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Literary Agent Interview: Kimberly Shumate of Living Word Literary (Part I)

This installment features Kimberly Shumate of Living Word Literary. She is seeking: Adult fiction, YA fiction, Christian living, dating/marriage, parenting, self-help, apologetics, health, inspirational, environmental, social issues, pop-culture, women’s issues, and men’s issues. No cookbooks, children’s books, science fiction or fantasy, memoirs, or poetry. No simultaneous submissions, please.

“Agent Advice” (this installment featuring agent Kimberly Shumate) is a series of quick interviews with literary agents and script agents who talk with Guide to Literary Agents about their thoughts on writing, publishing, and just about anything else. This series has more than 170 interviews so far with reps from great literary agencies. This collection of interviews is a great place to start if you are just starting your research on literary agencies.

This installment features Kimberly Shumate of Living Word Literary.

She is seeking: Adult fiction, YA fiction, Christian living, dating/marriage, parenting, self-help, apologetics, health, inspirational, environmental, social issues, pop-culture, women’s issues, and men’s issues. No cookbooks, children’s books, science fiction or fantasy, memoirs, or poetry. No simultaneous submissions, please.

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GLA: How did you become an agent?

KS: After twelve years with Harvest House Publishers—first in the Sales Department then Editorial—I found that the one thing that really got my heart pumping was discovering a first-time author who possessed the raw talent to compete with established authors already in print. My imagination would sprint from “never heard of you” to “published success” in less time that it took to nuke my lunch in the microwave. From manuscript submission to contract, edit to advance copy, I could see it unfolding in my mind’s eye.

As time went on, I was directly involved with the discovery of several new authors for Harvest House who collectively sold upwards of 750,000 copies, some receiving nominations, awards, and PW star ratings. Becoming an agent seemed the likely progression when a portion of HH’s workforce was laid off in January 2009. I was then free to launch Living Word Literary Agency and step into my dream job.

GLA: How long can the process take from being signed by an agent to receiving a book deal from a publisher?

KS: With layoffs still occurring, there are fewer employees to bear the workload, which includes people who review submissions. This means a longer waiting period for agents and their authors to receive word. It is taking anywhere between three to twelve months to get a definitive answer regarding a project. Patience and faith in your work will serve you well in this uncertain climate of change.

GLA: Besides “good writing,” and “voice,” what are you looking for right now and not getting?

KS: Out of the 50+ submissions I receive each week, there will be five projects that catch my eye mostly for their originality. Out of those five, maybe one will survive the scrutiny and editorial changes I suggest. That can include the book’s title and/or subtitle, the content—omissions and additions to address plot issues or to simply reach the appropriate word count—and ideas on how to build the author’s platform. If the author is willing to work with me to make their book the best it can be, this usually results with an offer of a contract, but it’s about one out of 100 submissions that are signed. Originality is what I look for first.

It seems that I’ve read every scenario imaginable using flat, one-dimensional characters that run out of steam by page 100. However, when I do come across that unique, intriguing tale that keeps me turning the pages, it always excites me. Sadly, even when I do stumble upon a story that has a fresh, new concept, the writer is struggling with one or more of the following: grammar, plot, pace, cliché expressions, predictable dialogue, character development, or the worst offender of all (and editors’ biggest pet peeve), too much “telling” and not enough “showing.”

Nonfiction is an entirely different animal. I hate to use the “P” word, but platform seems to be the number one concern most publishers have with new nonfiction authors. So, if you’re not writing regularly on a blog, you need to start. Also, create a Facebook page and open a Twitter account to get your name out there and circulating. Beyond author platform, your book should address a “felt need/actual need” and offer tangible information to satisfy the reader. A “feel good” message is fine, but not so much in this depressed economy that reflects the mood of so many. People are looking to get the most bang for their buck in a substantial way to get them through today’s tough times. Self-help material in health, finance, stress management, and relationships including parenting, marriage, and divorce are all topics in demand.

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GLA: Going along with that, your agency blog lists the fiction areas you do not want (science fiction and fantasy). That leaves a lot of room for what you do want. Please give us some examples of fiction categories that catch your eye (in a good way!), so writers looking to query you can get a sense of your tastes.

KS: Publishers watch fiction closely because new genres can appear very quickly and thus require editors to acquire material when the moment arrives, such as YA supernatural material, for instance. How long will interest in this particular genre last? We have to keep our eyes on it.

Much like chick-lit, it can fizzle . . . thank God! I didn’t know how much longer I could endure listening to the inner dialogue of what seemed to be the most self-absorbed female characters ever written. I feel the same way about any dialogue that does not 1) move the plot forward, or 2) disclose something about the character that is needed to develop the story.

Regarding adult fiction—mainly women’s fiction—historical, contemporary romance, cozies, Westerns, Regency (in moderation), and Amish are all genres I’m interested in looking at. No political thrillers at this time.

GLA: It also lists you as seeking YA fiction, but not children’s books. Where do you stand on middle-grade?

KS: I’ve had some difficulty moving an amazing project by a well-known comic book writer because his audience is ten to fourteen years of age. It’s a great story with incredible illustrations written for the superhero genre, but there have been no takers yet.

The age group my editors are looking for is fifteen to eighteen, with a tendency toward female protagonists more than male. I recently requested that another YA author I was interested in change the two young guys in his story to girls. He agreed and even thought that the story was better for it, though the rewrite took him more than six months to complete. Choosing to make the adjustment was rewarded with an agreement for me to represent him, but the decision to accommodate an agent’s feedback is up to each individual author.

GLA: You specify several areas of interest; however, you seem to specialize in Christian fiction. Would you say this is true?

KS: While I do represent Christian fiction, I have more Christian nonfiction projects signed. I personally enjoy reading nonfiction more than fiction, so I’m drawn to it in my work. That’s not to say that I’m not on the lookout for fiction, but the manuscript really has to dazzle to get my attention.

A few authors with projects written for the ABA market have found their way into Living Word’s stable, but the vast majority of books I represent are for CBA. Having spent so much time working for a Christian publishing house, and also being a Christian myself, it makes sense. However, I was a late bloomer in my Christianity, so I can appreciation both religious and secular material.

There are certain things that I have to watch out for with both types of submissions, such as profanity and/or morally questionable situations within a story that could be considered inappropriate for certain publishers. Although I think it’s worth mentioning that the members of ECPA—Evangelical Christian Publishers Association—and Christian publishers outside that organization have rather diverse programs. All hold themselves accountable to producing material palatable for that particular market yet do so to varying degrees. Where some like to see an overtly Christian message, others prefer less obvious tones and favor the theme to be “deftly woven into the story.”

GLA: As well, can you give a ballpark of how much Christian vs. non-Christian projects you rep?

KS: Most of the ABA books I represent, I consider to be “crossover” works, much like the popular novel The Shack. Eight out of the 32 authors currently signed to Living Word are being pitched to both ABA and CBA editors. It does get a little frustrating presenting these types of books. I will hear, “This book is too ‘Christian’ for our taste,” from the secular editors, and at the same time, the CBA editors ask me, “Where’s the Christian content?” For that reason, it is difficult to sell crossover books.

GLA: Best way to submit to you?

KS: Submit a query with short synopsisand first chapter via Word document. Agency only responds if interested. Send queries to livingwordliterary(at) No phone calls, please.

(To be continued with Part 2 soon...)

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This guest column by Ricki Schultz,
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The Write-Brained Network. You can
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