Interview with an Agent: Elaine Spencer, Knight Agency
The Knight Agency was founded in 1996 by Deidre Knight, an author and agent whose background was the entertainment business. Today, the Knight Agency has sold over six hundred books for its hundred-plus clients. It specializes in romance and women’s fiction. Elaine Spencer is one of the seven agents of the Knight Agency and agents books such as Melissa Mayhue’s Thirty Nights with a Highland Husband from Pocket; Fearless from Dorchester; and Beyond Cool from Berkley.
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Tell us about your background. What made you decide to become a literary agent? How did you get started in your career? What made you decide to agent on behalf of romance authors?
I started at the Knight Agency fresh out of college. I am a lifelong book lover and a voracious reader. In college I majored in English, Comparitive Lit and Economics. I wanted the competition involved in the business world, but I couldn't quite give up my love to retreat into a good book. When I heard about an opportunity at the Knight Agency, I applied as an intern and never turned back. Post graduation I started managing all of the queries, then the submissions, and then moved into working with the foreign rights as well.
Working so closely with the other agents in the company it soon became clear that that was where my real interests lay. The Knight Agency has a solid reputation in the Romance industry having discovered names like Gena Showalter, Karen Marie Moning, and Jacquelin Thomas! With talented ladies like those and so many others on board it was quick to see where the all the excitement was!
What is the primary role of the agent?
I could go on here for the rest of the interview. There are so many things that an agent does that no one ever thinks about. The primary role of the agent is
to be the Author's voice to the rest of the Publishing industry. It is our goal to assist them get the best product out on the market, selling the most number of copies. We fight their battles for them, go to war about the things that really matter. We answer any and all questions that they may have about the business, about the trends, about their future. We assist with their marketing needs. I think the most important this that we do however is act as an unattached champion. There are so many instances where it is impossible for an author to have an objective conversation about their work, we take the challenge out of this. We make sure that every party is getting the sound and accurate answers they need. We are their partners, their cheerleaders, and their sounding board when they have just had a really bad day.
At the end of the day its pretty simple. It is our job to do everything we can so that all they have to worry about is writing the damn book!
I know that there has been some discussion about the decline of the slush pile at publishing houses with the move by almost every major publisher to accept only "agented" manuscripts. Is that automatically a good thing for agents?
Not necessarily. It means that EVERYONE thinks they need an agent, whether they were ready or not. Yes we are getting more material, but we aren't necessarily getting more quality material.
You changed your policies to accept only online submissions. Why is that?
We have found that electronic submissions save everyone involved so much hassle.
First off it saves the interested party money. We realize how expensive this process can get for the potential client when they are sending out handfuls of mail at a time. By just passing things along over email, this cost can easily be eliminated.
Beyond that we have found inner-office it makes it so much easier to keep track of. We can easily run searches to track down "missing–? items. Plus we can easily pass samples around the office to get varied opinions and find the best home for a project.
In this day and age everything seems to be going electronic and so it only seemed to be the next logical step for us in the query and submission process as well.
Do you print out and read your manuscripts or use an ereading device? If so, which one?
Personally, I use a combo method. I do most of my reading on my laptop, just reading directly in a word document. I also am able to open this type of attachment and read it on my blackberry if I'm traveling and waiting anxiously to see something.
Once in awhile a desire for the old fashioned hits me though and I find myself going through spells where I am printing material out. Sometimes its juts nice to tangibally have something to hold in my hand while I'm reading.
My next big purchase is going to be an ereader. I haven't invested yet, and I haven't done all the research I want to complete, but I think it will be a totally great advance for me. I was sitting in an airport shuttle a few days ago with an editor and I was eyeing her Sony Ereader with envy. At that moment I knew I was ready to commit.
Your firm represent one of my favorite new authors, Nalini Singh. She is from New Zealand (and other foreign places!). How was it that you came to agent her? Do you accept submissions from authors overseas? And if so, are there any special arrangements you have to make with them?
One of our other agents Nephele Tempest, represents Nalini. To add to the mix, it is interesting because Nephele works out of our office in LA. Talk about a global enterprise! In addition to Nalini we have authors all over the world, spanning from Australia to Japan to England to Egypt and beyond.
With means of communication such as email there really are no boundaries to where we can do business. The only issues that ever arise out of handling clients from other countries are involved at the end of the day when we are looking at payments and taxes and such. These issues have been met so many times though, that the paths have been cleared and we don't bat an eye to an overseas client.
I’ve read some agents' blogs that seem to indicate that they are part of the rewriting process. Do you get involved in that?
Yes, I do. In many instances I fall in love with an idea that just isn't quite there yet in terms of the actual craft. In these cases, I love getting involved with the author and helping them get their piece to a much stronger point. It is fun, and different. Plus at the end of the day I find it extremely rewarding to know that we were such an interactive piece of the puzzle.
I would like to note that this is something that I talk to clients about up front. Not all authors want their agents being involved in this capacity. I like to talk about the needs and desires of both parties up front so that down the road should an instance like this occur everyone involved knows what is expected from the others.
There is a tendency in internet discussions to compare the publisher-author relationship to an employer-employee relationship. Do you think that is a
sound analogy? Why or why not?
I haven't actually stumbled across any threads that have had this as a discussion but upon first thought I don't see why it wouldn't be a sound analogy.
While writing can be more personal just because of the nature of the material and dedication that was put into producing the end product, at the end of the day it is still a business. The relationships and steps towards publication are straight forward. Everyone is here to see the most marketable product produced at the end of the day.
Do you feel that being a female in the publishing industry is an advantage/disadvantage or of no importance?
I have never considered this before to be honest. I don't think it matters. Writing is a profession where the individual takes a MAJOR backseat to the product.
What part do you involve yourself in regards to author promotions?
Whatever they ask for my help with. Every author has different things in mind to meet their promo needs. I try to offer suggestions on what I have seen work in the past and what has been a waste of money. I also try to help them network with others that are familiar with what they are hoping to achieve to give them some first hand suggestions.
What do you expect your authors to do, other than write the best book that they can?
There are two things that immediately pop into my mind with this question. The first is to have an open mind. It is VERY important that my authors can sit down and thoroughly listen to all of the issues on the table and be open to things that they may not have initially considered. This isn't saying I force them to do anything, but just to have an open mind and imagine that a different solution may be an important consideration.
Also in this day and age of blogs, egroups, online chats etc it is important that authors block out a lot of the background "buzz–? and keep a realistic view of the market. There are lots of extreme one-time cases that authors get in their mind and tend to think of as the norm.
Can you explain how rights work? I.e., the difference between US and World rights; film rights; mass marketsubrights. (or is that really too involved?)
This is a BIG question. Basically subrights are worked out in a contract during the initial negotiation process. These rights break down into the catagories of EVERYTHING else that could be done with your book other than publish it the way you
initially imagined. There are translation rights, film rights, audio rights, serial rights, dramatic adaptation, etc. These items can all either remain property of the author, or get signed over to the publishing house.
If the publishing house is going to get them in most cases they are going to pay you more money (this varies dramatically depending on which rights your are referring to and which house you are dealing with). Hopefully if the house keeps them they will go out and champion your work for you and try to get your book additional opportunities. Many agents, especially those coming from larger agencies, try to keep the rights for the author. If they manage to retain the rights they then are in charge of going out and trying to champion up this interest.
An example of this is translation (Foreign) rights, at the Knight Agency we try to always keep these because we have a full time staff member who is in charge of dealing with trying to get these picked up in other territories. As you can imagine in a smaller agency there are some serious time constraints that could come into play. For large projects we always try to retain film rights.
Before agenting Deidre worked in film/tv. She knows the business and has a lot of contacts. When we get a big project she goes out and hunts down one of her old connections who she thinks might be interested in this particular story. The one thing that can pretty much be said across the board, it is obviously more work for the agent/author to gather up additional subrights' interest independently without the publishers help. However, in the end, if they have success in lining up an interested party, they will make more money off of the sale than they would get if the publisher sold the right and paid them on their royalty statements.
Whew. Big Question. Big Answer. I hope I didn't lose anyone on that one. Obviously there are many other things that could play into everything that I said, but I tried to keep it as basic as possible.
What is your most interesting story of how you came to represent a client?
I don't really have any. For the most part my clients have all come about from the normal routes. Sorry to disappoint here. I will say that there is a lot of excitement involved in the whole "signing on–? process. There is just an intensity throughout the whole process that puts you almost on a sugar high. It's very much like dating in the initial stages. The first time your heart skips a beat . . .
What is the best part of being an agent?
This stands to be the biggest question yet! I love my job so I really could go on forever. First and foremost the people. I am blessed to be surrounded by such dynamic people EVERY day. You really get a full feeling of the world around you. Our work influences us to all different cultures and experiences on a constant basis.
Another HUGE thing for me is that every day is a complete different ballgame. My job is a million rolled into 1. Somedays I'm an editor, somedays I'm a reader, somedays I'm an educator, other days I'm a salesperson and saavy negotiator. It all just depends. And lets not forget the obvious perk to my job. I have an endless supply of books flying at me, and not a soul can EVER make me feel guilty for shutting out the world and curling up with a good book.
Oh yeah, and that whole bit about getting to help people make their dreams come true. That pretty much rocks my world too.
What is the worst part of being an agent?
Everyone thinks they can write a book. And when I say everyone, I mean everyone. Within the last month I have been propositioned with a pitch in a taxi, getting my teeth cleaned by the dental hygienist, and even dropping my little brother off at Boy Scouts by my little brother's pack-leader. You get the idea.
On a more serious note though, there are some other biggies that come to my mind. First off, there is never enough time in a day. Never. There is always something else I could be doing, and so the end of the day never really ever materializes unless you make yourself tune it all out. Also another thing that you learn is you have to have TOUGH skin. This is a business filled with rejection. Yes, we deal with it too, and it is a BIG part of our job to have to tell people that we are really rooting for that sometimes certain doors are closing.
What do you think are the most important things an aspiring author can do to get the best representation?
First and foremost, research. Figure out who represents who. Keep your ears to the ground. Get a feel for what agents are selling books like yours. Also take note of agents that are new and hungry within large established agencies, a GREAT way to get a foot in the door.
The other thing that I think is JUST as important here is networking. Make friends with other authors at all stages in their career. I know that we get some of our best new material from referrals from existing clients.
Do you read for pleasure and if so, what do you enjoy reading?
I LOVE to read. I read constantly. For every 1 hour of TV I watch I probably read three books. Not kidding. I read a lot of YA and a lot of Romance. Some of my recent faves have been REDHANDED by Gena Showalter, JR Ward's entire series, TWILIGHT by Stephanie Meyer, 19 MINUTES by Jodi Picoult, VISIONS OF HEAT by Nalini Singh, oh there are so many good books out there . . .
If you could change on thing in the publishing industry, what would it be?
That there were more opportunities for more people. Basically I want everyone to get off their butts, head to the bookstores and READ!!!!