SCBWI

Society of
Children's Book Writers
and Illustrators

SCBWI Exclusive with . . . Kate Testerman, kt literary

 

After a dozen years working in publishing in New York City, Kate moved to Colorado and formed kt literary in early 2008, where she concentrates on middle grade and young adult fiction. Bringing to bear the experience of being part of a large agency, she enjoys all aspects of working with her authors, offering hands-on experience, personal service, and a surfeit of optimism. Her clients include Maureen Johnson, Ellen Booraem, Stephanie Perkins, Carrie Harris, Trish Doller, and Matthew Cody, among other exciting and acclaimed authors. Kate is a graduate of the University of Delaware’s Honors Program, a former cast member of the New York Renaissance Faire, and an avid collector of shoes, bags, children, and dogs. Her interests cover a broad range including contemporary drama, urban fantasy and magical realism, adventure stories, and romantic comedies. She is an active member of the SCBWI and AAR.

 

There’s so much talk about the best way to query an agent. What gets your attention when a query pops up in your inbox? What makes one query stand out more than another? In that vein, what does it take for you to request a partial or full manuscript?

For the most part, I'm looking for something ineffable. I want a strong hook, or a story that I haven't seen before, or a character concept that catches my attention, or a voice that screams "read me!" And despite the fact that there is so much information about how to hook an agent, you'd be surprised the number of queries that reach me that get it wrong—wrong genre, wrong pitch, wrong material—at least for me. So when you get that right, when an author has done their research and can show me that they're querying me for a reason, that stands out. As my awesome stepdaughter's math teacher would say, "Show your work." You can get points for it.

When a query has that special something, and the pages included show a strong writing ability, then I'll ask for a partial—the first five chapters, usually—and a full synopsis. I know that many of my agent colleagues are switching over to asking for a full manuscript right away, but I like keeping that second step in there. I like checking in with an author five chapters in to a manuscript to say "I love this, can you send me the whole thing?" It also keeps it fresh for me—if I don't feel like I'm waiting on pins and needles to get that full manuscript after requesting it, maybe it's not for me after all, no matter how good the first five chapters are.

 

Do you share queries if something isn’t quite right for you but might be right for the agency?

Not exactly, but we do share and discuss material at the partial or full stage. Sometimes it's to ask for a second opinion on something we're not sure is right, sometimes it's to seek corroboration of a gut feeling that yes, it really is that special. Though we all represent YA and MG, manuscripts may speak to us all differently, and I feel like handing over a query to Renee or Sara with a "This isn't for me, but maybe you would like it?" doesn't start an author off on the best footing. We advise authors to research the three of us, pick the agent you think would be best for your project, and if we say no, please feel free to resubmit to another, one at a time.

 

When you take on an author, what is your process? (Do you give editorial notes? Work with them on a submission list?)

I consider myself a sort of "big picture" editorial agent. I'm more concerned with the story beats and characters—does this work as written, could it be better if you cut this or moved that—than I am with themes and line edits. So the notes that I may give are things that I can cover in a couple of pages of an editorial letter, or a long phone conversation riffing with the author on ideas. Once we have a revised manuscript that we're happy with, I'll put together a submission list and share it with the author for their feedback—is there someone they met at a conference that asked about it, an author they love whose editor they'd like to send it to— and we'll revise accordingly. Then I call the editors, pitch the manuscript and follow up with an email with the submission and a covering letter. As we get responses, I can either share them with the author entirely, or just pass on a "yes" or "no", as they prefer. 

 

Can you describe the auction process? What are the pros and cons of submitting to publishers in this manner?

I don't consider an auction part of the submission process. Not exactly. 90% of the time, I submit material multiply, as we advise authors to do when they're querying. An auction happens when multiple editors from that submission pool come back to me with interest in making an offer. Then we may set a date for opening bids, or notify the other interested publishers once the first bid comes in, and continue until we have an offer that the author and I are happy to accept, from the partner we feel would be the best one to guide the book to publication. It's not always about money. I've cut off auctions when I had publishers still interested in going higher, because we knew we'd already received the offer we liked from the editor we wanted to work with.

With multiple editors reading, we might also accept a pre-empt, if that first offer comes in and it's a strong enough combination of money, marketing, package, and editorial connection to tell the other editors, "No thanks, we already got what we were looking for."

And then there's that other 10% (maybe less), when I might feel like a certain editor would just be the perfect one for the project, and I send it to only them. In which case, I'll ask for a response within a certain time frame (usually two or three weeks), after which, if we don't come to terms, I'd go out wide. The thing is, you never know if the editor you might not think of in the first blush of a submission list wouldn't be the perfect partner unless you try.

 

What are the most important "gets" for you during the negotiation process? Are there deal killers? 

The most important "get", I think, is that the editor "gets" the project. That they understand the story the author is trying to tell, and wants to help them polish the manuscript into the jewel they both know it can be. World rights, World English, North American—I can make an argument for or against all of them. I'm always going to reserve dramatic and commercial rights for the author in an initial negotiation, but if a publisher can make a strong argument why they should get them, they might change my mind. Maybe. For the most part though, since I came to agenting from foreign rights, I want to hold onto translation, and I want my partners in Hollywood to shop the material for film and tv.

Nowadays, the trickiest part of a contract negotiation may be the competing works clause, especially as many authors are becoming hybrids, publishing both traditionally and on their own. It's also very important to clarify when you're dealing with an author with multiple traditional publishers, maybe in different age ranges or genres. While a conversation about these clauses may not kill a deal, they can certainly delay it.

 

Ideally, what hooks you in when you’re reading a manuscript and makes you say, “I have to represent this author”?

It changes, but right now, I'm looking in my query pile for a diverse voice telling the story only they can tell. I never knew I wanted a lyrical middle grade novel in verse about a Chinese girl born with a deformity, hiding with her adoptive mother (Red Butterfly by A.L. Sonnichsen) until I read it. Same with a multicultural, kick-ass, feminist sci-fi space adventure novel like Salvage or Sound by Alexandra Duncan. I want something that's so good, I have to stop reading it to tell others about the awesome thing I'm reading. Send me that!