Book Broker – an interview with Bonnie Nadell
Agent: Bonnie Nadell
Bio: Bonnie Nadell is the president of the Hill Nadell Literary Agency in Los Angeles. She has taught or spoken at a number of universities and writer’s conferences, including the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, the LA Times Festival of Books, the Mayborn Conference on Literary Nonfiction, Tin House at Reed College, Antioch University, UCLA, USC’s Masters of Professional Writing Program, and the UC Riverside MFA program in creative writing.
Preferred genres: narrative nonfiction, memoir, natural history, food narratives, literary fiction, commercial fiction.
1) What stands out in a good submission?
It always comes down to a writer having a certain authority, a particularly authentic voice that draws me in. For someone to be able to say: I want to tell you a story, and to bring a reader into their world whether that world is fiction or nonfiction.
2) What's a typical warning sign that a manuscript isn't ready for representation?
Often writers are so anxious and eager to submit their work that they send it out too soon when it isn't ready yet. It's like trying to present a cake that isn't fully baked. Sometimes the problem is sloppiness in a manuscript (typos and mistakes), sometimes the story is too busy or doesn't track properly. Simplicity and clarity are two of the hardest things to achieve for any writer but the best books always have it.
3) What advice can you give to writers who are submitting their work?
Do your research. Every agent will tell you this but sending out mass query letters will not accomplish much. The more you know about an agency – who they represent, where they are based, what they are looking for – the more it will help you accomplish your goal of finding the right advocate faster. And telling an agent specifically why you picked them will always get you attention.
4) How do you weigh the importance of each submission component (query letter, synopsis, writing sample) when determining whether you will ask to read a full manuscript?
The most important part is the writing sample since that shows the writer's voice and tone. And the ones that shine, really do shine. A query letter is what we read first but it does not need to be longer than a page – ever! – and it should demonstrate that the writer has a clear idea of what they are trying to convey in the manuscript. A synopsis is the least important part for me and often I will skip over the synopsis entirely. It is usually a plot summary when what I want is to see how the story unfolds on the page.
5) Approximately how many query letters do you receive per year? Of those, how many will you respond to with a request for a full manuscript? And of those, how many are likely to receive an offer of representation?
We receive about 150 a week so I guess that adds up to about 7500 a year. Of those I would say we ask for material from about 10% of the writers and then take on one of two percent of those submissions. But I have found some of my favorite writers through queries so it totally works to not have a specific referral directly to an agent.
6) What is the average length of time it takes to place a manuscript with a publisher, and what is your strategy for a client whose manuscript isn't selling?
There's no average; sometimes a book will find the right editorial home in 2-3 days, sometimes it takes months or even a year to find the right publisher. If a manuscript isn't selling there usually is something wrong that needs to be redone before sending out again. I show a client the letters from editors who have turned down the project and work with the writer to retool the proposal or manuscript so that it addresses the issues noted in the rejection letters. Most of the time the edits will make it a stronger submission.
7) What's the best (non-client) book you've read recently, and how did it hook you?
I've been reading Maria Konnikova's The Biggest Bluff about learning how to play poker and her experiences at the World Series of Poker. I'm a sucker for books that take me into worlds I know little about and she does that beautifully from the first page. Her point here is really about learning to pay attention and understanding the difference between the things in life that can be controlled and those that can't. In the midst of a pandemic with no resolution, this seems like incredibly helpful guidance.
8) Can you tell us about an exciting author you're working with at the moment?
Fathoms by Rebecca Giggs is a gorgeously written work of natural history about whales and our relationship to them. Giggs has incredible information here like describing whales that are so rare they have never been named but she also comments on how selfie culture has destroyed habitats and dolphins have died in people's eagerness to photograph them. I love her poetic and nuanced writing even as she ponders what it means to be a nature writer in the midst of enormous environmental change. She's the real deal.