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. She established Nelson Literary Agency, LLC in 2002 after the literary agent she was working for expressed dismay that Kristin wanted to represent genre fiction – gasp! – as well as literary novels. Forming NLA was absolutely the right thing to do. Clients include bestselling authors Jamie Ford, Ally Carter, Marie Lu, Gail Carriger, Simone Elkeles, Courtney Milan, and RITA-award winners Sherry Thomas and Linnea Sinclair. When she is not busy selling books, Kristin loves playing Ultimate Frisbee (where she is the oldest person on her team), playing Bridge (where she is the youngest person in her club) and taking hikes with her husband and their dog Chutney.
Thanks for chatting with us, Kristin!
LS: I’ve read that you’ve always been an avid reader. What childhood experiences inspired your career in publishing? What were your favorite books as a child?
I actually didn’t come to publishing until a little later in life (so to speak). I was 33 when I started as an assistant to another literary agent. The next year I did the Publishing Institute and started my own company. It was the third career for me. My first job out of graduate school was as a college English teacher. My second was as a corporate trainer for fortune 500 companies. Third time is a charm, though. I can’t imagine doing anything else.
As for favorite books from my childhood, how much space do you have? I loved the Laura Ingalls’ Little House on the Prairie books. I spent many a lazy summer afternoon recreating the journey West with girlfriends. I have a hilarious story of relating to an editor over lunch a book that wasn’t my favorite but that I remembered vividly reading as a girl. It was called Baby Island and two sisters get shipwrecked with a bunch of babies. They all have to survive on this island. She didn’t believe that such a title could really exist so we Googled it. Sure enough, it’s easy to find. The author is Carol Ryrie Brink and the book was originally published in 1937–at least according to Wikipedia. It must have been repackaged and re-released in the 1970s when I would have been reading it. Can’t see that one being a hot seller now.
LS: NLA operates somewhat out of the industry norm in that you’re not in NYC and you represent both genre and literary fiction. When you founded the agency was there a transitional period where you had to kick down a few doors? What did that experience teach you about yourself and the industry?
Well, I’m hardly the first agent to be successful outside the Big Apple and I doubt I’ll be the last. Some of my closest agent friends all operate outside the city and they have way more spectacular clients lists than me! They were the true trail blazers in this arena.
But you are right. Denver is not necessarily the hub of publishing activity. In the early years, I’d do trips to New York at least four times a year to meet with editors. Before my reputation was really set, there were any number of authors I offered rep to who declined going with me for representation. I wasn’t upset though. I got it. There are still some authors who really believe that you must have a Manhattan agent. Sadly, a lot of writer conferences still foster that opinion. I don’t worry about it too much. I have any number of clients who chose me specifically because I wasn’t based in New York. It all balances out.
And here’s an interesting factoid. In those early days, there were certainly some editors that I would call repeatedly and never get a response. But the higher up the food chain the person was, the more promptly they returned my call. Truly amazing. I couldn’t get an assistant editor on the phone, but the publisher always took the call and if I left a voice message, they would return a call in 15 minutes.
Thus solving the mystery of how they got to be the publisher. *grin* They didn’t make assumptions and treated everyone as an equal.
That impressed me. I emulate that today. I’m very respectful of everyone–even the brand new editorial assistant who is a new hire. Someday, they might be running the company.
LS: How has the scope of the industry changed since you began your career? Do you think self publishing and e-books will continue to shift the operation of traditional publishing?
Oh my goodness. There’s not enough space to highlight the radical change I’ve seen in just the last 10 years. Tectonic shift.
In 2003, I bought a Gateway tablet PC that I had seen demo’d at Book Expo because I wanted to do all editing electronically. This tool allowed me to hand-write comments that would then be translated into typed text directly into the author’s Word document. I remember showing this tablet to editors and they were amazed. They hadn’t seen anything like it. But they expressed very little desire to have one themselves. They were all very wed to pen on paper.
But I could see then the impact e-books were going to have. It just took eight years to catch up. We have whole new publishing contract boiler-plates that have shifted half the clauses in any traditional contract because of the industry changes.
We are going to see a lot more good writers digitally self-publish to begin with and then move to traditional publishing houses – if they decide to do that at all.
Three years ago, industry folks would have turned their noses up at that. Not me, by the way! I took on several self-published authors as early as 2006. I didn’t end up selling them to traditional publishers but they were good writers. It was just too early.
LS: A lot of novice writers make many mistakes when querying. What do you think is their biggest mistakes and what would you recommend they assure their manuscripts and queries include before they even begin the submission process?
This is easy. Most new writers think they have to condense their 300 page novel into one pithy paragraph. Nope. That’s not what I do when I’m readying a project for submission. That’s not what jacket copy editors do when creating jacket copy for a novel.
All you have to do is look at the first 30 pages. What’s the main plot catalyst (or inciting incident)? You build your pitch paragraph around that.
The problem is that often writers can’t identify this. There’s not enough room in this interview to teach that. I suggest visiting my blog to learn how. The right side bar has the whole series of blogs about how to craft the query pitch paragraph.
LS: Because of the nature of your job can you read a book for pleasure without critiquing?
Absolutely! It’s such a joy to just read. I don’t have to edit. I don’t have to think about how to sell it. I just read. I actually do a lot of my reading for pleasure on audio so I can “read” while I walk my dog, Chutney, every morning.
LS: I read on your blog about the dichotomy that is the success of 50 shades of Grey. Do you think its popularity is an indication of reader tastes or, perhaps, its tag along (to Twilight) appeal? Have you been inundated with similar queries since its launch?
To be honest, I haven’t got the faintest idea why 50 Shades hit the cultural zeitgeist. After all, erotica has been around for 20+ years and goodness knows, Harlequin Mills & Boons as had the billionaire tycoon series for years and years. But for whatever reason, this book gave women permission to read an erotic novel.
Anything that encourages people to read is good in my book! As for being inundated with queries, I have not since I don’t rep erotica. My colleague Sara might have a different story.
LS: Last month on your blog, you mentioned having to love a manuscript in order to invest time on a new client editorially. What are some elements that make you fall in love with a manuscript?
That’s easy. It’s all about the voice and a story I can’t stop reading. Our entertainment attorney sent me a novel last December. I read the description of it and did a mental complaint of “wow, you thought this was right for me?” I was on a beach in Florida having a little vacation before the Christmas holidays began. I started reading and just couldn’t stop or get the novel out of my head. It was a literary horror cross-over novel called Bird Box by Josh Malerman. I sold it in a six-figure auction to an editor known for literary masterpieces –she did The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, for example. Go figure. Our website even says “no horror.” I guess I’ll have to change that.
LS: As an editorial agent, what’s your process with working with a client to get her manuscript ready for submission?
Just to be clear, a writer has to nail story and voice. As an agent, you can’t do enough editing in the world to fix that if it is broken. So the level of editing I’m doing is not teaching an author to write. It’s to tweak the plot, build a character a bit more, flesh out a scene. They’ve already got the writing chops. I’m just like a conductor of a symphony, doing my best to bring out the best performance of an already great story.
LS: Do you find, because of the popularity of self-publishing there has been an influx of writers who are focused on the business of writing rather than the importance of telling a great story? Do you think these are writers that can sustain a career?
I think you answered your own question! You have to be a master storyteller. That is actually the one factor in common for any well-known self-pubbed phenoms. All their readers can’t stop talking about how the story spoke to them.
LS: What new deals have you made that you’re really excited about?
I’ll refer to question 7 for this one. (Bird Box by Josh Malerman) I also sold an amazing YA fantasy trilogy by an established author that I’m hugely excited about. I’m not announcing until after the Labor Day holiday though. Mums the word!
LS: What’s your idea of a “perfect” story?
An amazing story well told.
I often take on projects that were initially hard to sell. Gail Carriger’s Soulless comes to mind as does Simone Elkeles’s Perfect Chemistry. Lots of editors passed on these two while on submission. Both titles are now New York Times Bestsellers but at the time, they didn’t fit into a neat category or the “hot” trend. I’m not looking for what’s hot now. I’m looking for what is going to strike me as different and original. And maybe that will become the next trend.
Fingers crossed anyway.