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A Look at Literary Assistants (Part 2): Kristy King of Writers House

Guest column by Jude Tulli. He has written for several recent editions of the Writer's Market and the Novel and Short Story Writer's Market. The title "assistant" never does anyone justice. It conjures images of the inexperienced, the temporary hire, the noob. Yet just as the magician's sequined accomplice is responsible for meticulously timed moments of audience misdirection, so too will a writer never truly know what percentage of that surprise acceptance was bestowed by the magic wand of an agent's assistant.

The title "assistant" never does anyone justice. It conjures images of the inexperienced, the temporary hire, the noob. Yet just as the magician's sequined accomplice is responsible for meticulously timed moments of audience misdirection, so too will a writer never truly know what percentage of that surprise acceptance was bestowed by the magic wand of an agent's assistant.

Far from noobs, today's literary assistants are well-educated, well-read, and well-positioned to become tomorrow's agents. Many are, unbeknownst to the writers who query their offices, already taking on clients of their own—pulling literary rabbits out of a slush hat like magic. This, even before they've shed their assistant hats, replete with befuddled cottontails who haven't yet heard the sidekick has also become the star of her or his own show. (This is Part 2. Read Part 1 with Suzie Townsend here.)

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Guest column by Jude Tulli, who lives in the
Sonoran Desert with his beloved wife Trish and
a small pride of housecats. He has written for
several recent editions of the Writer's Market
and the Novel and Short Story Writer's Market.
His short fiction has appeared on Scribblers
and Inkspillers' Copper Wire and the
Enchanted Conversation.


But don't take it from me. We are fortunate that assistants who have already spun the bookworm silk of their souls into dew-glinting chrysalises have volunteered to spill their trade secrets before they emerge to stretch their fully-speckled butterfly wings.

MEET KRISTY KING OF WRITERS HOUSE

Kristy King has worked with three (count 'em) Writers House agents. Only a few weeks into her internship in the New York office, she "had the good fortune to be offered a position as the assistant to two of the senior literary agents in that office, Rebecca Sherman and Ken Wright." Two years later, she transferred to the San Diego office where she currently assists Steven Malk.

The universal constant in her reality: "Every day is truly different from the last." King's range of duties run the gamut from "administrative (answering phones, responding to e-mails, handling accounting issues or perhaps forwarding information to our foreign rights department about clients’ projects) to editorial (reviewing unsolicited submissions, requested manuscripts and client manuscripts along with pulling together editorial letters and providing feedback on current projects) to legal (reviewing publishing and film agreements we are currently negotiating along with permissions and adaptation requests)." King claims she genuinely enjoys contract reviews. Her law degree buttresses her case with flying colors.

King finds satisfaction in the creative aspects of publishing as well. She elaborates, "we also might spend time brainstorming book ideas with clients, discussing opportunities for marketing with our authors, meeting with our film co-agents or any number of things that happen on a more macro level, outside of the day-to-day business." Not surprisingly, her work days often follow her home. "Much of my time is spent reading but being a literary agent is so much more involved than that alone. And, truth be told, most of my reading happens outside of the office during the evening or the weekend."

MANAGING THE SLUSH PILE

When it comes to slush management, "The submission process varies for every agent," King says. "Some agents prefer to have their assistants do an initial vetting of all unsolicited queries and sometimes even the requested manuscripts; others review all submissions simultaneously with their assistants." In King's current role, "it’s the latter. We [collaboratively] determine whether the project itself is a good fit for our list, whether the writing and concept are promising and whether we’d like to see a larger sample or the full manuscript."

Like trying to pick the ripest melon in a field without the luxury of time to slice each one open, "Any number of intangible criteria are applied here, since the process and the industry itself are both subjective. Given that [Malk] already has a full client list, the bar is even higher. We have to absolutely fall in love with a project and the writing in order to offer representation; in my opinion, this should be the leading criteria anyway!"

The final threshold in the quest for representation sometimes is surmountable only on the wings of serendipity. "Agents work very closely with their clients and invest a lot of time and energy and love into their books," King says. "In order to offer representation for something, the agent really has to connect with the project and sometimes that’s a decision that only the agent can come to."

Contrary to many a writer's sordid imagining, King has found that "the most difficult part of my job is always responding to potential clients whom we’ve decided not to work with ... I joke about my karma being slightly damaged on the days I send out responses to submissions, but it’s partly true. I always feel a little bit heartbroken for those we’ve turned down."

But the unrelenting numbers demand sacrifice. "It’s necessary, but [it 's] not something I enjoy. Since [Malk's] client list is already quite full, the number of new authors he can take on is ... maybe two or three each year."

WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS FOR AN ASSISTANT

King has no clients of her own. Yet. "Luckily for me, [Malk] ... is incredibly inclusive and I feel confident that if I came to him with a project or writer ... I simply had to work with, it’s something he’d be very open to." She errs on the side of caution, however, and waits for a vision of the entire tapestry she desires to hang in the library of her legacy before starting to weave that first strand.

King realizes that some assistants jump in prologue first and start representing authors early on, but from her perspective, "an agent-author relationship really isn’t something that should be entered into lightly ... and I think it makes sense to do so more carefully."

King focuses first on fabricating a firm foundation. She believes assistants are well-advised to "really learn as much as [they] can about the industry and to also develop a clear idea of [their] tastes and the tone that [they] might want [their] client list to reflect before taking on that first client."

She credits the agents with whom she's worked for helping her to mortar the building blocks. "I’ve been extremely lucky to have a succession of wonderful mentors and to have the good fortune of working in an agency like Writers House that is so well-respected and successful."

Overall, King considers her position a blessing. "My favorite aspect of being an assistant is the thing that draws me to agenting as a whole—the chance to really immerse myself in the art of storytelling and to work alongside such creative and talented people. It’s such an amazing gift to be able to contribute something to the careers and the individual books of our clients. Beyond that, I think that the business of agenting is a perfect blend of the right- and left-brains. I really spark to the business-oriented aspect of the industry and enjoy discussing contracts and digital rights clauses … probably more than most! We have a strong fiduciary responsibility to our clients as agents and counselors and it’s something that should be taken seriously. We also get to act as something akin to a fairy godmother (or godfather!) and help people to realize their dreams and share their stories or their art on a larger stage. And that’s a sincere privilege."

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