Kristin Nelson is the successful literary agent behind the Denver-based Nelson Literary Agency, which she founded in 2002. According to Nelson, she’s sold “more than 65 books to such publishers as Random House, Hyperion, Harlequin, Simon & Schuster, Hachette/Warner and the Penguin Group.” She specializes in fiction, both commercial and literary, and also represents some narrative nonfiction. Nelson maintains a blog, Pub Rants, in which she writes about all facets of the publishing industry and does so with good cheer. I recently interviewed Nelson via email about how she came to start a literary agency in Denver, why she blogs, and how she maintains an upbeat attitude about the future of books.
NewWest: What is your background in publishing and how and when did you come to start a literary agency in Denver?
Kristin Nelson: I started in publishing by working for another literary agent by the name of Jody Rein. She had moved out to Denver after working for HarperCollins and other publishers. She did mostly nonfiction and when I wanted to handle fiction (and genre stuff at that), I started my own agency in 2002. All in Denver. I end up traveling to New York often though.
NW: What were the most important lessons you learned at the University of Denver’s publishing institute that you use in your current work?
KN: Actually, it wasn’t the lessons I learned but the people that I met that ended up being the most valuable. Jane Isay was editor-in-chief of Harcourt at the time and she convinced me to start my own agency (and I’m so glad I did). The first book I ever sold was to a Denver Publishing Institute graduate.
NW: How big is the Nelson Literary Agency? Are you planning to keep expanding it? How do you know when you’ve grown to the right number of clients?
KN: I like to think we are big in reputation! (I’m definitely smiling as I write this). Right now we have about 20 clients or so. I imagine we might max out at about 40 or 50 clients if we stay the same size as we are. But who knows about the future. I might take on another agent and my literary assistant might eventually want to agent as well (and she’d be awesome at it). Then the agency would grow and so would our client list.
NW: Are there any special challenges to being an agent in Denver (as opposed to Manhattan)?
KN: Well, I’m always bummed when I get a book launch invitation or a cocktail party invite and I don’t happen to be in town that week. But seriously, it hasn’t made a difference for me.
NW: Are there other publishing industry professionals that you know of based in Denver or the Rocky Mountain region?
NW: Do you represent any local or regional authors?
NW: You keep up a lively blog that offers advice and information to aspiring writers. Do you do this as a public service? Do you like to be able to help aspiring writers in this specific way given that you have to send out so many non-specific rejections to people who approach your agency about their books?
KN: I really do like helping writers to learn about the business. So on one hand, it is altruistic but on the other, the blog is a marketing tool. I want my agency and my clients to be better known in the internet world and blogging was a way to accomplish that.
NW: Your blog’s tagline is “a very nice literary agent indulges in polite rants about queries, writers, and the publishing industry.” Another literary agent who kept a popular blog, the anonymous Miss Snark, recently stopped posting, and she was known for being brutally honest with people who wrote in to her. Why did you decide to go with the nice approach, and do you ever receive questions that make you want to unleash some snark?
KN: Ah, I long for Miss Snark to return. When she was blogging, I didn’t have to worry about releasing a snarky rant because I knew she would cover the topic for me. Everyone has their own inner snark but in general, I’m a nice person and so that’s how I write.
NW: Most of the news about the publishing industry is gloomy these days, such as the decline of reading, the death of book review sections, etc., yet judging from your blog posts, you seem to have an upbeat attitude toward the business. Is that true, and if so, why?
KN: There will always be doom and gloom in this business. The number of active readers really is appalling but I don’t think books are going to go away soon (and I’m defining books in any medium they come—including audio and digital). Great books always capture an audience—even for nonreaders who then pick up a book when they normally wouldn’t. That’s what makes the world of publishing magical and I like being a part of that when I find a really great author to share with the world.
NW: Have you ever represented a book that you loved but couldn’t convince an editor to publish it? What advice do you give your authors in this situation?
KN: Yep. Just this year. In fact, it was heart breaking because at one point, we had three editors on the verge offering. One editor said she would call on Friday with the offer (we had already set up delivery dates and everything) and the editor’s publisher had changed her mind and told the editor to withdraw the offer. The book ended up not selling anywhere. What do I tell the author? That it wasn’t her fault—which is true. She was a true victim of market timing. A year ago, the book would have sold. All the author can do now is write that next book.
NW: What projects are you working on currently that you are particularly excited about?
KN: I have several really exciting projects that I just sold at auction: a literary novel by Jamie Ford called Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (Ballantine), and a debut urban fantasy trilogy by Irish author Sarah Rees Brennan. That book is entitled The Demon’s Lexicon. Ally Carter has had huge success with her two young adult novels I’d Tell You I Love You But Then I’d Have To Kill You and the recent release of Cross My Heart and Hope To Spy. Right now I’m in negotiations for the third book in this Gallagher Girl series.
NW: Do you have much time to read outside of the reading you do for your clients, and if so, what books have you enjoyed lately?
KN: Not as much time as I like but I do belong to a book club. Right now we are reading a wonderful literary novel called The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. I wish I had represented that book!