Wendy Keller: Founder, CEO, Senior Agent of Keller Media, Inc.
Wendy Keller won her first writing contest at age ten, and landed her first job as a newspaper reporter at sixteen. Her continual passion for writing and fascination with the power of the written word drove her to work for PR Newswire, the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain, as managing editor of Dateline magazine and to become associate publisher of Los Angeles' then-second-largest Spanish language newspaper, La Gaceta.
In 1989, Ms. Keller envisioned ForthWrite Literary Agency, founded in integrity, honesty and compassion for the writer.
Today, the simple literary agency has become a successful media company. ForthWrite Literary Agency has closed more than 540 rights deals worldwide for clients; Wendy Keller has taught thousands of authors her unique and efficient system for turning a simple book deal into a lucrative career. She is the author of 29 published books under 8 pseudonyms, and has been a featured guest on 47 television programs, including Dateline NBC, CBS The Early Show, Rosie, Crosstalk, Fox, ABC, Politically Incorrect and other programs. She and her books have been featured on more than 300 radio shows worldwide and has been written up in 79 magazine and newspaper articles, including The Wall Street Journal, Arizona Republic, Dallas Morning News, Chicago Tribune, Playboy, The Scotsman, Maxim, Parenting and the Miami Herald.
Your agency is founded on the premise of giving the straight story to authors and has completed over 540 deals worldwide. Your agency, ForthWrite Literary Agency proves truth and success go well together.
You have chosen a very interesting name; would you share why you chose the name, ForthWrite?
Although I rarely use the name “ForthWrite” anymore, since the agency was technically bought by the corporation Keller Media, Inc. in 2002, I appreciate the question. Previous to starting FWLA, I worked for another agent. I had no idea if he was ethical or productive or not since I come from journalism, not publishing. Lo and behold, one day I found it is was NOT customary to charge authors $1800 “reading and representation” fees and that the rows and rows of books he claimed to have sold were actually merely purchased from the local second hand shop. I immediately decided there MUST be a way to ethically represent people – and tell them the truth, e.g. be forthright with them. I began FWLA in 1989 with a lot more chutzpah than knowledge or contacts.
As an agent, you have focused on a certain genre. What is your area of expertise, and why did you choose it?
I focus exclusively on nonfiction, and even then within certain strict criteria. I began by selling screenplays, fiction, juvenile, Christian books, nonfiction - anything I liked and thought I could sell. I eventually decided to focus on things that met two goals: sell for good money and to honest people, which meant I had to exclude Hollywood and all Christian publishers. Strangely, I found most of the latter to be at least as nefarious as the worst people in Hollywood. So I began just selling business, self-help, popular psychology, health, inspiration/motivation, how-to and other nonfiction categories. In 2007, I plan to add "historical fiction" to my list, because it's something I read a lot for pleasure and have a developed a solid knowledge of what works and what does not. But it is still a very focused list. I always say, "Asking a nonfiction agent to look at your mystery novel is sort of like asking your podiatrist to fill your cavity. It's just a different specialty."
You wrote an article about great ways to make an agent at a writer’s conference dislike you. Can you explain what some of these pitfalls are and how an author can circumvent them?
I completely don’t remember the article. But I do know that the things that irk my colleagues and I are people who insist we “just take a look at” something that isn’t in our genre or our interests; the authors who stalk us into the restrooms or our sleeping rooms; insists it is a best seller because her mother/psychic/students all say it will be; or throw a rude tantrum when I refuse to carry it home and have asked for it to be mailed. Believe it or not, this happens!
To begin with, what is it all about for you when you attend a writer’s conference?
I’m looking for talent. Always, always, always looking for talent. All agents live off commission – the better the talent I find, the more money I make. And my lifestyle requires a very large amount of money. ; )
If an author knows, without any doubt, that she has the next bestseller, how important is it to have her manuscript prepared according to industry standards, including proofreading?
Oh, I’d say about 110%.
What is your response when the author doesn’t respect these minimal standards?
Actually, I’ll have no response because it won’t make it past my assistant. “DOA” – Dead on Arrival. Same as a publisher would do.
What part does personality play in achieving a successful outcome at the conference?
Aw, heck. Don’t tell your membership but I’d represent a goldfish if it could write and had a speaking platform. I couldn’t care less about the author’s personality except for two types I personally avoid: bombastic or timid.
You have said that a writer should never say, “Can I give you my manuscript now?” to a prospective agent. Is there an exception to never?
You’ve said, “Never corner an agent.” Sounds like good advice because who likes to be cornered? Why do you think authors do this?
Two reasons I observe: 1) The conference organizers have sold it as “the big chance” to meet agents and 2) the writers think it really IS their big chance to meet agents. Let me say something right here: we will scratch, claw, beg, bribe, cajole, seduce and clamber for a decent proposal. We are in desperate need of good projects! If your material is good, that’s what will happen. If it is marginal, you’ll have to corner agents because you know in your heart your work is sub-par.
As you’ve said, writers have been known to slip a manuscript under your door; do you have a much-preferred method authors could use to catch your attention?
YES! An email query BEFORE the conference, in lieu of the conference, after the conference or sans the conference.
We’ve heard of behavior that borders on stalking, but how often does this really occur?
Well, let’s see. I’ve had people follow me allegedly because their room is “right next door” to mine, except as we “happen” to be returning to the room they “happen” to pitch me and “happen” to have left their room key somewhere. I’d say about 50% of the conferences I’ve attended have at least one psycho.
How do you react to an author being upfront about her nervousness and blurting out, “Oh my, I’m so nervous to meet a real agent!”
Honesty is a good thing.
Do authors deluge you with samples of their creativity? Do you think it is appropriate? What have you experienced? Could you share a couple of your experiences?
Never illustrate your own book or allow your kindergarteners to do so; always type your query; I am not of mixed gender, so never address mail to me as “Dear Sir/Madame”; Creativity is utterly meaningless to me. I have more than 40 writers who do work for my “authors”. I’d rather represent some illiterate person who has a TV show or a radio show, has a powerful speaking platform or is a celebrity. Writers are a dime a dozen. “Authors” with platforms are rare and precious 6-figure/7-figure advance commodities. I am ALWAYS annoyed that nonfiction authors are so stubborn about building their platform. In the end, it is consistently the most important thing to everyone in publishing from me to the publisher to the Barnes & Noble clerk. That’s why I teach classes on HOW TO BECOME A SPEAKER and GET MEDIA. If they don’t have that, their creativity or anything else is useless to me. (Sorry for tirade – the voice of experience is speaking through me!)
You wrote another article about the odds of getting published, could we touch on a few the highlights? For instance, what percentage of queries or manuscripts is rejected monthly by your agency?
We see hundreds every month, I believe. We suggest improvements on perhaps 2-5 ideas, usually because the author has a platform but not writing skills. We contract perhaps 20-35 projects a year.
How many projects would you estimate a good agent sells?
A “good” agent is theoretically defined as the person who sells your book for the most money to the best publisher, right? Then the reality is that a “good” agent is subjective. In my perception AS a good agent, we sell about 15-20 US projects per year. It is my goal to sell fewer projects for more money every year I’m in business. In a perfect world, I’d sell four books a year.
Would you recommend that an author keep a commercial eye on her work, or should she center on her belief in what she’s writing?
The time for creativity is AFTER you have completed your competitive analysis and understand what the competition is doing/has done. After that, be as creative as you like. The more the merrier. And then act like a businesswoman when it comes time to find representation. Good material will have MANY interested agents. Marginal material may get one or two. GREAT material will have people flying to take you to lunch.
Why do editors have so little time to devote to editorial development?
Because they are now making bricks without straw! When I was a new agent, most editors did 12-14 books a year and they really READ and EDITED them. Now, most editors just acquire and give the editing to someone completely different. And worst, they are forced by economics to acquire 24-30 projects per year. It’s good for the agents in some ways but hard on the editors.
Do you offer free consultation - 10-20 minutes - if someone wants to know if she stands a good chance of ending up published?
No, I do not. But I am very good at answering queries with a yes or a no. And I’m one of the few agents in the country who is the author of 29 published books, been on so much major media, etc. and takes time and enormous energy to go around the USA training writers HOW to get agents to say yes – and get a deal. I make 90% of my revenue selling US and foreign book rights and assorted ancillary (mostly audio) but I feel I have a duty to teach writers how to get past the inevitable obstacles of ignorance they confront.
Do you have a new author or project that you are excited about, that you would like to share with us?
YES! This Spring watch for “Our Own Worst Enemy” by Colonel Randall J. Larsen. It’s all about homeland security and what you can do to protect yourself, your family and your business. The Col. is on Larry King, CNN, Fox, and many other shows almost every week and not only speaks worldwide, he also is an advisor to the White House. The ideal client!
We wanted to conclude with a little fun, the theme “Walking in an Agent’s Shoes” we would all like to know, what is your favorite pair of shoes? And, what is it like to walk in them?
My favorite pair of shoes would be the Uggs I stole from my teenage daughter. I bought them for her one Christmas and a year later, she’d outgrown them. I found them moldering under her bed, washed them and absconded. They are the antithesis to a stressful work day.
Wendy's concluding thoughts for WOW! readers:
Keep learning. The difference between writers who succeed and writers who never get published is refining your craft, your content and your personal vision.
Wendy, we want to thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience with us. You appreciate you're working us into your busy schedule. In fact, if we find any talented goldfish, we'll send them your way.
Wendy would love for you to visit her at:
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