Happy Valentine’s Day! Fiona Kenshole wants to be your Valentine. Her love letter to you: this fantastic interview!
Fiona Kenshole loves the midwifery of being an agent, from getting your debut published to doing the movie deal. At Transatlantic, they like to sell your book to publishers all over the world, so Fiona works with co-agents in 28 countries, selling worldwide rights. Before becoming an agent, she was a publisher in the UK where she worked with best-selling names including Michael Bond (Paddington Bear), P.L Travers (Mary Poppins) and the Laureate Michael Morpurgo. She was also the British editor for authors including Beverley Cleary, Lois Lowry, Richard Peck, Bruce Coville, Gary Paulsen and Cynthia Voigt, and was nominated for “Editor of the Year” at the British Book Awards. She was also the Vice President at Laika Inc. when their first three films were all Oscar nominated: The Boxtrolls, Coraline, and Paranorman. And she will be bringing all this experience and insight into kid lit and storytelling when she appears as a faculty member at this year’s SCBWI Los Angeles Writers Day, taking place on March 3rd.
Sarah Parker-Lee: How has working as an editor, filmmaker, and publisher influenced your approach as an agent, both on the client side and on the selling side?
FIONA KENSHOLE: The opportunity to work on so many different sides of the storytelling process just increases my respect for writers. It really is an extraordinary gift, to be able to create people and worlds that can feel more real than our everyday lives. My job, whether as an editor, a film executive or as an agent, is to help that writer in their creative process so that the story they tell is the best it can be. I’m often the first person that a story is entrusted to. I can see the places where the writer is too close to a story to see what is missing, for example, and as a professional with many years’ experience, I offer gentle, supportive practical criticism. I spent several hours this week reviewing a new manuscript I am really excited about, by one of my clients, and she came back to say, “All of the structural weakness of the book that you identified are ones that I already knew were there”.
That made me feel good: I am doing my job right!
As for the selling side, without being immodest, I am a brilliant story pitcher! It’s the result of my years of pitching to tough executives [at] Hollywood studios who don’t move a muscle. I went out with a pitch for a debut last month and got 20 requests to read from editors within a day!
SPL: Should writers be concerned about whether or not their book will make a great movie when they’re writing it? If the ultimate goal is to make a movie, do you need to write the book first?
FK: I would like writers to focus on just writing their best book. I think secretly (or not so secretly) every writer thinks their book would make a great movie. There’s a lot of luck in whether a director, a producer or a studio decide to option a book, and from there only a tiny percentage get made. The story is there to inspire the director’s vision first and foremost, so there’s even the possibility you might not like the movie of your book. So the best thing is to tell your story, and who knows, maybe it will be a great movie, but don’t count on it. If your ultimate goal is to make a movie, then write a screenplay.
SPL: Do you have any examples of books-turned-movies you suggest we read?
FK: Well obviously, I would say Coraline, because that’s one I worked on. Henry Selick made some brilliant script decisions which made the story work as a movie, while remaining true to the spirit of the book. The Boxtrolls was inspired by Here Be Monsters by Alan Snow, but differs quite a lot from the original book, which had about eight different potential movies that could have been made from it!
How to Train Your Dragon is another movie which is very true to the spirit of the book while not being an exact copy of the story. The author, Cressida Cowell, said to me “It’s not my book, but the characters behave the way they do in my book.” She is an author who concentrates on what she can control (the book) and let’s other people delight and surprise her with how they make the movie.
SPL: Many authors find screenwriting guides and exercises help them to write their novels. In the reverse, what shouldn’t a writer do in a book that they can do in a screenplay?
FK: Screenwriting is a very blunt-edged tool. You can show what characters say and what they do. There is little room for atmosphere or nuance, which is layered in visually. So I would say that if a novel had the amount of dialogue that a screenplay does, it would not work. You can use an inner voice in a novel, which you can’t in a screenplay. That’s why Wybie Lovat was added as a new character in the movie of Coraline — because otherwise you wouldn’t be able to hear her thoughts unless she was wandering around talking to herself.
The other element which is crucial in a screenplay is time. One page of screenplay is roughly equivalent to a minute of screen time, so most screenplays come in between 90-120 pages. This would be way too short for most full length novels to successfully tell their stories.
SPL: According to this 2013 interview, you found that “…the rise of self-publishing, digital publishing and social media make this an incredibly interesting time. For the first time since Gutenberg, the publishers no longer control the sole means of distribution, and the codex may no longer be the dominant literary form in the future.” Do you still feel that way? What do you think is make or break for an author when it comes to self-publishing?
FK: What an interesting question. Well, back in 2013 we were seeing the inexorable rise of the e-book, and print was looking old tech. Then look at last year when e-book sales dropped 20%, while print is on the rise. All kinds of interesting things are happening: we saw that sudden bubble of coloring books, which really helped traditional publishing and of course don’t work digitally. Meanwhile there are areas like cook books which are changing into beautiful art objects, since we can get straightforward recipes on our phones.
Self-publishing has democratized getting your book into print. There are now as many self-published books each year as there are traditionally published books. Personally I’m a great fan of Wattpad and Kickstarter — I’ve supported friends with niche books, such as How to Move House by Bicycle, who have done fantastically well on Kickstarter, and would have been unlikely to have been published traditionally. I’m not sure what you mean by make or break — there are lots of different reasons people choose to self-publish. If you mean how do you sell lots of self-published copies, I think romance is a good area — you can write shorter books but publish more frequently. You need to have a really strong marketing strategy. Since my job is to get writers set up with traditional publishers, I tend to prefer to represent manuscripts that have not previously been published.
SPL: There are so many “non-traditional” ways to be a successful author in 2018. What do you think are the benefits of going the traditional publishing route?
FK: The first Frankfurt book fair was held in 1454. Every year since then, publishers and those who work with them have got together to share their excitement about their forthcoming titles. That is 500 years of specialist expertise right there. James Patterson, J.K Rowling and Stephen King are all writers who could reach their audience directly, heck they could each probably buy a medium-sized publishing house, yet they choose to go the traditional root. Why? Our publishing houses are jewels in the firmament of the creative industries. As an author, your work will be championed passionately by your acquiring editor, who will spend hours of his or her very experienced time solely focused on coaxing the very best out of your work, not just of this book but for future titles. You will benefit from copyeditors and proofreaders to pick up the inevitable mistakes. A design team who are up-to-date in what trends are coming up in covers and typography will make sure your book can hold its own in catalogues or the window of Barnes and Noble. You will have a marketing and publicity team who are trusted by the review journals, a sales team pitching your work, and a foreign rights team selling your book through the world. And if someone tries to steal your story, there’s a legal team to take care of you.
SPL: In the same vein, what do you think is the benefit, in 2018, to having a literary agent in your corner when writers can “just sell themselves” using social media and other online platforms?
FK: I’m reflecting on how much a literary agent does beyond social media. Here are some of the things I have done to benefit my authors over the last year:
One of my recent clients was doing moderately well in her field. She had published a number of novels which were getting nice reviews, some prize nominations, but her advances were static. We talked and made a strategy for her writing career. It actually involved putting the book she was then writing aside. The next book she wrote was her best yet — we worked on it for nearly a year. We changed publisher and I negotiated her advance was double her previous one. Then I sold her book in 21 other languages before publication. There were auctions in nearly every country — including a six-publisher auction in Germany, where her advance was over double her US advance. She should be up to six figures shortly. We took care of all the tax forms in each of those countries that the author is required to do so tax is not withheld. During the course of the book, the author was unhappy with the proposed cover but felt awkward explaining this to her editor. Every writer wants to be the nice guy so I set up a conference call with her editor, the designer and the publisher and advocated for her. Together we came up with a brief for something very different and much nicer. Then I set her up with a film agent in a top Hollywood agency to represent her movie rights.
I’m a cheerleader and supporter for my authors when they are full of self-doubt, and a sounding board for ideas. I can suggest what the market is not going to want and can steer you to something that will work better. I know the sneaky things that some publishers can try to get into contracts. I can negotiate you a fairer deal.
I like to look beyond the book to the whole writing career. I strategize with my clients [and] make plans for their writing. Some of them need time and space to do one literary work a year, others want to have several projects on the go, or a multi-book contract, or something else. I work with them so that they can be career writers with a steady flow of work.
A couple of my authors weren’t sure they needed an agent. Both of them were published quite successfully without one. I’m happy to say that both of them say they have seen a great improvement since we started working together. And one just dedicated her most recent book to me!
In short, my job is to take care of the hard stuff and the business stuff so that my clients can concentrate on creating their best work. I love when my clients are active on social media and getting out and about at events. But not everyone likes doing that, and there’s so much noise out there, it’s hard to do it effectively.
SPL: If someone wants to find representation, they’ll have to query or pitch an agent. At Writers Day, attendees will get that opportunity. Any advice for the in-person pitch?
FK: In-person pitching can be nerve-wracking! I’ve done it too! First off: I’m not an ogre. I’m really hoping your book will be the next thing I will want to represent. Seriously. I’m a fan of the logline pitch. When (someone)…does (something)…then (result)…happens.
A snappy log line will get your book sold and will often end up on your jacket copy! I like pithy economical pitches, and I like to know how the story ends.
I also like to know what the inspirational lightbulb moment was that made you feel “I HAVE to write this story”.
(Editor’s note: Feel free to practice your logline in the comments for some community feedback!)
SPL: Finally, do you have any other upcoming appearances or projects you’d like to share?
FK: I’ll be at the Golden Gate SCBWI conference from 9-11th March, then heading to the London and Bologna book fairs in March and April. I’m looking forward to the publication of Kiersi Burkhart’s YA debut Honor Code in March. It was just picked as a Barnes and Noble most anticipated Indie book of the Year.
And a shout out to my colleague Samantha’s client Ian Reid, whose debut novel, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, is to be a film directed by Charlie Kaufman from Netflix.
Thanks for the great interview, Fiona! Readers, you can follow Fiona on Twitter here: @genuinefi. And if you’re interested in querying her, she represents children’s and YA books only, from board books to older teenage. Her wish list is quirky contemporary, humor, unreliable narrators, immigrant stories, stories by diverse writers, sister stories, real children in magical worlds, thrillers, mysteries and ghost stories. Fiona has a soft spot for a great detective story. Her dream is a submission so compelling she’d rather read it than engage with real life! She is also looking for excellent food writers, including bloggers. Submissions here.
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Sarah Parker-Lee is a Los Angeles Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators board member & the Managing Editor of Kite Tales, a book reviewer for Dwarf+Giant, a content creator for non-profits fighting injustice all over the interwebs, & is available to edit your writerly endeavors. She writes YA alt. history, sci-fi, & is the creator of Dogs & Zombies: Dog’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse. Twitterings: @SarahSoNovel, @DogsAndZombies
This interview was edited slightly for format and clarity.