Nathan Bransford on finding the agent who’s right for you

Day four in my reports from the Austin SCBWI conference, and today I’m featuring Curtis Brown literary agent Nathan Bransford. But first a recap of days one through three in case you missed them: agent Mark McVeigh on publishing, agent Andrea Cascardi on getting and working with an agent, editor Cheryl Klein on writing a great book.

And now onto Nathan Bransford. You’ve probably already heard of Nathan, one of the best known literary agents around because of his much read blog. If you haven’t read it, go there — after you’ve read this, of course — and bookmark it, add it to your Google Reader or whatever.

Now, before you read Nathan’s blog and whip off an email to him with all the details of your book, note that he said he likes the title he gave his presentation — Finding the agent who’s right for you — because it suggests there should be an element of deliberation and patience in an agent search.

He said that while writers are writing their book, they should take some time for what he called “productive procrastination,” during which they find out everything they can about different agents.

When looking for agents, he offered up some red flags that should make writers run in the other direction:

  • an agent who charges for representing you.
  • an agent who offers you representation just off a query without looking at your full work or talking to you.

He also said not to dismiss young agents, because they’re motivated and might take on projects that need polishing when busier agents might not.

To find agents, he suggested the Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR) website and

For the query, Nathan said he knows they’re hard to write. He wrote one when he was looking for an agent for his own book (yep, he wrote a middle-grade space adventure and it has sold to Dial Books for Young Readers). Even though he’s an agent, Nathan wanted someone else to handle his own work, and he ended up signing with an agent he didn’t know before, so the query letter helped.

His query tips were:

  • The most important thing is conveying the story arc.
  • Personalize the query. It’s not about sucking up, he said; it’s about showing the agent you’ve chosen them. And he said he thinks that someone who takes the time to personalize the query is someone who’ll work on their own book.
  • The query should be one page, around 250 words.
  • Use proper formating, which you can find on his blog and many other places online.

Signing with the right agent “is the most important decision you’re going to make as a writer,” he said, advising writers to take the time to get to know agents before they sign with one.

After an agent offers representation, talk to them about their agenting style, what expenses they’ll charge (no fee, just incidentals such as copying, etc., and only after they’ve made money for you), how often they get in touch with their clients, how they see your career going, how long their response time is, and anything else you’d like to know.

Once you’ve signed with an agent, trust them because your interests are aligned, he said. But, don’t feel as though you always have to agree.

On the issue of agents editing work before it’s sent out to editors, Nathan pointed out that it’s so hard to get a book through the editorial process nowadays that it has to be really ready before it goes out. Nathan said he was an editorial agent (one who edits their clients’ work before it goes out to editors) before he started to write his own books. But, he said, he never tries to impose his own vision on a project; it’s all about making the author’s work the best that it can be.

As for whether writers should bypass agents altogether and send their work directly to editors, he cautioned against it because of the state of the industry. Most editors won’t accept work from unagented writers. He said, however, that very specialized books or book proposals can go straight to editors. When in doubt, he said, start with agents.

Tomorrow, writing and revising with author/former editor Lisa Graff.

Write On!

What do you think?