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May 2016
A Message from Kristin Nelson

What Is Your Magic Number?

Kristin Nelson

All aspiring writers want their magic number to be one.

The first novel a writer ever wrote is perfect from conception.

The first novel lands a literary agent.

The first novel is so awesome, it immediately sells at auction.

The first novel is published to great fanfare and much commercial success.

The dream-come-true of overnight success. Well, I’d like to tell you something about that. Overnight success is a fabrication created by media outlets because it makes for a good story.

Ninety-nine-percent of the time, overnight-success stories are fiction. Most of these stories don’t divulge that the author ghostwrote ten novels for other people, or wrote three of their own novels that are tucked away because the author was working on craft.

In real life, what is the magic number—the number of novels written before a writer gets picked up by an agent, sold, and published?

I’ll tell you right now, it’s not one. If you poll a large number of authors and ask them how many novels they wrote before their first one sold, and then if you average the numbers they give you, my sense is that you will land right around four.

One of the truths I highlight at writers conferences is that for more than half of my clients, I passed on the first project they sent me. It wasn’t until they sent me a later, more mature work that our agent-author love match bloomed.

Why do I tell you all this? If you’ve just completed your first novel, awesome. Celebrate this huge achievement. But it doesn’t mean much if it doesn’t sell, or if you independently publish it and it doesn’t get much traction.

Keep on writing. Your magic number might be two or six or ten. My guess is that if you are passionately writing with ten novels under your belt, success is just around the corner.

Pub Rants University

Query Letter Intensive – Demystifying the Query Process – 2016-05-12

Thursday, May 12 at 6:00 - 8:30 PM MT

This Webinar intensive brought to you by NLA Digital.

Class Limit: 15

Requirement: Attendees must use a phone for audio to call in and actively participate.

Please note: This Webinar is primarily a workshop and does not constitute a query letter submission for NLA to request sample pages. Also, only fiction submissions are eligible for this Webinar (no memoirs or non-fiction works, please).

Most writers will tell you that writing a good query letter is more difficult than writing the whole manuscript. How do you distill the essence of a novel into one pithy pitch paragraph? Come find out! This webinar will be team taught by Agent Kristin and Angie Hodapp, one of Kristin’s first-round query readers. Angie’s perspective on reading 50-100 queries per day coupled with Kristin’s perspective on what goes into deciding which manuscripts to request will give you double the insight into the query process.

In part one, Kristin and Angie will walk you through how to write a standout query letter while avoiding common pitfalls. In part two, they’ll do a live reading of the “slush pile”—query letters submitted by Webinar participants. Nothing speaks louder or more directly to your query letter’s effectiveness than the on-the-spot feedback of an agent plus immediate suggestions for revision, so don’t miss this opportunity.

What You’ll Learn:

  • How to compose a basic, four-part query letter.
  • How to distill your novel into a clear, concise pitch paragraph that will inspire agents to request sample pages.
  • How to position yourself in the current market in terms of word count, genre, and comparable titles or authors.
  • The truth about why so few query letters lead to requests for sample pages.
  • How to revise your pitch.


  • Angie and Kristin will be on video as well as audio.
  • Attendees are welcome to ask questions throughout the Webinar.
  • Attendees will have access to the video recording of the Webinar for six months.

Who should attend?

Writers who:

  • Have completed a novel and are ready to begin their search for an agent. (Please note that this Webinar is not for writers of memoirs or works of non-fiction.)
  • Have already been querying but haven’t received requests for sample pages.
  • Will be attending a conference soon where they will be pitching to an agent.
Register Now
Recent News
Think Like an Agent

Why Publishers Should Rethink First Proceeds Clause


Last month, I had the joy of reviewing the brand new Penguin Random House boilerplate contract. In the past, before Random House and Penguin merged into Random Penguin (hey, we still can’t believe they didn’t adopt that company name—think of the great logo!), each companies had its own contract.

A year and a half after the merger, it was time to consolidate two contracts into one. In the long run, one boilerplate for this behemoth publisher and all its imprints will make my literary agenting life easier. However, in the short term, I’ve got a long negotiation slog ahead of me.

After all, this is the contract that PRH will probably use for the next 20 years. It’s worth it to me to fight tooth and nail for every piece of advantageous language I can get on behalf of my authors.

To put this in perspective, the new PRH contract is 17 pages. My requested changes letter is 13 pages. This negotiation is not going to be resolved soon.

All this so I can talk about the First Proceeds Clause—a rather archaic leftover from the pre-digital age.

“First proceeds” is something that triggers if the publisher decides to terminate a contract because the author (a) didn’t deliver the manuscript, or (b) delivered a manuscript the publisher deems editorially unacceptable.

This clause states that the author will use best efforts to sell the work elsewhere, and then use the first proceeds to pay back the advance to the first publisher who terminated the work.

Sounds pretty reasonable in concept, sure. But my question is this: Why do we need it in the new digital age? In fact, I’ve been negotiating this language out of many of my contracts because the reality is, if a contract is terminated for either reason (a) or (b) above, the author may choose to self publish the work and reimburse the publisher using self-publishing proceeds.

In truth, the author might not use best efforts at all to sell it to another publisher. They’ll skip it altogether and go indie. So technically we can’t contractually commit to selling it to another traditional publisher.

This language might simply be outdated—a holdover from the pre-digital age—and it’s probably time for publishers to rethink the First Proceeds clause. Maybe eliminate it altogether.

In the new PRH boilerplate, the First Proceeds clause included language that prohibited an author from self-publishing the material until twelve months later. Why? As long as the author pays back the advance, why would PRH care from where the monies came from?

Thinking like an agent often entails thinking like the publisher, too. What is the publisher’s concern? Are they worried an author might sign a contract with them and then change her mind—thus deliberately not delivering a manuscript so as to self-publish?

Okay, I can see that. But still I have to ask, who cares? As long as the advance is returned to the publisher, the author has fulfilled her contractual obligation.

This would be a good step in the right direction. Hey, at least Penguin Random House finally deleted the language that required the author to deliver a physical copy of her manuscript. LOL. That hasn’t happened in years!

Kristin's Book Club

5 Other Novels I've Read In the Last Three Months

At this point, dear Newsletter Readers, I really hope your book club has read five other books in the time it took for us to finally meet (sans weather issues) and discuss NO PLACE TO HIDE.

Reading this book and watching episodes of 60 Minutes about how easy it is to hack smart phones, any rational person will come to the fast conclusion that nothing is secure. In fact, I’ve started storing my phone face down on any surface. If anyone has hacked that camera, they are going to see a whole lot of nothing but table.

I truly understand the concept of “ignorance is bliss.”

Don’t worry, Dear Readers! Agent Kristin has not been sitting idle. Here is a list of books I’ve been reading on my own in the meantime, just in case one of them strikes your book club’s fancy:

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Me Before You by JoJo Moyes

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

The Ocean At the End of The Lane by Neil Gaiman

One Summer: America 1927 by Bill Bryson

Guest Article

Tech Tips Installment Two: BISAC Basics

Lori Bennett

Lori Bennett heads up daily operations at Nelson Literary Agency’s digital wing, NLA Digital.

Did you know that all retail areas where books are distributed are using some permutation of BISAC (Book Industry Standards and Communications) codes? What are they, and where do you find them? The BISG Website is the place to start.

In short, BISAC codes help readers find books by assigning descriptive categories that reflect the genre of a work. If you’re a self-published author, you can help your book sales by following some basic BISAC best practices.

Best practice: Use the most descriptive and unique BISAC categories that apply to your book.  For example, why choose a category like FIC027000 FICTION / Romance / General when you have such diverse and descriptive choices like FIC027320 FICTION / Romance / Paranormal / Vampires?

Best practice: Order your BISAC codes so that that most applicable and unique codes appear first. Many systems truncate your codes, so you want to put your best codes forward.

Best practice:  If you can’t find the exact BISAC code of your dreams in the eRetailer system where you are publishing your book, try supplementing a weak BISAC choice list by strategically sneaking it in. You may have access to two good metadata fields where you can add the descriptive text of the BISAC code you’d like to use: keywords (a.k.a., search strings) or even in your book’s description.

The More, the Better

Over 500 new BISAC listings will be added in 2016, so you’ll be spoiled for choice. In particular, the wildly popular YA genre will see the first true expansion of its BISAC section in a very long time.

Read all about the long-awaited updates to the BISAC code listing in this article from Publishers Weekly.

Insider Tips from NLA

Pitch Like a Boss, Part I

Angie Hodapp

Contracts and Royalties Manager Angie Hodapp teaches writing-craft and query-letter workshops both online and through various writing organizations.

Pitching your book to an agent or editor is daunting. How are you supposed to cram the essence of your entire novel into a pithy couple of sentences? (Hint: You’re not.) Here’s a formula for a concise pitch that will set you on the right track. Ladies and Gentlemen, James Scott Bell‘s “three-sentence pitch”:

First Sentence: Your lead character’s name, vocation, and initial situation. Will Connelly is an associate at a prestigious San Francisco law firm, handling high-level merger negotiations between computer companies.

Second Sentence: “When” + the main plot problem. When Will celebrates a recent merger by picking up a Russian woman at a club, he finds himself at the mercy of a ring of small-time Russian mobsters with designs on the top-secret NSA computer chip Will’s client is developing.

Third Sentence: “Now” + the stakes. Now, with the Russian mob, the SEC, and the Department of Justice all after him, Will has to find a way to save his professional life and his own skin before the wrong people get the technology that can be used for mass destruction.

Boom. Three sentences. The first introduces the protagonist in his ordinary world. The second presents the inciting incident. The third is what your character stands to lose if the antagonistic forces prevail. Here’s another example:

Dorothy Gale is a farm girl who dreams of getting out of Kansas to a land far, far away, where she and her dog will be safe from the likes of town busybody Miss Gulch. When a twister hits the farm, Dorothy is transported to a land of strange creatures and at least one wicked witch who wants to kill her. Now, with the help of three unlikely friends, Dorothy must find a way to destroy the wicked witch so the great wizard will send her back home.

Give it a try, but keep each sentence brief. Having taught this formula at pitch workshops, I know how tempted writers are to pack those three sentences full of backstory, secondary characters, and world-building. Resist that urge!

Now, can you boil your three-sentence pitch down further to create an even more concise pitch? Conversely, can you expand it to craft an evocative query letter? Whichever way you go, start here: with three sentences.

Next month: Pitch Like a Boss, Part II: Delivering your pitch with calm confidence.

New Releases

Perfect Liars

by Kimberly Reid

Andrea Faraday is junior class valedictorian at the exclusive Woodruff School,  where she was voted Most Likely to Do Everything Right. But looks can be deceiving. When her parents disappear, her life— and her Perfect Girl charade— begins to crumble, and her scheme to put things right just takes the situation from bad to so much worse. Pretty soon she’s struck up the world’s least likely friendship with the juvenile delinquents at Justice Academy, the last exit on the road to jail— and the first stop on the way out.

If she were telling it straight, friendship might not be the right word to describe their alliance, since Drea and her new associates could not be more different. She’s rich and privileged; they’re broke and, well, criminal. But Drea’s got a secret: she has more in common with the juvie kids than they’d ever suspect. When it turns out they share a common enemy, Drea suggests they join forces to set things right.

Sometimes, to save the day, a good girl’s gotta be bad.

Buy It Here:


Outrun the Moon

by Stacey Lee

San Francisco, 1906: Fifteen-year-old Mercy Wong is determined to break from the poverty of Chinatown, and an education at St. Clare’s School for Girls is her best hope. Although St. Clare’s is off-limits to all but the wealthiest white girls, Mercy gains admittance through a mix of cunning and a little bribery, only to discover that getting in was the easiest part. Not to be undone by a bunch of spoiled heiresses, Mercy stands strong—until disaster strikes.

On April 18, a historic earthquake rocks San Francisco, destroying Mercy’s home and school. Now she’s forced to wait with her classmates for their families in a temporary park encampment. Though fires might rage, and the city may be in shambles, Mercy can’t sit by while they wait for the army to bring help—she still has the “bossy” cheeks that mark her as someone who gets things done. But what can one teenage girl do to heal so many suffering in her broken city?

Stacey Lee masterfully crafts another remarkable novel set against a unique historical backdrop. Strong-willed Mercy Wong leads a cast of diverse characters in this extraordinary tale of survival.

Buy It Here:

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