Friday, February 22, 2013

Interactive Interview with an Agent: Meredith Kaffel

Welcome to another interactive installment of “Interview with an Agent,” this one featuring Meredith Kaffel of DeFiore and Company! As always, enjoy Ms. Kaffel’s answers to the usual questions, then check out the details on the interactive part (which are located at the bottom).

KV: How long have you been agenting, and how did you get into it?

MK: After six years with the Charlotte Sheedy Literary Agency, I’ve now been with DeFiore & Co. since early 2012. I always knew I wanted to be in publishing. This knowledge stemmed mostly from my truly geeky passion for writing and books since childhood, but also from the fun fact that I grew up in a publishing family of sorts--my grandfather, Mort Weisinger, was the story editor of Superman for DC Comics for thirty years and before that, co-founded with Julie Schwartz the first science fiction & fantasy literary agency, Solar Sales Service. So, in a sense, I had an existing template of what a life lived in publishing might entail; it seemed possible.

As an undergraduate at Yale, I interned for four years in the Sales Department of Yale University Press and spent one college summer interning in the Sales Dept. of Harry Abrams. But it wasn’t until the summer I interned for an amazing literary agent--Sarah Burnes--that I discovered just what a literary agent did and fell head-first in love with the agent’s role in the publishing universe.

KV: How would you summarize your personal agenting philosophy? What do you expect from an agent-author relationship?

MK: I’ve come to think of the agent-author relationship in terms of SIGHT, above all else. I think seeing is what I do best. My job is to see my clients and their work as clearly as possible, so as to best present and sell them to publishers, as well as to make said clients feel seen throughout the process. In fact, I think it’s possible to break down the author-agent relationship into four sight-related components: it is the agent’s duty to provide for a client INSIGHT, FORESIGHT, SECOND SIGHT, and HINDSIGHT--throughout the development, submission, negotiation, publishing and managerial/maintenance stages of the agent-author experience. And of course, we as agents must be advocates, as well as futurists.

As for what I expect from my client relationships: hard work, honesty, fierceness, open lines of communication, talent, due diligence, trust, decency and respect from both sides.

KV: What client work do you have coming out soon? What drew you to those writers and/or projects?

MK: Books I have coming up: the tentatively titled and elegantly sexy POSH GIRL’S GUIDE TO PLAY by Alexis Lass, a prep-school bred dominatrix (!) (Seal Press); YA veteran Terra McVoy’s latest young adult novel, CRIMINAL (Simon Pulse), which is about a girl who discovers just how far she will go for love and which sizzles its way onto shelves this May; genius indie-darling comic illustrator Lisa Hanawalt’s raunchily beautiful MY DIRTY DUMB EYES (Drawn & Quarterly); a groundbreaking biography of Celia Sanchez, Cuban Revolutionary, called ONE DAY IN DECEMBER (Monthly Review Press); a heartwarming modern classic “bedtime” picture book from mixed media artist Ida Pearl called THE MOON IS GOING TO ADDY’S HOUSE (Dial BFYR); a gorgeous literary historical debut about unrequited love and the inventor of the theremin (a strange and haunting musical instrument), from Canadian writer Sean Michaels (Knopf Canada).

KV: What genres do you represent? What genres do you definitely NOT represent?

MK: I DO seek projects in a wide range of genres, including but not limited to:

--Debut literary fiction
--Upmarket commercial fiction (especially historical)
--Literary thrillers
--Narrative nonfiction (especially on aesthetically-oriented subjects, as well as narratives of place, love and relationships, cultural and interdisciplinary history)
--Quirky platform-driven nonfiction in the realms of pop psychology, media, business, sociology, sex, science/the environment, tech and “how things work”
--Limited Memoir
--Children’s middle grade
--Children’s YA and Teen
--Limited list of Children’s picture books
--The rare illustrator

I DO NOT seek projects in the following genres:

Western, Adventure, High Fantasy, Religious, Rhyming Picture Books.

KV: What query pet peeves and/or pitfalls should writers avoid when querying you?

MK: I find myself most uncomfortable reading queries that feel overly familiar. This pitfall often goes hand in hand with a miscalibration of how confident one ought to appear in a query letter in order to garner an agent’s interest.

A basic rule: don’t tell me how fabulous or accomplished you are; let your accomplishments speak for themselves, and if you don’t happen to have a prize-studded bio, then let the ingenuity of your work speak for itself. I always look for an author who has the good sense to at least strive for a degree for humility and demonstrates a good grasp of reality. In other words, your query should read neither like an infomercial nor an acceptance speech! Just try to be your good, calm, smart self.

I’m also personally less engaged by extensive plot synopses; remember that agents want to see that you know how to talk about your book in a compelling and distilled manner. And for heavens’ sake, when an agent rejects your query, don’t turn around and send them another one for a different book within five minutes of having received the first rejection! Doing so completely devalues your work and makes you sound like a traveling salesman. And that’s my rant for the day.

KV: What are you looking for in a manuscript right now? What are you tired of seeing at the moment?

MK: I would love to find a delicious and dark upmarket thriller or mystery, ideally a series, or several. And I’m actively seeking more upmarket commercial historical fiction; I majored in Renaissance Studies in college and have a serious penchant for anything historical at all, from most any period but particularly the glamorous ones--and especially novels which take a well-known event or moment in time and re-tell it from a peripheral character’s perspective, making it new again.

I’m also always seeking more humor, more cultural history, and more teen contemporary realistic fiction. In the adult literary realm, I am eager to find more magical realism and variations thereof. Finally, I’d love to find more high-concept middle grade, as well--both projects for boys and also for girls.

All I ask: no more picture books for awhile!

KV: What’s the best way to query you?

MK: Via e-mail: Query + first 5 pages pasted in the body of the e-mail; no attachments in initial query. Thank you!

Thank YOU, Ms. Kaffel, for these insightful answers. I especially loved what you had to say about your personal agenting philosophy. I’ve never heard anyone put it quite that way before, and yet it’s so true.

And now for the fun part: If you have a question for Ms. Kaffel, feel free to leave it in the comments below. She’ll pop in a few times throughout the day to answer any questions she finds down there, leaving her answers in the comments, too. We’ll wrap things up at 5:00 p.m. EST (or 2:00 p.m. PST), but until then, have at it!


CallMeKarma said...

Thanks for posting the interview! Love the insight from these, Krista
: )
Ms. Kaffel -- you mentioned magical realism in adult...what about women's fiction with a (healthy) dash of magical realism? Thanks!

DustySE said...

Thanks for the great interview!

Ms. Kaffel, do you have any policy on requeries, if an author has substantially revised/reworked/rewritten a manuscript?

Meredith Kaffel said...

CallMeKarma, thanks for reading. Happy to see women's fiction with a healthy dash of anything!

DustySE, thanks for asking about requeries. If the work has truly been substantially reworked, then I am willing (if a bit wary) to see it again. Please do let a few months (at least) go by before requerying. Please also note this does not include those queries to which I respond with concrete feedback and/or editorial suggestions -- I always, always want to see those projects again. Thanks!

Tiffany said...

Thank you for an insightful interview! Do you rep chapter books in a series?

Suzi said...

Thanks for the interview, Krista.

Ms. Kaffel:
What are your thoughts about books with an 18 yo college freshman as the protagonist?

Can you see them fitting in with YA? Or would you only call it adult? And is that age a hard sell in both categories since it's right on the line?


Meredith Kaffel said...

Thanks, Tiffany! Sure, I am happy to see series chapter book submissions.

Suzi, thanks for your very good question. If you're aiming for YA, why not make your 18 yo a high school senior? College takes us, I believe, into dicey territory in terms of genre. If you're most keen to write about the college experience, however, there is, in addition to regular old adult fiction, a burgeoning new field called "New Adult," which could include a more college-aged coterie of characters. But New Adult is, as a genre, very much still evolving. I hope this helps!

CallMeKarma said...

Thank you Ms. Kaffel! A WF (with a big dash of magical realism) query will hit your inbox in the next few months : )

Tiffany said...

Thank you!

Michael Goins said...

What about a book, standalone but the first in a trilogy, that begins in the Civil War and the last book is in present time? It's multi-family, black and white, and is about slavery from the viewpoint of those who are living it and begins with a young free girl who discovers the father she has never known is alive and not too far away.

Meredith Kaffel said...

Michael: Sounds intriguing! Of course it all comes down to the voice. But I do enjoy historical and also multi-generational when done well.

Krista Van Dolzer said...

And one more from the Krista gallery: In general, how long does it take you to respond to queries and requested manuscripts, or do those response times vary wildly?

Carrie-Anne said...

Thanks for the great interview!

Do you see long historical sagas (e.g., Leon Uris, Herman Wouk, James Michener) making a comeback, or should those of us who write such long novels stick to indie and e-publishing for now?

Are you interested in books set outside the typical North American and Western European settings?

Hong said...

Thank you for the interview!

Are you interested in multicultural fantasy manuscripts for middle readers?

I know you mentioned that you don't like high fantasy.

Meredith Kaffel said...

Krista, as to response time -- I try to respond to incoming queries within 1-2 weeks, though we are all only human. In terms of requested manuscripts, that response time varies depending on the project and my client plate at any given time.

Carrie-Anne: I'm afraid it's hard to say. I personally grew up loving MARJORIE MORNINGSTAR by Herman Wouk, but it is true that the word "slim" is music to any print-publishing editor's ears these days. That being said, there is no hard and fast rule.

Hong: Sure!

Krista Van Dolzer said...

And that's a wrap! Thanks, Meredith, for spending the day with us. It was lovely having you.

Leslie S. Rose said...

Love seeing an agent as a futurist - spot on.

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Me, too, Leslie! I imagine the best agents are forward thinkers.