Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Interview with Judson Knight of The Knight Agency

Can you give a little background on yourself and your agency?

Though I’m a big part of The Knight Agency, the real driving force is my wife, Deidre Knight, so I’m going to discuss both her background and mine. Deidre and I, though we didn’t meet until our early twenties, grew up with a lot of the same interests, among them writing. I decided to become a writer at the age of five—before I even knew how to read and write—and never seriously considered any other profession.

After college, I went to work for Virginia Spencer Carr, chairman of the Department of English at my alma mater, Georgia State University, and that job gave me exposure to the literary world in a number of ways. One of these days I’m going to frame the very nice personal letter I received from Gore Vidal, who Dr. Carr interviewed while in Italy. Even more important, my stint at the English department led to an opportunity to work as full-time ghostwriter for a successful Atlanta businessman writing action-adventure novels. Over the years from 1990 to 1998, I ghostwrote, co-wrote, or edited dozens of fiction and nonfiction works for a variety of individuals and institutions.

Deidre started writing very young, and over the years she displayed great talent in two areas: sales and the arts. She and I first began dating, as a matter of fact, at an in-home sales job she helped me get, and whereas I had an irregular record as a salesperson, she proved to be that rare figure who could sell almost anything to almost anyone. After studying art history and English in college, she worked in the entertainment industry on a variety of projects, including the Lifetime feature film Sudie and Simpson and the hit NBC-TV series Heat of the Night. Once we were married, she opted for a job with more reliable hours, and went on to spend more than five years in international computer sales.

During the mid-1990s, however, she began to realize that she could combine her two talents in a single rewarding career, that of literary agent. She incorporated The Knight Agency on her thirtieth birthday, July 12, 1996. Early research showed her that romance and women’s fiction were among the most promising areas in publishing, and since she enjoyed reading in those genres as well, we chose to focus on them, along with general nonfiction. We also found ourselves working in the CBA as a natural extension of our faith.

I continued to work as a freelance writer, contributing to reference volumes and authoring over a dozen nonfiction works on subjects ranging from history to music to the sciences. Meanwhile, the Agency grew, and as with most businesses, growth was slow at first. Starting a literary agency is not like opening a franchise or establishing a professional practice: there is no roadmap, and success depends on the agent’s ability to think for herself. But Deidre’s talent and determination, combined with our willingness to work tirelessly and plow our profits back into the business, helped us to experience exponential growth with each subsequent year. In 2003, I was able to quit working as a freelancer, and joined the Agency full-time.

Today, on the eve of our tenth anniversary, The Knight Agency includes three agents—Deidre, Pamela Harty, and Nephele Tempest (who helms our agency’s L.A. office)—as well as three support personnel. Our employees—office manager Samantha Jenkins, marketing manager Julie Marshall, and manuscript coordinator Elaine Spencer—handle many of the day-to-day tasks that used to take up a great deal of Deidre’s and my time, freeing her to sell and me to serve in a support and advisory capacity.

What are you currently acquiring? Are you looking for inspirational fiction and genre romance—can you elaborate on these? Sub-genres?

More than almost any time in recent years, The Knight Agency is seeking new clients, both published and unpublished authors. In recent months Deidre has personally signed on several new clients, and Nephele and Pamela have done likewise, expanding TKA’s terrific roster of talented authors.

Right now, we’re seeking inspirational fiction, so long as it’s a bit “bigger,” as well as mainstream fiction of all stripes for the general market. In particular, the agency would like to find quality women’s fiction, Young Adult (which is particularly hot in the general market right now), romantic suspense, fantasy, and—for general market—paranormal romance. Queries should be marked to the attention of Elaine Spencer and emailed to submissions@knightagency.net. We will determine internally which projects are best suited to each agent’s tastes and current client load.

Realistically, what is your average response time, right now? We hear so much that the longer it takes, the better the odds of acceptance—any truth to that in regards to your agency?
Thanks to the considerable support we receive from our employees, response time on queries and manuscripts has been shortened from weeks or months to days or weeks. As for any connection between length of consideration time and the odds of acceptance, I think that there are so many variables at work there that it’s not possible to establish any sort of hard, fast rule. For example, we have more than once agonized over a submission, trying to decide whether to offer representation, only to pass after careful consideration showed us that the author and the Agency might not be the best fit at that particular moment. (Note the last four words: in at least one case, we initially passed on a submission, only to sign the author later. Today she is among our most successful clients.)

In making these decisions, we think about far more than the bottom line, because we are interested in building careers, not making short-term profits. Additionally, we genuinely want what is best for the writer. No other approach really makes sense in the long run: if the fit is not right, personally and professionally, then that fact will eventually make itself known, and therefore it’s in the best interests of all parties to weigh the possibilities before making a decision.

The last thing we want to do is to tie up anyone’s time—the author’s or our own. It might seem on the surface paradoxical that, in order to avoid wasting anybody’s time, we deliberate long and hard over some submissions, but of course there’s really no paradox there: if we spend a little more time up front, that may save everyone a great deal more time down the road. After all, as we often tell our prospective clients, when they approach us, they have to prove themselves—but once we sign someone, we will never stop proving ourselves to them. Such a commitment requires serious consideration.

That said, I’ll return to my original answer, which is that response time is getting faster and faster at The Knight Agency. Nevertheless, even the largest agencies require somewhere between two to six weeks to consider a manuscript, and we are no exception.

Pet peeves of submissions?
Oh, where to begin? Actually, though, if you’re strictly talking about submissions as opposed to queries, there aren’t as many pet peeves there. The reason for that is simple: anyone can query us (though we would hope every writer would do a little research as to whether we even represent the type of work they are offering), but by the time we get to the submission stage, the field has narrowed considerably.

Query letters are hard to write for just about everyone, and we realize that even when the letter itself is less than stellar, the manuscript might well be a stunner. Obviously, it’s still a good idea to work as hard as possible on the query letter, always keeping in mind that what we’re looking for, above all, is a good story. (Needless to say, we mean a good story that we can sell: someone might be the next Frederick Forsyth or John Le Carre, but since we don’t do much with action-adventure, we really wouldn’t be the right agency for their work.)

If your query letter results in a request for a manuscript, then you’re already ahead of 99 percent of the people who query us, and it’s likely you are going to display the attitudes and attributes of a professional. By the latter term, of course, I don’t mean someone who necessarily earns a living as a full-time writer, but someone who takes writing seriously. Assuming that you have that professional attitude—and it’s hard to imagine anyone reading this interview who doesn’t—it’s hardly necessary to remind you about the rudiments of manuscript mechanics. In any case, attention to mechanics is only significant in its absence, meaning that failure to adhere to established submission rules can disqualify someone, but adherence to those rules is no guarantee of acceptance. Beyond that, only one thing really matters: is your story something that people will want to read?

What would be your dream submission?
We approach a manuscript not only as agents, but as readers. Therefore we’re always looking for work that lives up to the standard set by Elmore Leonard when he said, “I leave out the parts people skip.” Or to adapt a more well-known saying, by Ralph Waldo Emerson (“Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door”), write a compelling novel and agents will beat a path to your door. It’s that simple—not easy, of course, but simple.

As I noted earlier, mechanics are always important, but such details are easily learned. It’s much harder to write a story with a clearly defined, interesting plot and characters about whom the reader will care. Our dream submission, whatever the sub-genre, would be one that has these characteristics. And our dream client would be someone who sees herself building a career, and welcomes the help of a knowledgeable, talented agent.

Do contest finals/placements/wins have any influence in whether you’ll read a certain ms?

Absolutely. For example, someone who placed as a finalist in the Romance Writers of America (RWA) Golden Heart competition is almost always going to catch our attention. But having won or placed in a contest is only one factor of many that we consider, and rarely does any single factor determine whether or not we will read a manuscript or offer representation.

Nevertheless, it’s always good, when querying an agent, to indicate two or three things about oneself that illustrate one’s professionalism, experience, and/or achievements as a writer. Keep it short and to the point, of course: in other words, one should think long and hard what those two or three most relevant factors are. Successes in other areas of life, for instance, may or may not be of interest; it all depends on the particular situation. (Where nonfiction is concerned, on the other hand, success in areas relating to the subject of the book is a virtual prerequisite.)

For my part, I don’t tend to be moved by queries that say something like, “This book is based on my own personal experiences.” All books are based on one’s personal experiences, and such a claim is likely to make the agent wonder if the writer has other books in her, or if she will run out of books once she runs out of experiences. Also, academic achievements are rarely of interest to agents or publishers—unless, again, these have some direct bearing on the manuscript in question.

What makes your agency stand out? Personal attention? Career development?
You just named two principal attributes of The Knight Agency. We often run across writers torn between seeking or accepting representation from very large, old, and prominent agencies, most of which are in Manhattan and boast a client roster only slightly less impressive than the roll-call of attendees at the recent funeral for Coretta Scott King. We have the utmost of respect for such giants in the field, of course, and some writers may genuinely have a better experience working with one of them than with us. The downside, however, is that a writer is likely to get very, very little of her agent’s time, and it’s probable that the agent–client relationship will remain a strictly formal one.

We, on the other hand, believe that a client should also be a friend, and many of our clients have indeed become friends. While Deidre, Pamela, and Nephele have to work with a large number of people—and Deidre and Pamela have the additional burden of administrative responsibilities involved in running the main office—they are all extraordinarily personable, and make themselves available to their clients in a way that distinguishes The Knight Agency from other competitors both large and small. A writer should never expect an agent to serve as therapist, loan officer, or in any other professionally inappropriate capacity, but within clearly defined boundaries, an agent can be a client’s biggest supporter. That is certainly how we see it in The Knight Agency, where we take seriously the idea that as the client succeeds, we succeed as well.

The idea of personal attention is closely tied with that of career-building. Why devote personal attention if one has no interest in a long-term relationship with the client? To do so would be absurd—just as it would be absurd to take on a client without planning to embark on a long, career-spanning relationship. Remember: until the agent sells something for the client, that client is costing the agent money. The power company and the office-supply store and the bank holding the mortgage on the office building expect to be paid whether the agent is selling anything or not. This, incidentally, is why agents have to reject most writers who query them; otherwise they would starve. (We’re talking about real agents here, of course, as opposed to ones that charge reading fees.)

It is therefore in the agent’s best interest not only to sell the manuscript, but to help the writer build a career that will generate a number of contracts, advances, and royalties. Beyond the realm of material necessity, furthermore, there is the personal fulfillment that comes from helping someone achieve her goals—and achieving our own in the process.

Best/worst part of being an agent?
Wow—so many possible answers here. As with any business, starting a literary agency is challenging at a number of levels, not least of which is financial. We knew going into it that we would not see much profit for a long time, and that what profits we did make should go into the business rather than into our own pockets. And yet we also knew that an agent who exercises wise judgment and negotiates skillfully can develop a nice income, based on both advances and royalties, simply by helping others succeed. As time has gone on, we have particularly come to appreciate the fact that running a literary agency is a low-overhead business: other than the sample books we keep for sending out to editors, film companies, and others, there is really no inventory. Compare that to a large retail operation, with its massive liabilities and headaches.

In starting the business ten years ago, we also knew that it would be a lot of hard work—long, long hours when others were resting or sleeping. Once, when we were taking a nap on a Sunday afternoon (this was before we had kids), I quipped, “This is the great thing about being self-employed—you can nap on a work day.” And though being self-employed means that you might find yourself working at 2:00 a.m.—I’ve pulled many an all-nighter—you might also leave the office early the next day to take your child to the circus. (And believe it or not, by the way, the latter act requires far more discipline than the former: sometimes you just have to tell yourself that the business can wait, but the children cannot.)

It’s sometimes a little frustrating to be in a line of work that almost no one among the “civilian” population—that is, people who aren’t involved in writing and publishing—has ever heard of. On the other hand, once you explain what it is, everybody is always interested in learning more. That, too, of course, has a downside: just as people tend to ask doctors for free medical advice at parties, there’s not an agent in the world who hasn’t had somebody say something like “Well, you should take a look at the book I’m writing about my mother” or “I’ve always thought I should write a book—how do I go about that?” Still, it’s fun to go into almost any social situation and know that you probably have the most interesting, satisfying job in the whole group.

And it is satisfying, especially because being an agent is really about nothing so much as helping people. We help our clients reach their dreams, and in the process, we will gradually achieve our own. The same attitude prevails around our office: The Knight Agency team is exceedingly motivated, and one reason for this is that everybody understands that as the company prospers, so will they. Nor is the achievement of dreams, of course, only a matter of material gain. It’s enormously fulfilling to help writers—even those you don’t take on as clients—with advice, feedback, and encouragement. Sometimes people don’t need anything more than someone to listen to them, and in those situations, I’m glad to be able to give something back to a profession that has given us so much.

Walk us through what happens from the time you decide to accept an author’s piece until the ms is sent out for submissions to publishers.
From the time we sign a new author on, we work to develop the material to its sharpest, most publishable state. Now, don’t get us wrong: We are generally only seeking work of the highest caliber. That said, we’re in the business of selling manuscripts to publishers and only make our money if the book sells. So we do work with the author to hone their material to its strongest potential.

After the work is ready to go, the agents on our staff carefully craft a submission list based on their knowledge of particular editors’ tastes as well as the houses where a work might best fit. In short, a submission strategy is formed, whether it be an overnight exclusive to one of the major New York houses, or a broad multi-house submission. The wait can either be as short as twenty-four hours or might turn out to be far longer—years even, if that first work doesn’t turn out to be the magic one.

All along, our agents work very closely with our clients, letting them know what’s happening with their submissions, forwarding revision requests and the like, until the manuscript is placed. At each step, the agent and author work on a career plan, assessing goals and making sure that the submission plan lines up with those goals.

A synopsis seems to be the bane of the writer’s existence—are they REALLY that important in landing an agent?
Of course synopses are important, but not necessarily in the way that most writers would think. A book doesn’t sell on the synopsis alone, nor can an excellent summary correct the flaws in a manuscript that leaves more than a little to be desired. The reverse, on the other hand, is often the case: we all know how hard it is write a synopsis—indeed, it usually proves to be much harder than writing the book itself. Still, a writer needs to put her best effort into the synopsis, because a good summation illustrates mastery of the larger work, and because writing a synopsis often helps the writer to detect flaws in the book itself.

But if we turn strictly to the question as stated—how important is the synopsis overall—then the answer acquires another shade of nuance. From the standpoint of The Knight Agency and its requirements, a synopsis never plays anything beyond a supporting role to that of the manuscript. For Deidre, synopses hardly matter: she likes to read the manuscript itself rather than focus on the summary.

The exception to this rule, though—and again, we are speaking strictly for our own agency here, and no others—is a situation in which the author has submitted a proposal with sample chapters, rather than a completed manuscript. Obviously, if a book isn’t finished, we’ll put a great deal more emphasis on the synopsis. But that usually only applies to multi-published authors who have reached the point in their career of selling on proposal.

One philosophy we apply in our own work is that it’s not enough to sell yourself just once—you have to keep on selling yourself. The Knight Agency never rests on what we’ve accomplished yesterday or even what we’re about to accomplish today; rather, we know that we have to prove ourselves continually to our clients and prospective clients, and to the editors who buy or are considering buying our clients’ work. The same applies to authors: the synopsis is just one more way of selling yourself to the agent and ultimately the editor, and in that regard, it’s something to take seriously.

Robin here...thanks very much to Judson and Deidre Knight for taking the time to answer my questions!

21 comments:

CHickey said...

Wow. So much information to digest!

Mel Francis said...

And this is EXACTLY why TKA is the best agency in the world.

Of course, I am a little biased. :)

Dana Pollard said...

Thanks for the interview, Robin! And thank you, Judson, for the awesome information! (yes, I took notes hehe)

:-)Ronie said...

Fascinating interview! Thanks Judson & Deidre for giving such detailed replies. And thank you, Robin-girl for posting this interview.

Michele said...

Ah! So THIS was the something big you were hinting at!
I'm impressed, Robin.
Thanks for the "heads-up" to check out your blog.

I am wowed by the volume of information and the indept response to great questions.
Way to Go! Both Judson and Deidre! May the next 10 years be even more fruitful and exciting!

Thanks too, Robin for a great interview!
Hard to top this post. :-)
M

Jennifer Tiszai said...

Great interview with lots of information.

Good job, Robin!

Kelly Parra said...

Great information, Robin! Thanks for sharing!!

jason evans said...

Great, great interview Robin and Judson!

The Beautiful Schoolmarm said...

Thank you for this interview, Robin. Of course, as soon as they posted pictures of Wyoming on thier blog, I knew I liked them.

Edie said...

A great interview! Thanks for posing it, Robin. Judson, thank you for sharing all this information.

Bonnie Ferguson said...

This was a wonderful interview, Robin :)

Gina Holmes said...

Great job and questions, Robin. Great answers, Judson. That was a lot of good information!

Babe King said...

TKA is the only agency I have dealt with so far. Though I have recieved two rejects, the encouragement and open sharing of knowledge that came with them astounded me. Kudos to them for their attitudes.

Dineen A. Miller said...

Awesome interview. Thanks Judson, thanks Robin. Really fabulous stuff here!

Judson Knight said...

Thanks for all your great responses, everybody! And Robin, doing this interview gave me an excuse for not posting on my blog lo these seven days--I know how long it's been because you've been faithful to remind me! ;-) Now I'll have to find a new excuse! ;-)

Rachel Hauck said...

I love the line, "take out the parts readers skip." :)

Very sound advice.

Thanks, Robin, for this post.

Rachel

Shesawriter said...

Great interview, Robin! Thanks for posting it.

Tanya

Camy Tang said...

Great interview!
Camy

Robin Caroll said...

LOL, Mel!

Didn't this interview just ROCK? So much important and helpful info! Thanks again, Judson and Deidre!

And Judson...no more excuses! :)

Nicole Reising said...

This was great! There was so much information and the questions were right on!

Thank you Robin, Judson, and Deidre for your time.

Cole

Beth said...

Thanks so much, Robin, for taking time to host this very informative interview. And of course thanks to Jud for being, well, informative! :-)