Ask the Agent: Kelly Mortimer

In the March/April 2011 issue of Writer’s Digest, you’ll find Kelly Mortimer featured in my Ask the Agent column.

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.]

For more about Kelly and her agency, click here.

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5 thoughts on “Ask the Agent: Kelly Mortimer

  1. Frank Henry

    She comes across as unprofessional and immature to me — and yeah, what’s with all the brackets and inside jokes. Is she trying to be funny? I don’t get it (or her) either.

  2. Steven M Moore

    Hi Kelly…and Jane,
    Yep, I also had a problem with the brackets…what happened to good old parentheses?
    On a more serious note, when you speak about publishing, I’d like to hear your thoughts on the future role of the agent. Although you rejected one of my works, I really feel for you guys. That proverbial slush pile must really grow in proportion to the increasing number of readers and writers out there–this number is growing in spite of pundits’ predictions. Some of this is as old as Hollywood–when I saw the movie The Lincoln Lawyer I inevitably compared it to the book and concluded that something was lost in the translation. There are many other reasons for your slush pile to grow–for example, more people with interesting lives that produce interesting memoirs or even fiction influenced by those lives. How can you keep up? And will more and more agents throw in the towel?
    Take care…
    r/Steve Moore

  3. Becky Benson-Flannery

    Fantastic interview! Thank you for sharing the entire piece. I love Kelly Mortimer’s frankness and optimism. Her contention that hard work will eventually get you to your goal heartens me as so much today depends on who you know. Thank you for showcasing such an inspiring and witty (and scrappy;)!) woman!


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