Sunday, July 7, 2013

A candid interview with literary agent Liz Kracht of Kimberley Cameron & Associates

-->
 It is my great pleasure today to bring you an interview with my literary agent, Liz Kracht of Kimberley Cameron & Associates. I want to keep my introductory remarks brief--because you all have heard much from me before and you are reading this because you want to hear from Liz--but suffice it to say that Liz is an author's literary agent (kind of like a player's manager in baseball): approachable, witty, realistic yet hopeful (tough combo in this gig), loyal (let me stress how important this is), and reliable. Enjoy the interview.

Peter Hogenkamp (PH): What is the biggest misperception today about writers and/or publishing?

Elizabeth Kracht (EK):  I think one of the biggest misperceptions I’ve seen—concerning both writers and publishing, plus media coverage—is around highly publicized “overnight” success stories. I don’t believe there are overnight success stories. I think we like to believe there are, because it gives hope and feeds our fantasy life, and can even encourage us to keep moving forward.  But where you see a success story, a lot of hard work has been invested. What strikes me about these types of stories is what is left unsaid, which I think is that the author was flexible, listened to feedback and worked very hard to succeed.

PH: Do you accept many first novels?  What are some common mistakes inherent to first novels?

EK:  I do take on debut fiction authors. Our Agency prides itself on being very open to first time authors.  I think the bulk of my list is made up of unpublished authors. The traditional publishing climate is tougher than ever, so it’s not easy to launch a debut author, but if we believe in the work, we don’t hesitate. I don’t think there has ever been a conversation in our office about whether or not to represent a first time author. There have been conversations on whether or not to sign a difficult author, or keep one around (generally, we don’t, life is too short). Our agency bias definitely leans in favor of debut authors.

PH: When I was unagented, I used to dream about sitting next to a literary agent on a plane where I would wow him or her with my novel pitch. Has this ever happened to you? What is the most unusual path you have taken to signing an author?

EK:  I’ve never been that unlucky agent pitched to in the bathroom stall. I was on the street in town doing errands when a man overheard a conversation I was having with someone else and pitched me a book idea that wasn’t formulated. One of my shortcomings is that I’m too nice, so I let him monopolize my time for about a half an hour before I excused myself. When I saw him a couple months later in Peet’s, I prayed to the Greek gods (I was working on a Greek-themed manuscript at the time) that he wouldn’t recognize me; he didn’t.

I’d love to be able to say that I signed one of my family members, particularly my brother Jeevan. He’s a poet and screenwriter, and I’ve been encouraging him to write a novel. I think he’s finally working on one. I’d like for this to be my most unusual path.

But currently, I think the most unusual path so far is in signing one of my brother’s friends, Jason Wake Smith. Jason used to work with my brother in Santa Cruz and I also did yoga with him when I was in my mid-20s. Jason wrote for Surfer Magazine and at some point went off to work for the LA Times. I was slightly jealous and in awe of Jason, because I wanted to be a writer. Recently, through my brother and Facebook, we reconnected. He asked if it would be okay if he sent me some book ideas. I said sure.

When I received his ideas, at the top of the list was a narrative nonfiction idea concerning a mutual friend. I’d always wanted to write about this friend because his story is compelling, much in the same vein as Susan Casey’s The Devil’s Teeth. Part of my wanting to tell this mutual friend’s story, was to help him; he’d fallen on serious hard times. He’d always been a very generous person to me, willing to help, and my natural inclination was to try and help him by getting his story out. When I saw Jason’s interest in telling this same story, I called him up and told him if you write this story I’ll send you a contract today. I’m also working with Jason on a narrative nonfiction animal rescue story (I finally found a great animal rescue story set in Russia!). 

PH: What advice would you give a person just starting down the writing road?

EK: Okay, Peter, I think a list is in order (not necessarily listed in the order of importance, however):

1.              Immerse yourself in the publishing industry.
2.              Go to writers’ conferences and learn.
3.              Read as much as possible.
4.              Take writing courses.
5.              Be savvy around genre protocol, i.e. word count.
6.              Start building your social media platform now.
7.              Build an author website.
8.              Set up a writing routine.
9.              Never send an agent your first draft.
10.           Embrace revisions.
11.           Be flexible around your writing.
12.           Be grateful for any feedback.
13.            Don’t give up.
14.           Study character development, plot, character arc, story arc, writing setting and dialog, pacing…
15.           Understand general submission protocol.
16.           Perfect the 275-word query letter.
17.           Learn how to write a one-page synopsis.
18.           Always double space your manuscript and insert page numbers.
19.           Work with an experienced freelance editor (in book publishing) before submitting to an agent.
20.           Stay hopeful, especially in the face of rejection.

PH: Every person’s perspective is flavored by the events in his or her own life. What life events have colored your perspective, and how does this translate into the type of books you want to represent?

EK:  Personal interest plays a large part in the types of projects we take on. Our agency may operate differently from others in this way. If an agent at our agency decides to represent someone, there is no doubt that there is a degree of personal interest invested in the story. A project can be well executed and ready for publication, but if it is of no personal interest to any of the agent’s in-house, we won’t represent it. There are many projects that would interest me but Kimberley would not touch and vice versa. I guess it’s safe to say there are degrees of personal interest.

In a larger sense, with respect to my life experience, yes, I’m interested in a wide range of things. I’m very eclectic in the projects I represent. The interns sometimes shake their heads because I’m that kid who is willing try anything, which forces them to read farther into projects when they were hoping to get a head shake.

Some examples of recent projects I’ve taken on because I’m personally interested in these subjects:

1.              A thriller with a priest protagonist set in Italy.
2.              Book on the moon.
3.              An edgy mystery where setting is a character.
4.              Heroic animal rescue story.
5.              Self-help book around social media.
6.              Dog humor book (I have two of these).
7.              Communication book on listening.
8.              An illustrated adult humor book that made me laugh hard.

Authors want agents that have a personal interest in their work.

PH: When a writer sends you a query letter and a partial manuscript, are you the first person in your office to lay eyes on it, or do readers and/or interns screen the pages first?

EK:  It really depends. Both Kimberley and I have assistants who help us with our e-mail inboxes, though sometimes we put them on other projects (developmental). Over the last three months, I have probably only looked at 15 queries because I’ve been extremely busy with new clients, conferences, and running the office. I have SO many people I need to get back to! If I have met an author in person at a conference, I ask my assistant to leave those submissions alone, though unfortunately they sit for a long time then. Right now my e-mail box hovers around 640 e-mails, about 540 of which are non-client e-mails (or cold queries and conference submissions). My goal is to better pace myself so that I can be involved in the submissions that come to me. It’s been strongly on my mind that I need to get to my Santa Fe submissions, because I know there are some gems there.

I do feel it’s important to mention that the interns who come and work with us are all educated, and most are writers, so they do have inherent empathy. They are motivated to find projects because it’s exciting. Since our location is somewhat remote, they really have to want to be at the Agency. They hate “crushing dreams,” as they put it, but also quickly learn it’s part of the process, and even though writing is very personal, our rejection of an author’s work is not personal. The interns are tough critics. It’s true they don’t like seeing typos and that they’d love to be able to reject on the basis of a bad query. But we train them to pop the submission open and read because we understand that query letters are tough for writers.

This should be a lesson to authors, though. Our agency is forgiving, but there’s no doubt in my mind that other agency’s don’t operate with the same philosophy. Do your homework, and have others proofread your materials.

PH: There are so many things that make up a good book: voice, characters, pacing, story line, the writing style, etc. When you consider a book for representation, are any of these more important than the others? For instance, will rich, multi-dimensional characters make up for pacing that’s too slow? Will an original premise carry a story with a weak voice?

EK:  Our recent trip to New York to meet editors reaffirmed that authors have to “bring it” on all levels. The traditional publishing climate is tough. Kimberley says there used to be a thriving midlist, but not any longer; it’s been wiped out. We heard the term “genre plus,” on our trip, which we understand to mean all pieces (mentioned above) need to be in place. At lunch in New York, renowned editor Otto Penzler said to us: “I want to cry. I want to laugh. I want to get angry.” Every aspect of a manuscript needs to be as rich and multidimensional as possible. “Great writing” is not a one-dimensional term.

PH: What are your goals as a literary agent?

EK:  Of course I want the bestseller, Peter (I hope you note your name in italics). And once I have one, I just may need a few more.

PH: If you were to sit down and write a novel, what genre would it be? Give me a description of the main character?

EK: I’ve never considered writing fiction. My writing interest has always been nonfiction. Personally, I’d like to write a memoir. I think I have an inherent need to communicate a part of me in writing. As I child I felt stifled around communication. For example, when I got caught smoking cigarettes by my Dad and he grounded me right before The Police played the “Day On The Green” (I’m dating myself), I had to write a letter to him to ask him to defer my grounding, which he did. Verbal communication with adults was tough for me; I didn’t feel like they listened or heard what I had to say. Thus, communication has become an important part of my life. I’m drawn to memoir for this reason. And I also believe that everyone has a story to tell, whether they’ve studied how to tell it well is another matter…and that includes me.

What’s most likely to happen, though, is that I’ll co-author a humor project with someone, possibly my neighbor. We’ve been kicking around an idea.

If my life depended on me writing fiction for some reason, I might try my hand at a heartbreaking love story (like The House of Mirth), a Young Adult manuscript or a historical (I do have one in the back of my mind for this set in China).

PH: Ok, last question: If you could work with any writer in history, who would it be and why?

EK: I think I might like to “work with” Poe. I certainly wouldn’t want to take advantage of him, because he didn’t earn much for his genius and struggled most of his life. There is so much speculation around what type of person he was that I’d love to get a sense of him myself, one on one.

Thank you, very much, Liz, for your time and insightful answers. You can find out more about Liz and her agency at http://www.kimberleycameron.com, Once again, thanks for your attention, and please check out my author website at http://www.peterhogenkamp.com.