An interview with Nathan Bransford
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  • January 17th, 2019

Nathan Bransford, author of the writing guide How to Write a Novel and the middle grade Jacob Wonderbar novels

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53 MIN
In this Episode

Nathan Bransford is a freelance editor and media strategy consultant, an author, and a former literary agent for Curtis Brown. In this interview, Leanpub co-founder Len Epp talks with Nathan about his background, studying English at Stanford during the dot com boom, work as a literary agent, getting published, and current issues facing the book publishing industry.

This interview was recorded on January 9, 2019.

This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.

Transcript

Nathan Bransford

Len: Hi this is Len Epp from Leanpub, and in this episode of the Backmatter Podcast, I'll be talking with Nathan Bransford.

Based in New York, Nathan is a freelance editor and media strategy consultant who has helped companies from Uber to CNET build online communities and advise them on strategic online program management. He is a former literary agent and the author of the Jacob Wonderbar middle-grade novels, as well as the book, How to Write a Novel, and he is the writer of a very popular blog for writers that you can find online at blog.nathanbransford.com.

Listed regularly as one of the best Web sites for writers by Writers Digest, Nathan's blog covers all the important dimensions of the book publishing industry and the profession of writing generally.

You can follow Nathan on Twitter @nathanbransford, and once again, you can find his blog, which I highly recommend, at blog.nathanbransford.com.

In this interview we're going to talk about Nathan's diverse career, writing, his media consulting work, and issues of importance to writers and people in the book publishing industry generally.

So, thank you Nathan for being on the Backmatter podcast.

Nathan: Thanks so much for having me.

Len: I always like to start these interviews by asking people for their origin stories, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about where you grew up, and how you became interested in writing and publishing generally?

Nathan: I grew up in a really small town in Northern California. If anyone's seen my picture from my blog, I kind of look like a surfer a little bit - or at least I get confused with a surfer. But the truth is that I grew up in a farming town.

My dad's a rice farmer, and I grew up in a town of 4,000 people. Not to date myself too much, but I grew up before the internet. And so growing up in a really small town in America - I was always fascinated by the broader world, and the best avenue into that was through reading.

So from a very young age, I read so many, so many books. Anything I could get my hands on. We had a town library and I read my way through that small library. Anytime we went to a big city, which was not super often, I would drag my parents to the bookstore and make them buy me as much as they would allow me to buy. So I just grew up with a real love of books.

When I got to college, I became an English major and I began to think about possibly making my way in a career with books. I was taking creative writing classes, and I wasn't getting very positive feedback. I mean I just was not a great writer in college.

I took a class with the author Vikram Seth, who wrote A Suitable Boy, and he was one of the people who was really supportive of me during a time when I wasn't getting a lot of positive feedback on my writing.

I told him, "I think I want to go into book publishing. I think I want to be an editor." And he said, “Why would you want to do that?” He was like, “No, no, no, no. Just go and hole up in your parent’s basement and write a novel." But I didn't listen to him, and instead I went into book publishing,

I was fortunate enough after college to land a job with the president of Curtis Brown Ltd., which is a great literary agency. That set me on my path to being a literary agent for eight years.

I think those early days being bored in a small town set me on my path to being involved in the world of books.

Len: I've got a very specific question. I checked out your profile on LinkedIn, and I guess I'm going to go ahead and date you a little bit, but you were at Stanford studying English during the dot com boom. I've actually interviewed a number of authors for a different podcast, who tend to be technical book writers. I've interviewed people who've studied at Stanford at various stages - early 90s, things like that.

I was wondering - as a former English major myself, what was it like being an English major at Stanford when everybody presumably had their eyes on all this money happening in the tech world?

Nathan: It's a great question. It was really fascinating time to be at Stanford during that time. I had classmates who were dropping out to join these harebrained dotcoms. I would be going to football games and talking to alumni in the parking lot, and they would be offering me jobs and be disappointed to find that I was an English major.

It was a really interesting time. I even took a computer science class during that time and I had a TA named Marissa. It wasn't until a couple of years ago that I realized that that TA was Marissa Mayer, who ended up being the CEO of Yahoo. I was reading a profile of her, and it mentioned that she spent some time teaching at Stanford. I was like, "Wait, wait, wait - that Marissa who was my TA, was Marissa Mayer?" And it turns out it totally was.

So yes, it was a really fascinating time to be there. There was so much pressure all around me to go into tech and to join the new wave. In some ways, it kind of hardened my resolve to go in an opposite path, and to really pursue something that was a real passion of mine,- books. Which, in the face of the world definitely changing - at the same time, I've always had a true and genuine fascination with technology and innovation. So I feel like in my career, I've really paired those two things, and a lot of my life has been driven by a love of technology and a love of books and storytelling.

Len: I'm looking forward to asking you some questions about your work in the more recent years, about tech, and with companies like Uber and things like that, in building online platforms. But before we do that - so, you graduated from university and it seems relatively soon after that you got what I think a lot of English majors would consider to be - perhaps before going into it - a dream job with a big name agency. What was it like when you started out as a literary agent? What were the some of the things that you had to learn that you didn't know, that you had to learn right away?

Nathan: Well, I think one of the things - it really was a dream job. I look back on it, and it was just so incredibly fortunate. I answered a Craigslist ad, and ended up with one of the top agencies in book publishing.

I think when you graduate from college as an English major, you've really learned to think about books in a very particular way. What you're thinking about books is, what do they mean? What are the cultural threads that the author is tapping into? What are the deeper threads, and things like that.

But when you start working at book publishing, you're reading in a very different way, that is much more oriented to two main things. One: does this work? Is this story well-told, is it well-executed? And secondly - what is its commercial viability, can you sell it? Shifting that mindset - at the time I took that job, I didn't realize I was going to be a writer. I still was not really thinking I had the talent or that I was a creative person - I kind of overly internalized some of the feedback I received in college. But really, in retrospect, it was an enormously helpful shift in mindset that ended up helping me very, very much when I began to write in my late 20s.

Len: One of the questions I wanted to ask you about that - because you've had this experience both as an agent and at one time an aspiring author, now an author with a trilogy behind you, and a non-fiction book, and another novel that you're working on, which I'd like to ask you about in a bit - but I mean, probably most listeners to this podcast would be aware of hings from the side of the author, where you sort of feel like you don't know what it's like on the other side of things - how do you get your foot in the door, basically, is the biggest concern that people often have - particularly when they're starting out. But the pressures from the agent's side are actually trying to get the right people through that door.

Nathan: Yes.

Len: And you're competing with other agents to do that. So I imagine it's a similar set of feelings, but just from a very different perspective.

Nathan: That's very astute, and it's very true. I mean as a young agent especially - particularly before you have a strong track record behind you, it's a real scrap. You really have to convince; you're always on the lookout for something you can sell. But even when you find something that's promising, you're in competition with all of these other agents with very strong track records. You're looking for these diamonds in the rough that you can polish, or to build a personal connection with an author for the long term,jumping in as fast as possible on the projects that could potentially work. And then trying to sell the author on yourself, without a track record - and it's a real challenge.

It's not getting easier. It's a really challenging industry to build a career in, because the traditional side of the business is not growing at a rapid rate, and because of technology, a lot of the established agents can take on more work and more business, and are able to be more efficient in how they represent their clients.

One of the ways that I adapted to that environment was by starting my blog. Originally, at the time, I thought that I needed a way to differentiate myself, and I had this sense that there was this untapped talent pool of people who just needed to know the way that things worked in the business, and just needed a set of information in order to find their way. People in that industry thought I was crazy to be doing it. People were like, "Why would you want to do that? Why would you open the floodgates?" But I knew that I needed to build a personal connection with authors so that, of people could get a sense of who I was and my integrity, and just generally helping authors - that it would give me a leg up, and it ended up being true.

Len: That's a really interesting experience - I think I'm drawing these connections that people on both sides of the equation, can actually have similar experiences.

But it seems to me crazy that people would think it was crazy of you, to reach out to people that way, and to open the floodgates. I mean aren't the floodgates things that should be opened when it comes to things like this? In particular, I think that one thing that technology has opened up for self-published authors, is actually interacting with readers. Something that I think a lot of authors 20 years ago would have thought, "Oh my God, why would I open up those floodgates?"

In your experience, and I want to ask you about the Jacob Wonderbar trilogy - has interacting with readers been something, not just readers of your blog, but readers of your novels - has that been something that you've engaged in actively online?

Nathan: Oh definitely, and it's wonderfully gratifying to hear from readers directly. Even just being able to reciprocate. I remember when I was a child, writing to my favorite authors, and never hearing back from them. But the idea that you can email or tweet at some of your favorite writers and then get a response - it's a wonderful world that we live in. It's one of the best parts of the gig.

Len: When did you start writing novels yourself?

Nathan: It wasn't until I was in my late 20s. I wrote a screenplay. and then I wrote a novel that was based on that screenplay. I received some positive feedback from some agents, and one agent in particular who sent me a very encouraging rejection letter - or actually a request for a revision, that detailed all the ways that he thought that the novel could be improved. I saw that letter and I said, "You know what? He's right, and I just don't think I can do this. I don't think that I have it in me to really nail this revision."

Around that time, I had this idea of this kid who was trapped on a planet full of substitute teachers. And so I put that other novel in the drawer, which is enormously painful. I wrote this novel in secret. I wrote a whole middle-grade novel that only a handful of people in my life even knew about, my own family didn't even know about it.

Len: Sorry to interrupt, but why did you make the decision to write in stealth mode like that?

Nathan: I thought I was being crazy for doing it, and I just couldn't bear anyone asking me about it, or being disappointed for me if it didn't work out. In retrospect, I think I was acting pretty irrationally. Now, I'm much more open about my creative process. But I was just scared, and just didn't know what was going to happen. I'd just written a whole novel, that from my perspective at the time, kind of crashed and burned. Even in retrospect, I don't feel that way. It's just so intense, writing a novel and putting yourself out there - and I just kind of psyched myself out about the whole thing.

Len: And so you had this inspiration for a story about a kid from the planet where substitute teachers come from, if I've got it correct? That's just such a cool idea.

Nathan: He's from Earth, but then he ends up a tormentor of substitute teachers. But then he somehow stumbles upon the planet where substitute teachers come from. I used that as the basis to flush out a whole series of three kids who blast up into space, and have to find their way back home, and have lots of wacky adventures along the way.

Len: What was your experience like pitching the idea to publishers?

Nathan: It was a pretty fascinating process. I was a literary agent at the time. It was at the time that my blog was kind of at its peak popularity, and so I thought - I don't know what I expected going in, but what ended up happening is I sent query letters to the people I knew in the business. The people I knew who represented science fiction for children - and everyone rejected me. Everyone I knew rejected me, or rejected my novel. I mean look - I'm a literary agent, I know better. And I just did it, where it's like, "They rejected me. No, I mean, they passed on my novel."

That's another thing that I thought going in, was that I was a literary agent, I worked with authors every day, I sent manuscripts out. I thought I was going to be totally cool through the process - and it turns out that I was just like any other author going through the process.

But eventually I sent a query letter to Catherine Drayton at InkWell. Catherine's a wonderful agent who represents The Book Thief by Markus Zusak - among many others. And she liked it, took it on, and then sent it out.

And again, I thought I was going to be totally cool - and I was crumbling by the end of the first month on submission. But eventually a couple of publishers offered, and I ended up going with Penguin - and the rest kind of wrote itself.

Now I look back, and when I tell the story, or people sort of get to know me later on, they're sort of like, "Of course you wrote these books, and of course they were published." But it was a really scary journey, even as someone who was living and breathing book publishing from the inside. It was not a given. I mean, it helped that I knew people in the business, but none of those people wanted to represent me. So, it's kind of an interesting process.

Len: Speaking of your journey - so there you were, you were a literary agent and you were a published author - and you moved on in your career to something else.

Nathan: Yeah.

Len: What motivated that shift?

Nathan: It was a really interesting time for me professionally. I really liked working with authors. I enjoyed working in the world of books. But it was a couple of different things.

I think the biggest thing was I had this drive to just try something new and to try to diversify. As I mentioned earlier in the podcast, I'm really fascinated by technology, and I really enjoyed the process of building up an online community and having that community around me. It was really amazing.

And so around that time I was thinking, "Maybe I want to try something new that's not in book publishing?" An opportunity came along to be CNET's first social media manager, and I love CNET. As a brand, ,I've been following them for years. It just seemed like such an amazing opportunity to take what I learned building up my own online community, for a company that I really loved. And so I made the leap.

It was really wrenching leaving my clients. I mean it was honestly like going through 30 breakups in one day, and it was it was really hard. But I left them all in good hands, and many of them have gone on to have like very successful writing careers - and I'm still friends with a lot of them. I'm so thankful that I made that shift. I've just learned so much working at different careers and industries, and I feel like I've grown so much as a person. I still maintain that connection to the book world, which has been really, really gratifying.

Len: As I understand it, you moved on from CNET - it might not have been the exact next move, but you also worked for a hedge fund for a while.

Nathan: I did.

Len: Which is interesting in itself. I think a lot of people in the publishing industry, and particularly self-published authors, understand that building an online brand, building an online presence, is important for you. We understand that it's important for different types of companies, particularly tech companies. But what was it like doing that kind of work for a hedge fund?

Nathan: It was really fascinating. It's really going from the book publishing industry, where so much is subjective and so much as is artistic and ephemeral, and going to a place that placed a huge amount of emphasis on rigor and logic and very rigorous analysis. And also going from book publishing, which provides a work-life balance. Most people work very hard in publishing, but it's a slower-paced environment by nature, compared to a very, very hyper competitive intense place. It was really fascinating.

I'm so thankful that I had that experience, and I learned so much just being inside those walls and seeing the way that people think. The hedge fund I worked for, Bridgewater Associates, is the world's largest hedge fund. The founder has been, in the last couple of years especially, really sharing his knowledge with the world in the form of his Principles book and videos and all these other things. It was just a really tremendous education, and one that I think ultimately benefited me a lot - both in terms of giving me a new way of thinking about the world, benefiting artistically, just being exposed to such an innovative and such a cutting=edge place. It was a really fascinating experience.

Len: A lot of what you're saying really resonates with me. I moved on from a doctorate in English literature to investment banking. I did M&A in London for two and a half years, and I appreciate what you're saying about the different lifestyle and different pace and the different competitiveness, and particularly I appreciate - I mean, I had the very same experience of being so excited by that environment. At the same time, I do remember skepticism about an English major being in that in that environment. I worked for a company that actually had a pretty diverse pool that it drew from, more diverse than I think a lot of people think happens in finance. Did you encounter any skepticism from people? Moving from say something like the book publishing industry, into an environment like that - even though you'd already had experience building online communities and stuff like that, so people would have known about your tech work as well?

Nathan: Not too much, and I think that that's one of the wonderful things about Bridgewater. They very much appreciate having an interesting background and an unconventional background. Being the individual that you are. It's interesting whether one of the main commonalities between book publishing and Bridgewater was just that both of those environments really put a premium on people just being themselves, their authentic selves.

That comes with some eccentricity, that's welcomed. And so, no - I felt fortunate that my background wasn't a hindrance or something I had to hide. Bridgewater also believes strongly in transparency, and so I was very open about the fact that I was an author and that I ultimately wanted to be writing books - and everyone was very supportive of that.

Len: I understand you've been working with Uber for about a year and a half?

Nathan: Yes.

Len: This is one of the companies that at least is always sort of on top of my list of headlines to read about, because I'm particularly interested in self-driving cars and things like that. What sort of work are you doing for Uber?

Nathan: I'm working with their tech brand team on audience development. One of the interesting things that has happened over the last 10 years, is the use of blogs has gone from something you'd be crazy to do, to something that can be a really effective tool for companies to reach either potential customers or potential recruits.

Uber has a wildly innovative blog for Silicon Valley, and have been very, very effective at creating a really great blog that showcases their engineering work to potential talent who might want to work in a tech organization. I've been working with them for about a year and a half on strategy, and how to grow their audience, and audience development and things like that - it's been a lot of fun.

Len: So it's building an audience through the provision of interesting content?

Nathan: Right.

Len: Written content for a particular audience, which is potential recruits for Uber.?

Nathan: Exactly. And also the broader world. There's a reason that people think Uber are not just the company that gets you from point A to Point B. I think that there's an appreciation of the technology that they utilize, in order to make all of that happen. That perception is in part driven by the fact that they have this blog. They've been very transparent about showing different pieces of their technology to the outside world. And so we don't just think of Uber as, "that app." It's, "Wow, that's an incredible technology that's making all this happen."

Len: Shifting gears a little bit, I'd like to talk about the book publishing industry generally, particularly in the US. This is going to be a little bit of a long setup to this question, but while preparing for this interview I listened to an interview you did on something I think called, "The Aspiring Writer Podcast," back in 2017. In the interview, you mentioned something that really struck me - that you found your reading habits had shifted to current events over fiction reading.

What really resonated with me was right at that moment when I heard you saying that, it recalled to me an experience I had around 2017 myself, when I decided to finally sit down and read John Rawls' Theory of Justice.

After reading just a couple of long sentences - which I normally love doing - and staring down the barrel of hundreds more pages of the same elaborate kind of theorizing - which I normally also love - I thought to myself, how useless it all seemed in the current political moment.

It seems something might be happening more broadly in American book publishing and reading culture, where nonfiction about current and historical events has seen increasing sales, and I think I think fiction sales are down.

So what I'd like to ask you - more generally, from a broader perspective - are there times when it's irresponsible to read fiction?

And then perhaps sort of narrowing that down and drawing a connection to the book publishing industry, do you think that political changes in the United States in the last few years have been driving people's reading habits?

Nathan: On the first question - I mean, it's never irresponsible to be reading fiction, and if anything, we need more people to read more fiction. It deepens your experience of life, and you gain so much insight and meaning from reading.

There are scientific studies that show that people who read more novels tend to be more empathetic as human beings. So, particularly at a moment in time when the world is lacking in empathy - and in particular, empathy for more disempowered groups = we need fiction now more than ever.

But that said, I absolutely think that the current events are really driving and shaping reading habits. You can see it in the bestseller lists, and you can see the amount of energy behind books that have anything to do with the political situation in this country.

At the same time, I also personally feel like this. I don't have the data at my fingertips to back this up, but there's just so much competition for attention. Social media and apps are shaping not just the way that we consume our time, but the way our brains work, and our capacity to focus for long periods, and our attention span.

I've really worried about books as a platform, just because I can feel my own attention span shrinking, and I'm someone who reads quite a bit - let alone people who don't read a book entirely. But that said, I still see reason for optimism.

A lot more people are listening to audiobooks, and that's another way of consuming content.

This is anecdotal, but I've seen it elsewhere - I've carved out more time for reading, just because of the effect that social media and the apps are having on me, and carving out my ability to concentrate and to block out distractions. I think we'll continue to see that more and more. Because of my love of technology, I've always been very pro ebook and excited about the innovations that it offers. I still read primarily ebooks. But at the same time, you can just see print holding on as a platform, and I think a lot of that has to do with blocking out the internet.

Len: You've been doing an annual ebooks survey for the past 12 years or so. Can you talk a little bit about how, in addition to how people's use appears to have been changing, have you seen changes in attitudes towards ebooks?

Nathan: That poll has been has been fascinating to me over the years. The first time I published the poll, was - I'm almost positive was before the Kindle. And so ebooks were really a hypothetical that people were talking about. At that time there wasn't even really a device to read them very well. I believe the Sony Reader was out at the time I first launched the poll. But the Kindle wasn't out, the iPad wasn't out. But I still felt like it was inevitable for the future, because of costs. The mass market took off because it was cheaper, and the potential for ebooks to be cheaper still, made me feel like eventually it was going to become ubiquitous.

Then the Kindle came along, and people kind of got it a little bit more. But the original Kindle, I'm sorry Jeff Bezos, was a little bit clunky and, just not a device that really made people super excited. But hardcore readers started shifting. And then around that time, I published a blog post that was like, "I don't think that ebooks are really going to take off until there is a larger iPhone of the future."

don't know how many of my predictions were right, but that was a correct one, where there was another shift in perception once the iPad came out, and it gave people another avenue to read ebooks who didn't like e-ink.

But then after this initial burst of enthusiasm and this wave, things kind of leveled off. The exponential growth became incremental growth - and there hasn't been, since the iPad, a real serious innovation in the medium, giving people different or new opportunities to read ebooks.

I think around that time you also saw the burst in social media. And then I think more and more people beginning to hold onto paper books as an antidote to screens. And so right now, it's been a little bit of a tapering off. But I still think that in the long term it's still - and I mean from an environmental perspective, from a cost perspective - I think they're the future still - I still do.

Len: It's really interesting. I want to ask you a specific question about what it was like seeing ebooks and specifically the Kindle, and things like the iPhone come out - from the agent's perspective. But before that, I just wanted to take the opportunity to make an observation.

One of the things I've found anecdotally in my experience talking to people interested in books and the publishing world, is that people who either in fact or in their imagination, have a sympathy for the experience of being deprived of access to books, tend to just naturally see the value of ebooks much more passionately, or positively. It's a good predictor, let's just put it that way, for someone's attitude towards ebooks, versus print books, if they've had this experience of feeling deprived at some point in their lives.

Nathan: I totally agree with you. A lot of the skepticism of ebooks that I encountered on my blog or in the industry, or in just talking with people, were the people who felt so deeply sentimental about bookstores and about their neighborhood bookstore that they grew up with, and things like that. But I didn't have that growing up. I mean, I grew up in a town without a bookstore, and the nearest bookstore to me was 30 miles away. And it was in a tiny mall - np one is feeling nostalgic about that that bookstore.

And so when Amazon came along, and then when ebooks came along, I approached it exactly as you say - from that sense of book scarcity, and just imagining myself as a child having access to Amazon. Oh my God. I mean, or being able to just download a book when I wanted one, instead of having to wait until my parents went to Sacramento next month. I think that people who didn't grow up in a big city or suburbia, have a real sense of appreciation for the access.

Len: It's really interesting, you bring up this sort of, I'll call it nostalgia, for bookstores. It's something that always strikes me as well - because there's another side to things, where privacy becomes a really important issue. I remember interviewing someone for this podcast who talked about growing up in a community in eastern Europe, where if you went to the local bookstore and asked for a book on divorce, you might get a visit from the local priest.

I like to tell that story, because it reminds me of a letter that I think was published by a group of independent bookshop owners in Chicago, complaining about Amazon's algorithm, and saying, "Nobody knows you better than we do, because we know you personally."

You would have seen Amazon grow throughout your career as this online place that can target you, but without knowing you. Do you think that there's something that people should be concerned about when it comes to being targeted on Amazon? I mean, can you end up in a in a bubble, or is is this actually an opportunity for people to experience more freedom, in a sense?

Nathan: That's a good question. I should probably say my biases up upfront, which is, I tend to be pretty sanguine about potential privacy issues. I don't tend to be super worried about privacy. I mean in some of the early ebook debates, I remember having these back and forths with readers, where they're like, "When something's electronic and it can just be wiped from your or your device," and all these other things - and my standpoint was always, "If they're wiping books from our electronic devices, we have way bigger problems than what's happening with the books. I mean then, whatever society that we're living in at that state, is so terrible that we're probably not going to be too worried about our books, when there'd be like fighting in the streets.

From a privacy perspective, I'm always surprised at how these things end up becoming catastrophes that I hadn't envisioned. So I'm probably not the best equipped to anticipate potential privacy issues that could arise from the books themselves. I tend to just be more excited about the opportunity, and trusting that the marketplace will on the whole figure out the broader issues.

Len: That's a good segue - circling back into the perception of opportunity and the rise of ebooks, so there you were a literary agent, representing authors and I think estates as well? Did you did you represent Winston Churchill's estate for a time?

Nathan: I did in the United States. He had a primary agent in the UK, and so I represented the books in the United States.

Len: How did people from these various perspectives react, when ebooks started coming out? For you as an agent, was it like, "Wow, what a new opportunity to make more money for my clients?"

Nathan: It was interesting. When ebooks came along, it felt like - to the consumer, they kind of came out of nowhere. But in the industry they'd been discussed for a very, very long time. There had been discussions around them for a very, very long time. But there were definitely a lot of battles and back-and-forth between agents and publishers about how these books should be treated, and how much of the holistic cost of creating a book should be taken into account, how much should the fact that publishers are not paying for paper and distribution be taken into account?

And then, there was a very, very longstanding debate over the right split between publishers and authors, that were being negotiated by agents. And then as well, about the business model that the publishers should work out with the ebook distributors. Which of course led to the whole fight between to the wholesale or the agency model. Those debates raged for a long time - but agents were definitely all over it.

Len: On the subject of what authors earn and what publishers earn, one of the things I wanted to talk to you about was, for people who follow the book publishing industry blogs and mediam ne of the sort of things that you constantly see is contradictory signals about author earnings.

Typically, and it's already happened in 2019 with the Authors Guild, some organization releases what more or less seems like sketchy data, highlighting how low author earnings are, and what a disaster we're facing. But at the same time, it appears that things have never been better for self-published authors, and things look really positive on that horizon. What are your views on this issue, about how author earnings are faring generally in the United States?

Nathan: It's tough. I think what you've seen in traditional publishing is the hollowing out of the middle. There used to be much more of a robust mid-list, with advances from $50,000 to $150,000, that would afford an author with maybe a few other gigs on the side, to to carve out a space writing nonfiction especially.

But as with everything else in the economy, things are consolidated between a handful in a smaller group of big winners. The bigs are bigger than ever. And then everyone else is kind of like scrambling for a long tail, and scraping by. I think that trend has continued.

There are definitely authors who have carved out very successful places for themselves self-publishing. But to this point, at the risk of overgeneralizing, they tend to be genre authors, they tend to be authors who are just cranking out books, and are really able to satisfy a base of readers who are very hungry to be reading different books by the same author in the same series.

And so the landscape for authors who are writing books that take more time to write, who maybe are writing something that's more literary or artistic - and trying to generate attention and more credibility for those types of works, it's very difficult for that author, and it's certainly really difficult for that author to make any money doing that.

And so it's tough. On the whole, I still maintain that there's never been a better time to be an author, becausea book can at least find its place and find its audience.

But the demands placed on authors in order to even bring that about are greater and greater, whether you go traditional publishing or self-publishing. It just takes an enormous amount of work to promote the book, on top of writing the book - to have all these skill sets that aren't always compatible between marketing and writing and being creative and being organized and being a product manager and all of these different skill sets coming together.

I still think that we're a little bit of a Wild West, where traditional publishing is a very well-oiled machine. But maybe consolidating. And then you have the self-publishing world, which is new, but it hasn't quite organized itself in a way that necessarily works for authors. I think you'll begin to see that taking shape in a more constructive way in the next five to ten years.

Len: It's really interesting you say that. My next question was actually going to be about organizing. The Authors Guild in the United States is currently suggesting that authors should try - and particularly, presumably self-published authors - should try to band together to engage in collective negotiations with companies like Amazon, Google, and Facebook.

Just to flesh that issue out a little bit - you mentioned genre authors who are really cranking the books out, can actually make a fair amount of money.

One of the reasons they need to keep cranking books out is very specific. Amazon's algorithms look at how often you're publishing new books. And so if you don't publish one - and I think it's currently every 30 days - then you dramatically fall off their promotional algorithm.

Do you think that this is something that authors can actually succeed at banding together on? Presenting themselves as a single interest group to companies like Amazon and Google and Facebook, and try to put pressure on them to make a more - let's say, favorable environment? One in which, for example, the algorithm can't just be changed on you overnight, and you can't have your successful book business completely torn out from underneath you.

Nathan: It's an interesting question, and it's one that I don't feel like I totally know the answer to. I mean, I do welcome authors coming together to advance their interests, I think that's a great pursuit. The challenge is trying to unify all of the different interests across authors, many of whom have different goals, many of whom are writing very different types of books. And inevitably - you tweak an algorithm, you're creating winners and losers.

And so banding authors together for a singular vision of what that algorithm should be, is something I'm a little bit skeptical of. I mean, I'm sure everyone can agree that we would want more of the share of the revenue. That's maybe one thing that everyone can agree upon.

But I tend to think that this is going to be sorted out by the marketplace, where who is serving readers best, I think, will be the place that ultimately ends up prevailing.

At the same time, Amazon's consolidation of the market - it's been almost complete when it comes to ebooks, and I worry about the lack of innovation and competition to create alternatives, and alternative forms of discovery, and things like that.

So it's tough. It's a tough landscape, and I wish I had more of the answers.

Len: I've got two final questions to ask you. The first is about Barnes & Noble, and the second is about your current novel that you're working on.

It's become a bit of a theme of this podcast, for me to ask people what they think is going to happen at Barnes & Noble in the near term, and what impact they think a collapse of Barnes and Noble would have on the book publishing industry in the US?

Nathan: About a year ago I had a conversation with Mike Shatzkin, who's a longtime publishing consultant, and he also has a really incredible blog on the inside of book publishing, on some of the marketing. We talked a lot about this very topic, what would happen if Barnes & Noble were to go bankrupt. Which, to be clear, is not imminent by anything I've seen.

But it's definitely a perennial topic of conversation. Where we arrived is that it would have a really very significant impact on the publishing industry.

If you think about what publishers are, they're really a collection of services that take a book and make it happen. In order for that to happen, there's editing, there's putting together the design of the physical book.

But the thing that they offer that's the true competitive advantage that can't be created by an author, is their distribution. They are the ones who can get a book into a bookstore. They know how to do that. They have the relationships, they have the infrastructure, they have the processes.

And so in a time when print is still the lion's share of an author's revenue, authors still need to go to publishers in order to reach the bulk of their readers. If Barnes & Noble were to go bankrupt and close their stores and there wasn't anything that jumped in to replace them, it would be a very significant challenge for publishers to maintain the costly infrastructure that facilitates distribution, and to maintain their value, profit, and their appeal to authors.

It probably would prompt another wave of consolidation, and it would really also - one of the things that it would also impact is the ability of publishers to make a big splash with a new book. They're able to go to Barnes & Noble and make a big a splash across the country. But independent bookstores tend not to be as consolidated, and have more individualized interests - and so being able to break out a title through marketing within bookstores, it would be more challenging.

So it would be a big deal. It'd be a really big deal. And it could push things more towards ebooks, potentially. It could push more toward authors going it alone. Because it's not that hard to make a book for an author. As anyone who's self-published knows, the hard part is not the making of the book. The hard part is the marketing and the distribution. And if that distribution goes away, an author, even a very big author, could look at the landscape and might say, "You know what? I'm going to take the bulk of the revenue by doing this myself, and I'm going to go it alone."

Len: It's such an interesting industry arc. I mean, let's say 30 years ago, the rise of the big box stores would have been seen by book lovers generally, and independent bookstore lovers who are a distinct group - would have seen the rise of those big stores as a huge existential threat. And now when we hear about the big chains closing, we're like, "another existential threat."

I should say, I actually interviewed Mike for this podcast a little while ago, and I think I asked him the same question about Barnes & Noble.

Nathan: He probably had a much better answer than I did, because he's real expert on that one.

Len: No, that was that was a very good answer. Are you suggesting that it would actually be bad overall, even for independent bookstores, if a big chain like that collapsed?

Nathan: I don't know that it would necessarily be - I mean, it'd be bad for all the wonderful people who work at Barnes & Noble, bad for people in the publishing industry. It would shift the landscape. Again, there'd be winners and losers from that shift. For authors, I don't know? I think at the end of the day, authors are able to find their readership. And whether you're an author who's self-publishing a passion project, or whether you're J.K. Rowling or James Patterson, you're going to find your audience.

I tend to be more optimistic from the standpoint of the author. Because before, if a publisher didn't find your work commercially viable, it went into the drawer and no one could see it. But, even if even your readership is a dozen people, if it's 100 people, if it's 10,00 people - it's great that you were able to try it and get it out there, and have it find the readership that it's going to find.

And so if Barnes & Noble were to to go under, certainly that would create a more challenging environment for certain types of authors, and it would be very, very difficult for the publishing industry and it could even be hard for the indie bookstores, if a publisher's distribution becomes unwieldy, and they have to cut back on their print distribution.

It would be a huge, huge shock to the system. But books are going to be books, and they're going to still be there.

Len: We've got just a couple of minutes left. My last question is, can you talk a little bit about your latest novel that you're working on?

Nathan: Taking this full circle, the first thing I wrote after college was that screenplay. That novel that I sent around to agents the first time around - I took that essential idea and turned it into a young adult novel. Before, it was intended for adults, but this is a young adult novel that I've been working on for a very long time. It's a really challenging premise, and I've really struggled with figuring out how to make it work. But I'm hopeful I've finally found a way to make it work.

I just finished the first draft right before the holidays. I'm currently in the process of revising, and then hopefully we'll send it to my agent in the next couple months. So fingers crossed.

My first series was middle grade, this is young adult. So it's a different vibe and a different approach. But I'm cautiously hopeful and excited about it. And I'm telling you about it, which means that I'm not like I used to be where I'm keeping everything a total secret.

Len: Thanks for sharing that, and thanks for taking the time to do this interview. I really appreciate it. Congratulations on finishing the first draft of your novel. Best wishes for the next couple of months as you get things firmed up. And thanks again for taking the time to do this interview.

Nathan: Thank you, this was great.

Len: Thanks.

Podcast info & credits
  • Published on January 17th, 2019
  • Interview by Len Epp on January 9th, 2019
  • Transcribed by Alys McDonough