Kelly went above and beyond the call of duty in answering my questions, and I felt bad that I had to cut most of what she had to say. So I promised her that after the issue was off newsstand, I would run the full, uncut Q&A.
I hope you enjoy her frankness and energy as much as I do!
What distinguishes your agency from others?
I’ll answer the same way I did at a huge conference in 2008 while sitting in on an agent panel. I was on the end, and was set to answer last. I’d opened my agency in 2006, so I was relatively new. As the agents spoke, I fretted. I heard answers like, “I was a professor of Literature at Harvard,” “I got a law instituted that helps all writers,” “I’ve sold over 800 books,” and my personal fave, “I wrote all the correspondence for the Secretary of State.”
It was basically a bragging match. So, what the heck was I gonna say? I had made the Publisher’s Marketplace Top 100 Dealmakers list, Romance Category. [I was number five, which I managed to pull off with only a dozen clients.] One of my professors told me I could sell ice cubes to Eskimos.
But, I just decided to be me. I told the truth. “Every agent at this table is a better agent than I am. They’ve all had more experience, and have been through situations I haven’t. If I was sitting where you are—and 2 years ago, I was—I’d want one of them as my agent, not me. What I can promise you is honesty. And, I’m a fighter. I’m scrappy. I’m the female version of Rocky Balboa, and the human Sea Biscuit. I just don’t have it in me to quit.” [After the panel, I got mobbed.—the good mobbed.]
What are you looking for right now?
A date with Colin Farrell. But, since that ain’t gonna happen … How about gutsy writers who wanna write. A no-brainer? Nope. I’ve had some writers who were writers. They’d written a bunch of manuscripts that never sold, spanning many genres, and just sat on them like a mother hen. I’m like, “Hey, if they haven’t hatched in the last four years, they aren’t gonna. Get off the flippin’ nest and write something new!”
I want go-to guys and gals. This business isn’t for wimps, crybabies, or in historical terms: simpering fops. It’s a war-zone out there. No playtime allowed. Writers: Don’t concentrate on winning the battle [getting published]; concentrate on winnin’ the war! [Staying published—having a career as a writer.]
In terms of what genre of writing I like best: Suspense [from the first line on, please], Paranormals [dark and light—I ain’t no bigot], and YA—for me, a protagonist about 16. And don’t send stuff I wouldn’t let a kid read. [I have to draw the line somewhere.] Some violence: fine. I played cowboys and Indians as a kid, and I managed to make it to adulthood without killing anyone. [Yet.] Steamy scenes: fine. Just close the door before the heavy stuff happens. Foul language: a sore spot with me. Keep the flippin’ F-bomb outta writing for kids/teens, will ya?! [Where’s that interrobang when ya need it?!]
In nonfiction, I’m eclectic. I’m interested in everything from MMA [Mixed Martial Arts], to collecting Vintage/Costume/Antique Jewelry [I have about 400 pieces—it’s all I wear.] I’ll read a query about most anything, except: I don’t represent books that are: anti-God or Jewish, anti-Jesus or Christian, anti-military, anti-liberating wars, anti-constitutional rights [even the unpopular ones], or anti-the-Greatest-Freakin’-Country-on-the-Planet. [The United States of America.]
How many clients do you take on in a typical year? Are most of them previously unpublished?
That’s impossible to answer—I’ve never had a typical year! I’ve gone through everything from being named ACFW Literary Agent of the Year in 2008, to being thrown out on a trumped-up charge in 2009. [The green-eyed monster reared her ugly head.] I feel like I’ve been playin’ a 5-year game of Survivor, where my alliances make a habit of blindsiding me. I admire entrepreneur William Phillips. In the 1940s, he refused to let a bully take the chocolate milk William earned. This year, I plan to do the same with a giant writing organization. This year, no one’s taking my chocolate milk! Sorry, went far afield there. [Did I ever mention I often go off on tangents? I blame my bipolar disorder. Oh, that reminds me—time to go take a Xanax.]
I keep a short list, as I think of my clients as family. [Yes, really. Ask them. Could be because I’m a full-blooded Italian.] When I have to let a client go, or vice versa, I add someone. I stagger clients, so everyone [gasp!] gets the personal attention they deserve.
Here’s a shocker for ya. I only sign writers who’ve never been published, or not published in 3 years. [Yes, I am crazy. Ask my psychiatrist, Dr. Moon.] Why? Because they need the most help. How do I know? [Did I ever mention I was a writer before I was an agent?] I had to sue my agent. In two states. Won both. Something about agenting didn’t make sense to me. [I’m all about making sense.] I felt some agents had the attitude the client worked for them, instead of the other way around. So, here I am. It makes sense to help the people who need the most help, not take a mid-lister to huge, or a huge writer to mega-huge. I fight for the little guy. [Whom I’d then love to take huge. From beginning to end. I don’t jump on the train in the middle.]
Describe your dream client (or project).
My dream client … Did I already mention Colin Farrell? Yes? How about Christian Bale? [Sorry.] I already have my dream clients. My dream client works hard and stays loyal—no matter what, as I do. Mostly, I can’t want publication for them, more than they want publication for themselves; and I refuse to work harder than they will to achieve it.
Describe a perfect day at the office.
Indoor or outdoor? I live on a 20-acre ranch at 4400′, just north of San Diego. I constructed an outdoor office with sticks. [No Three Little Pigs jokes, please.] Have a pic or two on my site. As well as a photo of me. Driving my toy tractor. In sweats. No makeup. [I think that proves my bravery, yes?]
Indoors, I share with my hubby [he’s such a sweet man], the consumer advocate attorney, down in town. And when I’m editing clients’ work, I often go to our gorgeous library with floor-to-ceiling glass, overlooking a valley. [No phones allowed.]
My most perfect day? I shot a rattlesnake in the morning; closed a book deal in the afternoon; and designed a handbag [my other company—Four Gals Designs] in the evening, implementing the snake’s rattle as an embellishment. And, yes, I have pictures. [Sigh.]
Complete this sentence: “Most queries are …”
Surprisingly inadequate. There has to be a million books on writing a query, yet three-fourths of the writers who query me, apparently have no clue where to find them. I get queries addressed to To Whom it May Concern [I’m not concerned]; Dear Agent; Dear Madame [I don’t run a brothel.][Yet.]; Dear Sir [I’m not a Lord][Yet.]; Dear Mr. Kelly Mortimer [I may drive a tractor, but I ain’t sporting whiskers either—at least none I can’t pluck.]; and my fave, Dear (Insert Agent’s Name). Sheesh! If they don’t even know I’m technically a female, I’m not i
Complete this one: “Most novel manuscripts are …”
Not ready for submission. Most writers are either impatient, or they just don’t know any better. I feel bad, but I can’t do much other than [gasp!] be as nice as possible, and give them some pointers.
What’s the last thing you read that completely knocked you over?
Mastering Krav Maga. [Sorry.] If you want me to be honest [honesty is vital—especially in publishing], it’s something unpubbed, written by a former client entitled SEEDS. If we’re talkin’ published arena, it’d be a book on Thomas Jefferson. I know—not a sexy answer, but what can I say? I’m a sucker for a man who knows we’re the best people to judge what’s good for us—not the government. [And, no, I’m not an anarchist.]
What lesson do most writers have yet to learn?
I don’t feel it’s my place to say. Each writer if different, and each needs to learn different things. For me: “If I can’t learn something tomorrow, I wanna die today.”
Any pet peeves for you in this business?
How many words do I get again? [Sorry.] This business has helped me in many ways: Half of my once-glorious hair has fallen out due to stress, saving me countless dollars on haircuts and styling products; I’ve learned Latin: Et tu, Brute?; and I’m now considered an expert contortionist due to pulling an entire set of Ginsu knives out of my back. [For a full list, see my blog under “The Top 10 Reasons I Loved 2009.”]
If there’s a magic bullet to successful authorship, what is it?
Bullet? Do ya really want me to answer that? [Sorry.] Most would say there isn’t one. I disagree. [I do that a lot, which endears me to thousands.] The bullet is hard. flippin’. work., and an I-refuse-to-give-up attitude.
Here’s another of my quotes, [Sorry, I guess I’m full of it today.] “I never fail, because I don’t quit until I succeed.”
My attitude is, “It’s not if you get published—it’s when.”
Example: My client, Kelly Ann Riley, stayed with me doggedly through every rejection. I told her to keep writing, and I’d keep editing and submitting, and if neither of us quit on each other, she’d eventually get published.
Three-and-a-half years later, I got her a contract, and in a few month’s time, she was writing for two houses. Learned the principle of diversification earning my finance degree. Not bad for a teenager who dropped outta high school, ran away from home, and was hopelessly addicted to alcohol, smokes, and drugs. Walked away from that without AA, without patches, and without rehab. [I’m one stubborn broad—and God held my hand.]
What is the best advice you’ve heard (or received) about publishing?
RUN! The other way! [Sorry. I’m really an upbeat, positive person. No, really! I think I might be suffering from battle fatigue or something.] Best advice I ever got covers any field: “Whatever you choose to do, give it everything you have, no matter what. No effort is trivial if the effort is your all.” [Did I ever mention when I was waitressing while earning my degree in contract law, that I won the American Express Award for Service Excellence? Nasty! (The good nasty.) I consider it my highest honor. Even better than the Volunteer of the Year Award I won from my local RWA chapter.]
Your take on social media’s usefulness (or lack thereof)?
Mega-useful. It’s ridiculous! [The good ridiculous.] People are getting’ book deals from blogging! [Did I ever mention I have a blog?][Sorry.]
In a sentence (maybe two), describe/predict the future of publishing (for kicks).
You’re asking me to answer a question in two sentences. Sheesh! [Oops—used up my sentences.] I believe the pub houses who embrace change will have the longevity of the Stones—the rest—of the dinosaurs. Gotta stop the insane [the bad insane] system of returns. It makes no sense! [And I’m all about making sense.]