Issue 45 - Girls Just Want to Have Fun ... Writing - Elin Hilderbrand, Claire Cook and Lisa Jackson

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s there a primary reason why readers love the romance genre? What are the current trends in women’s fiction? How does a literary agent have a good time on the job anyway? Learn all this and more as we chat with Elaine Spencer of The Knight Agency—a woman who knows about reading, writing, and fun.

Elaine Spencer joined The Knight Agency in 2005 after graduating from the University of Georgia with a degree in literature and economics. Originally acting as assistant to agency president Deidre Knight and as TKA’s submissions coordinator, Elaine went on to begin building her own dynamic client list in 2006 and has since sold over 50 titles. Elaine now represents a diverse list of adult and young adult authors and handles all of the subrights licensing for the Knight Agency’s 150+ client list, as well as acting as the agency’s general business manager. Her diverse experience makes her well-qualified to juggle both the artistic and the contractual sides of the business, and she prides herself on the one-on-one attention and personal relationships that she is able to develop with each of her clients.

As an avid reader, Elaine is willing to try any author once. Regardless of genre, she is most interested in a unique voice that captivates readers in the opening pages. Elaine is most actively acquiring young adult and middle grade fiction, women’s fiction, romance (all subgenres), engaging commercial fiction, and narrative nonfiction.  

Elaine is not interested in children’s or picture books, horror, poetry, screenplays, short story collections, history, westerns, straight fantasy, or science fiction.

Elaine currently lives in Athens, Georgia. In her spare time, she can most likely be found curled up poolside with a good book and her beloved Westie, Claude.


1.Let’s start with your background. How did you become an agent?

I started out at the Knight Agency as Deidre Knight’s assistant. Eventually through the natural progression of learning the business and reading through queries, I started to see projects that *I* wanted to have my thumbprint on. Soon after, with Deidre’s approval and assistance, I started building my own client list.

I have a background in business and literature, and this was a perfect melding of both fields. As a lifetime book lover, when the opportunity presented itself to sign on as an agent with TKA, I couldn’t say no!

2.What are the differences between women’s fiction, which you represent, and chick lit?

I think this question tends to lead to a little bit of over thinking. I don’t believe there is any real difference between the two beyond the way the material is being branded and marketed and the specific reader audience that is being targeted. These days, in many circles, there is a negative connotation associated with chick lit; and consequently in most instances, it is being rolled into a broader, less specific women’s fiction label. This doesn’t mean there is a marked difference in the material though.

Another way of looking at it, all chick lit is women’s fiction, but not all women’s fiction is chick lit. Personally, I’m looking for all types of women’s fiction; so inevitably, I’m very open to seeing the chick lit brand of material as well.

“Readers are compelled by strong emotional hooks, high tension, extreme ‘what would you do’ type stories, and unforgettably relatable lead heroines.”

3.Can you tell us about some of the trends in women’s fiction?

Women’s fiction is a hard area to break out in. Generally speaking, authors who are already established are those really pulling ahead. Readers are compelled by strong emotional hooks, high tension, extreme “what would you do” type stories, and unforgettably relatable lead heroines. The “club” (knitting, book, cooking) stories are still popular but losing some steam. Stories concerning returning soldiers are, of course, hitting a large audience. Food is still bringing people together. I recently read The Lost Recipe For Happiness, last year’s RITA winner, and it embodied all the things I personally love in women’s fiction: a strong sense of place, a compelling conflict, great character development, and a perfect dog.

4.The romance genre has many subgenres, and it looks like you’re seeking a few specifically: contemporary romance, historical romance, and romantic suspense. Tell us about these subgenres, and what you enjoy most about them.

Let me start by saying this isn’t a totally fair question, as it doesn’t portray an entirely accurate assessment of my interests. Romance readers and lovers will tell you that the primary reason they love the genre is for the HEA [Happily Ever After]. I’m the same way; and as such, I’m always most interested in the story, regardless of subgenre, that most embodies a great romance. I am interested in the intense exploration of a romantic relationship with the guaranteed happy resolution. My current list is most void of the above mentioned subgenres, so I’m inclined to request more in that vein to diversify my list.

Romantic suspense has always been the most fun for me to read. I think it reminds me of some of my first book loves, which were in the mystery and thriller genres. I think historical romance is special because it has such an air of escapism inherent in it. And it’s generally so much fun to really just be swept away. And a good contemporary reminds us all of how special it is to fall in love, right in the here and now, without all the bells and whistles.

“Since the inception of the e-book, the romance genre has been a favorite for e-sales; and things don't seem to be changing.”

5.What’s currently happening in romance fiction overall? Are sales holding steady? Any new developments?

Wow. No pressure there. This question could take all night! What’s happening in romance fiction? Well, obviously, the explosion of e-book opportunities is on the front of everyone’s minds. Since the inception of the e-book, the romance genre has been a favorite for e-sales; and things don’t seem to be changing. More and more readers are turning to e-book readers, and the romance market is having to fast come to grips for what this means for traditional sales and revenue outlets. Additionally, with the changing face of retail sources, disappearing brick and mortars etc., publishers are having to recalculate how books are distributed and getting into readers’ hands. There is an inevitable trickle down here to publisher buying habits.

Universally, publishers are being more conscious of their buying decisions. However, is there a, per se, slow down? Not necessarily—just more caution and awareness—nothing is being taken for granted these days. At TKA, we aren’t seeing the doom and gloom you hear people predicting. I’ll say it loudly and proudly; we’re having a banner year. We’ve sold a substantial number of debut authors already in 2011, including Deidre Knight’s recent pre-empt to St. Martin’s by debut author Leigh Evans. And on the other side of the coin, we’re seeing our established authors continue on with new contracts for existing series and brands!

6.You’re reportedly also seeking high-concept paranormal fiction. Can you describe this genre, and what you’re looking for in a manuscript of this type?

As simply as possible, I’m looking for something fresh that I haven’t already seen. Paranormal/urban fantasy/sci-fi is all about creating something new. This is one area where an author can unapologetically let her imagination run wild without any pre-established boundaries. I want to see an idea that I can pitch in a sentence and have it sound unlike anything else on the market.

For example, I am very excited about a debut project I recently sold by Kylie Griffin. It’s a beautiful fantasy about the survival of an endangered race through the civil war that’s put them on the brink of extinction. Look for Vengeance Born in 2012! Another new series I’m excited about is the House of Commarré books from Kristen Painter, leading with Blood Rights in September of 2011. If you think you’ve seen all that can be done with vampires, you have another thing coming. Kristen’s books are beautifully gothic and lyrical and such a treat for the vampire lover that’s looking for something new and fresh.

“Every agent has a tiny voice that pushes her to take on projects that don’t quite fit with the rest of her list.”

7.Another genre you’re interested in representing is pop-cultural nonfiction. What sorts of topics would fit into this category? Are there any fun books out there in this genre that you recommend reading?

Pop-culture nonfiction is my built in explanation for those passion projects that I can’t otherwise explain or classify. Every agent has a tiny voice that pushes her to take on projects that don’t quite fit with the rest of her list. These projects are driven by the agent’s passion and personal interest/investment in the subject area. It’s that personal investment that will make them convince an editor to go gaga over a story. I realize this isn’t an entirely accurate subgenre description; but to me, pop-culture nonfiction is all those crazy and irrelevant “now” books.

8.What’s your usual way of finding clients?

At this point in time, most of my material comes to me through a direct contact. Potential clients seek me out for a specific reason or through a specific connection. They’ll find a way to directly contact me, not through just a general query, and grab my attention. They might know a client of mine, or be familiar with work I represent or other agents I know. Another great way to get to know me is through events that I’m attending, either via pitches or general meet-and-greet sessions. I’m a very approachable person; so if you have the chance, come up and say hello!

“[I look for] a story that sucks me in right from the start. I don't want to have to give a story fifty pages to really get me rolling.”

9.When reviewing a submission, what do you look for?

A story that sucks me in right from the start. I don’t want to have to give a story fifty pages to really get me rolling. At fifty pages, I want to have long ago forgotten that I’m reading a submission and feel like I’m being propelled, almost from an outside source, into reading more, more, more.

10.What are some common mistakes you see in writers’ submissions to you?

There are two things that account for 98 percent of my partial rejections: a lack of self-awareness regarding “publishability” of a manuscript and an incomplete understanding/adherence to grammatical rules and regulations.

11.Do you get involved in the editing of a manuscript or proposal before sending it out?

Absolutely. Back to an earlier question that was asked about trends we’re seeing in the market: One thing that we are currently running into more than ever before is editors showing resistance on projects that are anything BUT publishable-ready. In the past, a need for minor edits based on content adjustments and/or grammar improvements were okay, as long as it was a compelling story at the heart. Today, however, things are more competitive than ever, and a project must be perfect before crossing an editor’s desk. As such, if I’m going to send a project out as an agent, I want it to be as perfect as it can be before going to an editor with my name on it. This can require tweaks.

I keep my client list at a level where I can offer extreme editorial and career guidance. I have an acute awareness of where my published and unpublished clients are in the process, so I can give all my clients the full attention they require and request.

“...a project must be perfect before crossing an editor’s desk.”

12.How much development or reworking of a manuscript can you assist with? Would you ever completely restructure or overhaul a novel, for example?

If there was a spark that I couldn’t forget about, I would consider it. It would be a situation where I had a very “lay all your cards on the table” type conversation with the author first, though. An author always needs to feel like a project is hers, first and foremost; so I would never tweak a project to a point where an author lost sight of her own work. All client relationships are based upon honesty, regardless of the level of work needed on a manuscript. So whether it’s a complete restructure or some grammatical adjustments, it’s always based on the communication between the agent and the author.

13.What can an author do to make your job easier when working on her book?

I mentioned it in the last answer—communicate, plain and simple. If I know where a book is going and how it’s getting there, I’m in a position where I can begin to plan for an author’s and title’s success.

“Spend time every day learning about the market through news sources and blogs.”

14.Do you have other suggestions for writers working on their craft? Favorite resources or ideas?

I encourage authors to keep reading, especially in the genre that they are writing, so they can be aware of market trends. There are a couple of great books out there, including Story by [Robert] McKee and On Writing by [Stephen] King, that really offer unforgettable career guidance that authors can go back to time and time again. Spend time every day learning about the market through news sources and blogs. I also think that it’s important to keep a critique group that doesn’t include your confidants and industry friends. Be willing to share your work with strangers and other resources who know the market; they will be tougher and give you the hard truth your friends can’t.

15.What should authors do about establishing or building a platform?

Today, platform is all about social networking. Create a website with updated and live content, develop a mailing list, create a Facebook page, get in touch with your Twitter followers. These are the resources that will help you sell and promote your book once you have a sale to announce.

16.What do you like most about your job?

This is a hard question because, I LOVE MY JOB. If you love something. how do you determine what you love most? There are a few things I can identify that really make a difference: Every day is different and unique from the day before. I only work with clients and material that I truly enjoy. (How many people outside of this industry can say that about their jobs!?) I make a difference and matter in the lives of my clients. And I can justify any book purchase I make, ever, to anyone. “It’s research.”

17.Describe a typical day at the office for you.

Typical day. Hah. I laugh in the face of a typical day. I wish I had a typical day. I have a forty-five-minute drive into work; and every day, on my way into the office, I think about the things I’m going to do as soon as I get there. I’m going to respond to client A’s e-mail, read client B’s manuscript and edit it, and review client D’s contract and draft an e-mail to legal regarding needed tweaks in its language. I’m going to prepare client E’s submission list/letter and then plan client F’s promotional effort. And then I get to the office. Client G needs help with their royalty statement, client H has a new foreign offer pending that I need to negotiate, client I is missing a payment for his proposal, and client J has just received a cover that looks just like her last title.

If you don’t get the idea, every day is about managing fires. I try to spend the first five hours of the day, responding to immediate, high-level e-mails. Then I spend a few hours on my priority “projects”: submissions, contracts, royalties, etc. Then I try to close out my day through the evening with reading.

18.What do you read in your leisure time? Any recent favorites?

I read anything and everything. I’m on vacation this week, and I just finished a book that made me want to read twenty more just like it; Domestic Violets was so smart and honestly funny. I laughed, such an honest laugh; and then the last page, I teared up. My dream book. It was incredible; and while I nor my agency represent it, I’ll be recommending it for a long time to come!

I just finished my twenty-fourth book for pleasure this year, which I’m pretty proud of. About fifteen of those were YA projects. Some bright moments for me included The Hate List by Jennifer Brown, Shine by Lauren Myracle, Bumped by Megan McCafferty, OK For Now by Gary Schmidt, Anna And The French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins.

19.Do you have any other advice for authors that we haven’t covered?

Write what you love. Spend the time planning the story and getting to know your characters. Don’t ever stop reading.

“I get to call an author and tell her that there’s an offer for her manuscript, that her writing is going to be a book. It doesn’t get any better than that!”

20.Finally, since this issue is about having fun in the world of writing, could you tell us about the most fun you’ve had on the job as a literary agent? Do you have a favorite work or writing related memory?

This is nearly impossible because I have a lot of fun on my job regularly. I can’t imagine not having fun. I think when I stop having fun, it will be time for me to start thinking about a new career. I get to go to all these great cities and share the business with new writers. I get to have meetings and meals and conversations with other smart, intelligent readers who love nothing more than talking about a good book. I get to go to war for clients, and that’s *fun*. If my day is in the dumps, I can pick up a book and get swept away to Italy or the Victorian period or a land I’ve never heard of. I get to re-experience first love and prom and that first magical kiss.

And then, the most satisfying, the most fun—I get to call an author and tell her that there’s an offer for her manuscript, that her writing is going to be a book. It doesn’t get any better than that!


Marcia Peterson is a columnist for WOW! Women on Writing and the editor of WOW’s blog, The Muffin. She lives in northern California with her husband and two children.


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