Kristin Nelson of The Nelson Agency:
1. Literature is in trouble -- that is, more trouble than usual. Why do you think this is? The increasing prevalence of TV? The distractions of increasingly narcotic subcultures such as video games? Sept. 11? Or is talk of the "death of literature" simple exaggeration?
To answer this question, one would truly have to define what it means for literature to be “in trouble.” Do you mean that book sales are down for literary fiction? If so, I think the basic problem is that young people don’t approach reading in the same way we did years ago. Twenty years ago, we read books. Today young people read lots of stuff--text messages, email, and the internet. Actually, they read all the time but I’m not sure the love of reading a book is being instilled in the classroom when there is such an emphasis on “no child left behind” by testing them to death. Folks read because they enjoy it. If there is no room for reading as enjoyment than yes, literature might be in trouble.
2. And what is literature, anyway? Should the novel be considered the prime example of it?
This is a way too wide-open question for me to tackle. Literature can be defined broadly as anything they contains words. Or it can be narrowly defined to what we define as literary fiction in the classic context (as in teaching PRIDE & PREJUDICE or GREAT EXPECTATIONS) or even literary fiction by contemporary writers. Genre fiction can also be defined as literature. See, it's a slippery question and far be it for me to put the parameters on it.
3. Prizes and awards are playing an increasing role in determining an author's career-trajectory. In short, winning a major literary prize can win a writer a large audience overnight (not to mention, considerable fame and financial remuneration). But, as British critic Jason Cowley has observed, what is lost is the ability for readers to think in a critically complex fashion.
Are literary prizes dangerous in this regard? Do they convey to the public the message that "this book is worth reading and all these others aren't"?
I don't believe so. In fact the reverse can happen. Winning an award can attract readers to a book they might not have otherwise picked up. People are constantly being bombarded by information. Awards can define the parameters by outlining the criteria and thus giving readers a sense of why certain books are chosen. Subjectively, in terms of taste, a reader might not necessarily agree with the critics but at least they have an inkling of what is generally being lauded as “good” or “important.” They still have the analytical capability to disagree.
4. Literary publishing has always been a marriage of art and commerce. But in recent years, the Cult of the Deal has become more influential, with agents demanding larger advances and marketing people paying especially close attention to sales figures. Is the "art" side of the business being pushed out?
This is a tough question. When I'm trying to sell a literary novel that I love and editors are passing on it (and not because they didn't enjoy it but because the P&Ls won't let them buy it) then yes, I would say that the “art” side is being pushed out. Either that or I'm taking it personally as an agent when my literary work doesn't sell.
But then again, I'm constantly amazed when a little gem of a book gets published, gains recognition, and good sales and I sigh and say yes, there is still a world of editors in publishing who will do anything to make a worthy book hit the shelves. I feel empowered by the fact that talent can win out in the end.
5. Many major publishers now refuse to accept "unsolicited" work; that is, they will not even consider work unless it is agented. Is this a sound policy from point of view of finding the best new literary voices? Isn't there a chance good writing will be squeezed out?
I think writers forget how litigious our society tends to be. Most publishing houses don't accept unsolicited material so they won't be accused of “stealing” an idea or concept. It's just not worth it.
But I think it’s a myth for writers to believe that if they could only just go directly to the publisher, then their work would get noticed—as if agents are mercenary gatekeepers who are deliberately trying to keep the talented out. Most of what we see isn't publishable. And you have to remember, we WANT to take on new writers and sell them.
6. Agents take a lot of heat as the Bad Boys and Girls of the publishing industry: writers quietly grumble about their power and quality of judgment; publishers both rely on them as a first filter but complain about the contractual arrangements they demand; and generally speaking, because the agenting industry is unregulated, emerging writers feel both intimidated by and mistrustful of them.
Taking off your agent's hat for a moment, is the current situation with agents serving as primary filter of the larger publishing houses really a workable one? Does it not put too much responsibility on an agent's shoulders? Or is it a necessity in keeping 21st Century literature alive as a business?
I am an agent. I can’t take that hat off. Any answer I would provide would immediately be biased and suspect.
Now I can say that I don't see the model changing any time soon. Twenty plus years ago, an aspiring writer really had to persevere and be dedicated to make it in the business because it wasn't easy to do revisions on a typewriter etc. But nowadays, just about every person in the world thinks he or she can be a writer—as if one only needs a computer to become one rather than some talent. The amount of folks wanting to be published is truly overwhelming.
7. Does America have too many agents? Or too few?
Well, when I'm vying against five other agents who also want to sign this new client, then I usually say the world has too many agents. Big smile here.
8. In your opinion, how will new technologies such as the e-book or audio books affect the "form" of the book?
New technology is empowering but it can take years before it’s embraced by the mainstream population. It's already here but I think the impact won’t be felt for a few years still—until a company makes an eReader that seamlessly creates an ease of reading transition from a print book to an electronic format. Still, I think there will always be a large number of luddites who won’t want change. The print format isn't going to disappear.
9. Putting aside the hype, does the Internet provide a real opportunity to publishers? If so, how?
In what way? To sell directly to consumers? Sure. To find new writers? Possibly. There are a lot of great literary eZines etc. out there so editors and agents can grab the opportunity if only there was enough time in the day…
10. And what role can traditional, venerable institutions such as libraries and English Departments play in reversing the decline in sales of literary fiction?
Librarians are huge champions of the written word—regardless of format. They make sure worthy books are available when all other venues might consider it “out of print.”
They play a huge role. And I have to say it's probably not English Departments that will play as large a role as elementary school teachers. After all, it's there that kids first get exposed to books, reading, and whether any love for it is fostered.
11. What projects are you working on now that you are excited about?
I have a fabulous literary work that's a modern Confederacy of Dunces but with a female protagonist. The hapless thirty-something main character unwillingly inherits a pet cemetery and is flummoxed when success, despite all the odds, happens. Hilarious dark satire. It's called THREE FEET UNDER.
Bio: Kristin established the Nelson Literary Agency in the chic/hip urban setting of lower Downtown Denver in 2002. In such a short time, she has sold more than 50 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, including Germany , Spain , Holland , Japan , and even into Russia and Indonesia . Her authors are RITA-award winners and national bestsellers. Several NLA titles have appeared on the Barnes & Noble and The Denver Post bestseller lists.
She specializes in representing commercial fiction (romance, women’s fiction, science fiction, fantasy, young adult) and high caliber literary fiction. She also considers a few nonfiction projects that tend to be story-based, such as memoir and narrative nonfiction. Kristin is a hands-on agent and strongly believes in taking on clients for their whole career. She provides editorial and marketing guidance as well as aggressive expertise in contract negotiation. Member: AAR , RWA, SFWA. Please visit our website www.nelsonagency.com before submitting.