Behind the Book with Jenn Bishop and her agent, Katie Grimm

Behind The BookFor almost four years now—wow, time flies!—I’ve been represented by Katie Grimm at Don Congdon Associates. I found Katie the traditional way—good old cold querying—and now that two books are out in the world, we’re entering a new phase of the agent/author relationship.

jenn_054JB: For many authors in their initial agent search, it’s all about getting that first book deal. But it’s what happens after that probably makes the difference between a career author and someone who publishes one book. How do you guide your authors to keep them in the game?

KG: There can be so much focus on and online support for agentgetting an agent that I completely understand the inclination to post “success stories” about getting one, but it’s the very first step! And selling your book is another great accomplishment, but only the next one on a hopefully very long journey – things don’t magically fall into place for authors with agents or even with book deals (or three!).
First of all, it’s important to be proactive about finding the audience for your first book in ways you can control as well as staying receptive and thoughtful about what you can do differently next time. For example, you can’t control what PW or Kirkus reviewers say, but you can encourage your nearest and dearest to leave Amazon reviews. It’s so important (and hard!) to keep stepping back and analyzing the data your first novel presents. Regardless of where you are in your journey, you’re also part of a greater community and ecosystem, and you need to find a way to meaningfully interact with it in a way that gives you strength and hope, not just feelings of inadequacy and jealousy – which even the most seemingly successful authors experience at some point.
Beyond finding excitement in the community of peers and readers, it’s also vital that you tune out the noise of the business and keep tapping into the passion for what brought you here in the first place: writing. Whether you have several projects you’re juggling or just focusing on the next novel, you can’t grow your career without putting your butt in the chair to work on your next project. I also think it’s so helpful to keep seeking out critique groups and beta readers who will grow with you throughout your respective careers – even though you have your agent and editor, there’s so much value in fresh eyes and support from fellow authors.

JB: How do you find your relationship with a client changes as they move past their first deal or two?

KG: In a lot of ways I’m the “expert” in the relationship, and for things like handling submissions and negotiating contracts, that will remain my sole responsibility in representing a client. However, I do really enjoy ways that the agent/author relationship grows into even more of an equal partnership with both of us bringing our own expertise to the table. So as my authors gain experiences from things like book fairs to Skype visits (which I’ll never get to do myself, alas!), I look to them to communicate their new knowledge to me so we can both critically look at their careers and problem-solve together. Looping back to the original question, I think authors are most successful long term if they can gain competency if not mastery in areas that they initially needed help with (or if they can forge new ones completely!), as a sort of feigned incompetence or sense of entitlement for book two and three is a way to lose the goodwill of even their staunchest supporters.

JB: What challenges do you face advocating for your authors as they establish a track record of sales, etc.?

KG: There is a sort of (dangerous?) optimism that comes with debuts – this is how we’ve seen six and now even seven figure advances become more common, but the real answer is no one truly knows how well a book is going to do – books that changed your life don’t get the requisite attention while others somehow never budge off the bestseller lists. So the treatment of book two can feel sobering not because it’s necessarily worse, but because (with very few exceptions) there’s no way for true sales history to compete with the previously imaginative profit and loss statements editors create for calculating the advances for debuts. In other words, you will often have to push yourself even more on book two to catch up to reality. Many authors don’t break out until books three and four, and you best believe it’s because they used every book they wrote to grow as an artist and business person.

JB: What types of projects are exciting you right now?

KG: Recent favorites of mine have been THE HATE U GIVE and FEMALE OF THE SPECIES. I always talk about “necessary” fiction or “books with a heartbeat,” but I feel an even higher level of urgency to not just entertain and create worlds readers can get lost in, but to reflect reader’s own experiences as well as expand their understanding of those around them – inspiring them to be more empathetic, reflective, and arbiters of change in their own world.
This doesn’t mean I’m only looking for books that are political or socially pointed, just that I’m more cognizant of the level of responsibility and power we have to make truly lasting emotional change in young lives. I have been asking authors and myself about “takeaways” more than even before, and the books I’ve been excited about have helped me unpack emotions or see our current world in way that gives me both insight and hope.

JB: Has the role of agent changed since you first started at Don Congdon? How do you see it continuing to evolve in the coming years?

KG: Yes, just as so much of the publicity is now on the shoulders of the author, the agent must be there to at least guide authors initially if not help directly along the way. So I’m continuing to learn aspects of the business and gaining contacts in ways that weren’t necessary before.
To take this a step further, I’ve also watched agents become hype machines in their own way which I’ll admit I’ve had a harder time coming into (it’s also a much bigger phenomenon in kidlit than adult, for what it’s worth). To put it in perspective, once upon a time it was looked down upon to “advertise” as an agency as it was seen as predatory or just backwards to put the agent before the author. So we never used to announce our deals (and I do so now only sporadically), and we didn’t even have a website when I first started (the one we have now took a couple years of convincing on my part!). As much as that this has changed even in my time here, it’s also a friendly reminder that there are very good agents and agencies that are not online at all! Agents will always be advocates for their authors in whatever form that takes, and even as more of this moves towards online publicity, agents too are choosing their own style given their strengths and the type of books they represent.

JB: Realizing that there are some aspects of publishing that are not in our hands, what can authors do to put themselves in the best position possible to stay in this competitive industry?

KG: I always have the same advice: read every day and write every day – it’s the only way to become a better writer and remind yourself of the joy of the written word! Every one of us – author, agent, editor, publicist – can only enact change in very specific ways in our own sphere. The only thing we can’t do once the book is finished? To force readers to enjoy it and recommend it to friends. We can be personable online and publishers can give away crates of galleys, but the only thing that matters in all of this industry is readers’ actual level of enjoyment that happens when we’re not even in the room.
So while it is important to follow fellow authors and publishers and watch how they interact with their audience, truly the only way to stay competitive is to read and read widely. You might not like everything, but it’s your job is to understand what aspects of craft the author excels at to have made the book successful at whatever level – critically, commercially or both. Then get writing! It will always come back to the strength of your words and story, and (for better or worse!) it’s the one thing you do have control over and hopefully… it’s the thing you enjoy the most too!

JB: Thanks so much for taking the time, Katie. This has been enlightening for me. It’s so true that it all boils down to a person connecting with a book. (Or, hopefully, a lot of people forging individual connections with the same book.) Time to get back to writing!

14 Hollow Road_jkt_3p.inddJenn Bishop is the author of 14 Hollow Road (Alfred A. Knopf/Random House). Her first middle grade novel, The Distance to Home, was named a Junior Library Guild selection and a Bank Street College of Education Best Children’s Book (2017). She lives in Cincinnati, OH.

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