Sunday, 18 July 2010

AGENT INTERVIEW: Kate Schafer Testerman of kt literary

Kate Schafer Testerman is the founder of kt literary. Based in the US, kt literary launched in early 2008 and focuses on middle grade and YA fiction as well as some adult commercial fiction and narrative nonfiction.

(Photo by Sonya Sones)

* Hi Kate, welcome to tall tales & short stories and thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. Could you provide a snapshot of your career?

Sure! I started in publishing in the rights department at Houghton Mifflin, and spent almost two years there working with both adult and children’s books, on both the domestic and foreign sides. Shortly after leaving HMCo., I joined Janklow & Nesbit Associates in their rights department. After ten years at J&N, in which my responsibilities grew from representing foreign rights in the smaller territories for some of our bigger clients, to representing all of the foreign rights for some clients, to finally building my own list concentrating on YA and MG. In 2008, I brought most of my clients to kt literary, though I was sad to leave some of the amazing authors I had the pleasure to work with at J&N, including Clive Barker, Danielle Steel, Jake Halpern, and Bebe Moore Campbell.

* Why did you decide to start your own agency?

I had decided to move out of NY to Colorado for personal reasons, and also investigated both staying at J&N on a sort of satellite basis, or joining another agency. Eventually, after consultation with some agent friends who’d gone out on their own, I was convinced that this was the right move for me. And it’s proven to be so! I love the responsibility of running my own company, and, for my clients, am thrilled to provide personalized service for their literary careers that sometimes wouldn’t be possible at a bigger agency with many departments.

* What led you to focus primarily on children’s and YA books?

I’ve always loved YA and MG. I think it’s such an important time in a kid’s life, when they’re first picking up books THEY want to read. If you have great books available, you can create a life-long reader and lover of books. There’s nothing, to my mind, more valid than that. I love helping put those books in kids’ hands – and hopefully, into their hearts.

* Do you want near perfect manuscripts or are you happy to work with the author editorially? Would you describe yourself as an ‘editorial agent’?

I do work with my authors, but I think as close as an author can get to “near perfect” before submitting to an agent, the better. Before I sign an author, I often will go through their manuscript with an eye towards revisions – big picture fixes first, then more detailed ones after signing. I don’t know if I’d call myself an “editorial agent” – aren’t all agents that, to an extent?

* When looking for that new manuscript and debut author what are the main things that grab your attention? What makes a piece of work stand out from the slushpile?

Gah! This is always such a hard question, because the answer isn’t a simple one. It’s mostly voice though, I guess, as ephemeral as that is to say. A great concept will always grab my attention in a query, but if the writing isn’t there, I’ll pass. I do sometimes have ideas of things I’d like to find, but I don’t just request every MG boy book that I see, just because I want one – it still needs to be special.

* If you could make a wishlist of things you’d like to find in your submission inbox, what would it include?

That MG boy book, I guess. A YA novel about teen athletes like gymnasts or figure skaters

* What do you think are the ingredients for a ‘breakout’ book by a debut author?

An amazing voice with a killer plot that keeps me up late reading, turning pages frantically because I just can’t wait to find out what happens next. Honestly, it’s the same thing that’s required for a breakout book no matter what stage of your career you’re in. If you want to breakout, you have to show me something unexpected

* What kind of working relationship do you aim to build between you and your clients? Do you see yourself as a career builder or prefer a more manuscript by manuscript approach?

I absolutely want to be a career builder. While I don’t sign a client for everything they ever want to write – my retainer agreement is for a specific project at a time – the goal is to build a long-term relationship. Once we have a partnership, of course I want to talk to you about your other projects!

* Would you take a risk on a manuscript that showed lots of promise but needed a lot of work?

I think it depends on where the work is needed. As an agent colleague of mine said the other day (I’m paraphrasing), I can help you fix plot, but I can’t teach you to write.
If the writing is outstanding, but there’s gaps in the story? Then yes, we might be able to work together to fix it.

* Does an aspiring author need to prove they have commitment to pursuing a writing career by providing a writing CV?

No, I think that’s one of the fallacies of the publishing industry – that you already have to have made it in order to get a foot in the door. I don’t expect you to have years of experience as a working writer – what I do hope is that you’ve spent time studying your craft, and that you’re not writing to me about the first novel you ever wrote, having had no interest in writing before, having taken no classes.

* Do you expect your writers to develop a market brand or are you keen for them to pursue a diversity of stories?

On this subject, I can do no better than to point aspiring authors to my client Maureen Johnson’s recent Manifesto about author branding.
As she says,
yes, authors sometimes have these “brands.” Nicholas Sparks is going to sell you a roman . . . love story, excuse me . . .where someone dies of cancer/similar disease at the end. V.C. Andrews will sell you something awesomely insane and creepy. Dan Brown will sell you a series of puzzles, facts, and clues leading to the unveiling of a huge secret. Tom Clancy will sell you something with a submarine or some kind of large weapon in it. You get the idea. I don’t know if any of the above actively works on his or her “brand” . . . (well, V.C. Andrews won’t, since she died in 1986 having written only eight books—her official ghostwriter has written over sixty more in her name since that time, which is pretty impressive work).
I am not saying that it is a bad or dishonest thing to try to sell your work. It is not. What I am saying is that I am tired of the rush to commodify everything, to turn everything into products, including people. I don’t want a brand, because a brand limits me. A brand says I will churn out the same thing over and over. Which I won’t, because I am weird.

I’d rather my authors were weird – within certain limits.

* Do you accept unsolicited submissions? What is the best way for an author to approach you?

Yes! I welcome submissions via email according to the guidelines on my website.

* You’re actively seeking UK writers but you’re based in the US. As a US agent, what observations have you made about the US and UK markets? Do you think there are any major differences that should be taken into consideration by a UK author wanting to submit to you?

To clarify, I’m actively seeking great writers, regardless of where they’re located. There are a lot of fine literary agents in the UK, and I’m certainly not trying to step on anyone’s toes, but I’m happy to look for a more international worldwide in YA or middle grade fiction. Not that the novel needs to specifically be worldly, but just exploring the idea that your small town in middle-wherever isn’t the end of all existence.

* Do you have any submission preferences or things that annoy you?

So long as authors follow my guidelines, I’m pretty easy going. Those authors who think the rules don’t apply to them get on my nerves.

* When reading submissions what would you say are the most common mistakes made by aspiring writers?

Telling me what I’m going to learn from the book, or trying to skip the plot and just tell me about the adventure of the story, or ONLY telling me about the plot, without ever giving me a chance to meet and care about the characters.

* Would you ever consider a proposal for a series from a new author, or do you prefer stand alone books?

Most new authors can’t sell a series (or even a single book) on proposal. Agents (and editors) need to see a complete manuscript. Though I recognize that you’re not really asking about proposals, but more about series. To my mind, the best thing is if your book can stand alone, but has the potential for sequels.

* How much time do you devote to existing clients, and how much to finding new clients?

Most of my time is spent with and for my current clients, which is where my attention needs to be. Going through the query pile, reading submissions – that all needs to happen when I’ve already taken care of anything pending for my current clients.

* Do you think the publishing industry has/is changing in any major ways? Either due to the global economic climate or the introduction of POD and ebooks?

I think publishing is changing, but I don’t believe it’s going away. I’m not 100% sure how that change is going to affect all of us, but I’m keeping my ear to the ground to watch what happens, and protect my clients’ interests along the way.

* How would you describe your typical working day?

It starts with email, dealing with any problems that have cropped up overnight or in the wee hours of the morning, answering questions from authors, taking to editors, catching up on news from the industry. When I have a block of time and can do it, there’s often contracts to prep and review and paperwork to shuffle. Most reading of queries and submissions happens in the off-hours, although being based in Colorado when most of US publishing in on the East Coast often gives me an extra two hours at the end of the day.

* What are the greatest challenges of being an agent?

Finding great material and convincing publishers of its potential!

* Trials and tribulations of being an agent: What do you love about your work? What don’t you love?

I love my job – on a good day, I get to sit by the pool and read great books. Even on a day that’s not quite so idyllic, I still get to spend my time working with fabulous people who care deeply about books. That’s fantastic.
What don’t I love? There’s a lot more numbers than I thought I’d ever have to worry about as an English and History major. There’s a lot of math!

* How do you envisage the future for yourself and the agency? What are your dreams and goals as an agent?

We’re still a young agency, so I don’t forsee a lot changing in the near future. I look forward to a time when more of my clients are securely placed with amazing editors at fantastic publishing houses, but it’s not like I have a goal to expand to 160 clients or three more agents and TAKE OVER THE WORLD. Mwahahahahaha!!! Ahem.

My dream is to find homes for all of my authors, and have enough to time to take on one or two new clients a year and nurture them through the publication process in the same way.

* Is there anything you’d like to add?

Read my blog, Ask Daphne!

* Words of wisdom and advice to aspiring writers?

Read everything you can get your hands on, both in and out of your areas of expertise.

* Would you like to highlight any of your clients work and any recent/upcoming titles?

I’ve got some great novels coming up in Fall 2010 – Sara Beitia’s debut THE LAST GOOD PLACE OF LILY ODILON, which Flux is publishing in October, and ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS by Stephanie Perkins, which will be released by Dutton in December. Both authors are definitely ones to watch!

* A Reader's Question:
I have another novel aimed at 12+ which I was considering sending, but if she did take me on would she then be able to represent me when trying to sell my material for younger children? [The writer in question has written a book for 7-9 year olds.]

See above, in terms of my interest in working with you on your whole career. I hope we’d talk more about the benefits and possible negative aspects of dividing your focus before you’ve truly established yourself as an author. But in short – yes, if I work with a client, I want to work with them on all their books, for all ages.


Col Bury said...

Interesting insights.
Thanks to you both.

Tracy said...

Thanks Col B - glad you enjoyed it and found it informative.

Dwight said...

A rewarding read, Kate. I was doing fine until you said your hope is to take on two new writers a year. So my book has to be that good, huh? Rather like being a joint winner of a competition, I suppose.

Jackie Marchant said...

Another great interview, Tracy! I rather like the idea of reading by the pool . . .

shellw said...

Brilliant interview as always, and an eye opening look at how hard it is to get a good agent.
Looking forward to your next informative posting, keep up the good work.

Tracy said...

Dwight, Jackie and shellw - thanks for the comments. :)

Anonymous said...

Another fascinating interview, Tracy. Thank you. I also had a look at Kate's blog 'Ask Daphne' which is full of gems.


Kate said...

Fascinating interview. Thank you so much :-)

Tracy said...

Thanks Howard and Kate - good to see you here and glad you enjoyed the interview.
Tracy :)

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