Thursday, July 15, 2010

Interview with an Agent: Kate Schafer Testerman

I’m absolutely thrilled to give you Kate Schafer Testerman of kt literary. Ms. Testerman maintains a fabulous blog with tons of information about her querying preferences, so I wanted to do something a little different with today’s interview. Hope you enjoy:)

KV: How often does a query intrigue you enough to look at the included pages? And how often do those pages intrigue you enough to request a partial?

KT: You know, I've never actually thought about that! I'd love to say I ALWAYS read the attached pages in the query, but in truth, as long as the query is in my stated areas of interest (that is, it's not an adult thriller, but actually something I represent), I'd say about 65% of the time. That's totally a rough estimate, and I'd be thrilled for that number to go up. But often, yes, I can tell just from the letter if it's something I want to see more of, or not.

My ratio of queries-to-partial requests is much lower. Last quarter, I got almost 1,300 queries (see my blog of April 14th), and asked for partials on only 20 of those. So roughly 1.5%. Of those, I asked for 3 full manuscripts.

KV: What are you looking for in a requested manuscript?

KT: Fascinating characters that I care deeply about, a story that compels me to keep turning pages, and a unique idea, well represented. I don't want the next TWILIGHT-meets-x-y-or-z. I want something new!

KV: What are some of the most common problems you see in the manuscripts you request?

KT: I think too many authors query too soon, so that even if they do have a great idea and a unique plot, and even if they've intrigued me with interesting character descriptions, too many times once I actually get to the manuscript, the writing just doesn't stand up. I know revision sucks, but there's a reason it needs to be done--because it makes the manuscript SO MUCH BETTER. Just about anyone can write a novel, but it takes a really strong individual to put it away for a few weeks, or hand it out to beta readers, hear the comments for revision, and make it better. Like the Bionic Woman: better. Stronger. Faster.

Too often, the writing feels rushed, like it was the last thing the author thought or worried about. Look, if the writing's not strong enough, your ideas for web promotion, cover concepts, or sequels just don't matter.

I can't always tell from the query what the writing is going to be like, since the ability to craft a good query letter is a completely different skill set than that of writing a novel. But once I've seen those first chapters, I can usually make a pretty good determination.

But hey! I've been wrong before!

KV: When you come across a manuscript you really like/love, how do you decide whether to request revisions or offer representation?

KT: It depends on the manuscript. I'd love to see something come across my desk that's perfect, but I'd say 90% of the time, I have some thoughts on what the author could try to make it even better. In most cases, I may ask the author to do a round of revisions before offering representation. Other times, the author may have multiple offers, in which case I'll lay out my thoughts on what he or she could do to improve the manuscript, and let the author mull that offer along with my offer for representation.

KV: When you do make that Call, you’re probably going to ask the writer if she has any questions. What sorts of questions should she ask?

KT: I posted my answers to a similar question on my blog almost two years ago (wow, those archives are DEEP!). Here's the highlights:

1. How do you see my book being positioned? (i.e. Do I see it as sci-fi when the author thinks it’s a mainstream commercial novel? Do we agree on the genre?)

2. What’s your timeline for submitting? Is it ready to submit? (Am I going to send this right out to editors to read, or does the author need to do another round of submissions?)

3. What commission do you offer? (Honestly, I usually offer this information before it’s asked--I offer 15% commission on domestic deals, and 20% on foreign or dramatic rights, in order to cover bigger mailing expenses and subagent commissions.)

4. Do you charge any other fees? (Beware of agents who charge reading fees, but being charged for mailing expenses shouldn’t be a make-or-break decision--although it is, I think, less common in today’s internet age.)

I think it's also fair to ask if you can talk to any of the agent's other clients, and if you're wise, you can always ask the agent if there's anything you should be asking--kind of like that riddle about the two doors.

KV: You mentioned talking to an offering agent's other clients. What sorts of questions should a writer ask them?

KT: Any questions you might ask the agent herself, you can also ask her clients. In particular, a writer might want to ask them how available they feel the agent is to her clients, how much editing work she requests before submitting, how she handles notifying the author when she gets responses to submissions. Plus, you're also asking for a sort of personal reference, so allow the client an opportunity to tell the writer how they feel about working with the agent.

KV: And now for a few more questions from the normal interview. What client work do you have coming out soon? What drew you to those writers and/or projects?

KT: I've got two GREAT first novels coming out for kt literary clients this fall. First, Sara Beitia's THE LAST GOOD PLACE OF LILY ODILON, which comes out from Flux in October 2010. A brief blurb:

“Lily Odilon--local wild child from a small Idaho town--has vanished after spending the night with her sometimes boyfriend, new kid Albert Morales. Suspected in her disappearance, Albert sets out to discover what happened to her. Kidnapped? Runaway? Murder victim? Joining Albert is Lily's prickly younger sister, Olivia. Their distress is mirrored in a fast-paced narrative that jumps through three timelines. Each thread adds a new level to the mystery and reveals clues that paint a startling picture of all three teens. Their intertwined destinies come to a head in an unconventional climax.”

I loved the noir-stylings of this manuscript, and Albert's voice was just spot on. And the ending--well, did you ever see the movie "Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels"? That ending reminded me of this ending. You have to read it!

And due out in December 2010 from Dutton is ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS by Stephanie Perkins, which is just raking in the fabulous blurbs from authors like Maureen Johnson, Lauren Myracle, and Justina Chen. ANNA is just a perfect, heart-wrenching, deep and absorbing romance. I fell in love with Etienne St. Claire just as Anna falls for him. Steph's books are what I want to read, what I believe teens are dying for--realistic, emotionally deep love stories set in the real world.

Oh, and January 2011 brings Lili Wilkinson's US debut PINK, from HarperCollins. This was already published to rave reviews in Australia by Allen & Unwin. John Green calls it, "Fun, razor-sharp, and moving." Lili was referred to me by an author friend who knew Lili was already doing well in her native Australia, and was ready to break wide open in the US. I couldn't agree more!

KV: I’m jumping in to add that Ms. Testerman announced on her blog yesterday that ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS just pulled in another incredible blurb--from Lisa McMann of WAKE fame. All right, back to the interview...

Is there something you haven’t been seeing lately in the slush pile that you wish you were?

KT: I look forward to seeing more middle grade fiction. I think a lot of editors are looking for it, and possibly because of my work with Maureen Johnson, I'm first seen as a YA agent. But I also work with Matthew Cody, Ellen Booraem, and S. Terrell French--authors doing amazing things in MG. I'd love to find more great authors like them!

KV: What’s the best way to query you?

KT: Super easy--my submission guidelines are up on my website and are pretty straightforward: just e-mail me with a query letter and the first three pages. For more details, check my site.

Thanks again, Ms. Testerman, for all of these detailed responses. And for those of you thinking about querying her, don’t forget to check out her blog. (Are you getting the hint that I really like her blog? :) ) It’ll be well worth your time.

Have a great Thursday, everyone!


Matthew MacNish said...

Kate is the best! Ask Daphne was the single best thing that ever happened to my query.

Theresa Milstein said...

What a thorough interview. Thanks. I'm going to read those guidelines right now!

Karen Denise said...

Great interview, Krista! I'm a huge fan of Kate. Not only had her blog helped me in so many ways, but she gave me excellent feedback on my last manuscript. Can't beat that!

Red Boot Pearl said...

Awesome questions, especially--the sample pages and asking agents and their clients questions--really informative! She is already on the dream agent list :)

A.L. Sonnichsen said...

Sigh. If I have a dream agent, it's Kate! Thanks for the wonderful interview, you guys. Great stuff.


Kelly Bryson said...

Great interview. I'm trying to get a list of questions forprospective agents and have been feeling kindof lost there. Thanks to you both!

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Matthew, I LOVE Daphne's "About My Query" posts. So informative. Maybe I'll have to submit Bob's query the next time she calls for some...

Theresa, didn't Ms. Testerman go above and beyond with her responses? (AND she turned this interview around in about three or four days, two of them being over a weekend.)

Ah, Karen, so you snagged one of those elusive requests:) Good for you.

Pearl and Amy, she was already on my dream agent list, too:)

Kelly, you're welcome. And AgentQuery has a really helpful article on that topic. Here's the link:

Myrna Foster said...

I loved this interview. Thanks!

Krista Van Dolzer said...

I thought you would, Myrna:) And you're welcome.

Kay said...

Thanks for stopping by my blog. I connected with an agent thanks to yours!!

Great post on Kate!


Krista Van Dolzer said...

Kay, that's fantastic!

Suzanne Casamento said...

Great interview. Kate rocks. And I love that there's so much great reading KT Literary reading to look forward to!

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Welcome, Suzanne! And you're right - she does rock:)

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Although, now that I've just checked out your profile, I see you're in a much better position to be making that claim than I am:) Thanks for your cliently stamp of approval.