Pub Rants

The Invaluable Assistant

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STATUS: Having great fun. Started a new deal negotiation this morning. How is that anything but fun?

What song is playing on the iPod right now? STILL CAN’T by The Cranberries

I think I’m in love with Library Diva. She is having an all Ally Carter weekend on her blog. Big smooches LD!

To wrap up yesterday, you folks did a great job analyzing the Cheryl’s covers. No one caught one of the changes but to be honest, I think the cover pictures were too small to see it. In the first cover version of THE WINTER PRINCE, he is holding a cane. In the second, the cane has morphed into a sword.

Yeah, little hard to see.

Today I’m going to rant on behalf of my assistant Sara—and maybe for all assistants at agencies everywhere. I think writers are sometimes dismissive (“oh, it’s just the assistant reading my query” or “oh, it’s just the assistant who screens my sample pages”).

My suggestion? Don’t be. You know why? Because if an assistant is good (and Sara is terrific), you might just be getting read by a future agent.

I figured that maybe, just maybe, writers don’t really know how it works with an assistant, so I’ll share.

First, I hired Sara because I was tired of being way behind. It wasn’t fair to the writers, and I was missing out on good projects because response time was too slow.

Given that, I made a new commitment to respond to queries within one week and respond to sample pages in two weeks (and by the way, we aren’t quite there but really close. I’m actually the wink link in the chain at the moment).

Physically, this would not be possible without help—without training someone to screen incoming queries and sample pages.

It’s that simple.

So, I hired Sara and my first order of business was to teach her to think like me. For her first week, we sat down together, side-by-side and read queries—for two or three hours. Without saying anything, I would let her decide whether she would pop it into the folder for me to review or if she would send our auto NO response.

We did this for two days. On the third morning, I sat with her for maybe 30 minutes but it was obvious to me that she was having zero problems knowing which query I would want to see and which ones could have the NO response.

I mean it folks. Zero mistakes.

Then we tackled the partials inbox. She would take a big stack home to read (20 or 30 partials) and make a comment on whether she would forward it to me to read or whether she felt confident saying NO.

I would then read behind her. If I thought there was a partial I would have liked to have seen but she wouldn’t have forwarded it, we chatted about why etc.

By the fourth big stack of her reading (and my reading behind her), she wasn’t missing.

Zero mistakes.

Because she’s that good.

And wouldn’t you rather have a quick response? Well, without assistants, that simply wouldn’t be possible.

I feel blessed that Sara loves her job. I feel doubly blessed that I don’t have to slog through bad partials or queries. Because of Sara, I get to devote real attention to reading the good stuff.

And more of it!

33 Responses

  1. 2readornot said:

    Amen! i’d actually like to be an assistant…but for now, I’ll take a Sara ‘yes’ — we hope 😀

  2. Anonymous said:

    Can I have Sara as my agent? How long before she’s ready for that?

  3. Catja (green_knight) said:

    I’m glad you and Sarah work together so well, and I hope your partnership will continue for a long time, but I have to register a niggle just the same.

    I’m one of the people you (or she) rejected at the query stage. That’s fine, it’s part of the process, and there might be a hundred reason why my book isn’t right for you.

    And I’m certain there are other readers of this blog in the same boat.

    Phrases like ‘I don’t have to slog through bad partials or queries.’ imply that our stuff was rejected _because it’s bad_ and are doubly disheartening. Spare a thought for all those ‘not right for your list’ writers, please.

  4. Anonymous said:

    Phrases like ‘I don’t have to slog through bad partials or queries.’ imply that our stuff was rejected _because it’s bad_ and are doubly disheartening. Spare a thought for all those ‘not right for your list’ writers, please.

    But I think you’re misinterpreting, catja. I imagine Agent Kristin wouldn’t particularly mind slogging through a stack of queries and partials that were all “not quite right.” But she does mind slogging through the high percentage that really are bad. If your query wasn’t bad, then her comment about being blessed doesn’t apply. (And, seriously, have you ever read a stack of truly bad queries? Yeesh.)

  5. Janny said:

    Sara sounds like one in a million, and people here are right…I want a job like hers. Do you know of any other agents who want assistants?? 🙂

    On the other hand, unfortunately, most of the criticism I’ve heard leveled at agents’ assistants is at least partly justified. I had one particularly disheartening experience several years ago that illustrates why.

    I met an agent at a romance writers’ conference whom I liked from the get-go. Barb was sharp, she seemed interested in my material, and I was confident in her ability to sell it. Thus, I was really excited when I got a phone message to call her agency, that they wanted to talk with me.

    But when I called said agency, the person whom I actually got was the first reader/assistant. A person I didn’t know from Adam and hadn’t met. The good news was, she’d read my stuff and thought it was great…the bad news was, she wasn’t sure where they could sell it.

    Now, this manuscript was a paranormal romantic suspense, and the market I’d had in mind at that time was the Silhouette Shadows imprint. That imprint’s gone now, but at that point in time, it was hot stuff indeed, and everybody (or so it seemed) was selling to them. I thought the book would make an ideal addition to their line, and said so.

    To which the assistant said, “Silhouette Shadows? Oh, wow. What do they do? I’ve never heard of them.”

    To say I was flabbergasted would be an understatement.

    After spending a few moments orienting the assistant on what was probably the hottest market out there for what she had in her hand, I then suggested that since I had MET Barb, and she actually had specifically asked to see the work, that the assistant might want to have me talk directly to HER. (I did it tactfully, honest.)

    To which the assistant said, “Oh, no. No one talks to her directly. Everything has to go through me. She trusts me.”

    I hung up the phone amazed that an agent would not only allow an assistant who had no clue about markets to be her first reader–but that there was no way I was going to get PAST said clueless assistant.

    Now, it’s not only assistants who are to “blame” for letting potential sales like this just slip right by; I’ve also had to tell AGENTS about specific markets I’ve had in mind for a work, and have gotten similar responses. So maybe, in some cases, it’s an instance of the blind trying to lead the blind!

    In any event, if you truly have a dynamite, intelligent assistant, count yourself very lucky…and your clients can count themselves lucky as well. It’s not what many of us encounter out here in the wilds of Agent Search Land.


  6. Anonymous said:

    You can’t be thin-skinned if you submit your writing. I write, but I do not submit (not solely for that reason, though). -JTC

  7. Caro said:

    Janny, I swear the assistant you’re describing is someone who works in the same office as me. At one point, this person apparently went through the training program of a major agency and worked as an assistant in their literary division for six months. After that, they decided it “wasn’t for them.”

    I broke out in a cold sweat at the idea of this person coming anywhere near a manuscript based on the number of messes that have to be cleaned up by other people in their current job.

    I’ll raise my glass to Sara; that Kristen has found a good assistant whom she can trust and sounds very competent is a good thing. Sounds like she might have the makings of being an agent herself someday.

  8. lizzie26 said:

    Kristen, it’s great you have a wonderful assistant you can trust to bring you the stuff you’ll want to rep, or consider repping. And what’s also great is you watched her from the get-go.

  9. Anonymous said:

    Um… Since you declined to request a partial from me several months ago (when you were un-assisted and overwhelmed; and despite my dynamite, letter-perfect query), may I try again and see what Sara thinks?

    (Don’t worry. Tongue was firmly planted in cheek there. But I’ll bet that’s what a lot of folks are thinking they’d LIKE to ask!)

  10. Anonymous said:

    Truth is often spoken tongue-in-cheek so the speaker can deny that is how they really feel. -JTC

  11. wishing said:

    I know my queries aren’t that great…they always sound so dry and blah…sigh. but I keep trying, and I’ve gotten requests for fulls before, despite the query — still waiting on the perfect yes, though 🙂 (Maybe Sara’s will be it!)

  12. Anonymous said:

    Heck, I’m not picky. I’m just glad one of you read my query and asked for a little more. Besides, I thought it was common practice among many agencies and publishing houses to have assistants and slush readers do the first round reads and responses?

    Anyway, congrats to you for getting a most excellent assistant, and congrats to Sara for getting on board.

  13. other anonymous said:

    Though I can appreciate the defense of your assistant, and she does sound wonderful, Kristen, if writers are supposed to be thick skinned at rejection and criticism surely an agent should be just as thick-skinned when the criticism or complaints flow the other way. ie, If you can dish it out so readily you should be able to take it. From what I’ve read here, many writers would love the chance to defend their work, but they don’t, because its not polite, and every agent out there warns against it. They simply accept the rejection or criticism and move on. I don’t know. Rushing to the defense of your procedures, instead of just buckling down and ignoring the complaints does seem a bit hypocritical. If writers don’t have faith in your system one would assume they simply won’t submit and find a different entry point to the market. Thus, you’ll have less querries to deal with. I’m just surprised you feel that the screening system you have in place needs defending.

  14. Dwight The Troubled Teen said:

    I thought there was some kind of congressional prohibition against cloning yourself?

    I sincerely apologize. I am the guilty party. I only meant to mock my own shortcomings through the personification of the “gatekeeper,” aka Sara.

    I’m a d**k.

    But Kristin, you know all those corny movies where the protagonist is struggling for the big break to dance/sing/pitch/play an instrument in front of the famous choreographer/talent scout/manager/record producer?

    Now visualize the naive protagonist standing outside the auditorium door/stadium gates with wide, optimistic eyes. Then visualize the crusty old security guard walking up and saying, “Hey kid! Get outta here. Vamoos!”


    Of course you need/have qualified help! I have no doubt that Sara is everything you say. Situations reversed, I know that I would have a Sara. I would be lucky to have a Sara as competent as your Sara.

    I just… You know… I might not say to the world, “I’m going to a tradeshow and my brand new assistant is gatekeeper to your dreams until I get back.”

    I’d DO IT, don’t get me wrong. I just wouldn’t say it. It’s a perception thing.

    After fourteen months of grinding out my heart and soul in a dank basement, after fourteen months of sacrifice and practice and self-doubt…

    After fourteen months I wanted to dance for Twyla.

  15. Jen said:

    The cane morphing to a sword isn’t the only change in the cover. In the first one, the silhouette is obviously wearing some kind of hat. In the second, he has long hair, unbound.

  16. Maprilynne said:

    If an agent (or an agent’s assistant) took the time to give a personal rejection to every query, and indeed every partial, agents would not be able to do as much agenting; they would spend all day responding to queries. Yes, our books are our babies, and yes we wish we got more feedback, but is it really rational to expect it? I don’t think it is.
    My dealings with Sara have all been very considerate and professional. When my partial was lost in the mail and I resent it, even though I had delivery confirmation and knew it had arrived, Sara still made sure to jet me an e-mail to tell me that she had personally recieved it. Does it matter to me that Sara sent me that email instead of Kristen? Not at all. And if Sara sends me a rejection, I will consider it as coming from Kristen too and will trust it. And if she sends it on to Kristen, I will be glad that I am one of, say, ten good one, rather than one of fifty random ones.
    Just my $.02

  17. Colleen Gleason said:

    Wow. Where did you find her? You are very lucky to find an assistant–and I mean in any industry–who thinks like you (or at least knows how you think).

    I’ve been watching your agency grow from the very beginning, when you first started up, and I’ve been very impressed. You’ve done a great job making a wonderful name for yourself.

    I enjoy your blog and stop by often. (I’m repped by Marcy Posner, and she always has such lovely things to say about you as well!)

  18. Anonymous said:

    There are also some great assistants who quite honestly don’t make that great agents. I and a cyber-buddy know of what we speak. This other person just signed with her second agent and sold within about three days. I would be very leery of going the “assistant just turned agent” route again. It would take a lot of persuasion on the part of the primary agent.

    This is nothing against Sara or Kristin. But once burned…

  19. kis said:

    Dwight, I had no idea you were a dancer…;)

    And Maprilynne, so things DO get lost in the mail? If anyone here remembers, I’m (blush) the anonymous poster who was so distracted by her kid at the post office, she forgot to write requested materials on her partial, and I haven’t heard back as yet. I guess I’ll wait a bit longer, then email @query to inquire if they have it. It would be nice to know it actually arrived, and if Sara or Kristen has looked at it, or whatever. It would be especially nice to find out before the post office turns on it’s heaters in the fall and the building burns down! 🙂

    haha. I think.

  20. Maprilynne said:

    Kis– I swear by delivery confirmation now. It costs like fifty cents and gives me so much peace of mind.
    However, clearly this is hindsight!:)

  21. BuffySquirrel said:

    No, no, no, don’t make me doubt that my partial arrived! The only thing keeping me going through the wait is faith in the Post Office.

    Wait…faith in the POST OFFICE?

  22. kis said:

    Clearly, Ms. Squirrel, your faith is misplaced.

    Actually, I haven’t had a thing ever get lost in the mail, and even Maprilynne said she had confirmation her partial arrived. But if Kristin’s office is 1/1000th as disorganized as mine, things can vanish for years.

    I can just picture it, Sara opening some long-unused desk drawer two years from now, finding my neglected missive, and thinking, “Hmm, it doesn’t say requested materials, but let’s have a look-see, anyway. What May 2006??? Oh, well, let’s read it anyhow….hmm, I like it…nice voice…plot’s good…well, no harm in trying.”

    And there I’ll be, two years from now, hopeless after exhausting all avenues for finding an agent, about to get pitched out on the curb for non-payment of mortgage, and there in my email: “We at the Nelson Agency would be pleased to offer representation…”

    This is what I think about instead of sex. 😉

  23. Amra Pajalic said:

    I’ve had about seven short stories published. At this point I have about 30 stories that are unpublished. I’ve done the rounds with them over a couple of years and no-go. I don’t look at these rejections and think that the people who rejected me are in the wrong. I look at myself. Was my writing as good as it could be? Am I writing the right thing?

    At the end of the day good writing will stand up on its own. Those that are complaining about being rejected by an assistant instead of the agent need to get a grip. Look at yourself and learn what you can from these experiences. Keep writing and experimenting and most of all, believe in yourself. But for fuck’s sake stop whinging. It’s unattractive and it won’t get you anywhere.

    This is a hard slog. There are 10,000 other occupations you could be doing that don’t require the amount of effort and heartbreak that writing does. If writing and creating for the sheer pleasure doesn’t do it for you, stop.

    Some of the stories I’ve had published have been sitting in my to publish for up to five years. That’s the reality of this gig. It will take as long as it will take. End of rant.

  24. Amra Pajalic said:

    Just a qualifer. The stories that have been sitting around are revised and polished before each submission and will go through many cycles and changes.

  25. Ally Carter said:

    Hi Everyone!

    I’m one of Kristin’s clients, and even though I was signed back in the pre-Sara days, I have no problems and no concerns about the work she is and is going to do. For those of you who are concerned, please let me say a couple of things:

    First, Sara probably isn’t deciding who gets represented and where they’ll be pitched. Kristin will no doubt do that. Sara will read through the thousands of submissions, flagging the hundred or so submissions that have a shot at interesting Kristin.

    Now I know some of you may be thinking: but what if Sara doesn’t like my stuff but Kristin would love it–if only I could just talk to Kristin!

    Well, Kristin has trained Sara and trusts her. Shouldn’t that count for something? Plus, publishing isn’t about pleasing one person. It’s about pleasing an agent, and then an editor, and then the director of sales at the house, and then the other editors at the house, and then the Barnes and Noble reps and then the store browsers and then finally the readers themselves. So if you’re worried about pleasing both Sara AND Kristin, well, that’s just the beginning.

    Sometimes rejection might be that an agency has different goals or tastes and you’ll find great representation elsewhere (I got rejected by agencies–lots of them–and I’m glad because otherwise I wouldn’t have ended up with Kristin.)

    Sometimes it might be a sign your work just isn’t there yet. Neither one has shame. They’re just signs that you need to keep trying.

    By the way, if you think getting an agent is hard, you’re right. If you think it’s the hardest part about the business, you’re wrong. Sorry to break it to you, but it’s 100% true.

    Enjoy this phase of the process. Use this time to master your craft because once you start publishing you will loose some of that freedom.


  26. lizzie26 said:

    Ally said,”Enjoy this phase of the process. Use this time to master your craft because once you start publishing you will loose some of that freedom.”

    Yup. Finding and getting repped by a great agent is only the first part of the trip. The rest of the journey lies ahead, and it’s wonderful and bumpy and nerve-wracking and…. Well, you get the drift.

  27. mistri said:

    I must say, it always annoys me slightly when people criticise assistants – because I was once one myself 😀

    I was an editorial assistant for a romance publisher and all of the assistants shared responsibility for reading incoming slush MS. Senior editors would only read them if we were recommending them to buy.

    What people forget is that most assistants are actually *over* enthusiastic because they know finding books to buy can help their career. Often, an assistant is *more* likely to request your MS than an editor, so there’s no need to fear them.

  28. Lisa Hunter said:

    I was an assistant/reader for a summer. Over a four month period of reading unsolicited manuscripts I found ONE that actually went somewhere. Eighty percent were either insane or irrevocably bad. Twenty percent were competent “by the numbers” formula work– I’d pass them along, but with a note saying that I felt no passion for them. You’ll notice that the percentages add up to 100, because the number of good submissions (one total!) was less than one percent.

    The experience made me stop writing for years. It was too sad to see how much time and love people had invested in their manuscripts. But the good news is that readers really want to find something good. A great manuscript will eventually rise to the top.