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April 2011 SPOTLIGHT INTERVIEW

Nephele Tempest
Literary Agent, Knight Agency

 

Nephele Tempest WG:      Hello! Welcome, and thanks for stepping into my spotlight this month.

WG:      To start off, please tell us a bit about yourself.

TB:      I've been with The Knight Agency since 2005. The agency is based out of Georgia - as that's where Deidre Knight lives - and I run the Los Angeles office. I attended the University of Chicago (many years ago) and graduated with a degree in English, have always been a reader, etc. - all the standard cliche stuff. But I have worked in many industries along the way to this job, including finance, sales, marketing communications and so on, all of which provided me with a skill set that really works for an agent.

WG:      Can you tell us why you decided to pursue a career as an agent and what steps you took to get you where you are today?

TB:      I suppose you could say I came into agenting through the back door. I worked as an editorial assistant at a nonfiction imprint of Simon & Schuster right out of college, and lasted less than a year - mostly because I don't have the personality to be anyone's assistant. But I always loved the publishing industry and books and kept up with what was going on in the industry to a large extent, even when I was off writing about mutual funds.

Skip forward a decade (well, a little more), and I'm living in LA, working as a freelance writer. At that point I was friends with Deidre Knight, who I met in an online writing group. She calls me up one day and tells me she would like to open an LA office, and am I interested? So I spent six months reading partial submissions for her on a freelance basis and after that I came onboard.

As to why? How many jobs are there where you get paid to read? I can't think of a better way to earn a living than to hang out with books and writers.

WG:      What genres/lines do you currently represent?

TB:      I currently represent romance (various sub-genres), young adult fiction, women's fiction, fantasy, and more general/commercial literary fiction.

WG:      Are you interested in expanding into other genres, and if so, which ones?

TB:      I also accept submissions in science fiction - just haven't found anything I really love yet - and I'm looking to branch into narrative nonfiction.

WG:      Are there any genres you have absolutely no interest in representing at this time?

TB:      No traditional mysteries. By this I mean, nothing you'd stock in the mystery section of a chain bookstore, so no cozies or mystery series, etc. If it could land on the fiction shelves - if it's a great story that happens to contain a mystery - I'll look at it. Because really, most books contain some aspect of a mystery. Also, no poetry, plays, screenplays, or nonfiction beyond narrative.

WG:      Do you represent any authors of non-fiction? If so, have you been successful in selling their projects? If not, is this a market that interests you?

TB:      Not yet. See above.

WG:      What genre(s) do the majority of your recent sales fall into? Has this changed over time? How so?

TB:      I tend to sell more romance than anything, because the agency has a strong reputation in that genre and so we get a bulk ton of submissions from romance writers. But I definitely sell other genres as well.

WG:      What publishing houses/lines have you sold to in the past 12 months?

TB:      Berkley, NAL, HarperTeen, Kensington, Sourcebooks

WG:      Approximately how many clients do you currently represent and what is the ratio of published to unpublished?

TB:      I actually have a pretty small list right now and I'd say about half are published, with another twenty-five percent having books currently on editors' desks on submission. The rest are busy writing or revising.

WG:      Approximately how many works by first time authors have you sold in the past 12 months?

TB:      Well, I've sold works by two first-time authors, a total of six books.

WG:      Are you actively seeking out new authors to represent, and if so, what would it take to catch your eye?

TB:      I'm definitely seeking new authors to represent. The work has to be fresh and very well written. I want great story and also craft. When I first started out, I had time to take on an author who I thought had potential but needed some pretty extensive editorial work - great story but some structure or mechanics issues. I'm still happy to do some of that, but projects need to be much more polished because I am simply working with more people now.

WG:      How would you describe your agenting style? What is your involvement with the author's creative process? With his/her career planning? Or is your relationship strictly the business side of contract negotiation and as author/editor interface?

TB:      I'm happy to serve as a sounding board for my clients when they're banging out ideas, etc. I also feel it's my job to say if I feel an idea is not marketable; after all, my job is to sell it. But I tend to be more hands on once there's a manuscript. I'll do a copy edit, and also note anything I consider a story issue - plot holes, dangling questions, lack of believability, etc. I've got a writer's background, so I tend to be vocal. That said, it's not my book - it's the writer's book. So I'm flexible, based on how much feedback works with a given client. And I definitely keep a big picture in mind when working with clients. We discuss more than just the current project or current contract - it's about longevity and where the writer is interested in going long-term.

WG:      Do you enjoy one of these roles more than the others?

TB:      I love many aspects of this job, but I could discuss story structure for hours quite happily.

WG:      Given that you feel an individual author's manuscript is marketable, how important is it that you personally like the work in order for you to pursue acquiring it?

TB:      I need to really love it. The market is tough and if I can't champion the project to the best of my ability, it's going to make it that much harder to sell. So, yeah. Love. I want to wake up thinking about how fabulous it is. I want to get really excited when I'm sending it to editors.

WG:      How often do you provide feedback to your clients on the status of their submissions?

TB:      I'll send a client a list of editors I'm planning to submit to prior to doing so, then let them know as editors have requested the manuscript. After that I'll forward responses if they come by e-mail, or drop a note if I have a phone call with an editor that passes along the gist of the conversation. Of course, those are for rejections. When we get an offer, I generally get on the phone. That can be tricky sometimes, because I have a few clients on the other side of the world and time zones get in the way, but as a rule that's how I work.

WG:      What is your process for submitting work to editors? Is this different if the editor is one you've had no prior contact with as opposed to one you've already built a working relationship with?

TB:      This varies from project to project and from editor to editor. If I know the editor and I really think that the project is perfect for them, I'm going to get on the phone. If I'm going out more broadly, if the book is a less obvious perfect fit, I will send pitch letters with a synopsis (something I generally write myself) asking if they'd like to see it. Most of them will request and I'll send the manuscript off. With editors I haven't worked with or maybe have not even communicated with before, I'll call or e-mail and introduce myself - or try to set up a meeting if I'm going to be in New York visiting editors. I like to get a first impression - for both of us - before sending them material.

WG:      How do you feel about sending a particular work to multiple houses simultaneously?

TB:      Nowadays you have to send simultaneous submissions. Everyone is incredibly busy and you're never sure how long it will take someone to read, and editors at different house can have extremely different perceptions of a project's marketability. You may get an offer from Editor A for $20,000 and a trade release while Editor B offers $150,000 for hardcover rights with an extensive marketing plan. If you only submitted to Editor A, you might end up just taking that offer and would possibly be doing your author a huge disservice.

WG:      Once a work has been sold, do you provide any input to the author and/or editor in the area of marketing and promotion for the book?

TB:      The Knight Agency has a pretty significant online presence and we like to work with our authors to put together online chats or guest blog appearances, etc. We work to keep lines of communication open between the author, the publisher's marketing department, and ourselves so that everyone can capitalize on each other's efforts and connections, and no one ends up doing redundant work. The last thing we want is to step on toes.

WG:      What do you see as the personal strengths you bring to the table in the agent/author relationship? In the agent/editor relationship?

TB:      I think it's useful that I have both a writing and a business background. It makes it easier for me to discuss craft and potential revisions with a client while still being effective when I need to put the business hat back on. And I think that helps editors, too, since if I help my client turn in a cleaner manuscript, that's less work for the editor at the end of the day. On both sides, I think I'm as fair as I can be. Of course, I'm working for my author's interests, but that means getting the most advantageous deal - which isn't always just a numbers game. Everyone loves a huge advance, but if the book falls far short of earning out and the publisher is angry at how much money they've lost, that big advance might not look so good anymore. But publishers tend to put more marketing attention into books that cost them more. It's about finding a balance that helps a writer grow a career and not just sell one book, and allows the publisher to continue to stand behind the author and support their work with good print runs and nice covers and advantageous store placement.

WG:      Do you feel that writers' conferences provide significant value to you in the way of networking with authors? With editors?

TB:      I like meeting with editors at conferences, but generally we don't have time for much more than a brief conversation. We're there to talk to the writers. And I love meeting with writers at any stage of their careers, whether or not they're looking for an agent, because I just love talking with writers. However mostly I feel like I attend conferences to help educate the writing community. So many writers have questions about the process of finding an agent or getting a book published, and I like answering those if I can. In the long run I feel like they might send out a better query letter and get a little farther in the process thanks to me, and that is just great for the industry as a whole, whether or not I'm the one on the receiving end of the submission.

WG:      Have you ever been involved in the sale of movie rights? Foreign rights? If so, did you handle this yourself or did you work with someone more specialized in this field?

TB:      Being in Los Angeles, I do periodically meet with production folks and other people in the industry looking for books to turn into movies. The Knight Agency has had some success in this area, though I haven't had any of my authors' projects produced (yet). But it's a long and very iffy process - much harder than just getting a book published. I look at it as a bonus for a writer if something comes from Hollywood interest, but it's not a primary focus for obvious reasons.

Several of my clients have their books out in foreign editions. Elaine Spencer is our foreign rights person and she works with subagents to broker those deals for the entire agency.

WG:      Realistically, what is the normal timeframe for your response to queries? Partials? Fulls?

TB:      This varies incredibly. Lately, I've been terribly behind due to travel and a huge influx of work from clients - they come first, after all. Queries generally go to our agency submissions box and Melissa Jeglinski handles them. Sometimes she'll pass them straight through to me if they were related to a conference I've done, but generally she'll screen them and I don't see anything until there's a partial to read. I try to read partials in a couple of weeks - again, I'm behind right now. Full manuscripts are generally in the three month range, but I ran a contest where I ended up taking far more full-length submissions than I anticipated and I think I have somewhere in the range of twenty-five manuscripts in my in-box at this moment.

I will say that when I'm this backed up in submissions, I tend to find a week where things aren't too crazy and just clear the decks to read. So I can clean out the partials and probably a good 7-10 manuscripts within a few days (assuming not all manuscripts keep my interest long enough to finish them). That's on my calendar for the last week in March, so by the time this goes live I should be much more caught up.

WG:      Do you feel an agent based in New York has a significant advantage over one who is not? Why or why not?

TB:      I don't think a New York agent has a significant advantage because so much of this business has gone electronic at this stage. Even agents in New York spend most of their time working through e-mail and over the phone. Most sales get done that way, not over lunch. That's an image leftover from the 50s and 60s, along with having a couple of martinis to close the deal.

That said, all of us at The Knight Agency make a point of going to New York periodically to meet with editors face to face, because it is nice to have that connection and to chat at a more leisurely pace about the industry and what they're looking for, excited about, etc. I just came back from a trip where I met with a dozen editors in just under 48 hours. It was educational and inspiring and I love doing that because it challenges me to find projects for these editors with whom I would love to work. But you don't have to be there all the time to be good at your job.

WG:      What sort of misconceptions/ unrealistic expectations have you encountered from authors about what an agent's role is?

TB:      I think the biggest misconception is that agents sell every book they take on. We would love that, of course, but it doesn't happen. There are many books that some agent loves and that are well written and completely worthy of publication that don't get published because of one reason or another: too many similar things out there, no one knows how to market it, editors don't love it quite as much, etc. The reality of this business is that each editor can only purchase so many books a year - they have slots on their list. And they might like a manuscript a great deal, but if they think they might like something else better a little bit down the line, they will reject the project to leave room for the next one. Just like I need to love a project to take it on, an editor needs to love it to champion it to their editorial board. I think many writers feel that their work is done the moment they get an agent because we will wave our magic wands and presto, instant book! But it doesn't work quite that way.

WG:      In your opinion, when is the right time in an author's career for him/her to start actively looking for an agent?

TB:      When they have a finished and revised manuscript that they believe is ready to be sold. That doesn't necessarily mean the first manuscript they have finished, either.

WG:      What piece of advice or 'pearl of wisdom' would you like to offer authors who are considering approaching you (or any agent) for representation?

TB:      Read an agency's submission guidelines and follow them. Give your query letter as much thought as you would a resume. Before you do anything, put your manuscript aside for a couple of weeks and then go back and read it once more prior to submitting it. Never tell an agent that your book is the next New York Times bestseller; if we can't predict that, neither can you. And finally, remember that we are all just people who love books.

WG:      Do you think contest credits help authors further their career before and/or after making that first sale? Have you ever acquired a client that you discovered via a writing contest?

TB:      They don't hurt, but I don't put that much store in them unless they are from a very big and well known contest. And no, I haven't discovered any of my clients through contests. But several of my clients have won some.

WG:      Do you visit the websites and blogs of authors you work with or of authors you are considering working with? If so, is there something in particular you look for that potentially impacts your view of the author and their work?

TB:      Yes. I Google them, too. Mostly I want to see if they have a web presence, and what they do with it, because that gives me some idea how they might promote themselves. It can also give me an idea as to how that writer and I might get along if we start a business relationship.

WG:      How important do you think self-promotion is to a writer's career? Is there a particular area of promotion that you feel is most effective?

TB:      In this day and age, self-promotion is pretty much a job requirement. Not everyone is a born blogger and I encourage my clients to find their own particular style and niche when it comes to self promotion, but they really need to do something and every published author should have at least a basic static website that includes a list of their books/cover art with links to allow visitors to purchase them. I think if you don't do that, you are ignoring the reality of the business today. And the most effective promotion is what nets you results, and that varies for each author depending on their personality and the type of book they write. Experiment. Be creative. Make it fun. If you don't enjoy it on some level, it probably won't work very well.

WG:      I love to collect quotes, all kinds of quotes - inspirational, quirky, motivational, profound, etc. Do you have a personal favorite you'd like to share?

TB:      I love quotes, too. I'm actually kind of obsessive about them, so you get more than one. I'll just say that, in combination, they probably tell you most of what you need to know about me.

"You can't wait for inspiration; you have to go after it with a club." ~Jack London

"No excellent soul is exempt from a mixture of madness." ~Aristotle

WG:      When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

TB:      Until I was thirteen, I wanted to be a ballet dancer. From fourteen on, I wanted to be a writer.

WG:      What do you do to relax and have fun?

TB:      I read. Oh, besides that? I go to the movies, cook, walk by the ocean, hang out with friends, travel.

WG:      Other than your client's work, what do you enjoy reading?

TB:      I'm all over the map, really. Literary fiction, commercial, memoir, literary biography, science books - I love Brian Greene, books about writing, cookbooks, classics I never got to in school, classics I can't resist rereading, young adult and so on. Recent books I enjoyed: A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES by Deborah Harkness (fiction), RIVAL by Sara Bennett Wealer (young adult), THE IMPERFECTIONISTS by Tom Rachman (fiction), CRYER'S CROSS by Lisa McMann (young adult), PORTRAIT OF AN ADDICT AS A YOUNG MAN by Bill Clegg (memoir; and I'm not sure �enjoyed� is the proper term for this one, but it was incredibly well written). My to-read pile is actually about six piles around my apartment, not counting what's unread on my bookshelves. I read blogs, too. And skim newspapers online.

WG:      What are your favorite movies and/or TV shows? Why?

TB:      I don't watch much TV these days. No time. I don't even have cable. I mostly catch up through Netflix. But I do love Fringe.

Movies are hard - it's like picking favorite books, the list is long and depends on my mood. I love a lot of classic old movies: The Philadelphia Story, Gone with the Wind, Breakfast at Tiffany's, How to Steal a Million, Casablanca. More recently, Out of Africa, all of the Lord of the Rings movies, the new Star Trek, Star Wars (the original three), When Harry Met Sally, The American President, the Harry Potter films. There's tons I'm not thinking of, I'm sure.

WG:      Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on your life? In what way?

TB:     I couldn't possibly choose just one.

WG:      Before we close, is there anything else you'd like to mention about yourself or the agency?

TB:      We've grown quite a bit since I joined the agency - I was the third agent and now there's six of us, plus an amazing support staff. But despite that we are very much a boutique agency. We know our clients, a lot of our clients know each other, and we enjoy fostering that family-sort of atmosphere. That's not what everyone wants, but for writers seeking that type of relationship I think we're a great choice. Writers should ask themselves what they're looking for in an agent and agency, not just look for someone who will sign them on.

WG:      Is there a website you can point us to where folks can go to learn more about you and/or your agency?

TB:      The agency is at www.knightagency.net and the agency blog is at http://knightagency.blogspot.com. My blog is at http://nephele.livejournal.com. And I'm on Twitter, though sporadically, @NepheleTempest.

WG:      Thanks again for taking time out of your busy schedule to sit in this month's spotlight. It was delightful 'visiting' with you here.

 

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