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Tell A Story To Make the Heart Race: Interview with Super-Agent Kristin Nelson


What could an agent possibly offer a novelist whose self-published ebooks are bringing in five figures a month?

That’s what self-published science fiction novelist Hugh Howey wanted to know when Kristin Nelson had the gumption to call. “I don’t know,” she said, in essence, “but let’s have a conversation.” That forthrightness got Howey’s attention. It also got him this year – after refusing several 7-figure offers – a ground-breaking deal with Simon & Schuster for a print-only deal. Thanks in part to Nelson.

I get asked questions about agents almost every week. “Do I need one?” “How do I find one?” “What do they want?”

And in this DIY era of author-publisher-entrepreneurs, some people think agents are obsolete. But not so fast. There are agents and there are Agents. Agents with a capital “A” champion the authors they believe in. They know how to negotiate great contracts, they can navigate the industry’s ever-changing dynamics and relationships, and they are versatile in how they help their authors build careers – not simply sell books – in this age of digital disruption.

Kristin Nelson is an Agent. I became aware of Kristin at this year’s Digital Book World Conference where she shared the stage with her news-making client Hugh Howey.

Kristin established Nelson Literary Agency, LLC in 2002. Being an avid reader practically since birth, Kristin is equally happy reading a Pulitzer prize-winning literary novel for her book club or a sexy romance novel. Clients include bestselling authors Jamie Ford, Hugh Howey, Ally Carter, Marie Lu, Gail Carriger, Simone Elkeles, Courtney Milan, and RITA-award winners Sherry Thomas and Linnea Sinclair.

And note to authors: She is currently looking for literary commercial novels, big crossover novels with one foot squarely in genre, upmarket women’s fiction, lead title or hardcover science fiction and fantasy, single-title romance (with a special passion for historicals), and young adult and upper-level middle-grade novels.

When she is not busy selling books, Kristin plays tennis as well as Bridge (where she is the youngest person in her club). She can also be found hiking in the mountains with her husband and their dog Chutney.

I recently asked Kristin a few questions to give some of you authors a vibrant agent’s perspective on writing and publishing.

Jeffrey: I typically advise authors to hone their craft and write the most captivating story or proposal they can while still building an audience. For first-time authors and even veteran authors in the “throes” of publishing’s disruptive times, would you advise they focus more on honing their craft or building their audience first via platform and brand (chicken-and-egg?) before they approach an agent?

KristinI can take my answer straight from the playbooks of my successful self-publishing clients. Hone your craft so that you can write and publish content on a regular basis–as in every 4 months or so. Several of them didn’t worry about their platform because good and regular content is essential to building that platform. They also didn’t expect to hit it out of the park with their first published book– be it by digital self-publishing or with a traditional print/ebook publisher.
Regular and good content is what built their sales and thus their platforms. For Hugh Howey, it was his 9th novel. For Jasinda Wilder, it was her 15th novel. For Jana DeLeon it was her 14th or 15th novel and then she saw the very first novel she ever published hit the USA Today list 7 years after original publication.
When success is hitting via large sales, that’s going to attract an agent’s attention. Also, that’s when a lot of self-publishing folks decide to partner with an agent. It’s overwhelming to get tons of emails from foreign publishers and even from Hollywood. What’s legit? What’s worth paying attention to and what’s not? That’s when an agent becomes invaluable.

Jeffrey: There’s often conflicting advice about whether a fiction writer or nonfiction writer should publish or prototype material via an e-book or even a blog before submitting to a traditional publisher. What advice can you offer?

KristinI personally don’t think there is a right or wrong answer here. Since I don’t rep nonfiction, I can better speak to the fiction side of things. I can tell you this. The reading audience is the toughest critic. If your stuff is not selling, there might be a very good reason beyond the assumption that the reading public is not recognizing your writing genius. It either speaks to them or not and they’ll put their money down for titles that are getting the good word-of-mouth from friends. That’s how most books break out in the end.

Jeffrey: When you weigh whether or not to take on an author – whether first-time or veteran – how much of the author’s industry knowledge, business knowledge, and even technology knowledge do you factor? Has your answer to this question changed in the past 5 years?

KristinNo doubt it helps to have authors who are very savvy with social media and the internet. The chances are slim to nil that I’ll take on a person who called the agency because he/she didn’t have access to the internet and wants to snail mail their letter (which we don’t accept).
But the most savvy tech guru/marketing  person doesn’t have an edge without good content that readers are interested in buying and reading.
So in the end, it does come down to the story telling–and this answer hasn’t really changed for me from five years ago.

Jeffrey: If you had to choose one, what one quality in 2013 do you most want to discover in a query, proposal, manuscript, or platform from an author you’re considering to represent?

KristinI want to capture that same feeling I had when I read WOOL by Hugh Howey for the very first time back in January 2012. As I read, I felt my heartbeat race, and thought “This is the best story I’ve read in a while.”
If a writer creates that moment, I’m in.


Anything surprise you here? What questions about agents or publishing do you have?


P.S. There’s still time to get on the inside track of Your Brave New Story, an author’s intensive for writers & thought leaders.

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