ristin established the Nelson Literary Agency in 2002. In such a short time, she has sold more than 65 books to such publishers as Random House, Hyperion, Harlequin, Simon & Schuster, Hachette/Warner and the Penguin Group. She has landed several film deals and has contracted foreign rights on behalf of her clients in all the major territories. Her authors are RITA-award winners and USA Today bestsellers. She specializes in representing commercial fiction (romance, women’s fiction, science fiction, fantasy, young adult) and literary fiction with a commercial bent. She also considers a few nonfiction projects that tend to be story-based, such as memoir and narrative nonfiction.
Clients include Ally Carter (I’d Tell You I Love You But Then I’d Have to Kill You), Sherry Thomas (Private Arrangements)Linnea Sinclair (Gabriel’s Ghost and Games of Command), Shanna Swendson (Enchanted, Inc. series), Kim Reid (No Place Safe), and Jennifer O’Connell (Everything I Needed To Know About Being A Girl I Learned From Judy Blume).
Member: AAR, RWA, SFWA. Please visit the agency website www.nelsonagency.com before submitting.
WOW: Welcome to WOW! Kristin, we’re thrilled you’ve decided to give us the inside scoop. Let’s dive right into one of the first questions most writers ask: “Do I need an agent?”
Kristin: I think the answer to that question is, “It depends.” A lot of houses won’t look at unsolicited or unagented manuscripts, so then the answer would be yes, you do need an agent. However, the editors of some genres (such as romance, science fiction, and fantasy) will look at all submissions, so then the answer is no, you don’t.
But here’s my question to your readers. Have you ever seen a publishing contract? Would you even know how to navigate it? Do you understand what the grant of rights clause is asking? Do you know how to limit an option clause? Do you understand the real meaning behind the language in a standard publishing out-of-print clause?
Chances are good that you said NO to all of the above. Then, you need an agent. Besides, a good agent doesn’t just sell your book; a good agent guides your whole career. I think that’s worth a 15% commission.
WOW: You’ve made some good points to consider; plus, you’ve already crossed over my head with those contract terms. Let’s move on to the next question. What’s your advice when writers ask, “How do I get an agent?”
Kristin: Do your research! There are so many good online resources such as www.publishersmarketplace.com and www.agentquery.com. Sites like these are usually up-to-date and will really help a writer create a good agent submission list targeted to the right people. Then, write a terrific query letter. That is your calling card and will be the ultimate decider on whether an agent will ask for those crucial sample pages or not.
Finally, write a fantastic manuscript. If you do all three, you’ll land an agent.
WOW: You make it sound simple and straightforward. Of course, I imagine you’ve heard the next question hundreds of times: “Should an agent live in New York?”
Kristin: Since I’m in Denver, of course I’m going to say no. To me, it’s just not a factor. I travel there often. I see editors all the time at the crucial conferences and book fairs such as Book Expo. Editors know me and my reputation. They don’t care if I’m in Denver or wherever as long as they know that when I have a good project, I’ll send it to them.
WOW: Thanks for clarifying that point. I think your answer holds even more weight when we consider how technology keeps everyone close at hand, anyway. So, tell us, what should writers expect from their agents?
Kristin: Writers can expect their agents to be their advocates, but not their best friends. It’s a business partnership. Good communication. Career guidance. A belief in your work. A good agent will also be honest and tell you if something is working or not.
"On our website, we state that we only take queries by email. We mean it."
WOW: That’s clear-cut, and it makes sense. What about when business isn’t working? In other words, can you describe the pitfalls writers should avoid when contacting agents?
Kristin: As long as writers treat this as a business and stay professional when contacting agents (either by email, query letter, or whatever), it’s hard to go wrong.
Also, follow the submission guidelines! On our website, we state that we only take queries by email. We mean it. We don’t take phone queries. We don’t take queries in person. We don’t read snail-mailed queries. So please contact us only when appropriate.
WOW: I imagine little would go wrong if writers stuck to the business structure. Speaking of business, what is your literary agency’s commission structure, and how do you handle client expenses?
Kristin: We do the standard 15% for primary rights, 25% for foreign rights, and 20% for dramatic/film rights.
We actually don’t get reimbursed for client expenses because it’s not worth tracking. The only exception is for costs associated with the selling of subsidiary rights. Sometimes we need to order more books to send to foreign publishers and that can get expensive. We do get reimbursed for that.
"This business can be so subjective."
WOW: Thanks for the details. Let’s switch gears. I’d like to find out more about your thoughts on query letters. What do you tell writers about attention-getting queries?
Kristin: Practice them. Get other writers to critique your letters. Try one version and see if it gets requests. If it doesn’t, try a different way.
All writers want a formula for query letters. They want, “If I do XYZ, that will guarantee that an agent will request sample pages.”
It doesn’t work that way because all agents are different and we have different tastes. I talked on my blog about Jamie Ford’s original query for his book HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEETthat sold to Ballantine at auction.
WOW: Here’s Kristin’s entire blog post regarding Jamie Ford’s query, which includes Kristin’s comments:
KN: As promised and with Jamie’s permission, here is the query he sent me for his manuscript which was originally entitled THE PANAMA HOTEL.
For me, that title didn’t really capture the essence of the manuscript so we spent a lot of time kicking around alternatives before we went out on submission. It was quite a process but after sharing several forerunner titles with a variety of reliable sources, we agreed to HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET.
One of the fun things about this submission is that many editors loved the title and couldn’t imagine the novel being called anything else.
That means we did a good job. Random House hasn’t mentioned changing it, so as far as we know, this will be the title for the book.
Dear Ms. Nelson:
I must admit I hate Asian stereotypes. You know the ones. Good at math. Hardworking. We all look alike. Come to think of it, that last one might hold water. After all, my father once wore a button that read “I am Chinese,” while growing up in Seattle’s Chinatown during WWII. It was the only thing that separated him from the Japanese, at least in the eyes of his Caucasian neighbors.
Sad, but true. Which is probably why my novel has a little to do with that particular piece of history.
KN: I was really caught by his personal connection to the history he plans to explore. I've never heard of the "I am Chinese" buttons, which is kind of fascinating.
Anyway, the working title is The Panama Hotel, and when people ask me what the heck it’s all about I usually tell them this:
“It’s the story of the Japanese internment in Seattle, seen through the eyes of a 12-year-old Chinese boy, who is sent to an all-white private school, where he falls in love with a 12-year-old Japanese girl.”
KN: I've never seen a novel about a Chinese boy falling in love with a Japanese girl during such a volatile time period. I have to say that I was pretty much hooked by this story concept. Simple, but there's a lot of weight behind it. I did happen to know that the Chinese and the Japanese had long been at war before the advent of WWII so I knew of the general animosity between the countries—but I knew nothing of how that might have played out on American soil.
But it’s more complicated than that. It’s a bittersweet tale about racism, commitment and enduring hope—a noble romantic journey set in 1942, and later in 1986 when the belongings of 37 Japanese families were discovered in the basement of a condemned hotel.
KN: At this point, I knew I was going to ask for sample pages, but I have to admit that this paragraph made me pause. Dual narratives are tricky and extremely hard to pull off. I would only know if the author succeeded by asking for sample pages. I was struck by the belongings being discovered in an old hotel. This ends up being a true story and was part of what sparked Jamie to write the novel. I didn't find out this info until later and I must say that, if included, it could have added power to the query letter.
This historical fiction novel is based on my Glimmer Train story, I Am Chinese, which was a Top 25 Finalist in their Fall 2006 Short-Story Competition For New Writers. An excerpt was also published in the Picolata Review.
KN: Nice. It always helps to know there has been some previous recognition.
Think Amy Tan, but with a sweeter aftertaste.
KN: was already thinking Amy Tan but a male version...
Thank you for your consideration and time,
The Panama Hotel
Historical Fiction 86,000 words / 353 pages
About the author: James “Jamie” Ford grew up near Seattle’s Chinatown and is busy writing his next novel, Rabbit Years. In addition to his Glimmer Train accolades, he took 1st Place in the 2006 Clarity of Night Short Fiction Contest. Jamie is also an alumnus of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers.
KN: Nice. Some more literary creds. I would have asked for sample pages without the mention though.
He hangs out at www.jamieford.com and has been known to eat jellyfish, sea cucumber and chicken feet on occasion.
KN: This made me smile and that's never a bad thing.
Now here's what's interesting. As I mentioned on a previous blog, an agent friend of mine received the same query and it didn't spark his interest at all. Now he freely admits that he was in a time crunch at the time he received it. That can change our response. If he hadn't been, he might have paid a little closer attention but for the most part, this query didn't float his boat much.
And that just highlights the subjective tastes of agents.
I loved this query, but it didn’t work for an agent friend of mine.
This business can be so subjective.
WOW: I can’t thank you enough for that sample. It gives us an insider’s view! We’d love to know more. Of course, writers need to know the right and wrong way to email a query. What do you consider the DOs and DON’Ts?
- Do email queries and save on stamp costs.
- Do be professional and brief in your query.
- Do highlight your relevant background or publishing credentials.
- Do take the time to hone and then highlight your one or two sentence pitch or hook.
- Do take only one paragraph to summarize the rest of your work-following the grab-your-attention style found on the back cover of books.
- Do thank the agent for reviewing your query.
- Don't address your letter "To Whom it May Concern."
- Don't use an unusually small font.
- Don't immediately send another email query if an agent has just rejected your first.
- Don't use cutesy fonts or backgrounds.
- Don't query more than one work at a time.
- Don't forget to include the title of your work in the query.
- Don't be unclear as to whether your project is fiction or nonfiction.
- Don't CC a bunch of other agents on your email query. Send the email to one agent at a time.
WOW: I like your clean and concise responses. Ambiguity doesn’t exist among your answers. But uncertainty always comes with waiting. How long should prospective clients expect to wait before hearing a reply to a query?
Kristin: We actually try and respond to query letters within 10 days, but sometimes it is longer (and I have to say that it’s usually my fault when that happens).
WOW: That’s a speedy return, I’d say. Plus, your honesty is refreshing. What is your agency actively seeking at this time?
Kristin: Your readers are going to hate me. I’m ALWAYS looking for a great, original story well-told. It’s true. It’s that simple. But if you want the list, we are looking for literary, commercial, women’s fiction, everything in romance, science fiction, fantasy, young adult, and upper level middle grade fiction. We occasionally handle a memoir or narrative nonfiction project.
There is no “ideal” client.
WOW: I doubt our readers will hate you. I think they’ll be relieved to know the details. Would you describe the ideal author/client with whom you wish to work?
Kristin: A client who has made an effort to understand that publishing is a business even though writing is an art. There is no “ideal” client. We are all different human beings, so I take that into consideration when working with my clients. “Ideal” can be defined a hundred different ways.
WOW: Point well taken. Would you share a little about your agency’s team members?
Kristin: My right hand is my assistant Sara Megibow. She’s wonderful. She pre-reads everything that comes to the agency: query letters, sample pages, and full manuscripts. I wouldn’t be able to survive without her. Then, we also have our foreign rights co-agent, Whitney Lee, who sells the translation rights to our projects. Then there is Paula Breen, our contracts manager. She won’t like being referred to as a bulldog, but she is when we are trying to get certain terms in our publishing contracts. I also have several Hollywood co-agents that I work with.
WOW: What an all-star team! Let’s move into your team’s end results. Would you share details on recent sales?
Kristin: Certainly. I just had two hot auctions in August for Jamie Ford’s debut HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET (a literary commercial novel that sold to Ballantine for six figures) and Sarah Rees Brennan’s debut YA urban fantasy trilogy starting with THE DEMON’S LEXICON (that sold to Simon & Schuster Children’s for six figures). I also did another deal for my fantasy author, Lisa Shearin, for the next two books in her Raine Benares fantasy series with Ace. I’m currently in negotiations with Hyperion for Ally Carter’s third book in her extremely popular Gallagher Girls YA series that started with I’D TELL YOU I LOVE YOU BUT THEN I’D HAVE TO KILL YOU.
WOW: (smiles) Those sound wonderful! Now that we know what your agency wants, please tell us what you don’t want. What do you keep receiving that you shake your head at, time and time again?
Kristin: All nonfiction except memoirs and narrative nonfiction. Children’s picture books. That’s a whole different animal (pardon the pun!)
WOW: Pun understood. My final question relates to your blog: Pub Rants. I’ve noticed you receive numerous comments on a regular basis. How do you maintain consistency and steady interest?
Kristin: I have no idea! (Chuckle) Seriously, I do try and give the inside look at publishing from my perspective and writers often find that helpful. I am, however, constantly amazed at the fact that industry professionals often read my blog as well. My target audience really is writers.
We’re grateful to you, Kristin, for sharing the inside scoop on Nelson Literary Agency!
Nelson Literary Agency
1732 Wazee Street, Suite 207
Denver, CO 80202
voice: 303.292.2805 (Please, no phone queries)
Please note that we only accept email queries. Please check submission guidelines before sending queries.