refreshing.

I’m curious about the relationships that develop between followers and blogging book industry professionals. Do you ever find new clients by interacting with people who read your blog?

Absolutely! It was one of the reasons why I started blogging in 2006. My agency has only been around eight years. I can’t compete with agencies that have been around since 1970 and have a huge reputation because of longevity and bestselling clients because of those 40+ years.

One of the ways to “level” the playing field was to give writers an inside look at who I am. That, yes, I’m nice but I’m also hard as nails when it comes to negotiation. Yes, we are a small agency, but we play as well as the big guys.

Or that’s what I was attempting to do! I’ve actually landed quite a few wonderful clients who knew me via reading the blog. That makes every minute of writing it worthwhile.

Besides, I like helping writers. This is my way of giving back.

Going back to Jamie Ford for just a moment, you posted on your blog a fascinating entry with his query letter and your assessment of each part of what he wrote. You also mentioned that the title of the book wasn’t always “Hotel On the Corner of Bitter and Sweet,” but that it started out as “The Panama Hotel.”

I love the new title so much that it’s hard to think it wasn’t always called this.

Can you tell us a little about the process you went through with Jamie to land on this new title?

Oi! Jamie and I would love to forget about the title process. (Grin.) We knew that the project needed a new title before going out on submission, but coming up with a new one was quite a process. We wanted something that gave the reader that Asian feel but still sounded literary.

We kept making lists and shooting it back and forth to each other. At the title peak, we considered about 100 different titles. We finally narrowed it down to about 10 choices, and then we took the scientific approach. We sent it to people we trusted and asked them to vote on the title they liked best. We got a whole slew of responses to that. There wasn’t any consensus.

I finally said, “I like ‘Hotel On The Corner Of Bitter And Sweet’ the best. If the publisher doesn’t like it, they can change it later.” So we went with it for submission.

At one point, Random House actually considered changing that title. They didn’t, and I’m not sure why they ended up sticking with it. Jamie and I are so glad they did as the title feedback has been tremendous. No one can imagine that novel titled anything else!

Regarding your submission policy, I love that your agency only accepts queries via email and requested manuscripts via your electronic submission database. This seems like a totally sensible practice, and yet, I think you may be one of the enlightened ones among us.

Why do you think it is that there are still so few in the book business who accept queries and submissions via email? In your experience, how do electronic submissions compare to paper and snail mail submissions in terms of time spent reading, sorting and responding to each?

Really? There are agents who want a mailed submission? Talk about living in the Stone Age.

For us, it was a way to get a jump on the competition. Do it electronically; we were seeing it first and so could contact an author quickly. In the early years, I read on my tablet PC, which I liked. Now I have a Kindle and am eying the iPad. I also read on my iPhone.

Bring it on. This is how the world will be reading in 10 years. Not to mention, we agents always submit electronically to the editors these days. Paper is too slow!

In an interview with Dear Author, you were asked if you print out and read manuscripts from your computer. Your response, “Goodness, no!” made me laugh. When you mentioned that you use a tablet PC, my thoughts went immediately to the news of the recently released iPad, and I wondered what your thoughts are about it. Is this a tool that you might use at some point?

See above answer! I will probably wait for the second generation of iPad to see what they do. After all, I can read just fine on my iPhone. The iPad strikes me as simply a larger version of my iPhone except I can’t make a call with it. Yet.

You wrote a discerning post on your Pub Rants blog about the release of Apple’s iPad, calling it a “game changer.” Do you anticipate that new eBook technologies and emerging eBook online stores will significantly impact the way you negotiate deals with publishers in the future?

They already are. It wasn’t Apple’s iPad per se but their desire to switch to an Agency commission model rather than a wholesale model that’s the game changer.

In the long run, I think this new royalty structure is better for publishers and authors. I’m just not in agreement that the percentage to authors should be 25% of net.

Why should the distributor get a bigger percentage than the author? It’s not like there is huge overhead for the selling of the ebook version (although I completely get that publishing houses still have overhead in association with buying, editing, and producing the book—even for an eFormat).

With regard to clients and technology, what are some of the ways you have observed that a web presence and social networking expertise can help a writer in today’s market?

If you can’t navigate the Internet world, you are at a significant disadvantage in comparison to your competition—especially in the realm of children’s books.

Where do you think the young readers are? You as an author had better be there too!

Do you check out a writer’s web presence before pursuing contact? What components of an author’s website impress you when you visit?

I actually do—if the writer includes that info with a submission. But only when I’m actually interested in pursuing a full or offering representation. And it isn’t a deal breaker.

If I think the author’s web presence needs work, I’m pretty blunt about saying so. It’s your “face” to the reading world. It needs to be professional.

In other words, unless you are a graphic artist or web designer, this is not a do-it-yourself-er.

What are some suggestions you might have for ways that authors can leverage the Internet in their favor?

Find out what the fuss is about regarding social networking on the web. If done right, it can be a huge factor in sales. Find the authors who are great at promoting online and find out what they do. A lot of those writers actually blog about what worked and what didn’t for them.

And finally, who are some of the exciting YA or middle grade authors we should look for coming from Nelson Literary Agency in 2010?

My favorite part! Readers should check out Ally Carter’s new book called Heist Society (Hyperion, 2010)(excerpt). It’s the first novel outside of her Gallagher Girl series. It’s fast paced with a ton of action. Well worth the read.

A rising star? Simone Elkeles. Her fourth novel Perfect Chemistry (Walker) came out in December 2008, but boy, does it have a following. Even a year and three months later, this book just sells and sells. The sequel is going to be published next month (April)—Rules of Attraction (Walker).

I only have two middle grade authors, Janice Hardy and Helen Stringer. Huge talents to be on your watch list. Janice’s first middle grade is called The Shifter (HarperCollins, 2009)(The Pain Merchants (The Healing Wars: Book One) in the U.K.)(excerpt). Her second novel in this series, Blue Fire, releases this fall.

Helen’s debut is Spellbinder here in the U.S. (Feiwel & Friends, 2009)(The Last Ghost in the U.K.). Her second novel releases in spring 2011. We are still debating the title.

Also, I absolutely adore Megan Crewe’s Give Up The Ghost (Henry Holt, 2009)(author interview).

Thank you so much, Kristin, for taking time to share your knowledge and expertise with us. We look forward to hearing more great things from you at this year’s SCBWI Bologna event.

Cynsational Notes

Kristin established Nelson Literary Agency in 2002. In such a short time, she has sold over a 100 books to all the major publishers. She has landed several film deals and has contracted foreign rights on behalf of her clients in many territories.

She specializes in representing commercial fiction (mainstream, women’s fiction, romance, science fiction, fantasy, young adult & middle grade) and literary fiction with a commercial bent. In general, she does not handle nonfiction projects with the exception of an occasional memoir.

Clients include New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal bestselling author Ally Carter (I’d Tell You I Love You But Then I’d Have to Kill You (Hyperion, 2007)), New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Jamie Ford (Hotel On The Corner Of Bitter And Sweet (Ballantine, 2009)), 2010 American Library Association’s Top Ten Books for Young Adults author Sarah Rees Brennan (The Demon’s Lexicon (McElderry, 2009)) as well as 2010 Top Ten Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers author Simone Elkeles (Perfect Chemistry (Walker, 2008)), Locus bestselling authors Lisa Shearin (Armed & Magical (Ace, 2008)) and Gail Carriger (Soulless (Orbit, 2009)). Member: AAR, RWA, SFWA, SCBWI. Please visit Nelson Literary Agency before submitting and also check out Kristin’s popular blog, Pub Rants.

Jenny Desmond Walters is the founding regional advisor of the SCBWI Korea chapter. She is an experienced education professional with a love of learning and literature. She has worked in public television developing curriculum and promoting instructional programs, as well as worked extensively with educational publishers and learning materials companies. For the last several years, Jenny has lived in east Asia where she has become an avid writer and observer of life in Japan and Korea. Her articles have been published in national children’s magazines and writing journals, and she has been a member of SCBWI for more than 10 years. Jenny currently resides in Seoul with her husband and three daughters, and she rarely runs out of interesting stories to write.

The SCBWI Bologna 2010 interview series is brought to you by the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference in conjunction with Cynsations. To register, visit the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference 2010. Note: Special thanks to Angela Cerrito for coordinating this series with SCBWI Bologna and Cynsations.