Name: Kate Schafer Testerman.
Agency: KT Literary.
What was your first job in the industry, which led directly or indirectly to your current agent role? I was a subsidiary rights assistant at Houghton Mifflin Company in New York, assisting the managers for both adult and children’s subsidiary rights. It was a great position to get a feel for the industry, as I was working in close contact with lots of different departments at the publisher – editorial, sales, marketing, publicity, and production. It was also where I first developed my contacts in foreign rights, and starting prepping for my own eventual travels to the Frankfurt, London, and Bologna Book Fairs.
There’s no specific agent qualifications, so what would you say best qualifies you to do your job & allows you to do it well? I love books, which I think is a must! But I also can boast 20 years of experience working in the field. I’ve worked at small and mid-size publishers, at a huge New York literary agency, and now at my own boutique agency for the past 8 years. I have experience and contacts, and I’m happy to say, a pretty good reputation among my peers.
What routine, if any, do you look to start each working day with? I like to sit with a cup of tea, open my inbox, and immediately check for emails from clients, then editors. Those are the messages I respond to ASAP. After that, I’m trying to keep on top of my queries, so I will give a half hour to reply to those before getting back to the rest of my inbox for immediately pressing messages.
Lift the lid as best you can, and describe a typical working day? After that first flurry of emails, I try to prioritize my mail and get checks, statements, and contracts out to clients as quickly as possible. With three other agents now a part of KT Literary, I’m also processing their payments and contracts, so this may take a big chunk of the day. While I’m doing that, I’ve also got my eye on my inbox for any pressing matters that may arise. If I’m preparing a submission, I’ll pull up a list of my current projects out with editors, create a new submission list to share with the author, write up my pitch letter, and make calls to the editors to whom I’m sending the project. On any given day, I may also be sending out author copies, requesting tax forms, or following up on submissions. My colleagues and I will confer about a blog post for our site – each week we post a query for review, and also celebrate new releases, new clients, deals, and other good news. By 3pm (5pm in New York), I’m stepping away from my desk to pick up my kids from school, though I’m still on email through dinner and bedtime, and I use the evening hours to deal with anything that came up in the meantime, or, if I’m lucky, to read something great.
What do you feel a client and agent should expect of each other in the course of a fruitful working relationship day-to-day? The most important thing is clear communication. Not every author wants to hear every speck of news, but I try to make sure I’m keeping my clients informed on their work to a level they’re comfortable with. That may be sharing with them my thoughts on a first submission list, passing along responses from editors, letting them know we’re sharing material with our foreign subagents, or talking to them about film or TV interest. We also send regular updates about other agency news, and gather together annually or so for an agency retreat.
Is there a typical process that sees a first enquiry turn into a working client relationship? It’s a pretty standard process! Most of my clients are ones I found through the slush pile, so that means they queried me, I read and enjoyed their letter and first pages and asked for the first 5 chapters and a complete synopsis. From there, I read the opening chapters, or had a trusted reader take a look first. If I loved what I saw, or got a great reader’s report, I asked for the full manuscript. If I love a full manuscript, I may send the author some thoughts, but mostly at that point I want to get them on the phone and talk about the book, what else they might be working on, what they’re looking for in terms of publication and an agent, and see if we might work well together. From that conversation, I usually offer representation, and then sometimes have to wait and see if they pick me!
What is the best way to approach you, or any agent, with a view to representation? Is there one part of an approach that makes you think this client is or isn’t for me? The query process works best. It may seem boring, but it works. I don’t take pitches – I don’t feel the process of verbally pitching a story best conveys the writing – so the query is the way to go! Sometimes that process may seem long, or you may be tempted to cheat and say you have an offer just to get a quicker response from an agent, but those that stick through it are rewarded.
Is there any part of your day-to-day work that manifests itself in evenings & weekends? I rarely get any reading done during the day, so that’s usually for off-hours. Likewise, if I don’t get through my queries, those will often get worked on during the weekend.
What one piece of advice would you give to a writer just starting out? Remember that the books you’re reading aren’t first drafts. Every writer goes through an editing process, and it’s unfair to yourself to compare your Draft 0 to what may be a Draft 25. Go through the process!
What one piece of advice would you give to your younger self? Track your reading! I wish I had kept more careful note of all the books I read as a Wee Kate. I went through my library like a tornado, and I wish I had a list of everything I read as a kid.
Favourite film? The Princess Bride
Favourite TV program (currently or all-time)? Anything by Joss Whedon, but mostly Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly.
Favourite book? The Princess Bride by William Goldman
Favourite director? Joss Whedon
Favourite writer? Joss Whedon (does he count?) and my clients!
Favourite actor (male or female)? David Tennant