Nephele Tempest is on faculty for this year’s SCBWI-L.A. Working Writers Retreat (WWR). She joined The Knight Agency in January, 2005, opening the Los Angeles-area office. As an agent, she works with a number of talented writers, assisting them to hone their skills and build their careers. Nephele comes from a diverse publishing and finance background, having previously worked on the editorial side of the business, as well as for several major New York investment firms as a financial advisor and later a financial marketing and communications writer. Her previous experience provides her with insight into multiple aspects of the publishing industry and today she’s going to share some of it with us!
SARAH PARKER LEE: You’ve been involved with SCBWI events in the past. Are you there just to give back or are you actively looking for clients? If the latter, what makes someone stand out from the crowd at these fast-paced events?
NEPHELE TEMPEST: It’s definitely a combination of the two. I love spending time with writers and getting the chance to talk with them, not just about what they’re writing and to answer questions, but about books and the industry in general. But I’m always on the lookout for new clients, as well, and it’s important for me to take on people whose work I love — both the stories they’re telling and the quality of their writing — and with whom I feel I can develop a strong business relationship. It’s great to get a chance to meet potential clients in person, since so often I “meet” the writing first through a submission and then chat with the writer on the phone once I’m considering signing them on. Either way, I’m looking for compelling storytelling, something I feel is marketable, strong writing skills, and also someone I can talk to, because communication really is a foundation of any agent/author partnership. Not all of that can be determined at every writing event, obviously, but overall that’s what I look for in a new client.
SPL: I’ve heard agents mention they are, or aren’t, editorial agents. What is the difference and which are you? Why?
NT: It’s extremely rare for an agent to sign a project on that is 100% ready to go out on submission. Writers should be prepared to do further revision to get their manuscript as polished as possible before it gets shopped. An editorial agent tends to be more hands on in helping their clients with the revision process, providing detailed notes on potential plot holes, questions about character motivation, pacing, etc., much in the way an editor at a publishing house would. Depending on the project, this might involve multiple rounds before the manuscript hits the submissions phase. Agents who are not editorial are likely to provide less in the way of hands-on feedback, but that does not mean they won’t still discuss the need for revision with the writer before submitting their work. It might take the form of a phone call about things that they feel could be stronger, or sometimes a recommendation for a freelance editor. In the current market, I think most agents do at least some minor work with their clients before sending a project out. There’s no right or wrong approach, just different styles, and only the author can decide what sort of feedback they prefer. Personally, I tend to be a hands-on, editorial type. I like to both talk to my clients about their projects and also provide written editorial advice. I think this is just an offshoot of my own background, which includes years of writing and various sorts of editing. I’m also something of a grammar nerd, so there’s always a healthy dose of copyediting included in my notes.
SPL: How should a writer choose which kind of agent will best suit them? What do you look for in a potential client other than talent and a good project?
NT: Obviously you want to consider the basics: Does the agent rep the sorts of books you write? Are they taking on new clients? Are they reputable (No agency fees; standard commission percentages, etc.)? Are they editorial? But beyond that, try and determine if you want to work with them on a personal level, because this business can feel very intimate in terms of discussing creative output, finances, life events and so on. You want a certain comfort level. I think the internet can be a great resource for writers looking to narrow down their list of agents and also to help them determine what sort of representation they’re looking for. So many agents are on social media, particularly Twitter and/or Instagram, and I think you can learn a lot about their personalities and interests by following them. See what they chat about or take pictures of besides books; find out what they read and like enough to talk up outside their client list. And don’t be shy about engaging with them. You want an agent you feel good about communicating with, because the idea is to find a partner to help you develop your career. You need to be able to ask them questions, to brainstorm with them, and to let them know when you need help. For me, that’s the key component I’m looking for in a potential client beyond the writing/storytelling aspect. I want someone who will communicate with me. It’s difficult to do my job if a client does not keep me in the loop.
SPL: How does your experience in finance and marketing help your clients? Any tips for kid lit writers that we should file away?
NT: Money and marketing are both things that need to be considered when you negotiate a contract for your clients, and my background helps me with that process. And even before that stage, I write pitch letters that are, in essence, sales copy to convince editors to read a submission. But agents do more than sell books. I’ve had some conversations with clients about royalty trajectories and whether or not they can afford to quit their day jobs. I discuss social media presence and what approach would be best for their author site. I get on conference calls with art directors and marketing departments to discuss whether the look of a cover makes the right impression. Being a literary agent means wearing all sorts of hats, some more businessy and some more creative, and my previous experience comes in handy every single day. As for tips, remember that you should keep your target audience in mind when it comes to marketing. If you’re writing YA, figure out where your readers hang out online. But if you’re writing for young children, realize you’re marketing to their parents and grandparents and librarians more than to the children themselves, so different social media platforms and approaches might be required.
SPL: Agents often ask for a novel’s synopsis. Writers dread writing one almost as much as a query letter or log line! Any tips to make writing a synopsis less painful and more effective?
NT: I actually teach periodic classes on synopsis writing, just because writers DO seem to universally hate them. A few things to keep in mind: It’s just another writing project, so don’t work yourself up over it. Take your time; don’t expect to get the whole thing banged out in a single sitting. Start with something short — about the length you’d need for a query letter — that resembles jacket copy, and then add in more details to get it to the length you want.
SPL: Your Twitter feed is testament to your love of nerdom as well as #WeNeedDiverseBooks. We love it! How do you see the two intersecting these days in kid lit? Any good reads to recommend?
NT: I’ve always been an equal-opportunity nerd, and I mean that in every way. I love the recent spotlight shining on the need for increased diversity in all kinds of books, and the small inroads that have been made. It’s not enough yet, obviously. There’s so much work to be done, and publishing is unfortunately an old and slow industry that is way too set in its ways.
I feel like fantasy and science fiction technically SHOULD be leading the charge; after all, if you’re creating your world, there’s absolutely no reason not to make it extremely diverse. But I think there’s a hang up, especially in kid lit, about telling stories that focus on the diversity; so acoming-out story for LGBTQ+ characters, a story about racism featuring black characters, and so on. And those are important stories, but there needs to be more. Diverse diversity, if you will. It’s definitely getting better, and I’m excited to see what shelves look like in a year or two, once books that have been sold in the last 12-18 months have released, but it’s something I’m paying attention to in my inbox as well.
I will say that, while I was always open to signing on diverse stories and authors, since the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement I’ve seen a definite uptick in the diversity of submissions, and SO MUCH of it has been YA fantasy. It’s heartening, because the key for agents always is that we can’t sign projects we never hear about. The writing has to be good and I have to love the story, just like with any project, but it’s harder to build a diverse list if those submissions only make up 1% of what you’re seeing.
As for what I’ve been reading, I’m terribly behind on what’s current since so little of my reading time goes toward books with actual covers, and I do rep adult books as well. But I’m part way through Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone right now and loving it. I also enjoyed Daniel José Older’s Shadowshaper, and I really need to get to the sequel. For pure nerdy fun, Jen Wilde’s Queens of Geek pushed lots of buttons for me.
SPL: Finally, in addition to our WWR, do you have any other appearances or projects to share with us?
NT: I’ll be up in Surrey, B.C., Canada in October for the Surrey International Writer’s Conference, which I do pretty much every year. It’s a wonderful event that caters to writers of all genres and levels of experience. As for work, I’ve got a bunch of projects on editors’ desks at the moment, so I hope to have some fun announcements soon.
Thanks for being with us, Nephele!
Registration for the WWR opened on July 1stand fills up fast, so sign up ASAP!
Nephele continues to actively build her client list and looks for work with both strong, well-developed characters and a story that pulls her in and won’t let go. She is seeking women’s fiction, historical fiction, single-title romance, fantasy and science fiction, and both young adult and middle grade fiction of any sub-genre. To learn more about her, check out her blog or follow her on Twitter. To query her, read the Knight Agency’s submissions guidelines.
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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